Sunday, March 27, 2016

Friday, March 25, 2016

Two Classic Articles by Historian E. P. Thompson

Thompson, E. P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present 38 (December 1967): 56-97.

With apologies to Stephen Hawking, this article is sort of a brief history of time. Thompson observes that almost all people have had some way of keeping track of time and of measuring it. In pre-industrial societies, time was reckoned by the sun, moon, planets, and stars, and was measured by comparison to a task, often one associated with something like farming or cooking.

The author relates how, coming into the modern era, England as well as other parts of Europe began to develop more-accurate clocks and watches. The proliferation of these time pieces, each version more accurate than the one before, matched up with the British Industrial Revolution’s demand “for a greater synchronization of labour” (69). Of course, some tasks have never been very time sensitive. And, some work, like harvesting a crop, occurs only at a certain time of year, and then only when the weather is conducive. Still, even before 1700 at least some work places in England were governed by a “disciplined industrial capitalism, with the time-sheet, the time-keeper, the informers and the fines” (82). This development was accompanied by a Puritan and, later, Methodist emphasis on the Christian’s stewardship of and responsibility for time. Yet, as people like Ben Franklin illustrate, this culture encompassed more than radical Protestantism.

Thompson notes that this endemic aspect of modern, industrialized societies naturally generates a sense of superiority when compared to “undeveloped” nations. But he wonders if “developed” societies have lost as well as gained some things in the transition. He asks if sometime in the future the pendulum might swing back in the other direction. Finally, he ends on the wistful note that certain things, like poetry, simply cannot be manufactured.

Thompson, E. P. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past & Present 50 (February 1971): 76-136.

The title of this article might have been, “From the Moral Economy of the English Crowd to the Amoral Economy of the English Capitalists.” Thompson laments that an old, traditional economic system in England, one that worked relatively well, was crushed by a new system powered by capital and industry. He identifies the end of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the nineteenth as the historic moment of transition.

His secondary claim, with which he begins, is that the historiography of the earlier period routinely speaks of “riots” in response to food shortages. This view treats “the mob” as though they were a bunch of reptiles who mindlessly lashed out whenever they became extremely hungry. But as Thompson relates, the pre-industrial crowd’s age-old routine of forcibly “setting the price” of grain was hardly ever like a riot. The aforementioned changeover of the system is closely related to why it is that modern historians have so misinterpreted “the mob” and their “riots.” That is to say, modern historians have assumed and asserted that such developments have relieved western societies of "the mob."

These two articles clearly exhibit a Marxist theoretical perspective. It is also clear that Thompson himself sympathizes with the often-overlooked characters featured in his history “from below.” As one might expect, he typically ignores any good that has resulted from the developments he dislikes. He is a romantic, passionate Marxist, one who can be quite persuasive as well as entertaining.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Production or Consumption: Which Comes First?

Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Jan de Vries says that this book “is a study in economic history,” one that addresses “consumer aspirations rather than productive activities,” and that focuses “on the household unit rather than the individual” (ix). He asserts that in the history of consumer behavior, demand does not simply follow supply. Instead, demand interacts with supply. A second part of his argument is that consumer demand is represented not by the tastes of individuals, but rather by the desires of family units. Consumer demand that stems from households, and a willingness to work more in order to meet that demand, is what de Vries means by the term industrious revolution (ix-x).

Most of the book deals with “northwestern Europe: England, the Low Countries, and parts of France and Germany” and also British North America during the so-called long eighteenth century, 1650-1850 (x). In short, de Vries says that the industrious revolution both preceded and helped to generate the industrial revolution. Along the way, he provides some answers to a few basic questions about the history of consumption. For example, is consumption guided more by consumer agency, or by structural and institutional forces like manufacturers, merchants, and cultural traditions? The author notes that most theorists have operated on the premise that supply precedes demand. He argues, by contrast, that the relationship between supply and demand is much more interactive. His thesis illustrates the idea of reciprocity:
[M]y historical claim is that northwestern Europe and British North America experienced an “industrious revolution” during the long eighteenth century, roughly 1650-1850, in which a growing number of households acted to reallocate their productive resources (which are chiefly the time of their members) in ways that increased both the supply of market-oriented, money-earning activities and the demand for goods offered in the marketplace (10).
Naturally, a simultaneous increase in both demand and supply, one that moves a society from poverty to relative prosperity, assumes a coordinated and increasingly-efficient system of labor and consumption. According to de Vries, that is exactly what happened in “significant parts of western Europe (and colonial North America)” over “the course of the long eighteenth century" (72).

