How To Quickly Learn a New Subject in History

The other day I was engaged in a Twitter discussion on the merits of the edited volume for historical research. The discussion came about because there is an attitude among some established historians that edited volumes are a lesser form of publication, and as such, they should not be counted among the publications required for a tenure track position in history at an American university.

I completely disagree.

An edited volume is a book on a specific topic put together by one or more scholars who act as editors and who invite other scholars to submit chapter length research texts on the specific topic of the volume. As one of my co-debaters expressed it in our Twitter discussion, edited volumes are often published as part of a series and because of this, the publisher can take greater risks with an edited volume than they can with a stand alone book. Therefore, the edited volume is more likely to contain cutting edge research and it is also more likely to contain authors who have yet to establish themselves as scholars. In other words, edited volumes are an excellent stepping stone in a scholar’s early career, and disparaging them as a lesser form of publication is insidious and elitist.

Edited volumes provide quick, updated (most of the time) overviews of specific topics that otherwise would be difficult to put together on your own. Edited volumes are a great service to the scholarly community and should be regarded as such, not only in the hiring process but also in the research process.

I am currently working on a book project where I am forced to move outside of my own area of expertise. The project is medieval but the topics I discuss include early monastic culture, anchoritism, book production, the history of Bohemia, and Heaven and Hell as historical concepts. I would not be able to work on this project without the help of edited volumes.

To celebrate the edited volume as the perfect medium to quickly learn a new subject in history, I would like to share with you some of the edited volumes that I have found particularly useful. The titles below include the edited volumes I am working with in my current project, as well as edited volumes that I use when I teach.

I would like to point out, though, that these are all academic publications, and as such they can be expensive to buy, in case you are interested, and, as e-publications, they might be locked behind institutional log ins. The prices charged by academic publishers on their publications is an extortionist practice, if you ask me, and many university libraries make it unnecessarily difficult for people–lay people and unaffiliated scholars alike–to access their collections and library holdings.

All right, here we go.

41cM4MUu7ML._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Alison I. Beach & Isabelle Cochelin (eds.), The Cambridge History of Monasticism in the Latin West Volumes 1 & 2 (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
These edited volumes are brand new and contain the latest research on monasticism in Catholic Europe during the Middle Ages. It covers a wide range of topics, but the main reason why I like this volume so much is because of its geographical reach. Often, publications who claim to speak for the entirety of medieval Europe focus mostly on France and England. This makes them more or less useless for a scholar like myself, whose area of expertise includes Scandinavia, the Baltic, and the Arctic and who now has branched out into Bohemia, which today is part of the Czech Republic. The two books can be bought as a set for a whopping $375.

Liz Herbert McAvoy (ed.), Anchoritic Traditions in Medieval Europe (Boydell & Brewer, 2019. Reprinted edition).
The anchorite was a person who took a vow to dedicate their life to God and Christ by retiring from society and live walled up in a cell until they died. Today, anchorites are considered an obscure part of medieval culture, but during the Middle Ages, anchorites were anything but. Hundreds of people–mostly women–lived as anchorites all over Europe, and even though they had withdrawn from society, many of them became important figures, offering prayers and spiritual guidance to the community that surrounded them. The practice of anchoritism disappeared with the Reformation, and over time the people who dedicated their lives to Christ in this way were more or less forgotten. I like this volume because it provides a quick and comprehensive overview of anchoritism, its history, its geographical spread, and the current state of research. Still, there is a slight emphasis on anchoritism in England, so for someone like me who is interested in the anchoritic practices of Central Europe, some chapters are more useful than others.

4132n-hLnUL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_Ra’anan Boustan & Annette Yoshiko Reed (eds.), Heavenly Realms and Earthly Realities in Late Antique Religions (Cambridge University Press, 2004. Digital edition from 2009).
Our view of Heaven and Hell goes far back in time and is a composite of ideas of the afterlife that can be traced to several different regions, cultures, and religions. In this volume, Boustan and Yoshiko Reed bring together scholars who discuss how the major religions of Late Antiquity viewed the afterlife and how these views inform the development of Heaven and Hell as concepts. The edited volume is a perfect format for this kind of discussion because each chapter allows for an in-depth discussion of the many aspects of Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife that would be difficult for one scholar to pull off within the confines of a stand alone book, while it also provides a quick overview of an unwieldy research topic.

