Io Saturnalia!—The Roots of Christmas

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Steven Cromack

Emperor Constantine I. Detail of the mosaic in Hagia Sophia.
Christmas is a fascinating holiday, and one that has been two thousand years in the making. Christmas today is the confluence of ancient traditions, Constantine Christianity, and American capitalism. The roots of the holiday lie not in the birth of a deity, but with the Roman festival of Saturnalia; it was the
Emperor Constantine who made the day about “Christ’s mass.”

The Punic Wars made some Romans very wealthy and drastically increased the number of slaves. As wealthy tyrants battled for control, many plebeians yearned for equality, identity, as well as an end to envy and despair. Out of their misery came the annual celebration known as Saturnalia. “Io Saturnalia” was a shout that embodied the reign of Saturn, a time during which there were bountiful harvests and universal plenty. The Greek satirist Lucian recorded a conversation between Cronus, known as Saturn by the Romans, and his priest about the holiday celebrated between December 17 and 25:

Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.

In addition to drunken debauchery, the Romans numbed the pain of inequality by forcing themselves to give gifts. Drinking, noise, games, caroling, and giving gifts are all part of the Christmas tradition.

By the 4th Century, the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and spent his reign trying to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire. In an attempt to convert the masses, he chose December 25 as the birthdate of Jesus with the hope that celebrating the birth of the deity would attract the pagans by absorbing the festival of Saturnalia. Throughout the Middle Ages, Christmas was celebrated with partying, gift giving, and drunkenness. In many cases, Church officials oversaw and encouraged the festivities.

This is why the Puritans hated the holiday with every fiber of their being. In his book The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum shows how Christmas changed from a holiday of drunkenness into the quintessential American holiday. The Reverend Increase Mather of Boston declared that the only reason people celebrated the holiday on December 25 was that “the Heathen’s Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.” 

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Was Santa White?

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Heather Cox Richardson

Pundits have sunk their teeth into a fight recently over whether or not Santa was white. After Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly declared Santa’s whiteness was a given, some called up the history of the original St. Nicholas (the patron saint of scholars, as well as children, by the way) to point out that the historical figure was Greek and therefore probably not light-skinned. Others have responded by noting that “Santa” is a universal and timeless figure who should not be bound by any physical characteristics.

But there is a different story worth noting in this odd debate. In fact, America has its own, very specific version of “Santa” who arrived during a particular moment in American history. That moment was the 1880s, a time when the nation appeared to be reaching some kind of healing after the deep wounds of the Civil War.

By the 1880s, Americans North, South, and West, had reached a political equilibrium, and that calm appeared to be driving a healthy economy. Politicians had ceased to fight over reconstruction. Northerners had come to accept that white Democrats would control the South; northern leaders turned to new western territories to make up the electoral votes they needed to continue to hang onto national power.

After a terrible financial crash in 1873, the economy had begun to pick up again by 1878, and by 1880, Americans were feeling flush and optimistic again. They began to celebrate significant events with parties and gifts. Weddings were no longer small affairs in someone’s front parlor; now they were elegant occasions in a decorated church with a reception afterward. For the first time, parents held parties for their child’s birthday, and those invited brought gifts for the guest of honor. Thanksgiving became a major holiday, marked with feasts of turkeys, ducks, or geese.

Nothing showed this change more clearly than the arrival in 1881 of cartoonist Thomas Nast’s iconic Santa. Printed in Harper’s Weekly before Christmas that year, the image was one of American prosperity. Santa was fat, warmly dressed, and smiling. He carried an armful of children’s toys, including a belt with a buckle embossed with the letters “US.”

As Nast’s Santa showed, the new prosperity was uniquely American.

But the success Nast celebrated was uniquely American in a negative sense, too. It belonged only to the sort of people who read Harper’s Weekly: white, well-off, and well-represented in government. These were the nation’s new white-collar workers, middle men for the new corporations. They, and their wives and children, had more money and more time than Americans had ever had before. They had time to plan parties for their children, and to tell them stories of a well-fed man who would give them toys for Christmas—just because they were loved. These men were secure. Government economic policies guaranteed that the booming economy would continue to put money into their pockets, enabling them to continue to coddle their children (who would go on to be the first generation to go through high school and then college).

But most Americans did not share this prosperity. In the 1880s industrial factories were growing while workers fell behind. Wages dropped and working conditions deteriorated. Farmers, too, were ground into poverty as overproduction depressed the prices of farm commodities. The economic dislocation of the era was terrible for white workers and farmers, but adding racial and ethnic discrimination into the mix made the lives of most African Americans, immigrants, and Indians horrific. At the same time, Congress sternly refused to consider any policies that might help these Americans. Living in dirt poverty, working when they could, their only experience with the prosperity of the 1880s was being blamed for their inability to participate in it. There was no jolly Santa Claus to bring toys to the children of southern sharecroppers, Polish steelworkers, Chinese laundrymen, or reservation-bound Lakota and Cheyenne.

Thomas Nast’s American Santa was indeed white. But that’s not something we should celebrate.

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Did Rats Eradicate Easter Island Trees?

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New speculation on what caused the demise of civilization on Easter Island gives the ancient islanders more credit for innovative adaptations to environmental problems, though ultimately the story ends on the same desolate note.
The updated theory and sequence of events come from anthropologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo from the University of Hawaii. According to NPR:
Professors Hunt and Lipo say fossil hunters and paleobotanists have found no hard evidence that the first Polynesian settlers set fire to the forest to clear land — what's called "large scale prehistoric farming." 
The trees did die, no question. But instead of fire, Hunt and Lipo blame rats . . . Polynesian rats (Rattus exulans) stowed away on those canoes, Hunt and Lipo say, and once they landed, with no enemies and lots of palm roots to eat, they went on a binge, eating and destroying tree after tree, and multiplying at a furious rate.
They say the rats played havoc with the island’s trees, causing a massive degrading of vegetation and eliminating several animal species. The NPR report concludes: “On Easter Island, people learned to live with less and forgot what it was like to have more. Maybe that will happen to us. There's a lesson here. It's not a happy one.”

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Ice Boxes vs. Refrigerators

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Jonathan Rees

I’ve written previously here about the good and bad sides of suddenly being able to access the world’s biggest libraries through Google Books when you have a research project that you’d like to finish someday. Another Google experiment that debuted while I was working on Refrigeration Nation was Google Ngrams.

Ngrams, if you don’t know about them, chart the frequency of words or phrases as they appeared in volumes scanned by the Google Books project against the years that those books were published. (See Eric Schultz's post from last month.) Yes, it is incredibly easy to lose several hours playing with this research tool. Luckily for me, I already knew what I wanted to chart as soon as I heard of it:


That is the chart for “ice box” vs. “refrigerator.” (For what it’s worth, icebox [one word] looks almost identical.) What I really appreciate about that chart is that it basically illustrates something that my research already told me: before the electric household refrigerator came along, “ice boxes” were called “refrigerators.” Before explaining that statement a little better, let me define terms. While often used interchangeably with the word “refrigerator” by people over sixty, an ice box in the historical sense refers to a box with ice in it designed to keep perishable food fresh. The first ice boxes were made by carpenters in the 1840s, designed to take advantage of something new in American life: the regular household delivery of large blocks of ice that could be obtained daily in large cities and even small ones. Now, instead of going to market every day for your vegetables or fresh meats, consumers could buy for more than one day of meals at once, and keep the extra food in their ice box.

While incredibly convenient, ice boxes had their drawbacks. For example, you couldn’t open the door to your ice box all that often, or else the ice in it would melt too fast. Ice boxes were also hell to clean, particularly as ice cut from lakes and ponds in the early days of the ice industry often had natural sediment in it. If the smell of any food permeated the wood inside and got into the insulation, the whole appliance would become worthless. Also, if you kept the wrong products together in an ice box (butter and fish, for example) one would often end up smelling like the other.

Nevertheless, Americans gradually warmed to the ice box.* You can see that in the gradual increase in frequency of the use of the term refrigerator in that Ngram, especially after 1880 as the insulation became better and refrigerator companies began to mass-produce them for the first time. How do I know that they don’t mean “refrigerator” like the one in your kitchen now? They hadn’t been invented yet.

But while the first even remotely successful electric household refrigerator didn't debut until 1915, inventors were working on them at least a decade earlier because of the failings of the ice box as described above. This led to a need to differentiate the electric household refrigerators that they aspired to create from the useful but annoying boxes that so many people had in their kitchens at that time.  Hence, the coining of the word “ice box.”

The prime period for the growth of electric household refrigerators in the United States was the 1920s. That was when refrigerator producers gradually settled on a new refrigerant, Freon, and created a mechanism that was both reliable and quiet enough for household use. Refrigerators were one of the few goods for which sales actually increased during the Great Depression, as their value over the ice box in terms of convenience and effectiveness was just that clear. Based on my research, the ice box essentially disappeared during the 1950s as electric household refrigerators became so cheap and the country so prosperous that basically anybody could afford them. When that happened, the use of the  word “ice box” declined with the appliance that it represented.

Is a Google Ngram scientific?  Of course, not. That’s why I didn’t put it in my book. Is a Google Ngram good enough for a blog post? Of course it is, which is why I just wrote this. Trust me, the actual research squares with this interpretation. If you don’t believe me, then buy my book and see for yourself.

* Yes, bad puns are inevitable when discussing refrigeration of any kind. Why do you ask?

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Podcast: David Gleeson on the Irish in the Confederacy

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Randall Stephens

In 2013 the University of North Carolina Press published David T. Gleeson's The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America.  It is  a sprawling study that is already receiving high praise from historians and journalists.  In the Boston Globe Michael Kenney writes "As his analysis unfolds, there is much that will surprise, perhaps even unsettle, Boston readers familiar with the abolitionists, the Massachusetts 54th, and the summertime encampments of reenactors. Gleeson looks at the role of Irish-Americans in the Southern debate over slavery, in the Confederate Army, on the homefront, and in the aftermath of the defeat." Over at the Irish Times Myles Dungan seems to agree. "Gleeson goes well beyond the merely anecdotal," says Dungan.   Gleeson conveys "a sense of what it was to be an Irish immigrant in the southern states that formed the Confederacy between 1861 and 1865."

David Gleeson is no stranger to the subject.  He has been writing and teaching on 19th century history, the South, and the Civil War for many years now.  A reader in history at Northumbria University he is the editor of The Irish in the Atlantic World (University of South Carolina Press, 2010) and the author of The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

In the interview embedded below, I speak with David about researching and writing The Green and the Grey.  David also talks about the role of memory in the post Civil War South and discusses the ways that his work fits into the wider field of southern and Civil War history.

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George Washington Gets a 360

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Eric Schultz

The annual review can be an uncomfortable event, but a 360-Degree Performance Review (the “360”) is one of the more harrowing proceedings that can befall a professional, business or academic. In a 360 you are asked to grade yourself against a series of attributes, everything from ethics to leadership to
Gilbert Stuart's 1797 portrait of George Washington
listening skills and coaching. Then, everyone in your “ecosystem” gets a crack at you, sometimes anonymously. This means your boss, often your boss’s boss or peers, your own peers and subordinates, and then some sampling of customers and vendors. Scores are averaged, and then you’re ready (or not) to talk with your boss about why you think your “collaboration with others” is an “8” while the 360 consensus shows it’s a “4.”

A good 360—and there is such a thing, when done well—will reinforce your positives and give you additional incentive to fix the things you generally knew were broken anyway. A traumatic 360, however, can disclose huge “holes” in your game, which quite often turn out to be the very things that are keeping you from being effective, or promoted. 360s are not done every year but, like a colonoscopy (not to put too fine a point on it), are appropriate for the occasional gut-check.

A month ago I was asked to meet with a group of senior executives who were about to receive the results of their first 360. This was a strong group who already knew themselves well, but there couldn’t help but be some anxiety. I was asked to talk specifically about my experiences with the tool—I’d been through a few—and try to put the practice in context as just another device that managers use to improve. My 360s were traumatic but positive: I learned that I never shined my shoes (at one extreme), that I was perceived as giving up too quickly on managers who failed (a gaping blind-spot in my game that I tried hard to repair), and that I should “be myself, but not too much myself”—the best piece of advice I ever got, and one I occasionally impart to others.

As I was preparing for my presentation, I was also reading Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, and was positively struck by the chapter on George Washington.  The most enigmatic of the Founding Fathers, Washington seemed to me, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wonderful description, as having been “born with his clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world.” In other words, what could possibly be wrong with the greatest leader in American history? Yet, as I read through the chapter and saw the criticism mount, I began to wonder: What if Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and others had reviewed Washington? What would George Washington’s 360 look like?

And more to the point for my audience, how might he have responded to it?

The positives are easy: Washington epitomized everything the Revolutionary generation prized in its leaders. He was internationally recognized as a man of character and virtue. He was known to have inordinate modesty and be a great listener (with “the gift of silence”). He actively sought advice, especially as he tried to define the role of the president. Unlike Jefferson, Washington was a talented general manager of his plantation. He also knew what he did not know, working closely with Jefferson and Knox on issues, but leaving Hamilton to wrestle with the economy. In all, Washington was considered extraordinarily gallant and dignified. When as a victorious general he presented his sword to Congress and retired to Mt. Vernon, Washington stunned the European world, which assumed he would maintain his army and take over the country. This was truly the sign of a classical hero, to act in ways ordinary men did not. (I could not help but compare him these past few days to Nelson Mandela, who also stunned the world by acting unlike an ordinary man.)

Yet, this is a 360, and everyone gets their crack. Some believed Washington’s hesitancy was shyness, not characteristic of greatness. John Adams, known perhaps for his lack of shyness, found Washington to be a little over the top, “the best actor of presidency we have ever had.” He could feel the myth forming before his eyes, writing, “And then Franklin smote the ground and up rose George Washington, fully dressed and astride a horse! Then the three of them, Franklin, Washington and the HORSE, proceeded to win the entire revolution single-handedly!”

Jefferson found his boss, for all of his leadership skills, to be far too thin-skinned, taking attacks to heart “more than any person I ever yet met with.” Worse still, Jefferson did not find Washington to be as intellectually gifted as those around him, saying "His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order.” Ouch.

And then there was Hamilton, 5’7” and 26 years old with a hair-trigger temper (and twelve duels to prove it).  Being aide-de-camp to the 6’2”, 45-year-old supreme commander didn’t slow Hamilton down. Early in 1781 Washington expressed some anger at Hamilton’s ten-minute delay in presenting himself, saying ever-so-mildly, “I must tell you Sir that you treat me with disrespect.” Hamilton resigned on the spot. Washington had to work very hard to patch things up, which he eventually did. Still, it would not surprise Washington to find on his 360 the criticism that he was disrespectful of subordinates.

Last came the political attacks, epitomized in the mid-1790s by none other than Thomas Paine, who accused Washington of “cold and unmilitary conduct” during the Revolution. “You slept away your time in the field, till the finances of the country were completely exhausted, and you have but little share in the glory of the final event.” He went on to charge Washington with ingratitude, vanity, and a character that was “chameleon-colored.”

Below is a quick summary of Washington’s 360.

What to make of this? Needless to say, we had a fascinating discussion, arriving at a few tentative conclusions. And, since it is coming up on the season of reviews for all of us, I share them with you here:

1. If the greatest leader in American history could be bluntly criticized by those around him, you will be too. There’s no escape, so don’t even try.

