Category Archives: Books

The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History

In The Great Cat Massacre: and other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), historian Robert Darton attempted to reconstruct and understand the mental world of early modern French peasants through their folktales. He began with the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” as told around firesides in peasant cottages during long winter evenings in eighteenth-century France. It’s a little different than the version you may have been told. The story went as follows:

A young girl was instructed to bring some milk and bread to her grandmother’s house. While walking down a path through the woods, a wolf stopped her and asked her where she was going. She told him, and the wolf took off down a second path. The wolf, “arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed…”

When the young girl arrived, the wolf (disguised as her grandmother) offered her meat and wine from the pantry. “So the little girl ate what she was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, ‘Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!’ Then the wolf said, ‘Undress and get into bed with me.’”

After a prolonged scene in which the young girl is instructed to undress and toss her clothes into the fire, the conclusion proceeds in the now familiar manner until, at the very end, the wolf eats the girl. No hunter comes to her rescue in the original version.

The version as we know it today, according to Darton, was taken by the Grimm brothers from Charles Perrault, a popular writer at the turn of the seventeenth century, who changed the stories to suit the tastes of the Paris elites. The ending we are familiar with, in which the hunter rescues Little Red and kills the wolf, was added by Jeannette Hassenpflug, the Grimm’s neighbor, from a popular German story “The Wolf and the Kids.”

Through an examination of folktales like “Little Red Riding Hood”, Darton hoped to unlock the mentalité of the French peasant during that time period. “Folktales are historical documents,” he argued. “They have evolved over many centuries and have taken different turns in different cultural traditions… they suggest that mentalités themselves have changed. We can appreciate the distance between our mental world and that of our ancestors if we imagine lulling a child of our own to sleep with the primitive peasant version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’”

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New on my Bookshelf 

I picked up these books on my latest road trip. They look interesting! Don’t expect reviews anytime soon though, I have a long backlog!

Ghosts: A Natural History

Originally published in Great Britain in 2012, Ghosts: A Natural History (2015) by Roger Clarke is an exploration of the subject framed by a taxonomy of eight varieties of ghosts. Each chapter is a micro history of one or two prominent ghosts and trends in ghost hunting, from the seventeenth century Tedworth House and eighteenth century Hinton House, to the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall and the Borley Rectory in the twentieth.

Through these locations and events, Clarke traces a history of not just ghosts but the people fascinated by them. With the exception of the haunted German U-boat, U65, all of the discussed locations are in Great Britain. Clarke describes the British Isles as being particularly overrun with spooks and specters.

Ghosts: A Natural History is a wonderful book, rich with fascinating places and characters. Clarke brings to life the people involved in these events, some of whom may surprise you. For instance, I knew Royal Society member Joseph Glanville was convinced of the reality of witchcraft, but I didn’t know he felt the same about ghosts. Likewise, I was amused to read that his contemporary, Robert Boyle, father of modern experimental science, joined Glanville in investigating poltergeist activity at the Tedworth House and what became known as the “Devil of Mâcon.”

Religion is another interesting aspect of this book. According to Clarke, much of England’s ghost belief springs from latent Catholicism or former Catholic sites. When Catholicism was suppressed in England and the Church’s property confiscated, many rectories, graveyards, and monasteries were left to decay–attracting a reputation for being haunted. With one notable exception, Protestant ministers tried to stamp out ghost belief, since ghosts were supposedly souls trapped in purgatory–a thoroughly Catholic notion. However, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, not only believed in ghosts, but poltergeist activity plagued his family home at Epworth as a child.

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A Social History of Truth

a-social-history-of-truthIn A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Steven Shapin tries to answer the question, why do we believe something is true? He argues there is a disconnect between how we think knowledge is obtained and how it is actually obtained. Like scientists today, men of learning in the seventeenth century believed direct experience was the only way to obtain factual knowledge, and they rejected the “testimony of others.” However, Shapin argues testimony and authority are the very foundations of knowledge.

Trust, a necessary ingredient for working with others, is indispensable in science. Scientists use trust to sustain the structures that allow them to maintain and build on the body of knowledge they have acquired over the centuries. This social interaction, Shapin argued, contains assumed knowledge about the external world and who is trustworthy in that world. “The identification of trustworthy agents is necessary to the constitution of any body of knowledge.”

What kind of person do we trust to tell the truth? According to Shapin, it is the early modern English gentleman. A gentleman was a person who, because he was self-sufficient and free from economic burden, had no motivation to lie. Therefore, he had both the qualities of free action and virtue. The gentleman was culturally encouraged not to deceive. Virtue was enforced by the ever-present threat of loss of his status as a gentleman, which had far reaching social and political consequences.

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The Landscape of History: History as a Science

the-landscape-of-historyHistory and the social sciences are very different academic disciplines, and John Lewis Gaddis, in his book The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2004), explains why. Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University and is best known for his work on the Cold War. In The Landscape of History, he argues that both history and the social sciences are scientific, but what the disciplines are concerned with differs. In simplistic terms, social scientists are concerned with the future and historians are concerned with the past. Because the social sciences are more speculative in that way, they are more likely to inaccurately carry out their task. The social sciences will almost never be able to predict future events, but historians will be able to describe the past in more or less accurate ways.

The social sciences understand reality by dividing it into parts and use each part to explain the whole. They look for these independent variables and expect to find them out in the world. Natural sciences like geology and astronomy have an ecological worldview that allows them to study how each part effects the whole and how the whole affects the parts. There is no way to separate each variable from the whole and study them as though the variables could exist independently from the whole.

Gaddis argues, in even more simplistic terms, that the reductionist view is exclusive and the ecological view is inclusive. For the social sciences, the reductionist viewpoint allows them to make predictions about future behavior. Future behavior can be predicted because it conforms to rules that have operated in the past, are operating in the present, and can be discovered. These rules are assumed to apply to everyone, everywhere, and to never change over time. Historians, however, don’t concern themselves with future predictions.

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Affairs of Honor: Political Culture of the Founding Generation

affairs-of-honorJoanne B. Freeman’s book, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2002), is straightforward and compelling. In it, she argues that the political culture of the United States’ first generation of congressmen under the constitution of 1788 was based on a strong sense of personal honor, governed by “a grammar of political combat.” Because there were no formal political parties, representatives had to try to best represent their constituents in an unfamiliar environment, while working with people from diverse regions whose loyalties or support could never be fully known or assured.

Joanne B. Freeman is a professor of History specializing in the politics and political culture of the revolutionary and early national periods of American History at Yale University. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Affairs of Honor won the Best Book award from the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic.

Freeman uses many primary sources to flesh out her argument, including the diary of William Maclay, a member of Pennsylvania’s first two-member delegation to the U.S. Senate. Maclay’s diary was a convincing way to illustrate his contemporary political culture because he seemed to be an observer more than a participant, and was therefore in a good position to critique it. Maclay was not without his biases, however. He was an outsider who was critical of the non-republican nature of congress, and that certainly led him to highlight certain aspects of the political culture that played into his own viewpoint.

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