Debra Hassig (ed.), The Medieval Bestiary in Art, Life, and Literature (Taylor & Francis, 1999).
The bestiary is another integral part of medieval culture that tends to be overlooked. When I do see bestiaries being referenced out in the world, it’s usually in the form of bestiary images taken out of context. A bestiary was a book of real and fantastical animals intended to teach people how to live as good Christians through the use of parables. The fascinating thing about bestiaries is that they were in vogue for a comparatively short time and only in a few places (13th century England and France, basically), but their legacy still lives on. Bestiaries are the reason why we view hyenas and weasels negatively and lions and panthers in a positive way. Bestiaries were antisemitic and their parables lie at the foundation of the strand of antisemitism that associates Jews with certain animals. Bestiaries were also deeply misogynist. Debra Hassig is the leading expert on bestiaries and has been for many years, and this edited volume gives a very good overview of the medieval bestiaries. The volume is from 1999 which tells you a little bit about the state of research on bestiaries. Their images float around on the internet on a regular basis, but very little research is actually done on them.

51khvlK9qLL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Olaf Asbach & Peter Schröder (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to the Thirty Years War (Routledge, 2014. Digital edition 2016).
The Thirty Years War lasted between 1618 and 1648 and when it was over, the European continent lay in ruins and devastation that would not be seen again until World War II. The Thirty Years War is a complex and complicated military conflict to the point where it can be debated whether this really was one long war or several different conflicts fought in the same general area over a certain period of time. Similar to the anchorites and the bestiaries, the Thirty Years War tends to be overlooked in historical research written in English. England itself did not participate in the Thirty Years War as a main combatant; instead, England descended into a Civil War which ended in regicide. This edited volume provides an excellent overview of all aspects of the conflict(s), but if you wish to buy it, you are going to have to pay over $160, which is just outrageous.

Philip de Souza, Pascal Arnaud & Christian Buchet, The Sea in History—The Ancient World (Boydell & Brewer, 2017).
This edited volume is part of a series that brings together research on the significance of the sea in human history, also known as maritime history. What I really like about this volume is that it brings together the different civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean and connects them to each other. It also demonstrates how the Mediterranean communicated and traded with the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean already this far back in time. Too often, Ancient history is taught in a way that makes you think that the amazing civilizations of the Ancient world existed in isolation from one another. This volume makes it abundantly clear that they all coexisted and influenced one another across the millennia. Again, this book is very expensive if you wish to buy it. The e-book clocks in at nearly $100 and the hardback costs nearly $200, which is unconscionable.

Magdalena Naum & Jonas Nordin, Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity. Small Time Agents in a Global Arena (Springer, 2013).
This edited volume is an excellent example of how the format helps bring forward cutting edge research in a niche topic by emerging scholars. Scandinavian colonialism as a research topic was abandoned following the end of World War II when the Nordic countries–Sweden especially–rebranded themselves as social-democratic utopias dedicated to uphold peace and human rights. During the past couple of decades, historians have begun returning to the imperial projects of Sweden and Denmark-Norway, but the research field is still too small for publishers outside of the Nordic countries to take a chance at publishing stand alone books on the topic. I don’t agree with everything the authors say in these chapters, but the volume provides a good overview of an emerging field of research. Again, though, the prices for all editions of this volume are atrocious. The book came out seven years ago. There is no reason still to be charging nearly $150, especially since publications in English on this specific topic are so few and far between.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.


History and SFF: Oral History and Charlie Jane Anders’s THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT.

On April 15, 2020, published the final installment of History and SFF, the column I have written for them since October last year. The column had two more planned installments to go, but were forced to end it without those two posts being published because of cutbacks caused by the economic downturn in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. I am currently looking for a home for at least one of the two remaining posts. So watch this space for updates!

In the meantime, please enjoy this post on how Charlie Jane Anders uses oral history and the intangible cultural heritage to tell the story of her amazing novel, The City in the Middle of the Night.

History and SFF: Oral History and Charlie Jane Anders’s THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT


Traditionally, history is the study of the human condition through written texts. But over the last half-century, historians have focused more and more attention on what is known as oral history, part of what UNESCO calls humanity’s “intangible cultural heritage.”

Protected by a UN resolution adopted in 2003, this intangible cultural heritage is considered more vulnerable than the cultural heritage consisting of monuments, locations, and buildings because the carriers of this heritage are human beings, and, as we know all too well, human beings are mortal. Oral history is part of this type of cultural heritage because if a people or culture dies out before their history has been recorded, vital information about the past will be irretrievably lost.

Thus, oral history is history before it is written down—as such, there are two ways of talking about the dissemination of oral history. On the one hand, oral history is the stories about the past of a group or people that are recounted, shared, and passed down the generations by word of mouth rather than being written down and distributed as texts. It is through a highly sophisticated use of oral history that the Aborigines of Australia have successfully maintained a cohesive civilization that is tens of thousands of years old.

On the other hand, oral history is the recording of the stories of others done by professional scholars, most often anthropologists. The purpose here is to capture the life stories of individuals whose unique experiences otherwise wouldn’t have been recorded. Here we find the various interview projects with Holocaust survivors and war veterans, for examples.

Both of these aspects of oral history can be found in Charlie Jane Anders’s novel The City in the Middle of the Night.

Please click here if you wish to read the post in its entirety.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

How Plagues Can Shift Power Between the Haves and the Have-Nots

On April 10, 2020, The Daily Beast published my latest piece for them. What does the Black Death, HIV/AIDS, the House of Lords, and the gentrification of New York City have in common? Read and find out.


How Plagues Can Shift the Power Between the Haves and the Have-Nots

brooklyn bridge seen in between brown buildings

Photo by Mario Cuadros on

Singapore, March 1999. I was backpacking in southeast Asia, and my friend and I had just arrived in Singapore from Borneo. While on Borneo, we heard about a disease spreading uncontrollably in the rest of Malaysia, but it wasn’t until we reached Singapore that we realized the severity of the situation. Our plan was to cross the border between Singapore and Malaysia the next day. The problem was that some of the places where we’d planned to go were now out of reach because they had been placed under quarantine and martial law. And we couldn’t stay in Singapore; the illness was rapidly heading there as well. We needed to make a decision.

The epidemic in Malaysia in the fall of 1998 and the spring of 1999 was originally declared an outbreak of Japanese Encephalitis, a deadly zoonotic disease that spreads from pigs to humans with mosquitoes as the vector. But as the Malaysian government fought back against the outbreak, it became evident that what they were dealing with was not JE. Today we know that the epidemic in Malaysia was caused by a brand new virus, the lethal novel Nipah virus, first found in local fruit bats from where it moved on to pigs and from pigs to humans.

The Nipah virus might have been a novel virus, but the havoc it wreaked on Malaysian society was anything but new. Whenever an epidemic hits, the dynamics of that society are forever altered. Sometimes the effects are known immediately. Sometimes they take decades to manifest, even centuries.

Please click here to read the article in its entirety.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

History and SFF: Footnotes in Fantasy Storytelling

On March 26, 2020, Tordotcom published the latest installment in the series History and SFF that I am writing for them.


History and SFF: Footnotes in Fantasy Storytelling


The key to a credible analysis of history is for historians to credit their sources. The most efficient way to do this is to add a footnote. A footnote, as all of you probably know, is a small, elevated number that is placed after information taken from another text. At the bottom of the page there is a corresponding number, and next to this second number the information about the source can be found. Here, historians sometimes also include commentary that is not immediately relevant to the discussion, but needs to be said to make sure that all flanks are covered.

We historians spend a lot of time getting our footnotes right before we send a book or article off to being published. It’s painstaking and pedantic work—but love them or hate them, footnotes are crucial for scientific rigor and transparency.

Footnotes can be found in SFF, as well. But where historians use footnotes to clarify or to add additional helpful commentary, fiction authors have the freedom to use them to obfuscate and complicate their story in intriguing ways. Let’s look at a couple of examples…

Click here to read the entire post.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

To See the Antisemitism of Medieval Bestiaries, Look for the Owl

On March 24, 2020, I published my first piece for Aeon Magazine. I am genuinely happy about how this piece turned out. It might be my best piece of writing so far, if I may so myself. A big thank you to Pamela Weintraub, the editor who I worked with for helping me unlock it.


To See the Antisemitism of Medieval Bestiaries, Look for the Owl.

animal animal photography avian beak

Photo by Pixabay on

The owl watches you from the raised seat on the medieval misericord in Norwich Cathedral in the east of England. Surrounding the owl are birds with feathers like the scales of a pangolin. The birds are focused on the owl. The owl pays them no mind.

The motif of this scene would have been familiar to the woodcarver who made it and to the abbey monks who leaned against it during the long hours of Mass. But the associations the people of the Middle Ages made when they saw the scene on the misericord seat were different from how we would interpret it today.

Please click here to read the rest of the article.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.