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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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Not God’s Country: Netflix’s Godless and the New American Western

Has there ever been a subject that captured America’s imagination like the Wild West? What American triumph more glorious than the Winning of the West? What more iconic (and retroactively troubling) childhood memory than playing cowboys and indians? What films more seminal to the American film tradition than those staring John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Roy […]... 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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Imperial (Mis)Adventures: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I love Indiana Jones. From a young age, the adventures of that methodologically irresponsible archaeologist inspired me to explore all the ancient history I could get my hands on. Even so, an historically-minded review of any Indiana Jones movie is not exactly fertile ground. The history of Jones’ archaeological endeavors is highly massaged, to say the least, yet there is another source of historical inspiration in these movies: each one is a period piece set in the 1930s (or 50s, in the case of the unfortunate fourth installment). While the first and third movies are rather straightforward in their Nazi-fighting setting, the second movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, is an exploration of British India that has become ever-more fascinating after my own time studying the empire.... Read More
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Gut-wrenching Tragedy: Terry George’s The Promise (2017)

Certain battlegrounds swirl around the memory of particular historical periods and events. The most contentious here in the United States is the manufactured controversy over the causes and legacies of the American Civil War. Another, in much the same vein of implausibility, is Turkey’s denial of the genocide of the Armenian people pursued by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The 2017 film The Promise, starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, thus grabbed my attention well before its release for its intent to cast a glaring spotlight on the atrocities committed by Turkish forces as well as showcase some of the leisurely splendor of Constantinople (Instanbul) in those final hoary days before the world was lit aflame. Much to my chagrin, however, I was only recently able to give this film my attention.... Read More
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Sweet, Sweet Nostalgia: Reaction and “Reform” throughout History

“Make America Great Again.” These four words have become one of the most infamous phrases in the English language since the successful presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, and with good reason. How do we define great? Who thought things were great? If we aren’t great now, when were we great, and when did we stop being so? Far from originating with Trump, this idea, that somehow the United States has lost its way from the glory of its just-out-of-reach past, has taken hold in the psyche of certain disaffected sections of its population. Though this reactionary sentiment may sound dissonant to the modern ear, it actually fits quite smoothly into a much longer historical tradition of cloaking nostalgic navel-gazing in terms of reform and progress.... Read More
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Overflowing with Detail: Jacqueline Rider’s Jacobites

At some point in their high school European History course, American students are inevitably taught the series of events set in motion by the English Civil War. Culminating in the Glorious Revolution and the signing of the English Bill of Rights, these events are presented as pillars of shared Anglo-Saxon principles of liberty and jurisprudence before the course moves on to other things. Rarely covered is the fallout from that revolution, which would span seventy years and three open conflicts within the now-British state. I myself only learned of these risings through my undergraduate coursework and, realizing I still had never delved into the exact history of the most prominent of them, that of 1745 (or “the ‘45”), I sought to rectify the situation. The book that came to hand was Jacqueline Riding’s Jacobites, and while I could not has asked for better, it was certainly not without its trials.... 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