Society

What I'm reading: Thirty Years of Woe

Peter H Wilson's Europe's TragedyAs ever my reading list is long with both History and Science Fiction but I think it is worthwhile mentioning a few of the history books here as they are most enjoyable.

The first and best of the lot is Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H. Wilson. There are excellent reviews around so I’ll point you to them rather than write my own right now. I’d point out one small irritant which is that Wilson has a tendency to shift what seems to me abruptly between theatres of conflict. I’m getting used to it, but combined with the huge line up of notable actors in the period, it can make reading harder going that I’d like.

The Telepgraph
Worse than the Black Death, worse than the First World War, worse than the Second World War, worse than the Holocaust – that is how the Thirty Years War lives on in the collective German memory. This is just one of many arresting pieces of information to be gleaned from this colossal history of one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history.

The Times
The lead-lined window that sparked it all is still there, of course: you can even open it, and peer down to the dry moat into which the three Catholic imperial counsellors were cast on May 23, 1618 by a group of enraged Bohemian Protestant gentry. The room itself is on the fourth floor of the great Hradschin Palace, which looks over the river to the city of Prague. All is peaceful now, but it wasn’t then; it was the epicentre of a storm that was to engulf much of Europe for the following three decades.

Californian Literary Review
Wilson, whose grasp of 17th century politics and diplomacy is most impressive, makes two significant contributions toward understanding the origin of the Thirty Years War. First, the Holy Roman Empire, which unified the German and Slavic states of Central Europe under Habsburg rule, was a much more effective political force than is generally realized. Differing in organization from a modern nation state, the Empire was an elective monarchy which kept order and cohesion among the component dukedoms, electorates and free city-states.

BBC History magazine
Perhaps most importantly Wilson is an enemy of historical inevitability. The first 300 pages of this book, far from being a countdown to inexorable catastrophe, are largely about why the war should not have occurred. Against the familiar line that a chaotic and enfeebled Holy Roman empire of German principalities, cities and micro-territories was already long past its sell-by date in 1618, Wilson offers a feisty defence of imperial institutions and of their remarkable success during the later 16th century in solving problems of territorial inheritance, religious rights and political rivalries.

One final observation before I leave it for today, the cover for the British and Irish edition is top left and it really is a nice cover but the US edition is really something, far superior and much more attention grabbing so I’ve included it below right.

See what I mean?
Eoin

Video Review: The Gutenberg Revolution: How Printing Changed The Course Of History

DARN: Somehow I managed to shave the final minutes off the video while recording! Still, the main points are covered.

A short video review of John Man’s book, The Gutenberg Revolution: How Printing Changed The Course Of History, on Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press and creator of the Gutenberg Bibles.

I discuss the merits of the book, how well written it is, the way that it deals nicely with the material, especially relating to the innovation and inventiveness of Gutenberg and how satisfying a read it is.

The Gutenberg Revolution

The Gutenberg Revolution


You can get a copy of the book here from rbooks, Random House’ customer facing bookstore.

Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy on Colonial New York

Eoin Purcell

Great books deserve better reviewers than I
So I was recently sent a review copy of Thomas M. Truxes’, Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York which was published by Yale University Press in 2008. Needless to say I completely failed in my mission to read the book and write a review in any kind of decent timeframe.

But I did read it and it is wonderful. The book covers a fascinating period in Colonial history when the British Empire was fighting a war with the French Empire and American merchants were intent to benefit from the trading opportunities despite the heavy presence of British soldiers and the fact that in name at least they were engaged in treason.

A book that creates and sustains a brilliant portrait of 18th Century New York and brings to life the intriguing political and mercantile world of that city under British rule. Well worth reading, 7 out of 10.
For some more detailed review on the book, try here, here, here or here.
I also decided to try something I have been toying with for a while, a video review. It is my my first such effort and is decidedly patchy, but here, in honour of along delayed review it is.

I hope someone enjoyed that!
Eoin

No Seriously: The Plague

Eoin Purcell

I was getting on the Dart to travel back from Sydney Parade to Glasthule when I stumbled across this rather exceptional story in Metro*:

A second man has died of pneumonic plague in northwest China, in an outbreak that prompted authorities to lock down a town where about a dozen people were infected with the highly contagious deadly lung disease, a state news agency said.

