The Anglosphere and the Economic Historians

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

The success of Europe, and especially the Anglosphere, in the last few centuries has kept historians busy, pondering just why and when the Europeans made such an impact on the world.

Not surprisingly, the theories of causality often mirror their times. Way back when, European success was seen as religious and cultural vindication. Later, it was seen as a genetic or perhaps geographic predisposition. At the dawn of the 20th century, as non-Europeans and radical philosophers got an opportunity to make suggestions, earlier “gifts” were turned on their heads and proclaimed as intrinsic “evils.” Thus Europeans, and by extension, the Anglosphere, were successful specifically because they were monstrous in comparison to other human beings — more cruel, more greedy, more lacking in humanity (specializing in anarchy, greed, and heresy … to quote one witty reviewer). European destruction was therefore a solemn obligation and no doubt ordained by higher powers, real soon now.

As the wheels of history ground on during the 20th century, and people (both European and non-European) had a chance to ride the hobbyhorses of fascism, communism (and perhaps socialism) into political and economic oblivion, a more intellectually useful historical theory was needed. Europe and the Anglosphere was showing a distressing tendency toward further prosperity. The intellectual solution, particularly with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and orthodox communism in China, was to claim that the entire question of European success was based on a false premise. The truth was … Europe was never the centre of anything much. And if it was, it was only a relatively recent event that is passing quickly now from the historical stage. Eurocentrism was therefore obscuring both the global achievements of other peoples and cultures and its own transitory significance.

In a nutshell, three views of Europe: (1) Good, (2) Bad, or (3) Indifferent.

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Kelly — Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards and Pyrotechnics

Kelly, Jack, Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World, 2004

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

Cross-fertilizing with an earlier review of Macfarlane and Martin’s Glass: A World History, “Gunpowder” tracks technological change across a wide sweep of historical time and space from the perspective of one material. Most people can quote chapter and verse of conventional wisdom about gunpowder. The short form is “invented in the East, brought to fruition in the West.” While generally correct as far as it goes, the actual details of gunpowder’s history in both East and West justify Kelly’s detailed effort at a work for the public (without a forest of footnotes). And suitability for the public should be emphasized. At 250 well-written pages, this is a quick and enjoyable read that will whet your appetite without entirely slaking it. It does have the feel of a series of vignettes or magazine articles recast as a book. But fortunately, from the Anglosphere perspective, the content justifies attention.

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What Have the Pythons Ever Done For Us?

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

From comedy troupe Monty Python’s Life of Brian:
REG: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
XERXES: Brought peace.
REG: Oh. Peace? Shut up!

As described by the Times recently, Monty Python member Terry Jones has written a book which attempts to correct the good press that the Romans have been getting for the last two thousand years by outlining recent discoveries of the technical accomplishments of the pre-Roman Celts in Britain. They weren’t such “barbarians” after all … they built their own roads, and created their own metallurgical masterpieces, innovated with the chariot in war, and were probably nice to their kids, as well.

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Macfarlane & Martin — Glass: A World History

Macfarlane, Alan/Gerry Martin Glass: A World History, U. of Chicago Press, 2002
(available in the UK as The Glass Bathyscaphe: How Glass Changed the World)

[cross-posted at Albion’s Seedlings]

Readers of this blog will already have seen occasional references to the work of British social anthropologist, Alan Macfarlane. While Macfarlane’s writing on the origins of modernity offer a great deal to Anglosphere discussions, he is also an author with much wider interests. With co-author and historian Gerry Martin, he’s written a fascinating book on glass. More specifically, the history of its adoption by cultures across Eurasia, its particular uses in each region and time period, and the ultimate impact which it had on thought and society.

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Harris — Canadian Brass: The Making of a Professional Army 1860-1939

Harris, Stephen, Canadian Brass: The Making of a Professional Army 1860-1939. 1988, U. of Toronto Press.

[Cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

Was Canada Ever Serious? The Canadian Militia and Military Since Confederation

In a recent post, I reviewed an excellent book on Canada’s role in the Boer War. Canadian social values, actively encouraged by the media and the elites of the day, led to the self-confident assembly and transport of thousands of young Canadian men halfway across the planet. Little more than a decade later, Canada again found itself engaged in a war not of its making. And again, tens of thousands of farm boys, factory workers and office staff risking their lives in the trenches of WW1 Europe. Why? Better yet, why aren’t they still doing it? How did a nation that prides itself on G8 status somehow spend the last sixty years doing a U-turn in its attitude toward the military?

The story, it turns out, gives us a better sense of the modern Anglosphere and the role that each of the Big Five (UK, US, Canada, NZ and Australia) play on the modern stage. Canadian Brass is an excellent place to start because it tells the story of British, and then Canadian, military culture in the eighty years after Confederation, and the domestic myths which drove and shaped international military participation.

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