I am a big history fan and do quite a lot of reading, so I liked the idea of this little book by Emma Marriott on the history that we get wrong. History of itself is oft times written by the victors and so it is normally, out of political necessity, part propaganda anyway. Being British we often turn defeats into victories (Dunkirk for example). Or we big up the things that look good as a smoke screen to down play the bad. Most junior historians know of the British victory over the Zulus at Rorkes Drift when a handful of the 1st and 2nd/24th Foot fought off thousands of Cetshwayo's warriors; the massive defeat of Lord Chelmsford's rear column at Isandlwana the day previous is often forgotten.
This is the type of thing I was hoping to get, but this is somewhat dumbed down and is aimed more at the `historical virgin' than anyone seeking very much enlightenment. So we find out that the old American `Wild West' was not that `wild' based on recorded crime figures; however records were not always kept. Australia was not established as a penal colony; well no it was only after US independence and a failed attempt to set one up in Africa that Australia was chosen. Mussolini did not make the trains run on time and Petain did collaborate with the occupying German forces through his offices in Vichy France.
There is a load more besides and the book of itself is really well written and effortlessly accessible. There are some thirty one different subjects that deal with things from the Irishness of St. Patrick to the real victors in Indochina after WW2. I would have liked to know more and to have greater depth into all of the arguments. However, that was never the intention of this book and to criticise Marriott for such is both churlish and un-gallant. What this does do is introduce a breadth of topics that are too often misrepresented and point us in the right direction. I particularly liked the reference to Abraham Lincoln not having a Civil War to free the slaves - something which I am sick of being misrepresented. There are also some nice snippets that were new to me including a couple about Cecil Rhodes.
Where this piece of well written research does score highly is in the bibliography as it points to all the reference texts that you can take up for the more in depth further reading. Any of the areas covered are all justified by previous works that are clearly referenced and that is where the depth will be found. So I went from being almost dismissive of this book to thinking it really not a bad effort at all. That is so long as you appreciate it for what it is, a sign post for the wider topics, and sorry there is no mention of the Zulu war I just used that as an example.
It is a coffee table book and a number of my friends have found something from just dipping in, so I hope you can too.
on 18 October 2011
Bad History is a book that attempts to explain the truth behinds those `facts' we have all heard (e.g. Mussolini made the trains run on time). There is a short essay written on each topic. I did enjoy reading this book. If you enjoy QI this will certainly appeal to you. I found some of the essays really interesting (e.g. the one about the level of violence in the Wild West genuinely taught me something I didn't know). There are a couple of problems with this book though. Firstly, each essay is very short (about 4 pages) so it can be a bit frustrating if a subject interests you. Secondly, if you have a decent general education (or watch a lot of QI!) you are probably going to know a lot of this anyway. I only have an A-level in history, but there wasn't much in this book that really surprised me. I think it is a well-written book, but I am not really sure whom it is for. It would have worked brilliantly as a column in a Sunday newspaper, but I can't imagine who would buy this because you can read it in an hour and it's not the sort of book you would need to read again.
It's quite disappointing to see how much flack this excellent little book has received. I was under no illusion that the book I was about to read was going to be a light read. The book's title does imply that it is to be considered to be in the same category as Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" and Phil Plait's "Bad Astronomy". Despite both of these books being written for a lay audience they were not shot in details or text. Emma Marriot's slim collection of short essays might be with Goldacre and Plait in sentiment, but the work isn't intended to educate the reader in good historical research. However, it does provide examples of what good research achieves and how good historians view the past. Unfortunately I think many history buffs were looking forward to a heavily cited and in depth analysis of historical myths and a debunking of pseudohistory; not a book strictly for academics, but nevertheless one with a scholarly appeal. Recent years have seen some good academics, like Richard J Evans take on the postmodern anti-historical wave and others like David Aronovitch, Kathryn S. Olmsted and even sceptical scientist Michael Shermer produce sterling investigations that both debunk and seek to understand the nature of conspiracy theory.
Although such books are sorely needed in history writing - I think way too many academics underestimate the impact of conspiracy theories and pseudohistory - a book like this is arguably more needed. As Damien Thompson pointed out in "Counterknowledge", more pseudohistorical books are finding their way over from the "New Age and Spiritual" section and into the "General History" section. Through a mixture of propaganda of the time, influential biased historians of later times, folklore and movies the general public have grown up often believing very distorted views of incidents in history. This isn't helped with postmodernism arguing that virtually all accounts of the past are equally as valid as they are all just opinions. However, history is a serious study. We only ever have the past as a reference and this is what so much is based on from building businesses to deciding legal cases to planning strategies. Good historians understand the difference between a wild theory or biased idea about a past event and a view that is shaped by the most compelling empirical evidence. And yet, as this book demonstrates, the majority of us have a woeful understanding of the past.