I thoroughly enjoyed learning what I did from this book. Among other things, The Industrious Revolution corroborated and added to some things I have gained from a couple of my other recent books. In Chapter 3, a subsection titled “The Working Year” compares medieval and early modern Europe to what at least some parts of Europe became with the rise of the Protestant Reformation. Effectively, almost all of the many holy days were deleted from the annual cycle. As de Vries points out, the Reformation permitted people to work, at least, about 20% more each year (87-92). This part resonates with Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation (Princeton, 2013), in which the author describes the effect that the Reformation had on the cult of the saints. The significant increase in available working days that came with the Reformation makes me wonder: which came first, assent to Protestant teachings, or a desire for more work for the sake of more consumption?

Also in Chapter 3, under “Agricultural Specialization,” de Vries notes that American historians have sometimes imagined that there were, at one time, many Jeffersonian, landed, and self-sufficient gentlemen. Afterward, beginning sometime around 1830, a Jacksonian market revolution changed everything in America. But the fact is, says de Vries, in the Jeffersonian period Americans were feverishly trading the natural resources of North America for consumer goods from abroad, especially England. In other words, long before the Jacksonian Era, Americans were neck-deep in the trans-Atlantic market (95-96). This observation completely matches the evidence presented by Kariann Yokota in her book, Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation (Yale, 2011).

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Seeing Through Fifteenth-Century Eyes

Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Baxandall begins his contemporary classic with a basic assertion: "the style of pictures is a proper material of social history" (Preface). In other words, paintings do not simply illustrate history once it is established by documents. Instead, in addition to documents, paintings should be thought of and used as primary sources. Or, as the author concludes, "the visual is  . . . the proper complementary to the verbal" (153). In order to show how this works in connection with fifteenth-century painting in Italy, he presents his case in three parts.

In Part I, "Conditions of Trade," Baxandall identifies a fundamental point of departure: "Money is very important in the history of art" (1). Artists have to put food on the table. Consequently, art is among other things a business. In fifteenth-century Italy, a painting was the result of a contractual relationship between an artist and his wealthy client. Baxandall quotes extensively from intriguing letters that reveal this relationship. He notes that as the fifteenth century progressed a change unfolded. Early in the century, clients were most interested in the quality of the painter's materials. They especially valued shiny gold and silver, and a blue color known as ultramarine, which came in several grades of varying cost. Later in the century, the emphasis shifted from the quality of materials to the quality of the painting itself. In other words, clients no longer cared so much about the value of the materials. Instead, they cared about the skill of the artist. The author concludes Part I by raising the question of how people determined the relative skill of a painter and quality of a painting. Upon what basis did people make such distinctions?

Masaccio (1401-1428), St. Peter Distributing Alms
In Part II, "The Period Eye," Baxandall identifies how painters and public "attended to visual experience" in ways that were distinct to fifteenth-century Italy, and "how the quality of this attention became a part of their pictorial style" (27). He notes that, above all, painters cared about the opinions of the people who cared the most about art and who took the greatest pleasure in it, "the patronizing classes" (38). So, then, how were the assumptions and cognitive skills of these viewers related to what painters actually did? In other words, how did expectations about what viewers knew, and might want, make a difference in how painters did their work? (40). In reply, Baxandall points out that we moderns simply cannot have the same kinds of experiences with fifteenth-century paintings that people at that time surely had. Why? Because the artists knew and shared what people of their own time would bring to a painting--their experiences, knowledge, skill sets--and painters did their work in conscious relationship to them (48). For example, because people in fifteenth-century Italy grew up in a Christianized society and had heard the sermons of popular preachers, painters could be certain that everyone would recognize a biblical story. Painters could also include distinct hand gestures that people of the time would instantly recognize.

Other commonplaces of the culture were also factors. The author describes, for example, the relationship between fifteenth-century painters and dramatic productions of the day. Some characters or narrators in contemporary drama never left the stage. They merely sat until it was time for them to speak again. Not surprisingly, such characters appear in contemporary paintings as well. Too, some painters depicted subjects performing certain dances that were well-known at the time. To provide yet another example, Baxandall explains that Italian school boys learned a very practical mathematics they would use throughout life. At the time, no staple items came packaged in a standardized quantity. Consequently, it was important to be able to figure the surface or the volume of something being considered for purchase or trade. Unique barrels and jars meant that one needed to be able to take a measurement or two and, using geometry and mathematics, quantify the volume or surface of an object. This became second nature to most men. Baxandall suggests that painters appealed to their viewers by displaying hats, bodies, columns, etc. in ways that would provoke this sort of calculating on the part of viewers and, thus, draw them in.

