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The Historical Middle Earth: Men of the West

Another Hobbit Day (September 22nd, the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth) has passed. This year, rather than singing dirges of fallen Gondolin now that we must wait another 365 days to eat a third breakfast (also known as elevenses) without shame, we decided to look at some of the lesser known historical inspirations for crucial civilizations in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.... Read More
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Remember the North? Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World

If I had a dollar for every time someone claimed to be writing a book about an “unknown,” “overlooked,” or “forgotten” period of history, I would be a very rich man. So often, these periods really aren’t that underserved, and we’ve even at times considered putting together a post listing the most regularly talked about “forgotten” periods of history. When I came across Michael Pye’s Edge of the World, however, I thought I had hit the jackpot. I have a soft spot for histories of the early Middle Ages (sometimes known as the Dark Ages), and few periods of history can claim more accurately to be unknown, as we must work from scarce written sources and physical evidence to reconstruct an elusive historical narrative of Europe’s rebirth after the fall of Rome. Even better, Pye promised to focus on a region lesser known in this period; rather than look for clues to our modern world in the court of Charlemagne or the remnants of Rome, Pye casts his gaze out into the cold world of the North Sea. Baited with prospects of a world system history of the North Sea in the early Middle Ages, then, I was practically salivating to begin reading. While entertaining, however, Edge of the World would fall far short of my lofty hopes.... Read More
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At the Court of the Khan: Netflix’s Marco Polo

Let’s be honest with each other for a minute: our historical movies and television in 2018 are still overwhelmingly, almost-hilariously, Eurocentric. Indeed, at least half a dozen of the shows on my (long, long) list of things to watch focus on the English/British monarchy alone. When I learned of Netflix’s drama recounting the travels of Marco Polo through Central Asia and China, then, I couldn’t wait to try it out. Sure, it would still be somewhat Eurocentric, but at least some underserved regions and periods of history had the possibility of being fully realized onscreen. Towards that end, my hopes would prove to be realized in full.... Read More
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A Daunting Scope: Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians

Snapshots of Europe taken at the beginning and end of the first millennium AD could not appear more different. As the millennium opened, Rome was just reaching the apex of its imperial might. The traditionally dominant Mediterranean world extended its tendrils of control across the Celtic world of modern-day France and lowland Britain, while beyond the Rhine and Danube frontiers Germanic peoples pursued a subsistence existence much less developed than their Roman and Romanized neighbors. One thousand years later, Mediterranean dominance was a distant memory. Germanic cultures and kingdoms had replaced Roman imperial rule. Europe’s center of balance had moved decidedly northward, and the eastern plains and forests boasted new states formed by Slavic peoples. Gone was the unequal pattern of development, and the map of modern Europe had largely, if blurrily, taken shape. This Late Antique/Early Medieval period, as Western Rome crumbled and fell, and ‘barbarian’ kingdoms took its place, has long fascinated me, and so I was excited to get my hands on a somewhat general, approachable history of the period by Kings College, London historian Peter Heather. While I found Heather’s work greatly informative, my hopes of reading a sensible, comprehensive narrative of this period were unfortunately left unfulfilled.... Read More
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Yet Another One? History Channel’s Knightfall

About a decade ago, Dan Brown’s super popular The Da Vinci Code launched (or perhaps just made evident) a tidal wave of historical conspiracy media, and no subject received more attention than the Knights Templar. From countless books to inclusion as the villainous secret organization of Assassin’s Creed fame, the Templars’ mysterious origins and dramatic fall from grace have inspired authors the world over. At first, I was wary of this trend when I heard that the History Channel’s first new show in the style of their wildly successful Vikings would be a Templar drama known as Knightfall. To make matters worse, the show would take place in precisely the era most favored by conspiracy theorists (the final collapse of the crusader states and persecution of the order, 15 years later). While Game of Thrones or Vikings it is not, Knightfall did manage catch my interest and entertain me through its campy drama and ringing pronouncements of medieval faith.... Read More
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From Many, One Narrative: John Keay’s India: A History

I recently realized that, despite my familiarity with its later imperial history, I had little acquaintance with the history of India before the early modern era (and even that was pushing it). When I learned that, before his history of China (reviewed here), John Keay had composed a history of the South Asian subcontinent, I decided to rectify this situation. In so doing, I became perhaps the most aware of how difficult an undertaking such a history must necessarily be.... Read More
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Towards a More Total War: ‘Gentlemanly Warfare’ and the Rise of the Nation-State

One of the most controversial figures in the history of the United States is William Tecumseh Sherman. For his direction of a single campaign in the fall and early winter of 1864, Sherman has been reviled by nigh-half the country while providing military historians endless fodder for debating the origins of the philosophy of ‘total war.’ Even and perhaps especially for his detractors, Sherman’s strategy of destroying (supposedly) non-military and civilian resources is seen as somehow original, a new and innovative way of waging war that would come to dominate the twentieth century. There’s only one problem with that conventional wisdom: it’s patently ridiculous.... Read More
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Episodic History: Bryan’s Picks

In just a few days, Friday will see the premier of the much-anticipated movie Dunkirk, which tells the story of the World War II battle of the same name in which British and French forces were evacuated across the English Channel by civilian watercraft under the guns of the Third Reich. When done well, all of us here at Concerning History love seeing history on the big and small screens, as it seems to bring the past to life with a vibrancy and immediacy lacking in other media as well as powerfully impact public perception and memory of events. The number of history-related series on television or streaming services especially has blossomed in recent years. We all have our special interests, though, and can’t help but pine for some of our pet topics to get the attention we know they deserve. In what we hope will become a long-running series, I’ve decided to pull together a list of a few historical events and periods I feel would make for highly compelling or necessary television.... Read More
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Inexorable Fate: Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom Series

Television is never short on stories set in the Middle Ages, and medieval Britain especially sees more than its fair share of adaptations. It is rare, however, to have two shows running concurrently that cover the same time period. Such is now the case with History Channel’s Vikings and BBC/Netflix's The Last Kingdom. We will certainly review the former on some future date, but as the second season of the latter aired on Netflix this spring, and I have recently caught up with book series on which it’s based, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to review one of my recent favorites.... Read More
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Dueling Perspectives: John Keay and J.A.G. Roberts’s Histories of China

Some months ago, as Francis and I were discussing a potential piece for the blog, I realized I needed to brush up on my grasp of Chinese history. Perusing the shelves of my local library, I happened upon two promising volumes. The first, China: A History, was penned by esteemed journalist John Keay, while the second, A Concise History of China, was written by English academic J.A.G. Roberts. Faced with a more public, accessible volume on the one hand and an academic’s historical survey on the other, I decided to read them both and then compare them in a rare tandem review.... Read More