New Bodleian History Books: January 2019 – Historical Biographies

Throughout the ages writers have produced countless famous biographies of similarly famous men in history, from Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (2nd century AD) to Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects of Renaissance Italy (1550), Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), Carlyle’s Life of Frederick the Great (1858), or even Ian Kershaw’s Hitler (1991).

Because of its connection to and overlap with popular books of the less scholarly “life writing” tradition, academic historical biography has been something of a stepchild for the subject: “The border separating history and biography has always been uncertain and anything but peaceful” is how Sabina Loriga puts it in her chapter on “The Role of the Individual in History” in a recent volume on Theoretical Discussions of Biography (Loriga, 2014, p. 77). Loriga discusses questions of biographical analysis (“What is important and unimportant in the life of a person?”) as well as questions concerning the relationship between biography and history (“Can the life of an individual illuminate the past?”) (Loriga, 2014, 89). Academic historical biography is thus concerned with both these types of questions, and uses biographical information to examine the lives of individuals in relation to secular and ecclesiastical institutions, local communities, social groups, and other entities, to, as Loriga phrases it, “reassess the balance between personal destinies and social structures” (Loriga, 2014, 90).

Thomas Carlyle famously stated that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men”, but the latest Bodleian acquisitions of the genre beg to differ on both the “great” and the “men” parts of this statement – they include accounts of the lives of undeniably fascinating and influential but not necessarily history-making men and, importantly, women from a vast range of different times, locations, societies, and social circumstances. Here are only a few examples from the three main historical eras to whet your appetite.

For the medieval era, Giorgio Godi describes in detail a few years of the fascinating life and times of the 14th-century longbow man, soldier and mercenary captain John Hawkwood, a man of almost mythical proportions.

Medieval women are also well-represented: Leonora Alice Neville presents a volume on the life and work of Anna Komene, the 12th century Byzantine princess, scholar, physician, hospital administrator, and historian, daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos and historical biographer in her own right as the author of The Alexiad, her account of her father’s reign. In her Stories of women in the Middle Ages, Maria Teresa Brolis then tells the fascinating tales of sixteen other medieval women who led equally interesting lives as fashion icons, art clients, businesswomen, saints, healers, lovers, or pilgrims throughout the European Middle Ages, from Hildegard of Bingen to Heloise, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Saint Clare of Assisi, Joan of Arc, and to lesser-known but still well-documented women such as a moneylender, a healer, and a pilgrim.

The early modern era is represented by a man very close to home in Vittoria Feola’s biography of Elias Ashmole, whose donation of his cabinet of curiosities to the University of Oxford in 1677 led to the establishment of the world’s first university museum, the Ashmolean. Rather less fulfilled (and certainly shorter) lives were led by the three women of the Italian Renaissance which are the subject of Elisabeth Crouzet-Pavan’s and Jean-Claude Maire Vigueur’s book Décapitées. As the title rather suggests, she singles out three cases of women who were beheaded – or more precisely publicly executed for adultery on the orders of their husbands. These wives of three of the greatest lords of Renaissance Italy – Mantua, Milan, and Ferrara – were executed for adultery, though on a closer look it seems what they were most guilty of was having tried to take an active part in the great political and cultural innovations of their time.

On the cusp of the modern era we then find In Napoleon’s shadow, an account of a life lived not as, but alongside a traditional “great man” – it is an edition of the complete memoirs of Louis-Joseph Marchand, the personal valet to Napoleon Bonaparte during his exile to Elba, the Hundred Days, and his exile to St Helena until his death.

Moving into the 20th century the men are represented by a very brief life, with an even briefer apogee, but nonetheless one which : Robert M. Zoske’s Flamme sein! (“Be a flame!”) is a biography of Hans Scholl, founder of the nonviolent Nazi resistance movement Die Weisse Rose. It was less than a year after the group started  distributing their leaflets at German universities in the early summer of 1942, Hans and his sister Sophie were arrested, tried, and shortly after executed on 22 February 1943. A detailed look at the same period of German history from the female side is shown in Elisabeth Krimmer’s German women’s life writing and the Holocaust, which looks at memoirs, diaries, or autobiographically inspired fiction of women who were complicit bystanders during the National Socialist regime, whether as army auxiliaries or nurses, but also as female refugees, rape victims, and Holocaust survivors – their continuing support for the regime and, in some cases, their growing estrangement from it.

You can find all items tagged as “biography” in the Bodleian History collections here.

New Bodleian History Books: December 2018 – Writing “macrohistory”

The concept of “total history” is not a new one – the “histoire totale” advocated by Fernand Braudel of the Annales School in the 1940s introduced a historiography which strove to observe the long and medium-term evolution of economy, society and civilisation, and thus avoid the tunnel vision created by separating economic, political, social and other forms of history. For the late 20th and the 21st century, the historian David Christian has gone even further in the idea of what timeframe “history” should be looking at, coining the term Big History for a multidisciplinary approach which encompasses everything from the Big Bang to the present, an integrated history of the cosmos, earth, life, and humanity as a whole.