Finally, in Part III, "Pictures and Categories," Baxandall addresses the question of just how well his idealized fifteenth-century Italian man represents historical reality. He implies that, in fact, many people of the time possessed the essential "equipment for looking at Quattrocento paintings" (111). In 1480, Cristoforo Landino provided a summary of this "equipment" when he set out to write an overview of the paintings of his time. A paragraph from Landino's text includes sixteen terms he used to describe four Florentine painters. These sixteen terms provide the outline for Baxandall's discussion. Throughout, he identifies the links between these terms and their contemporary cultural values.

As he concludes, Baxandall circles back to the beginning of his book. He started "by emphasizing that the forms and styles of painting respond to social circumstances." Now, he ends the book "by reversing the equation--to suggest that the forms and styles of painting may sharpen our perception of the society" (151). So much of history depends upon texts, words. But as every historian can attest, these do not often reveal the past as well as we would like. Baxandall concludes that because "visual sense is the main organ of experience," pictures certainly can and should be considered "documents as valid as any charter or parish roll." In this particular case, "they offer an insight into what it was like, intellectually and sensibly, to be a Quattrocento person" (152).

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Vietnam War: Three Important Titles

Interested in the Vietnam War? Here's a short list of books you might try. Considering that they are only three books, these represent a fairly wide array of style and interpretation. When it comes to viewpoint, the outlier is Mark Moyar's Triumph Forsaken. Moyar is a leading voice among so-called revisionist historians of the U.S. in Vietnam. Milam was the only one of the three authors to actually fight in Vietnam. Sheehan's book has the distinction of winning numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

Milam, Ron. Not a Gentleman’s War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Milam was a U.S. Army Infantry junior officer who served in Vietnam. Attempting to remain objective, he brings to his work an interest in defending the reputations of almost all of his fellow platoon leaders. Because Vietnam was a catastrophe for the U.S., finger pointing was inevitable. Much of the criticism was written by “angry colonels” who faulted junior officers. This trend was made all the more easy because of the reputation of the infamous William Laws Calley, Jr. Milam turns the tables, citing a number of poor decisions that were handed down to lieutenants in the field. These mistakes, combined with the ingenious, dirty tactics of the enemy, and other factors made Vietnam something other than “a gentleman’s war.”

Moyar, Mark. Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

This is the first book in a proposed two-volume interpretive survey of the Vietnam War. The dividing line between this and a proposed second book comes at July 28, 1965, when President Johnson announced there would be a huge military build up in Vietnam. The author explains that his approach is an example of what has come to be known as the revisionist position, which stands opposed to the majority orthodox position. Like other revisionists, Moyar attempts to show that the war was not "wrongheaded and unjust." Instead, it was "a noble but improperly executed enterprise" (xi). His over-the-top, demonizing characterizations of certain leaders in his story come across as tendentious. The great value of this book is that it forcefully advances a contested interpretation of the Vietnam War.

Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Vintage, 1989.

As the subtitle suggests, this is something like two books in one. But far from presenting a biography of Army Lieutenant Colonel Vann spliced together with a history of the Vietnam War, Sheehan's work is something far more subtle and creative: a complex narrative that features a huge cast of characters and that assumes the microcosm of Vann's hopeful but tragic life is a revealing lens through which to see the macrocosm of America in Vietnam. An incredible achievement written by a journalist who was there, A Bright Shining Lie won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

From the Last Days of David to the Beginning of Exile: A Simple Introduction to the Book(s) of Kings

1 and 2 Kings in modern editions of the Bible originally formed a single book in the Hebrew Bible. In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Kings was divided into two books. This pattern was followed in Jerome's Latin Vulgate translation, and made its way into Christian editions of the Bible. In this study, I'm treating 1 and 2 Kings as a single book because that was its original form, the way it was packaged at first. Maybe the best way to introduce this book is by answering some basic questions:

What is the Book of Kings about?  What's in it?