2. Note the positives. Celebrate your strengths.

3. Embrace the negatives. Make something good of every single criticism. “Disrespectful of subordinates?” Undoubtedly Washington would have known who wrote that. He easily could have dismissed it. What he appeared to do, however, was recognize that fiery Alexander needed special mentoring and lots of tender loving care. This Washington provided, and Hamilton was undoubtedly better because of his boss.

When George Washington was described “in his 360” as shy, a good actor and too thin-skinned, he might well have agreed. Hopefully—as I was twenty years ago—our first president would have been blessed with a very perceptive human resources director who might pull him aside and sum it up simply: “George, be yourself—just not too much yourself.”

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Why Were Tariffs Politically Important in Late 19th-Century America?

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Heather Cox Richardson

After the Civil War, new industries brought Americans not just new products, but also more spending money and leisure time than any generation had ever had before. Far flung railroad, oil, and steel
President Grover Cleveland humiliated by the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act.
operations, along with those of every other business, needed middle managers who could oversee production and sales and then report back to business owners. These new “white collar” workers had steady incomes and free time. They bought nice clothing and novels, and went to the theater; their wives played lawn tennis and their children had ice cream to eat and toys to play with at newfangled parties given just for them on their birthday.

Big business brought comfort and entertainment to many Americans, but it also brought grinding poverty to many others. Workers sweating near factory furnaces and entrepreneurs forced out of markets by monopolists resented the power of industrialists. By 1880 they focused their anger on the fact that American industry held its extraordinary position because it was protected by a law that kept foreign goods out of America. That law was called a tariff.

Tariffs were essentially taxes on products coming into America. They meant that foreign goods could not compete with American products because, no matter how cheaply they could be produced, the addition of tariff fees to their selling costs would make them more expensive than American goods. Since American producers did not have to worry about foreign competition, the leaders in an industry could work together and set whatever prices they wished.

People squeezed in the new economy resented the fact that tariffs kept prices artificially high. It didn’t seem fair that laws should prop up business while workers barely scraped by on pennies and industrialists like J. D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt lived in mansions in New York City and built 70-room “cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island.

No one really knew what to do about the huge fortunes and great poverty of the post-Civil War years. When the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, no one could envision those sorts of extremes of wealth. Many late 19th-century Americans urged government to stop industrialists from joining together to set the high prices that made them so rich. Others pointed out that the Constitution had given government no power to break combinations of businessmen.

The Constitution did, though, give Congress the power to regulate the tariff. So, beginning in the 1880s, when the problems of industrialization began to become apparent, Americans who didn’t like the rise of big business clamored for Congress to lower the tariffs that kept foreign products out of the country. Foreign competition, they thought, would break the monopolies that American businessmen used to control the economy.

For the rest of the century, the tariff was the central issue in American politics. Debates over the tariff were really fights over whether the government should protect business or workers when it developed economic policy. Republican congressmen backed a high tariff because they insisted that protecting business would guarantee a healthy economy in which workers could find jobs. Democratic congressmen wanted to lower the tariff, because they insisted that the economy would collapse if people couldn’t afford to buy very much.

Republicans had invented the nation’s system of extensive tariffs in 1861 to develop new businesses and to raise money to pay for the Civil War. After the war, the tariff became their signature issue. Republicans controlled every branch of the national government from 1861 to 1875, but in that year, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. Republicans got nervous. For the rest of the century, they focused all their energy on staying in power so they could keep the tariff high. They insisted that, if elected, Democrats would destroy the economy by lowering tariffs.

Republicans managed to protect their system of tariffs until 1913, when Democratic President Woodrow Wilson and a Democratic Congress finally lowered the tariffs and replaced the lost revenue with taxes. The fight over the government’s role in the economy switched for a struggle on tariffs to a fight over taxes, and few Americans even remember now why tariffs were so important to the late 19th century. But to people who lived after the Civil War, tariffs symbolized a much larger struggle between rich and poor, employers and workers, capital and labor. Tariffs were at the very heart of the questions raised by the new era of industry.

A version of this post will appear in COBBLESTONE’S upcoming Captains of Industry issue, which examines the role of industry and industrialists in American history.

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Noblewomen in the Wars of the Roses: Turning Fortune’s Wheel

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[This originally appeared on Lauren Johnson's blog on October 21, 2013]

Lauren Johnson

Much has been written about the violence of the Wars of the Roses. Civil conflicts inevitably leave a deeper scar than international ones, and this 15th-century combat has lived on in collective memory.
Anne of York and her second husband, Thomas St. Leger.
However, until recently, one group whose fortunes were  closely affected by the Wars has been overlooked: the noblewomen involved. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of medieval history will know why this is. Chroniclers write about the public deeds of noblemen, surviving records document the actions and decisions of that group because they were the ones who attended Parliament and fought in battles. Finding information about women – even the richest, most influential women – is hard work. And it is only with the increasing interest in social and gender history in the late 20th century that the difficult sleuthing necessary to unravel the lives of women was undertaken in earnest.