Most people believe that a typical Roman gladiator fight will end with one of the participants dead. Abraham Lincoln is celebrated as the man who fought the American Civil War to win freedom for slaves in the south. Even academics have been known to venerate Galileo as the champion of science against the oppressive Catholic Church. And try to tell your average patriotic Irish man that their patron saint wasn't really Irish and didn't encounter a single snake in Ireland. Go into your local Works or even W.H. Smith and you will see no end of mass market "fact" books. Airports and service stations have no end of pulp non-fiction on sale. These books of myths, half-truths and gross generalizations ultimately make their way into the mind of the undemanding reader and are often found as last minute "educational" books for teenagers. They are then referenced in popular journalism and repeated through the generations. History has not been a compulsory subject in schools since the 1980s and yet the thirst for information on the past and its stories could not be greater, and can be seen by the existence of mainstream channels, expensive documentaries, mainstream magazines and big budget Hollywood blockbusters. People define their cultures, their national heritage, their politics and even their beliefs on what they think happened in the past. These undeniable facts alone should scream the importance of having more light and accessible reference books that points the casual reader in the direction of good history.
One of the criticisms targeted at "Bad History" is that the chapter titles are somehow misleading. For example, when the chapter proclaims the myth that "Gladiators Fought to the Death", the chapter doesn't provide the complete opposite to this statement. I don't see the problem with at all. The chapter does assert that the very limited evidence we have of gladiatorial combats shows that this entertainment spectacle, born out of a human sacrifice ritual held at an aristocratic funeral, rarely resulted in deaths. The reasons for this are quite commonsensical. Why would businessmen invest so much money and time in the training of individuals only to risk losing them in their first fight? The fictional media and documentaries on these combatants present an overwhelming picture of every single fight being a fight to the death. Of course, some gladiators did die, as is the risk of anyone who enters into a full contact sport, and this rate of mortality would have been relative to the nature of the fights and the life expectancy of the times. The author explains that there were also other events featuring non-gladiators - Christians and criminals for example - where the outcome was most certainly death. I don't see how this is not providing a rebuttal of the original assertion.
I admit we are only a little shakier ground with the chapter that purports to debunk the popular belief that Mary Tudor was a "Ruthless Persecutor of Protestants". In this case, I concede to Marriot's critics. Here Emma Marriot does not attempt to prove that Mary wasn't a ruthless persecutor of Protestants - she just argues that the five year reigning queen wasn't any worse than her father, Henry VIII, or her sister, Elizabeth I. We get a more rounded picture of Mary Tudor, a ruler who was unlucky in her campaigns and had her better qualities "forgotten" by the Protestant propaganda that followed her death.
However, as far as I am concerned we need more historians that try to present a more human figure of the popular "saints" and "demons" of our past. We are presented with the less ruthless and even admirable side of "The Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismark. Ian Mortimer's excellent recent book on "Henry V" has caused a dramatic shift in opinion on the royal icon immortalized by his own propaganda machine and finally by the plays of William Shakespeare. This book, which presents the greatest amount of primary source research on the individual to date, puts over a compelling argument that Henry V was not the free-and-easy prince turned responsible and righteous warrior king that England remembers. Evidence reveals him to be a great organizer and brave warrior, but also a warmongering and humourless religious fanatic. Emma Marriott presents a condensed summary of Mortimer's work in one of her chapters. Again, I cannot emphasize enough that "1415: Henry V's Year of Glory" is not necessarily a book that your average casual history fan will read or even know about.
Marriott's chapter on Cecil Rhodes, where the argument is put over whether or not he was a good or bad man reveals the crux of a point Marriott is trying to put over. Life and history are not that simple. Given that the chapters are light and written in a highly accessible way, the author does a fantastic job of presenting the grey areas and complexity of history. From the outset she explains in almost scientific terms how there are no absolutes in good history. We only see the facts as temporary conclusions reached by the consensus of informed opinion. This opinion is supported by the most convincing empirical evidence available. Often what we find is that myths are created to fall in line with a certain narrative of the time or even a narrative of today that simplified matters towards what people wanted to believe. Even the scientific community are susceptible to this and the facts about Galileo's relationship with the Catholic Church are far from the clear-cut battle of science versus religion that many of us sceptics like to think it was. It turns out that his endorsement and elaboration on Copernican theory was challenged by his rival scientists first before the pope, a good friend of Galileo, was brought into the fray. Far from being thrown into a prison, he lived a life of luxury, albeit under a very loose house arrest, and remained a staunch Catholic throughout his life.
