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.


How a Forgotten War Can Help Us Solve the Crisis in Syria

I am on Washington Post’s history blog Made by History today talking about how learning about the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) can help us better understand how to deal (or not to deal) with messy conflicts, such as, e.g., the civil war in Syria.

How A Forgotten War Can Help Us Solve the Crisis in Syria

If you would like to read the piece in its entirety, please click here.

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

Early Modern Infantry and History as Continuity and Change

It started with a tweet.

As an historian with a background in medieval history and who is currently researching the development of the European military-fiscal state of the seventeenth century, this tweet caught my attention for several reasons.

First, the question about the “specific moment” in history when everything shifted and a new world was ushered in is a commonly occurring query. I have been asked questions of this kind several times and never have I been able to give a straight answer, as in “this is the moment when everything changed.” The reason for this inability is simple: history is not a series of isolated events. It is a process. And as a process, changes and developments interlock and feed off each other. This is why the phrase “continuity and change” is a commonly occurring phrase in historical research. Because that is what history is. Continuity and change. At the same time.

Second, as is stated in this tweet, medieval warfare and early modern warfare are different from each other. The images used to illustrate the tweet is focused on weapons technology, which indeed did change during this period.

The early modern era sees the increased use of weaponry that are powered by gunpowder. This development led to changes in engineering, such as how to build fortifications. A medieval castle wall could withstand a siege where swords, ladders, crossbows, and even trebuchets, were used. However, a medieval castle wall is helpless against the firing power of a canon and so early modern fortifications needed to be built differently to withstand this kind of assault.

Third, the tweet mentions the differences between a medieval army and an early modern army regarding its infantry. If you ask me, this is where it gets interesting.

As I have stated previously here on The Boomerang, fighting a war is much more than just soldiers, guns, and ammo. War is a way of organizing a society. This is why we speak of societies being in a state of war. And no other time period in European history displays this more clearly than the early modern period.

The early modern period was a time of more or less constant war, the epitome of which would be the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) which caused major devastation to the European continent, the likes of which would not be seen again until World War II.

Early-modern warfare became the result of the economic system of the time—mercantilism. Mercantilism preached a positive trade balance which would be maintained through territorial expansion and government monopolies. Territorial expansion was achieved through colonization in other parts of the world and through war.

To be able to maintain a society more or less in a constant state of war, the state itself needed to be reformed. War during the early modern era differed from war during the Middle Ages in that it affected society as a whole on a larger scale.

Medieval warfare resembled armed gangs more than actual armies. The Battle of Hastings in 1066, which ushered in what is now called the Norman Conquest of England, is estimated to have involved no more than 17,000 men. This number includes all fighters on both sides of the battle.

During the early modern era, armies grew in size. The two armies that fought each other at the Battle of Lützen in 1632 involved more than 40,000 men, most of them infantry. Not only did this battle involve more than twice as many people as the Battle of Hastings; it was one of several battles of this size fought over a period of thirty years. The Battle of Hastings was a one-time event.

To sustain such a massive war effort, all society resources needed to be geared towards the military. And by resources I mean taxes, agricultural output, and manpower.

And by manpower I mean the infantry. Instead of having an army that consisted of men who all had a personal relationship to one another, the early modern army consisted of men who were conscripted without a personal connection to their commanding officer.

An example of how the early-modern infantry shaped society is Sweden during Charles XI (Swedish: Karl XI, r. 1660-1697). Charles XI created a system of infantry conscription (Indelningsverket) that remained in effect until 1901, permeating Swedish society on all levels. The purpose of Indelningsverket was for each village to provide the state with an infantry soldier, providing this man and his family with a tenant farm (soldattorp).

This solution is similar to how the tax-exempt nobility developed during the Middle Ages. But instead of a noble man providing his knightly services to a king, a farming village provides an infantry soldier to the state. Which leads us back to what I talked about at the beginning of this post—continuity and change.

To conclude, I would like to say the following.

History is a process where continuity and change work simultaneously. Yes, there are events that can be referred to as “historical,” when the development of society took a turn. However, an historical event is only historical when placed within its context. In other words, a specific moment when something changes can only be identified in relation to the over-arching process of which this event is a minor part.

If you’re curious about Myke Cole, check out his novels of military fantasy. I have read two of them so far and really enjoyed them. Also, even though I have dissected his tweet to a near-atomic level, I have the greatest respect for Cole and his work.

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




12 Things You Should Know about the Silver Bible

On December 1, 2015, I published the following post on Book Riot.

12 Things You Should Know about the Silver Bible

The Silver Bible

The Silver Bible, or Codex Argenteus, was created in Italy in the early sixth century. Soon after its creation the book went missing. One thousand years later, it resurfaced in Germany. The story of the Silver Bible is a remarkable one that involves war, theft, unpaid librarians, book collectors, kings, emperors, and queens. On top of all this, the Silver Bible provides insight to the culture and language of one of the most enigmatic ancient peoples, the Goths.

Here are twelve things you should know about the Silver Bible.

If you would like to read the post in its entirety, please click here.

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