And if you think that is the worst of it, how do you like this:

Pneumonic plague is spread through the air and can be passed from person to person through coughing, according to the World Health Organization. It is caused by the same bacteria that occurs in bubonic plague — the Black Death that killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Bubonic plague is usually transmitted by flea bite and can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early. Pneumonic plague is one of the deadliest infectious diseases, capable of killing humans within 24 hours of infection, according to the WHO.

Worrying no. Some quality material on the plague is available on Google Books in case you are in the humour for digging and reading:

THE most memorable example of what has been advanced is afforded by a great pestilence of the fourteenth century which desolated Asia Europe and Africa and of which the people yet preserve the remembrance in gloomy traditions It was an oriental plague marked by inflammatory boils and tumors of the glands such as break out in no other febrile disease On account of these inflammatory boils and from the black spots indicatory of a putrid decomposition which appeared upon the skin it was called in Germany and in the northern kingdoms of Europe the Black Death and in Italy la Mortalega Grande the Great Mortality

The Black Death in the fourteenth century. By Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker, Benjamin Guy Babington

There is much, much more, all of it worth reading. I think, this is a limited outbreak I stress and expect that it will not, unlike the Swine Flue Virus we are currently experiencing, cause widespread fear and panic.
Eoin

* The link is to the Yahoo News version of the story, Metro is not online.

Further Action on George Monck

Eoin Purcell

George Monck & The Restoration of Charles II in 1660
Okay, so call this crazy but I have made a decision about my thesis on Monck. I am putting it up on Scribd. I’ve embedded the file above and here is the link to the document. Yesterday I dug out the thesis and re-read it. It has promise but as I note below in a new introduction which I have included in the text, needs a lot of fresh work to be really worthwhile. But equally I think it offers something even as it is. For more on my thoughts, read the note.

2009 Introductory Note
This thesis was written during my Masters year in UCD, Dublin. I enjoyed the process and at the time I was happy with what I had written. However, some six years later I can recognise that there are serious deficiencies in this thesis and that is something I plan at some stage to rectify in another work. Please feel free to send messages or feedback to me at eoin.purcell AT gmail.com.

Original Documents & Eyewitness accounts

In retrospect there are many things I would change, not the least of which would be the sources I used. Four major areas (with many other areas needing minor attention) could be improved. Firstly, more original documentary evidence would have greatly improved the book. Aside from letters and papers of the officers and officials around Monck in Scotland which I now know exist in archives that I did not consult for the original, I believe that there are numerous other sources that might be exploited to huge advantage. They would, I believe, include eyewitness accounts available from:

    1) The soldiers in Monck’s units
    2) Monck’s officers
    3) Londoners during Monck’s time in the city
    4) Observers from outside the capital
    5) Soldiers and officers still loyal to the last few Grandee’s like Lambert

Character
Secondly, I believe that more work on Monck’s character and his pragmatism and motivations would have been sensible. There is surely more material available to work on that. He is a truly incredible individual. His motivations are a mystery in many ways though I think my analysis of his actions reveals that he was simply taking the easiest course of action to secure his own position, I firmly believe now that had he been presented with the opportunity, he would have crowned himself king or had himself declared Lord Protector. I’d like to spend time proving that.

The Actions of Others
Thirdly, the role of the other actors needs a great examination, I see that now clearly as a major failing in the original work. The Grandee’s in London and the parliamentarians of the Rump are as powerful figures and their motivations and actions were such critical factors in the course of events. Had any of them for instance mounted a sufficient case against Monck while he was in London, or managed to hold together a force in the field, events would have been different. The brief mention of the role of Lord Fairfax is insufficient to explain the reverence he was held in by many of the foot soldiers more work on the importance of his siding with Monck should have been done.

Conclusions
Lastly, the work deserved a better and less lazy conclusion than that which I impulsively gave it in 2003. Events in Iran that year inspired an unfortunate idealism in me that scarred the powerful conclusions of the evidence about Monck. I was more concerned the hammer home the deficiencies of the Grandee’s rule and compare those with the failures of government I saw in Iran than to properly assess Monck’s character and to bring together the argument I had mustered in the preceding pages. That was a mistake and one I think should be rectified in any new work.