However, if you are concerned that this might be a bit wishy-washy, fear not. There are plenty of historic myths that are shown to be complete nonsense. From the fascist propaganda that Mussolini made the trains run on time - a persistent myth that thrives thanks to a very twisted form of mainstream nostalgia - to the conspiracy theory that Pearl Harbour was a plot engineered by President Roosevelt. A lot of these facts might not be news to historians, but evidence shows that a large amount of the general public still believes them.
This includes the romanticized idea of the Bolsheviks storming the winter palace with Lenin at the head in 1917. This interesting little chapter shows just how easily fictionalized drama, in the form of film footage, was just as easily mistaken for reality in the past as it is today. See Charlie Brooker's "How TV Ruined your Life" for modern day version of this folly, particularly the final episode entitled "Knowledge". Marriott explains how a romantic dramatization of the storming of the Winter Palace ended up being reproduced on documentaries as actual footage of the event!
The book is annotated with footnotes, but Marriott quotes her reference material throughout. There is also a helpful bibliography and a fairly extensive index. The format of the book's short chapters is executed in a fun way, containing several illustrations - these include technical maps by David Woodroffe and cartoons by Andrew Pinder. Again, the historian critics have their gripe with this, but this is just the nature of the book and if it makes it more accessible to a lay audience then that's a good thing.
In conclusion "Bad History" is a much-needed book. It represents a moth of hope to battle against the Pandora's Box of junk history and pop non-fiction that makes its way to casual history readers through well-meaning presents or as a last minute travel purchase. When I was 10 years old I received a great birthday present in the form of "The Hamlyn Book of Facts and Fallacies". Since reading that children's book numerous times I have discovered that some of these facts are untrue and that is the joy of the corrective nature of critical thinking. However, that book planted a seed in me to question accepted "truths" and ideas. For the most part the book revealed old wives tales, pseudoscience, pseudohistory and bad geography. I am grateful to that book because it helped me accept many years later that a lot the other fun educational books of facts well-meaning relatives gave me over the years contained a lot of nonsense. When I eventually got into scepticism properly - which was around 13 years or so later - I found it quite easy to dismiss sacred cows and become aware of my own biases. New information that challenged old ideas did not meet with a lot of resistance from me and I quickly understood how to filter out information that lacked substance. My point here is that "The Hamlyn Book of Facts and Fallacies" helped me to pursue learning by showing me that it is important to question. A scholarly book wouldn't have had that sort of impact. I hope that "Bad History" will be the fish bait needed for those who will go on to study good history and be more readily aware of the myth-making process both in the past and of today.
What a great book. While initial investigation might suggest this is one of those books that gathers minor but otherwise trivial facts together (the kind of book that fills a gap in someone's Christmas stocking, or takes up residence in the bathroom), Bad History is actually far better than that. Moreover, given its borderline-heavy subtitle, "How we got the past wrong", the book is hugely accessible and entertaining.
For the sake of an easy comparison point, I'd align this book with Qi: it's got the same informed but no less entertaining slant on history, and (importantly) recognizes that people are most engaged when the balance between enlightenment and entertainment is met. Therefore, Bad History includes short articles, such as "The American West was a Wild and Dangerous Place to Be", Benito Mussolini Made the Trains Run on Time" and "The Suffragettes Secured Votes for Women in Britain". Each are roughly three-or-so pages long, rendering them more than mere (as Alan Bennett decried in History Boys) "gobbets", but also ensuring they don't outstay their welcome. The text is also well balanced: neither too starchy nor too irreverent.
A great book and one which deserves to sell well. Recommended.
I enjoyed this book. I found it "easy to read" and each topic is broken down to very short chapters (a bit like The World accorinding to Clarkson, so its perfect for "bathroom reading"!). The book also covers a good range of "historical mistakes", although these do seem to be mostly set "western" history - for example, there is no african or latin american history covered in the book at all. The book is also well presented, and includes some midly amusing cartoon sketeches here and there.
However, I am at a total loss as to who this book is aimed at. Initially I thought GCSE/A-level student, then I thought adult "historical layman" but I would hestitate to recommend this book to either as it is simply too vague and too irrelevent. It is certainly not for historians, or for those with a good understanding of history in general, as the explinations given are (Mostly) well known mistakes - corrected at the classroom level - and the information given in the very chapters are so watered down and simplified that any historian would find them frustrating at the very least and insulting at the very worst.
This leaves me with a final theory - this book is aimed at the "man on the street" the man who's idea of history goes as far as "Churchill, 1066, the Nazis, 1966 (FFS!) and that's it"; and the likelyhood that such people would buythis are very slim indeed.
All in all, this is an OK book - as I said, its perfect Bathroom reading - but its also a bit of a pointless book, and a wasted opportunity at the same time to publish something that really would "correct" historical mistakes.
This is an entertaining collection of thirty-one short essays giving us a more informed view on popular (mis?)conceptions of history. The style is light and easy, but the facts seem to be accurate and they are certainly well presented.
There are additional box-outs with more snippets in parallel with the main text to aid understanding and add a few more germane insights. Illustrations are generously scattered though the book to add smiles and enlightenment, be they cartoons or maps. A comprehensive Index at the back helps us to find specific references to people, places and events mentioned in the book.
I enjoyed reading this one, and where I have specific expert knowledge of some of the topics I found she had presented the same facts I was familiar with. I still don't know who is really correct, since history is mostly written by the survivors, but Marriott has gone a long way towards busting some common myths.
More importantly, if you read between the lines you might discover that she has given us the bones of the classic analysis methods to help us to be more critical of those glib 'facts' so frequently offered us on a more casual basis by the frivolous or uninformed or those with an axe to grind.
My only criticism is that there was not more of the book.
on 3 December 2011
Napoleon Bonaparte had some firm views on history, describing it as "the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon", "fables agreed upon", and, perhaps as he grew more exasperated, "a set of lies agreed upon". While much can be established as fact about the past, there is something in what he said, especially where a version of history is shaped by those with political or nationalist agendas or simply by the whims of popular writers.
"Bad History" is a readable and entertaining corrective to some of the most popular "agreed fables", often things we learned at school or from popular books, and therefore carry through life as "facts". It's aimed at the general reader, and so is perhaps too light for serious students of history, but it combines information and reading pleasure.
Why bother about such things? Well apart from the principled (respect for truth) and the realistic (the chance to be one up on others) considerations there's a very basic reason - what really happened in history is often more interesting than the commonly accepted version. And there's a bonus in understanding why that version came about, and what it tells us about people's agendas and perhaps why they write what they write.
Best place for this book is in the loo. That's not a reflection on its merits, rather that each chapter is so short it can be read comfortably in the duration of your stay. Or if you aren't a reasonably quick reader like me, a nice slim volume to take on holiday.
Hardly an original book, there are several works of history-debunking, or rather historical-misconception debunking, available. But given that it's quite a short book it is quite wide-ranging and also very readable. It did tell me a few things I didn't know but nothing seriously shocking or challenging, though it does provide a useful reminder that history is written by the victors. It's hardly a profound insightful work and all the research is from secondary sources.
Four stars is probably being generous but it does succeed in doing what it set out to do.
The author whose introduction emphasises that most history is essentially speculation by people who were not present, and that much of the documentation that survives is biased, and that she could therefore be in error herself. This honesty shows a very Zen like acceptance of her own potential errors.
The book consists of a series of essays, based on documentary evidence (see above) that correct many popular misconceptions about past events. There seems to be a heavy preponderance of articles relating to history of the USA. I'm not sure if this a reflection of the USA sanitizing their history, and propagating the revisions, or whether it was an bias of the author.
I enjoyed reading these well written and accessible essays during a variety of train journeys.
I love seeing received wisdom over-turned and this book does quite a good job with some interesting topics. It is well written, clear, and succinct.
However, I haven't given it 5 stars. For something like this I was expecting more references - something for just about every fact really - but instead it's a short list of further reading. To be fair, in the text the author lets us know whose book or paper she has relied on and perhaps serious historians will know that what is being said is reasonable given what is now known. If the book is just opening the eyes of lay readers like me then it's adequately references.
Having said that, I like it. It's the sort of book that makes me want to read bits out to be people, prefaced with the word "Apparently,..."