The Packaging of History: Why We Must Keep Writing About History

Recently, I became Librarian to the Non-Fiction Library of the Richard III Society’s American Branch. It is a great privilege to be entrusted with maintaining such a large collection of texts related to Richard III and the 15th century. But I never expected the sheer volume of materials that were to be shipped to me from the previous librarian. It has been like a slow-moving tsunami, delivered in a dozen or so parcels by the postal service every week (I have started to refer to the postal carriers by their first names now). At first, I felt like a giddy girl waking up on Christmas morning, excitedly tearing into each box to discover volumes on medieval hawking, poetry, dance, food, heraldy, gynecology… plus countless biographies on the Richard III, Charles the Bold, Louis XI, etc., essentially every major persona from the Wars of the Roses.

But, now, I admit to being a little weary. I’ve since inventoried over 600 titles, and still the shipments arrive every week, sometimes bringing flotsam in the form of books that date back to the 1800s with their weathered leather-tooled bindings, pages smelling of stale cloth, bearing the fingerprints of the deceased.

The thought has repeatedly crossed my mind, as I tore open a package to find yet more books on the distant conflict between two noble houses: “Why have so many people written about Richard III, his times, the players in them, the activities of long forgotten tradesmen and women? What more could be said by anyone about the past? Who in their right mind would think they have something … useful … to add to this veritable sea of information?”

Turns out that the newspaperman delivered an answer to my doorstep in the form of the Book Review in the New York Times’ June 7, 2015 weekend edition. Tucked way in the back at page 26 was a review of a new book written by Michael Pye called “The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe”. Pye is not an academic historian, but an English novelist, journalist and writer of popular history. Yet, according to the reviewer, Russell Shorto, he brings forth a totally new approach to viewing medieval history that is very different from the one that started with the Venerable Bede. It centers around the North Sea, in particular the Hanseatic League and the impact of its trade connections with medieval England. Shorto reminds us that, in the past, a person who lived in Ipswich could travel to Bergen, Norway in less time than it took for him to travel to York.

Rather than paraphrase Mr. Shorto’s review, I’ll just offer some of the thoughts contained in his review:

***

— “Michael Pye’s new book is bristling, wide-ranging and big-themed. It’s the sort of historical work whose thesis is virtually impossible to prove, but it’s also a reminder that history isn’t an exact science. At its most meaningful, history involves a good deal of art and storytelling. Pye’s book is full of both.”

— “What Pye — an English novelist, journalist and writer of popular history — is taking issue with is our packaging of the past. Of necessity, we simplify. The Romans gave us paved roads and running water. Monasteries preserved knowledge. Humanism and three-point perspective came out of the Italian Renaissance. Pye notices that there’s a bias in all this toward the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman Catholic Church and the aristocratic regimes that ruled Western Europe. This bias, he says, has much to do with the kind of documentary information that was preserved, and with the people who preserved it. ‘A letter about planting crops or buying shirts may disappear,’ he notes, whereas ‘a charter for land belonging to the church is very likely to survive.’ Official chroniclers of the past recorded what mattered to their bosses, but much of the substance of an era is to be found in what was left unrecorded.”

— “Pye follows in the wake of a number of academic historians, many from the parts of Europe he writes about, but the synthesis and presentation are all his own. They are usefully, and often delightfully, jarring. He’s interested in the Vikings, the Frisians, Iceland, ‘the “farmers’ republic” of Dithmarscha.’ He looks for lost clues to the birth of modernity not in Leonardo’s drawings or the court of Louis XIV but in the fens and marshes of the North Sea.”

— “Coastal England is one of the places the North Sea washes, and Pye starts by providing a corrective to our common understanding of how England came to be. The traditional version comes from the Venerable Bede, the eighth-century monk whose ‘Church History of the English People’ tells of the invasion of the island by Germanic tribes (the Angles, Saxons and Jutes), who displaced the people they found there and set the foundations of English language and culture. ‘But what if there never was an invasion?’ Pye asks. He is looking at archaeological evidence that shows a much more gradual takeover, involving centuries of peaceable trade and commingling. Bede’s compact and serviceable creation myth obscures a history in which those tribes, along with others in present-day Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands, pushed European civilization onward, inventing or reinventing concepts, coining new terms and new ways of seeing.”

