This Historian’s Favorites and Least Favorites
One of the reasons this blog has only a loose theme is because of the diversity of my interests. I once tried a more focused blog. However, I quickly found other things I wanted to share, but I felt I’m spamming readers who came to the blog looking for a specific topic.
My first blog was focused on religion, primarily neopaganism. From there I graduated to writing about “alternative religion” (which is a terrible name, as it implies certain religions are the inherent norm, and that all “alternative” believers have actively rejected these religions) at About.com, which included topics like Satanism and Scientology. It also let me share some of my knowledge on historical occult practices.
The Big Stuff
Ultimately, however, I am a historian. That, however, is still a really big topic. I teach history and humanities classes about Western culture and the cultures that most influenced it. I’ve never been overly interested in, say, African, Asian or New World history. I realize this does make me a bit of an academic dinosaur. That’s OK. Dinosaurs are cool.
The time period I vastly prefer to teach is what I call “beginning of time to the Renaissance.” we cover the first several million years in the first class and then spend the rest of the semester covering the next 5000ish years. (Then the next class teaches the last 500 years, Renaissance to the present.)
Painting Broad Strokes
I really like the Egyptians, but not so much the Mesopotamians. Maybe it’s the stability and continuity of Egypt. Mesopotamia isn’t a political unit; it’s a location (like North America) that was home to lots of separate and shifting political and cultural entities.
I like the Romans, particularly the Roman Empire, but not the Greeks. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that Greeks were deep thinkers and Romans hit things really hard.
Ultimately, I’m a medievalist (and though my thesis topic revolved around Renaissance thought, go figure). At a recent department party, I was asked not once but twice why I loved the Middle Ages so much, and I realized I have no coherent answer. I guess it surprises me that other people can define their fondness for a period. To me, it’s somewhat like asking why I like chocolate ice cream more than vanilla.
Specifically I tend to focus on the High Middle Ages, which starts at roughly 1000 CE, as opposed to the Early Middle Ages, in part because the high Middle Ages offers more material to work from. However, the Early Middle Ages does give us Vampire Monkey Christ.
Favorite Century: The 14th Century
Liking the 14th century requires a bit of sadistic glee, I suppose. If you ever get a time machine and want to visit the Middle Ages, remember this: 13th century = good; 14th century = bad, bad, oh, dear God, look out for that catapult, who’s the pope today? bad.
This is the time of the Black Death, when a third of Europeans die over a three-year period. Also, we get the Hundred Years War, which led to the kings of England being crowned “King of England and France” until the 18th century (not that the French paid any attention) even after the English king signed a treaty promising not to continue fighting for the French throne. So for 400 years, two people were always claiming “King of France” in their official titles.
Speaking of multiple claimants, this is when the papacy declines from the height of its power into a medieval sitcom. First, the Bishop of Rome leaves Rome for Avignon. After 70 years of that awkward situation, there was an attempt to elect a new pope in Rome….while other cardinals were electing a pope in Avignon. For the next couple decades there are two or three people running around at any one time claiming to be pope during what we call the Great Schism.
Today, the losers of such arguments are officially labeled “antipopes,” which might just be my favorite title ever. It does lead to confusion, however. For example, there is Pope Boniface VII and Antipope Boniface VII.
England/Great Britain. I do fairly well in most time periods of English/British history. This worked out well for me because I have discovered I cannot learn a foreign language to save my life. Unfortunately, medieval English documents are generally in Latin or sometimes French, so my glee is limited.
Favorite Royal Dynasty
The Tudors in England because, let’s face it, they’re dysfunctionally hilarious yet still brought England into the modern age.
Elizabeth I, last of the Tudors, is possibly my favorite monarch ever. But, apparently, no one makes funny memes of Elizabeth.
The family of Henry II, which includes wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and sons Richard the Lionheart and John, are also up there for similarly dysfunctional reasons. I don’t know them nearly as well, however.
Least Favorite Century
In all of history and pre-history, there is no time period I like studying less than the 18th century CE. This is probably one of the reasons I have never liked US history, and it took me a long time to figure out it was the time period more than the location that bugged me.
I am not a fan of philosophy. I wrote my thesis on “occult philosophy,” but that’s more theology, proto-science and cosmology. 18th century philosophy, like ancient Greek philosophy, bores me to tears.
The 18th century is when Europe loses its sense of mysticism and starts to hyper-rationalize. Sure, that means they stop burning witches, but in my mind they get terribly unimaginative. They stop looking at the world beyond what can be measured. The reaction to this is the Romantic movement of the 19th century, which I far prefer.
And while that sounds like a breeding ground of scientists, it’s damn difficult to name a famous 18th century scientist. Copernicus? 16th century. Brahe? 16th century. Kepler? Galileo? Both 17th century. William Harvey? Robert Boyle? 17th century.
The only 18th century scientist I can immediately name is Sir Isaac Newton, and he was a freaking alchemist and believer in Bible code.
Which is part of why I love Newton, even if he did have the misfortune of living in the most boring century ever.