I think I have previously mentioned on here the more or less constant fear that I suffered during my PhD studies, that I’d suddenly discover someone else working on exactly the same topic, or that they’d publish a book or article that pre-empted everything I had to say, and so I’d have to start all over again. (Even worse, of course, would be to discover that they’d done this only when I was in the viva, so that not only would my work be pointless but I’d have even failed to demonstrate adequate knowledge of relevant scholarship…). I worry much less about such things these days, but it’s not a completely unreasonable fear, given the tendency of academic topics to move unpredictably in and out of fashion; I remember how the ancient novel suddenly and mysteriously came into vogue in the early 1990s, which must have been a nasty shock to any number of people who’d thought, quite separately, that they’d come up with a brilliantly obscure topic with which to make their name. (more…)
Posts Tagged ‘historical theory’
Apparently we will discover later today whether a skeleton excavated in a Leicester car park is that of Richard III. Whoop-de-doo. Apparently it has a curved spine and battle injuries (and obviously no one else in the middle ages ever suffered such things), but the crucial piece of the jigsaw will be the DNA test. Too much to hope that the margin of error on such things will be properly explained; I’m on the edge of my seat waiting to see whether it’s one in a million or one in seventeen billion that it isn’t the man himself. Of course, even if there isn’t a plausible match (the level of hysteria this morning suggests that they must feel pretty confident), this has still been wonderful publicity for the Leicester Archaeology department, and maybe even for archaeology in general. Who can complain about that?
Well, I’m going to. (more…)
Have just finished the paper that I’m giving in Freiburg on Thursday evening on Thukydides und der moderne Geschichtsbegriff, focusing on the fascinating 1842 book on the subject by the later historical economist Wilhelm Roscher, and thought that I could easily make it available here for any readers of German who might be interested. It’ll be just the second time that I’ve attempted to give a paper in German – I do strongly believe in trying to do this, as a blow against the increasing dominance of English in the world of classics and ancient history, but it’s a fairly terrifying prospect for someone like me who is essentially self-taught (albeit I read a lot of novels and detective fiction in German, and regularly watch Biathlon). This is, therefore, simply a revised version of the first paper I ever gave in German, in Bielefeld in 2011, and it’s basically a modified translation of a paper that I’ve given a few times in English and have now published in the collection on the modern reception of Thucydides I edited with Katherine Harloe.
Students of the ancient economy are all too familiar with the situation of being in the middle of a debate and slowly realising that the entire thing has been operating at cross purposes without anyone noticing. Most often, this is because discussion focuses on substantive matters, with questions of theory and interpretative frameworks pushed firmly into the background or ignored altogether; it’s perfectly possible even for someone like me to talk about a topic like Roman bakeries for some time before it becomes clear to me, if not to my interlocutor, that we’re agreeing on a specific point on the basis of diametrically opposite assumptions and conceptions. I must admit that my usual reaction to this situation is to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable; it feels quite rude and aggressive to switch the discussion to the theoretical or methodological level, like a dubious rhetorical move or illegitimate exercise of academic authority – and that’s almost certainly how it would be received; at any rate that’s how it felt whenever the late Keith Hopkins did it to me when I was a PhD student – but at the same time I fervently believe that you can’t do history properly without examining your preconceptions, considering the broader implications of your ideas and so forth, and so I feel I ought to say something to make it clear that we’re agreeing just on this point, not on everything else.
Can’t quite believe that it’s been a month since the Thucydides Our Contemporary? conference in Bristol – though it has been one of those sorts of months. This does create a certain problem for the enterprise of blogging on all the different papers. As time has passed, so what particular persons said in their papers has become hard for me to remember exactly; I shall therefore discuss the remaining papers in terms of the themes that happen to interest me most – which is what’s ended up in my notes - while at the same time trying, as far as possible, to give the general purport of what was actually said. Which is really a bit unfair to all those speakers whom I haven’t got round to discussing until now, but the good news is that they’re all contributors to the forthcoming Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides – so if you just hang on until 2014 or thereabouts, you can read what they actually said… (more…)
The new book by Tom Holland on the origins and rise of Islam and the collapse of the Roman and Persian empires, In the Shadow of the Sword, has been gathering mixed reviews in the general press. Barnaby Rogerson in the Independent dismissed a few of Holland’s ideas on the birth and nature of Islam as fanciful or speculative, but saw these as only “slight flaws” in an otherwise compelling narrative of the period; Michael Scott in the Telegraph produced a masterpiece of evasion, describing it as a handsome volume tackling an important question from a novel perspective with a fluid style that was “also bound to encounter the full spectrum of critical reaction”; Ziauddin Sardar in the New Statesman objected, more in sorrow than anger, to Holland’s dismissal of the entire Muslim scholarly tradition on the development of Islam and the Qur’an and his reliance instead on the controversial theories of Patricia Crone and her associates. Finally, there was the magisterial academic demolition job offered by Glen Bowersock in the Guardian: “Holland came to his work on Islam unencumbered by any prior acquaintance with its fundamental texts or the scholarly literature… Holland seems to have confined himself largely to interpreters, learned or otherwise, writing in English, but his efforts to inform himself, arduous as they may have been, were manifestly insufficient… Holland’s cavalier treatment of his sources, ignorance of current research and lack of linguistic and historical acumen serve to undermine his provocative narrative.” Holland has now offered a response to the last of these. (more…)
I’m a participant in an online seminar in David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years, a book that I heartily recommend. I also heartily recommend the debate, at
, but since it is primarily focused on economics and politics I thought I would also reproduce my contribution – I assume I was asked primarily as an ancient historian to comment on the historical dimension of the book – here.
David Graeber’s Debt is, in the most positive sense, rather an old-fashioned book, in its conception and approach if not in its matey and approachable style. It ignores disciplinary boundaries within the human sciences, especially those between economics, history and social studies, in a manner that recalls polymaths like Max Weber or the free-wheeling early years of political economy with figures like Smith and Malthus. In its search for the connecting thread between an astonishing diversity of cultural practices and texts from across time and space, it resembles the early classics of speculative anthropology – not Malinowski but J.G. Frazer. In its ambition to offer an account of the trajectory of the whole of human history, it undoubtedly runs the risk of being confused with the likes of Jared Diamond or Niall Ferguson, but it strikes me rather as in the vein of Arnold Toynbee, not least in the weight of scholarship that underpins this work of imaginative reconstruction. I feel the need to stress again that I don’t offer these comparisons as a criticism… (more…)