However, for every man directly involved in the Wars of the Roses there were numerous female relatives who were not only themselves affected by the conflict, but played an active part in it. Before you think I’ve gone too far, I’m not suggesting there were vast swathes of pseudo-Amazons marauding around 15th-century England. Women did not fight in the Wars, as far as anyone has discovered. Even Margaret of Anjou, who was the leader of the Lancastrian resistance from 1461-1471, never raised a lance. But perhaps our obsession with the bloodiness of this conflict, with the horror of violence on English soil, has blinded us to the essential work of women in this period. That is understandable. After all, attainder law and enfeoffment are definitely not as "sexy" topics as beheadings and battles. How can the ancient countess of Oxford, struggling to resist attempts to steal her estate by writing letters and employing lawyers, compare with the exploits of her son – leaping from castles to escape imprisonment and laying siege to St. Michael’s Mount? But the activities of noblewomen in this conflict were not considered inconsequential at the time. On the contrary, efforts to claw lands back to one’s family by battling through the law courts or pleading with prominent powerholders were deemed essential to those involved, and at a time when many men found themselves on the wrong side of the law or battlefield, and thus lost their authority (or their life), it fell to their wives and mothers to try to save their estates.

Again, at first this hardly seems an  honorable effort. We find the land- and money-grabbing tendencies of our 15th-century forebears rather grubby. But in a time when land determined status, ensured inheritance, and truly reflected power, if you wanted to maintain your influence in the world, it was the absolute essential of noble existence. And to lose one’s estate represented the possibility of extreme impoverishment, not only for you but for all future generations of your family. After land, came your dynasty. The two were interlinked, and both determined your own status and honor before others.

Thus, when Lady Margaret Hungerford spent twenty years struggling to regain the estates lost by her male relatives – firstly by a heavy ransom during the Hundred Years War and then by backing the wrong horse in the Wars of the Roses – no one thought it was time ill spent. The Hungerford men remained loyal Lancastrians, and were attainted (had their estates, titles, and inheritances confiscated by the crown) as a result. With her son and grandsons rendered powerless, Margaret was the only one who could act to save their lands for future generations. She was wise enough to know that courting the new regime, the Yorkist dynasty, might be the only long-term solution to the family’s troubles. She shackled the interests of powerful men to her own family’s by enfeoffing her estates to leading Yorkists like the earls of Warwick and Essex, and by arranging her granddaughter’s marriage to the son of the king’s best friend, Lord Hastings. She also knew how to cheat the system, suppressing the intelligence that certain estates she was holding really belonged to her attainted son. When the duke of Gloucester – future Richard III, and remarkably adept at sniffing out the inheritances of rich elderly women – discovered the truth, Margaret did not simply give up, but repeatedly issued petitions to have the estates restored. When installments of mortgages were due, she made new loans, sold lands and even plate. When Margaret made her will in 1476, she, like her husband before her, complained of having little to leave to her dependents. As a last sign of her political acuity, she stipulated that her grandson could only inherit her lands if he swore loyalty to the reigning Yorkist king for a decade. Even on her deathbed she was determined to save the Hungerford estate.

We know of other women who pursued their family’s interests in defiance of the letter of the law. Anne, duchess of Exeter is a unique case. As the Yorkist King Edward’s sister she was far from supportive of her husband’s loyalty to the Lancastrian cause. Usually, the interests of a woman’s birth family would be abandoned on marriage in favor of her husband’s, but in this case Anne remained firmly on the side of her brother. Her husband was attained in the first Yorkist parliament and fled abroad, but Anne stayed behind – and was immediately granted the confiscated estate of her husband. Later, she divorced him and remarried. According to attainder and divorce law, she should thus have forfeited her dower lands – instead, she not only kept them but also gained control of the entirety of her husband’s estate.

Margaret Beauchamp (mother of Margaret Beaufort and thus grandmother of the future Henry VII) was certainly no shrinking violet in the law courts. When her second husband, Leo, lord Welles, was attainted and killed she managed to maintain control over dower lands that should legally have been stripped from her. She even went further, and effectively disinherited her stepson Richard by alienating parts of the Welles estate to herself and her son, John.

To modern eyes this brutal stripping away of lands and money from your husband or stepson seems ruthlessly avaricious. But we need to bear in mind what might happen to these women if they did not fight their corner. There are numerous petitions that survive from women left destitute by the loss of their estate.

The widowed Eleanor, lady Dacre, complained in 1467 that "she has been despoiled of her goods by the Scots and other rebels and has no means of support." Maud, lady Willoughby, had not only her estates but also her "clothing and goods" seized by the crown. Anne, lady Neville, was left an unsupported widow "to the great hurt and heaviness and uttermost undoing of your Suppliant, considering that she hath not wereof to find her (money for) her children and servants." In 1464, Eleanor, duchess of Somerset (who lost her husband and all her four sons to the Lancastrian cause) appealed to the Yorkist king that she "hath been in jeopardy of her life, robbed and spoiled in such wise as she was like to have perished for lack of sustenance, had not divers persons of their very pity and tenderness relieved and comforted her."

According to the chronicler, Fabyan, after her husband’s attainder, Margaret, countess of Oxford, had nothing "to live upon, but as the people of their charities would give to her, or what she might get with her needle." However, we should not see the countess simply as a victim of her husband’s actions. A letter sent by the earl to his wife in the wake of his defeat at the Battle of Barnet in 1471 reveals that she was aiding him in his rebellion: "Also ye shall send me in all haste all the ready money that ye can make; and so many of my men as can come well horsed, and that they come in divers parcels. Also that my horse be sent, with my steel saddles, and bid the yeoman of the horse cover them with leather." The countess was clearly sending men, funds, and – not to be underestimated – moral support to her husband. Compare the earl of Oxford’s persistence and ultimate reward (his estates were restored and augmented after he helped Henry VII to the throne) with the miserable end of the duke of Exeter, abandoned and stripped of his estate by his wife, "begging his pittance from house to house" in Burgundy, too poor even to afford hose according to one chronicler.

To demonstrate how we perhaps fail to grasp the sincerity of noblewomen’s desire to maintain their estates in order to protect their children and own persons, we need only consider the recent representation of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII in fiction. In The White Queen Philippa Gregory presented Margaret as a woman obsessed with her son’s claim to the throne. In reality, Margaret was concerned simply with a) his survival and b) his right to the Richmond estate. Given that during her brief marriage to Henry’s father she had endured losing her virginity at twelve, being widowed a matter of months later, and giving birth at thirteen (probably rendering her infertile due to the stress of the labor), it is little wonder that she would fight to maintain every claim that her son had to her late husband’s inheritance. Something good had to come of her suffering.

Margaret Beaufort represents a microcosm of all of the noblewomen mentioned here, and the many more who both suffered and triumphed during the Wars of the Roses. Sometimes they endured great personal hardship and sometimes they received reward beyond their wildest dreams, and certainly beyond what the law should have allowed them. But their success or failure was not made solely by outside forces. These women were weak or powerful in their own right, and despite the vagaries of war it was their skill, cunning, and acumen (or lack thereof) that set the fates not only of themselves, but of the generations that followed them.

This information is taken from my Masters thesis, The impact of the Wars of the Roses on Noblewomen, 1450-1509, Oxford, 2007.

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Life Is a Verb

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Steven Cromack

The study of antiquity in American schools is superficial, lackluster, and in a state of asphyxia. State curriculum frameworks have all but stripped the histories of ancient Greece and Rome of depth, meaning,
Ancient bust of Seneca.
and relevancy. Ancient Greece was more than the origin of democracy, more than a group of city-states, and stood for more than a mythology. Rome was not just an empire, and it offered the world more than the concept of a senate. At the heart of these cultures was the idea that life is a verb, something that humans must do; something they must will into their world.

Greek democracy failed miserably. The other city-states quivered under the threat of Athens and her oppressive empire. Furthermore, the Greeks often envisaged humans caught in a double-bind, ensnared in webs of conflicting moral obligations between their relations and the meddling gods. As a result, the Greeks thought themselves to be better off dead than living. “For man the best thing is never to be born, never to look upon the sun’s rays,” bemoaned Theognis of Megara. “That the best thing for a man is not to be born, and if already born, to die as soon as possible,” bewailed Silenus.
Rome was about more than a great capital city and gladiators. By the end of the republic, Romans desperately yearned for hope and meaning. The tyrants Caesar and Pompey battled not for honor and virtue, but for total control of the government. The Romans’ society was falling apart right before their eyes. Everything they believed in was slowly disappearing. “The whole scene is changed,” Cicero wailed, “as though for me the sun has fallen out of the sky.” Even more disconcerting was the idea that maybe this chaos was their fault. “[Rome] is crucified by conscience, tormented by shame,” decried Flaccus.

And yet, out of the misery and despair came life itself. The Greeks and the Romans offered ways to make life worth living. Through his teacher Socrates, Plato argued that aletheia, or the higher truth, was worth pursuing. When a person finds this deeper truth, she finds fulfillment because in knowing this truth she understands completeness and meaning. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle declared that the deep joy that comes from knowing thyself and becoming an active citizen in society, i.e., happiness, makes life worth living. Plato’s aletheia and Aristotle’s happiness, however, only come from actions—search, deduce, pursue, and contribute.

Romans insisted that humans live by the philosophies of either Stoicism or Epicureanism. The Stoics rejected the senses, put mind over matter, and as a result felt no pain. To an Epicurean, the highest good is pleasure.  It is best to enjoy the moment, and put one’s problems aside. Everyone is going to die no matter what and so carpe diem—seize the day; “seize” being a verb. 

Read the Greeks and the Romans. Pursue life and truth. At some point in our lives, we are all captives of despair. But, as the Roman poet Seneca reminds us in his Troades, “Let us live. For captives this suffices.”

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The Passing of Michael Kammen

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Randall Stephens

Michael Kammen
It is with heavy hearts that historians, former students, and others are reporting on the death of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Michael Kammen.  He leaves an enormous legacy as an inspiring teacher, mentor, and scholar.

H. Roger Segelken of the Cornell Chronicle writes that Kammen focused "his scholarship at first on the colonial period of American history."  He then "broadened his scope to include legal, cultural and social issues of American history in the 19th and 20th centuries." Kammen's Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991), says Segelken, "helped to create the field of memory studies."  (See a short biography of Kammen here.)

Indeed, Kammen won high praise as a writer. In a New York Times review of Mystic Chords of Memory Thomas Fleming conceded that "not everyone will agree with all his conclusions, but they are presented with superlative style laced with refreshing wit and a refusal to tolerate the occasional fools and scoundrels who populate this patriot's game." (Thomas Fleming, "The Past Is What Catches Up With Us," New York Times, January 12, 1992, BR11.)

To mark Kammen's passing, I post here a 2010 essay that he wrote for a Historically Speaking roundtable on teaching the art of writing. Here Kammen considers the examples set by historians Samuel Eliot Morison, Carl Becker, Barbara Tuchman, C. Vann Woodward, and others.

Michael Kammen, "Historians on Writing," Historically Speaking (January 2010)

Historians distinguish themselves in diverse ways, yet relatively few are remembered as gifted prose stylists, and fewer still have left us non-didactic missives with tips about the finer points of writing well. Following his retirement from Cornell in 1941, Carl Becker accepted a spring term appointment as Neilson Research Professor at Smith College. Early in 1942 he delivered a charming address in Northampton titled “The Art of Writing.” Although admired as one of the most enjoyable writers among historians in the United States, Becker’s witty homily for the young women that day concerned good writing in general, and his exemplars ranged widely. He cited Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for example, because “the author’s intention was to achieve a humorous obscurity by writing nonsense. He had a genius for that sort of thing, so that, as one may say, he achieved obscurity with a clarity rarely if ever equaled before or since.”1
Carl Becker

Other notable historians have shared Becker’s belief that writing about the past is a form of art—or ideally, at least, ought to be. Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1912 capped the generations that so admired Francis Parkman and Henry Adams by designating his subject “History as Literature.” All too soon, however, TR’s highly idealized perspective seemed unattainable by the new professionals in academe. Even Becker swiftly became pessimistic about the prospects for historical “literature,” especially as he observed his guild developing in its formative years. He wrote candidly to a friend in 1915:

It would be possible to get perhaps 20 men who could write good history in a straightforward and readable manner; but if they should be expected to raise their work to the level of real literature—to the level of [J. R.] Green or Parkman, for example—I fear it can’t be done. Men of high literary talent unfortunately do not go in for the serious study of history very often; and the study of history, as conducted in our universities, is unfortunately not designed to develop such talent as exists. Besides, history is I should say one of the most difficult subjects in the world to make literature out of; I mean history in the general sense, as distinct from biography or the narrative of some particular episode.

Nevertheless, he went on to add: “Yet it is possible, and in my opinion highly desirable to come as near doing just that thing as possible. With all our busy activity history has less influence on the thought of our time than it had in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and one principal reason is that it isn’t read.”2

A generation later Samuel Eliot Morison, who took Parkman as his model, lamented that American historians “have forgotten that there is an art of writing history,” and titled his homily “History as a Literary Art.” Subsequently Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., George Kennan, and C. Vann Woodward also provided instructive essays explaining how and why historical writing might flow in a creative manner that can engage the general reader.3

In the mid-1980s, when the Library of America produced stout volumes of works by Parkman and Adams, Woodward seized upon those occasions as opportunities to explain why these authors once enjoyed popular appeal and remained eminently worthy of visitation: narrative power, irony, subtlety, and [End Page 17] ambiguity in Parkman, wit, irony, humor, and a love of paradox in the case of Adams, whom Woodward called a “master of English prose.”4

J.H. Hexter devoted at least half a dozen droll essays to the challenges of Doing History, and the particular problems faced by academic historians. After describing just how arduous historical research can be, he turned with characteristic whimsy to the equally demanding challenge of first-rate prose.

[Once] the research ends, the working up of the evidence into a finished piece of history writing starts, and the historian at last tastes the pleasure of scholarly creation. Or does he? Well, if he has an aptitude at the management of evidence and a flare for vigorous prose, perhaps he does enjoy himself a good bit. But what if he has not? Then through sheet after sheet of manuscript, past twisted sentences, past contorted paragraphs, past one pitiful wreck of a chapter after another he drags the leaden weight of his club-footed prose. Let us draw a curtain to blot out this harrowing scene and turn to look at one of the fortunate few to whom the writing of a historical study is a pleasure of sorts. He writes the last word of his manuscript with a gay flourish—and he better had, because it is the last gay flourish he is going to be able to indulge in for quite a while. He has arrived at the grey morning-after of historical scholarship, the time of the katzenjammer with the old cigar butts and stale whisky of his recent intellectual binge still to be tidied up. He must reread the manuscript and then read the typescript and correct and revise as he reads.5

In a different essay honoring Garrett Mattingly, the historian most admired by Hexter, he addressed what he considered the false dichotomy between narrative and analytical history. Many in the academy regard the former as inferior because it only tells what but not how and why. Citing Renaissance Diplomacy (1955) by Mattingly as a prime example of ways to marry the two, Hexter declared that,

in the best writing of history, analysis and narrative do not stand over against each other in opposition and contradiction; nor do they merely supplement each other mechanically. They are organically integrated with each other; to separate them is not an act of classification but of amputation. It is an act the frequent performance of which stands a good chance of killing history altogether.6

Carl Becker concurred eloquently in his famous essay about Frederick Jackson Turner. He noted the need to interweave individuals and the interplay of social forces that are time-specific with “general notions” and conceptualizations that can provide explanatory power:

Well, the generalization spreads out in space, but how to get the wretched thing to move forward in time! The generalization, being timeless, will not move forward; and so the harassed historian, compelled to get on with the story, must return in some fashion to the individual, the concrete event, the “thin red line of heroes.” Employing these two methods, the humane historian will do his best to prevent them from beating each other to death within the covers of his book. But the strain is great.7

In Becker’s correspondence he often reflected upon the challenges of writing history well, especially in letters to Turner, his esteemed mentor, to Wallace Notestein, his sometime colleague at Cornell, and to Leo Gershoy, perhaps his favorite Ph.D. student. In one letter he even listed historians whose prose he especially admired.8 (My own favorites include Bernard DeVoto, Wallace Stegner, Barbara Tuchman, and Taylor Branch among nonacademics, and then Woodward, Hexter, Richard Hofstadter, and David Potter from the guild.)