— “The North Sea became a community of traders. Their activity required a currency to give relative value to various goods, so the participants resurrected the Roman practice of using coin money. The Frisians minted silver coins and, Pye says, ‘the Anglo-Saxons in England imitated the Frisians.’ These northern peoples also, he suggests, may have had a hand in promoting double-¬entry bookkeeping. Later, the first stock exchanges came into being in this part of Europe.”

— “Pye devotes a good chunk of his book to the boogeymen of medieval Europe, the Vikings. He follows them on their swaggering voyages, stating that they not only plundered Ireland but also settled in and reshaped Dublin, turning it from ‘an accident of a holy place’ into ‘a base for trading.’ It’s a bottom-up argument: that as the Catholic Church and Europe’s monarchies became bloated and slow, these small-scale innovators found openings to exploit. They enriched themselves, and in time their innovations were adopted by others. The cities that participated in the Hanseatic League — which ranged around the North and Baltic Seas and made free-trading alliances with little regard for national boundaries — are prime evidence for this argument.”

***

I don’t know if this text may be a good fit for the Richard III Society library, but it certainly revealed to me that there will always remain a need for new voices in the telling of history. Sometimes the voices that are the most provocative and innovative don’t come from the ivory towers of academia or other self-selected groups of people, but from even the likes of Mr. Pye, a novelist. Why not? Libraries, like human creativity itself, know no boundaries. Not enough room to accommodate yet another book on Richard III or his times or contemporaries?

Build more shelves.

(For the full text of Russell Shorto’s review of Michael Pye’s book “The Edge of the World”, see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/books/review/the-edge-of-the-world-by-michael-pye.html?_r=0)

8 comments

  1. I agree. History has many layers and sometimes a fresh look can yield new results. Congratulations on your new position. I promise not to bother you for books… At least not too often. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, and please – bother me as often as you need to! It’s a pleasure for me to dig into the “archives”. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for being our librarian! I’m new to the R3 Society, and I will likely be in touch. I love real books, and I like that you are the keeper.
    True about historical perspectives… History is owned temporarily by conquerors, or people with agendas, but historical truth emerges slowly, with more staying power, and is embraced by minds willing to take a risk by looking at things freshly.
    Thanks again, and I’ll be in touch…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Laurel. Great to hear that you love books and have recently joined the R3 Society – welcome! This link contains the information and email by which you can request books. http://www.r3.org/members-only/american-branch-library/richard-iii-society-research-library/

      The library is an incredible resource for anyone interested in medieval/early renaissance – some of the books are out of print and not digitized, so it’s a great benefit to membership to have this opportunity to access them.

      I should also mention there is a Fiction Library, for all lovers of Ricardian historical fiction novels. That is maintained by another member, Gilda Felt, and this link provides info on how to request those novels: http://www.r3.org/members-only/american-branch-library/richard-iii-society-fiction-library/

      Cheers and best Ricardian regards!

      Like

  3. Isn’t it funny how something you were wondering about suddenly appears as if my magic? I’ve always had a soft spot for the Vikings and I was wondering about how England and Scandinavia interacted in Mediaeval times – maybe a look at this book is in order. Thank you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pye in the sky.

    I fail to see the relevance of this post to the House of York.
    Mr Pye makes many assertions and generalisations, according to this reviewer, and not many of them would, I suggest, stand up to close scrutiny.
    The description of Monasticism in Ireland is ridiculous.

    Like

    1. Katherine Duffy: It surprises me that you don’t know the history of the Hanseatic trade when it comes to the House of York. A simple and easy exploration of the story of Edward IV’s and Richard of Gloucester’s biographies would reveal to you that they, indeed, dealt with the Hanseatic trade and even found somewhat safe harbor there in 1470. If you don’t know that, then you are deliberately ignoring a prominent and decisive factor in the Wars of the Roses. I find this surprising, given your oft-lauded expertise in the area. If you think the Hanse trade had nothing to do with the ability of the House of York to regain its position in 1471, then I would suppose you think they found other alternative sources for financing for their fleet? How do you explain the fact that the Hanse trade FUNDED some of the ships that comprised the fleet in Edward IV’s re-entry to England in 1471? No, I suppose you prefer not to comment.

      Like

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: