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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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A Furry Whirlwind: Netflix’s Frontier

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century trade on the American frontier has seen a slight increase in its media depictions in recent years, and I couldn’t be happier. With such offerings as The Revenant and Taboo, the brutal misery and cutthroat business of imperial exploitation in the (by then not-so) New World have been brought compellingly to life. I was excited to learn of another addition to this genre with Netflix’s Frontier. Focusing on the struggle for dominance in the fur trade around Hudson’s Bay in the late eighteenth century, Frontier offered an intriguing possibility for exploring the changing face of empire in America after the cataclysmic shifts of the Seven Years War and American Revolution.... 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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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
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Size, or How You Rule It? Determining History’s Greatest Empire

One fall morning in 2015, as I sat in my Training and Methods course in the Oxford History Faculty, my peers and I were pressed for the answer to a question rather unorthodox for a room full of academics: what was the greatest empire in history? Asked by the late, redoubtable Dr. Jan-Georg Deutsch, the question compelled us all to silence as we contemplated what was so obviously a trap, yet equally a tantalizing opportunity for debate. Boldly (perhaps one might say brashly), I ventured an answer that attempted to dissect the question... Read More
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Greater than Its Parts: The Prospect of Global History

The Prospect of Global History is different than any book I have reviewed thus far. Part manifesto and part proposition, its chapters do not generally seek to argue any particular thesis but rather to elaborate on the analytical framework of the subdiscipline and, through seven case studies, illuminate how that framework can be fruitfully applied across topics and eras.... Read More
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War on all the World: Starz’s Black Sails

The end of March brought with it the finale of the Starz series Black Sails. I’m a sucker for anything involving wooden ships and broadsides, so it was natural that I would eventually try the show out. As I began watching, all I knew was that it was a gritty pirate drama in the style of so many recent offerings from similar premium services. Imagine my delight when I discovered not a pulpy sensationalist naval warfare fix but a masterfully crafted historical drama.... Read More
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Just Stop: Brian Kilmeade’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates

Abandon ambiguity, all ye who enter here. Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates reads like an adventure novel, complete with dashing heroes, daring deeds, and a suitably triumphant conclusion. The events themselves that Kilmeade and Yaeger are concerned with are related competently enough. Its trade threatened by the privateers employed by the North African states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli and unwilling to pay a preventative tribute, the United States under President Jefferson embarked on a series of naval operations designed to enforce a peace more conducive to American commerce and in so doing took the first steps toward increased American prestige and involvement beyond its own shores. In the process, however, Kilmeade and Yaeger produce one of the most unaware and insular works of history I have ever had the misfortune to read.... Read More
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Crucible of the World: Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads

From its main title, one could be forgiven for assuming this book to be simply a regional study of Central Asia. Yet Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads: A New History of the World begins with much loftier goals. Having been fascinated with the history of the broadly-defined Middle East in his youth, Frankopan asserts that he is here to posit a new method of understanding history: one that challenges European narratives of inevitable triumph and restores Central Asia to its place as the fulcrum of world history. In the process, however, The Silk Roads delivers simultaneously more and much, much less than Frankopan promises.... Read More
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Mud, Blood, and Grunting: FX’s Taboo, Season 1

When I first got wind that Tom Hardy was working with FX and the BBC to produce a gritty television series involving the East India Company and the African slave trade, I was ecstatic. That show, named Taboo, concluded its first season in February after eight episodes, and despite it not being quite what I expected, I certainly enjoyed watching it.... Read More