Becker has a special place in my heart, and not just because he taught at Cornell. His clarity, pace, and subtle wit are especially appealing, but above all, perhaps, it is his gift for finding aphorisms that memorably epitomize the essence of a book. Best remembered, perhaps, is the end of the first chapter of his published dissertation on political parties in revolutionary New York, namely, that two questions determined party history from 1765 until 1776: “The first was the question of home rule; the second was the question, if we may so put it, of who should rule at home.” He achieved that effect again, even more pithily, in his most famous book, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. Referring to the scientific orientation of the philosophes, Becker quipped that “having denatured God, they deified nature.”9

In the same book, published in 1932, Becker anticipated Raymond Williams’s and Daniel T. Rodgers’s influential works devoted to the importance of keywords in culture, society, and politics (1976 and 1987 respectively). Here is Becker’s essential passage from a fascinating study that acknowledges diachronic change even while insisting upon overlooked patterns of persistence and continuity.

In the thirteenth century the key words would no doubt be God, sin, grace, salvation, heaven, and the like; in the nineteenth century, matter, fact, matter-of-fact, evolution, progress; in the twentieth century, relativity, process, adjustment, function, complex. In the eighteenth century the words without which no enlightened person could reach a restful conclusion were nature, natural law, first cause, reason, sentiment, humanity, perfectibility (these last three being necessary only for the more tender-minded, perhaps).10

Like Woodward, Becker had a particular fondness for irony in historical writing. Close friends in the profession who misunderstood what he was up to in his memorable 1931 presidential address to the American Historical Association, “Everyman His Own Historian,” chastened him for “advocating the futility of historical research under a thin guise of irony.” Nonplussed and bemused, Becker defended himself by observing that “a writer has to be something of an exhibitionist if he expects to develop a method of expression which people can recognize as definitely & individually his.” Today we customarily refer to that as finding one’s own voice, as Stephen Pyne has mentioned.11

Four months before he died, Becker (an unpedantic pedagogue) provided a former Ph.D. student with a close reading of her new book manuscript. He urged particular attention to the transitions between chapters. “The great thing is,” he wrote, “never leave a reader wondering where he has been and is at the end of a chapter, or where he is or where he is going at the beginning of the next one. But of course in order to do this you must be yourself very sure where you are at all times, and why you are there and how you got there.” Although Becker is principally remembered as a brilliant writer, he was also a skilled and conscientious graduate teacher, and remained so long after his fledglings had left their nest in Ithaca.12


1.  First published in Phil L. Snyder, ed., Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker (Cornell University Press, 1958), 125–26.

2.  Carl Becker to William B. Munro, July 23, 1915, in Michael Kammen, ed., What Is the Good of History? Selected Letters of Carl L. Becker, 1900–1945 (Cornell University Press, 1973), 33–34.

3.  Samuel Eliot Morison, “History as a Literary Art” (1946), reprinted in Morison, By Land and by Sea (Knopf, 1953), 289–298, the quotation at 289; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “The Historian as Artist,” Atlantic Monthly 212 (July 1963): 35–40; George Kennan, “The Experience of Writing History,” Virginia Quarterly Review 36 (1960): 205–214; and C. Vann Woodward, The Future of the Past (Oxford University Press, 1989), 337–358.

4.  Woodward, Future of the Past, 340–48.

5.  J.H. Hexter, “The Historian and His Society,” in Hexter, Doing History (Indiana University Press, 1971), 93.

6.  J.H. Hexter, “Garrett Mattingly, Historian,” in ibid., 170.

7.  Carl Becker, “Frederick Jackson Turner” (1927), reprinted in Becker, Everyman His Own Historian (F. S. Crofts, 1935), 229.

8.  Kammen, ed., What Is the Good of History? 34.

9.  Carl Becker, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760–1776 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1960), 22; Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (Yale University Press, 1932), 63.

10.  Becker, Heavenly City, 47.

11.  Carl Becker to William E. Dodd, Jan. 27, 1932, and Becker to Gershoy [spring 1932?], in Kammen, ed., What Is the Good of History? 156, 162.

12.  Carl Becker to Mildred J. Headings, Dec. 14, 1944, in ibid., 328–29 (italicized words underlined in the original); and see Burleigh Taylor Wilkins, Carl Becker: A Biographical Study in American Intellectual History (M.I.T. Press, 1961).

13.  For a convenient compilation of what many historians have written over the years, see A.S. Eisenstadt, ed., The Craft of American History: Selected Essays, 2 vols. (Harper & Row, 1966).

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