Kings is an account of (what else?) kingship in ancient Israel. It includes the history of the monarchy from its high point in a mostly unified kingdom to its low point in the Babylonian Exile. One simple way of outlining the book presents it in three parts:

A.  The reign of Solomon (1 Ki. 1-11): his accession (chapters l-2), his successes (3-10), his failures (11).

B.  The divided kingdom (1 Ki. 12 through 2 Ki. 17): Judah under Rehoboam, and the majority of the northern tribes under Jeroboam who retain the title "Israel," separate from each other.  Israel comes under considerable pagan influence from the beginning and experiences many bloody coups before finally being exiled. Judah is less paganized, though only preserved because of God's faithfulness to his promise to David.  The prophets Elijah and Elisha are heavily involved, especially in the story of Israel, the northern kingdom.

C.  The kingdom of Judah (2 Ki. 18-25): despite the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, the paganizing policy of Manasseh finally bears fruit in the fall of Judah too.  But the conclusion of the book sounds a possible note of hope (25:27-30).

Where did the Book of Kings come from? Who wrote it and when?

This is one of those many places where we have much less information than we would like to have. The last event to which Kings refers is the exiled king Jehoiachin’s release from prison in Babylon in 561 B.C. (2 Ki. 25:27). Clearly, the book in its final form comes from after this time. We do not know the name of the author(s) of Kings.

What sort of book is this? How does it "work"?

Kings proceeds as a reign-by-reign treatment of the history. During the period of the divided kingdom, the accounts of northern and southern kings are allowed to interweave. Each king is described and evaluated according to a consistent pattern, which can be seen by looking at the short accounts of the reign of Jehoshaphat (1 Ki. 22:41-50) or Amon (2 Ki. 21:19-26). But sometimes, this "description and evaluation" is the framework which is filled by and surrounded by other material.  Sometimes the opening and closing statements are separated by several chapters. For example, the accounts of Solomon, Rehoboam, Ahab, Jehoram, Jehu and Joash, include a lot of material focused on various aspects of Israelite politics. Other sections focus on prophets, especially Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah.

Why was Kings written? What's the message?

First, the purpose of Kings is to review the history which led up to the Exile, and to explain why the Exile happened. The Book also serves as a kind of national confession: there was every reason for God to judge Israel and to send his chosen nation into exile.

Second, Kings also delivers a message of hope. For example, the end of the book seems to say, "Maybe God’s commitment to David still holds." It may be that the release of Jehoiachin--related in the final paragraph of Kings-- is there to keep Israel's hope alive. Although the Temple has been pillaged and burnt, prayer is still possible in the Temple (or towards it on the part of people who are cut off from it), and God has decided to hear such prayer. Although judgment has come in keeping with the warnings of the covenant, the same covenant allows for the possibility of repentance and restoration after judgment (see 1 Ki. 8:46-53 and compare Deuteronomy 30). Although the prophetic words which Israel ignored are another reason for her punishment, the fact that those prophetic words of judgment have come true may encourage a hope that the prophetic promises of restoration will also come true.

Third, the Book of Kings pictures God’s involvement in political life, and warns against under-valuing the significance of political structures, and against over-emphasizing them. Kings reveals how God brings judgment on any kingdom. The book also displays the interplay of the free determination of human beings (who in various political situations makes their decisions and put their policies into effect) and the free decision of a sovereign God (who nevertheless effects his will through, or in spite of, human actions). To get a handle on this paradox, we might ask: Are individuals the masters of their own destinies? Or does God finally determine every outcome? The answer seems to be "Both." In fact, in Kings, any attempt to make it absolutely one or the other runs into problems. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the confidence that God works out a purpose in history in spite of what people, even his people, might do.

Fourth, a basic teaching of the Torah, especially the Book of Deuteronomy, is that God blesses those who are faithful to him but brings trouble to those who disobey him (see, for example, Deuteronomy 28-30). This is a major theme in Kings. Thus the material concerning Solomon’s reign is arranged so that Solomon’s setbacks are understood as consequences of his association with foreign women (1 Ki. 11). On the other hand, Kings recognizes that God's justice does not work out this way in every case. The wicked Manasseh enjoys a long reign, and his apostasy only brings its fruit decades later (2 Ki. 21; 24:3-4).  Josiah is responsive to God’s word, but dies an early and tragic death (2 Ki. 23:29).

As I see the Book of Kings, these seem to be the basic messages.