The 1st Duke of Albermarle (as Monck became as a reward for his efforts in restoring the monarchy) is one of the most singularly unstudied yet important men in British history. Considering the volumes of material on other actors in the Civil War and Interregnum this is a strange fact. Perhaps, when I have the time I will rectify the problems with this thesis and the lack of a decent examination of the man and publish a book on him.

Eoin Purcell
Glasthule, Dublin, July 2009

A great Review for Petticoat Rebellion

Eoin Purcell

The Herald today has a smashing review of one of Mercier’s new books: Petticoat Rebellion: The Anna Parnell Story:

During the reign of Queen Victoria, women wore corsets to thrust breasts upwards and nip in waists, and crinoline hoops to make their buttocks and hips wider. They had problems walking freely, and often fainted.

Patricia Groves’ new book, Petticoat Rebellion; The Anna Parnell Story (Mercier Press, E14.99), offers a fascinating insight into the social restrictions and mores that threatened to hamper a radical female activist in the 19th century.

You can read the rest of Anna Coogan’s review here and you buy the book from Mercier here.

I have to say that I am biased as this was a book I commissioned early enough after arriving at Mercier Press, but the story is a wonderful forgotten episode in Irish history and well worth reading. The author is Patricia Groves and you can read her profile here. The Parnells were a truly international family, Anna’s grandfather was an American
Eoin

1798: The bloody & failed Irish republican revolt

Eoin Purcell

1789: The 14th July, Bastille Day
Maybe it is the old style liberalism in me but, being deeply suspicious of it, I have never been a fan of radicalism of any description. This has pushed my sympathies in some strange directions. In the case of France that has been with the moderate forces during the French Revolution and to some extent the moderate Royalists who in the early days of the Estates General and The National Assembly and the National Constituent Assembly.

I studied the history of the moderate and reformist aristocracy (and there were certain parts of the second estate that passionately believed in change, I must dig out that essay wherever it is) during my third year in University and they proved to be among the most active reformers in the early days of the revolution, pushing for radical reform and the type of moderate limited monarchy that most liberals would happily settle for and indeed which their close neighbours in England had slowly but surely achieved in the course of the 17th & 18th Centuries (though that development was not without its own fair share of blood).

So the shift from moderate and sensible reform towards radicalism, blood and a spiral of terror that the events of 14th July (The Storming of the Bastille) indicate are a lost opportunity in my mind, not a cause of celebration. To be clear, I don’t blame the citizen of Paris, nor even the less moderate politicians of the third estate, there was sufficient evidence in their eyes that the King and his party had plans to launch a coup, the worrying and increasing presence of foreign born troops was a worrying indicator and the sacking of Necker an equally concern one. There was an atmosphere of distrust that was fostered by the King. But the results were pretty wasteful.

Ireland’s Republican Glory
Much like the storming of the Bastille & 14th July is in France, the 1798 Rebellion is remembered in Ireland as a rather exciting and noble event in Irish history, something I have long failed to understand. The event itself was planned by some high minded people (those behind the United Irishmen) but the net effect of their planning was a violent, bloody and utter failure. It came to a somewhat shambolic end this week in a series of engagements, most notably at Knightstown Bog.

Peasants with little training were thrown upon militia and regular soldiers of the British Crown with some initial success but ultimately savage retribution. The rebellion put paid to Ireland’s Parliament dooming the country to even less self government until the protracted revolution of 1914-1921 delivered a moderate home rule program (again at some cost).

Text From A History of the Rebellion in Ireland, in the Year 1798

Text From A History of the Rebellion in Ireland, in the Year 1798

I often wonder how an Irish parliament might have reacted to the Potato Blight in the 1840s or indeed how a parliament alert to the challenges that faced its landlord membership might have tried to reactivate the economy in the decades following the Napoleonic Wars when agricultural prices suffered so badly due to the increased land supply that had proved very profitable during the wars but now, with the emergence of new grain sources and rapid transport from the US and Russia, drove prices down and increased hardship amongst the poorest, and reduced capital available for investment among the landlords.

How too might a body, without the stains of massacres like Scullabogue or battles like Vinegar Hill or Ballinahinch. While some dismiss it, I don’t think you can validly explore history as it happened without thinking of the alternatives.

All told, I tend to see these periods of radicalism as swathes of history when our worst human tendencies have gained the upper hand and pushed back rational advances until good sense and order has reestablished itself, or more simply, a was eof time, effort, money and a huge waste of lives.
Eoin