Borgia

No Country for Heroes: History and our Narrative Need for Protagonists

Last week, I reviewed Showtimes The Borgias  in tandem with Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias and their Enemies. When I finished Hibbert’s work, I was struck by The Borgias’ choice to portray its titular family as the heroes of their own story. I am no Renaissance historian, but from the sources presented by Hibbert, it would seem that most contemporaries agreed that the Borgia family was a blight upon Italy, Christianity, and all humanity. Indeed, the tagline for the show is “History’s First Crime Family!” Sure, every member of the family is shown doing reprehensible things, but by virtue of the show’s narrative structure, they seem more excusable or, at least, less reprehensible than the actions of their enemies. Even the show’s numerous antagonists seemed mis-characterized; Cardinal della Rovere condemns the Borgias for corruption, yet historically, this future pope was no less corrupt, and possibly even more so! Why these character choices, some so at odds with history? As I pondered, I realized that I had already stumbled onto the answer to my questions: narrative structure and, specifically, our need for protagonists in our stories.... Read More
THE BORGIAS (Season3)

Bushels of Borgias: Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias and their Enemies and Showtime’s The Borgias

As any history lover is wont to do, I recently combed through Netflix and added every period piece that I could find to my watch list. I decided to begin, well, at the beginning, or at least with the earliest on my new list. Thus I came to Showtime’s 2011 series The Borgias, starring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, the Renaissance Pope Alexander VI and patriarch of a famously corrupt Spanish noble family. The show itself was highly entertaining, full of intrigue, backbiting, and monologues that have become the hallmarks of prestige television. As always, Jeremy Irons is magnetic, and even though the Renaissance has never been my specialty, his performance sustained me through events that otherwise might not have kept my interest. As I prepared to review The Borgias, however, I realized that I lacked any foundation for such an historical review. I thus dutifully hunted down a history of the family, and so we come to this tandem review.... Read More
The Arrival of African slaves in 1619

Away with 1619: Reinterpreting the Origins of American Slavery

Last October, the state of Virginia kicked off its commemoration of the 400th anniversary of several key events in its early history. The festivities began with the anniversary of the founding of the House of Burgess–the first known legislative body in what would become the United States–and will continue into this year with the anniversary […]... Read More
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Unpacking Civil Wars: A Proposal in Terminology

I recently had the mixed pleasure of reading David Armitage’s Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (reviewed last week here on Concerning History). While I enjoyed certain, ironically more modern, sections, I was endlessly frustrated by Armitage’s refusal to provide a definition of civil war, even a personal one to refine his own material. His assertion that civil war somehow ‘began’ with the Romans only makes sense in terms of the idea of some kind of conflict different and more terrible than others; countless civil wars are attested to in antiquity before Rome’s own. At first, I resisted any kind of specific definition. If war is what happens when two powers find themselves unable to attain their goals through compromise and resort to force (my own paraphrase of the famous line from Clausewitz), then a civil war is when the same happens within a state. The more I reflected and silently argued, however, the more I realized there may indeed be a way to further classify the term.... Read More
Civil Wars

A Perplexing Journey: David Armitage’s Civil Wars

I first encountered David Armitage through a textbook in my Atlantic World survey course sophomore year at Gettysburg. That book, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, is an outstanding bit of intellectual history. I still have it, packed away in a box somewhere, and it was likely one of the first inspirations for my eventual turn away from American history and towards a larger perspective. When I learned of Armitage’s 2015 history of comparative civil wars, it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading it. While its contents didn’t quite live up to my expectations, Civil Wars certainly proved as intellectually stimulating as I’ve come to expect from this distinguished historian.... 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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What’s in a World War? A Point/Counterpoint

What if I told you that what we know as the First and Second World Wars should really be known as the Second and Third, or even the Third and Fourth? Our habit of only identifying the conflicts that took place from 1914-18 and 1939-45 as ‘world wars’ betrays a modern arrogance, that somehow the world only reached the capacity for global conflicts recently, within the last century. My own work with imperial history has indicated that this is far from the truth... Read More
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Not Quite, but Getting There: Ian Barnes’ Historical Atlas of Native Americans

I admit, this seems like a strange choice of book to review. What can the possibly be to say about an atlas? Ian Barnes’ Historical Atlas of Native Americans, however, is more than simply a collection of maps; it is a general overview of the history of Native Americans from the Stone Age to the present, illustrated with artifacts, drawing, paintings, photographs, and, of course, maps. These elements, coupled with the intriguing state of being authored by a white, British, academic, called for reflection on their execution.... Read More
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Cutting through Muddled Memory: Murray Pittock’s Culloden

A few months ago, I delved into the history of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 through Jacqueline Rider’s Jacobites (reviewed here). My quest for greater knowledge was more than sated, though it came with a deluge of minute detail. Curious whether I could find a more engaging narrative of the ‘45, I recently turned to Murray Pittock’s installment on Culloden in Oxford University Press’s Great Battles series. A short work of barely more than one hundred and fifty pages, Culloden unfortunately flew wide of my mark, yet surprised me in the best of ways.... Read More