But scale in historiography of course also goes the other way – “microhistory” uses investigations of small and well-defined units of research (such as a single event, a single individual or a single small community) to eventually ask these same larger questions about society or humanity.

Somewhere inbetween the two extremes lie studies that have recently been termed “macrohistory” – not as ambitious as to claim to be “total” or “big” history, but going well beyond the scale of microhistory in their scope. Over the last few months a number of the new History books arrived at the Bodleian have been of this kind of historiography – studies which span an ambitiously large time frame, and therefore elude categorizing into such traditional historical eras as “Antiquity”, “medieval history”, “early modern history” or “modern history”.

Still very much on a trend towards “histoire totale” for individual countries are for example John Julius Norwich’s History of France and the Storia mondiale dell’Italia edited by Andrea Giardina which trace developments from Roman times to the present; and Richard Bressler aims to write a similarly wide-ranging history for a rather more delineated timeframe, but for the entire world in The Thirteenth Century.

Several recent studies in the area of History of Science and Medicine aim for a similarly comprehensive account across the centuries while focussing on one specific aspect or subject – Mechanics from Aristotle to Einstein run from the 4th century BC via Descartes, Galileo, and Newton to the 20th century; the History of Forensic Medicine traces the science from its beginnings in Ancient China and Rome to its history in individual countries from Japan to Europe and the U.A.E., and The Ambulance – a history reviews 800 years of ambulance services, including the vehicles used and the individuals who served on them.

A number of newly arrived studies in Social History, too, conduct their discussions on a similarly ambitious scale: Michelle Perrot’s The Bedroom. An Intimate History discusses the importance of this one room for the history of mankind (and womankind) from Greek and Roman antiquity to today; Rob Boddice’s History of Emotions (also available online as eLD) looks at how emotions change over time, cause historical events, or influence human morality; Nikos Panou’s Evil Lords (also available online) examines tyrants and tyranny from Antiquity to the Renaissance, and Séverine Auffret writes Une histoire du féminisme, tracing the movement from Antiquity to the present day.

You can find all items tagged with “macrohistory” in the Bodleian History collections here.

New Bodleian History Books: November 2018 – WWI

Right on schedule for the Centenary of the First World War a number of exciting new history books on various interesting aspects of WWI have arrived at the Bodleian!

In Ypres Mark Connelly and Stefan Goebel examine the small Belgian city which between 1914 and 1918 became the location of five major battles between the Allied troops and the Germans – battles which resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties, and placed Ypres at the heart of First World War battlefield tourism.

Opening his focus to the entirety of the Western Front rather a single battlefield, David T. Zabecki’s The generals’ war: operational level command on the Western Front in 1918 examines the plans and decisions of the senior-most German and Allied commanders, exploring the military strategies of those generals during the last year of the Great War.

And not from the generals’ view, but from the complete opposite side of the spectrum come Les carnets de guerre de Louis Barthas: 1914-1918. This is an edition of the 19 notebooks compiled by a French corporal who fought for four years in some of the most dangerous sectors of the front, including Verdun and the Somme. Into these notebooks Barthas transcribed his diary and letters, adding collected picture postcards, illustrations, and maps clipped from newspapers and magazines.

Unlike these first books which examine the war and WWI warfare proper, several of the newly arrived books focus on the social and cultural history of WWI. Laura Rowe writes on Morale and discipline in the Royal Navy during the First World War, and Roger L. Ransom examines the dark history of war profiteering in Gambling on war: confidence, fear, and the tragedy of the First World War

Along with socio-cultural history, gender studies are also gaining a foothold in war historiography – while all of the above monographs focus rather naturally on the (male) soldiers and their (male) commanders, the final pair of books I would like to present in this blog post take as their topic the often neglected “other half” of humanity involved in the Great War – the women.

Alison Fell’s Women as veterans in Britain and France after the First World War looks at former nurses, charity workers, secret service agents, members of resistance networks in occupied territory or of the British auxiliary corps. After the end of the war these women appropriated the cultural identity of “female war veteran” in order to have greater access to public life in a political climate in which women were rarely heard on the public stage.

Similarly, the women Stefania Bartoloni writes on in Donne di fronte alla guerra: pace, diritti e democrazia (1878-1918) demanded more rights and more democracy and called for women’s participation in decisions on national and international affairs. Beginning at the end of the 19th century but continuing through to the end of WWI, this group of feminists and suffragists critiqued the male power system in which men were the heads of governments and diplomacy who chose to settle conflicts between nations through the instrument of war.

You can find all the books tagged with “World War I” on the Bodleian History Faculty LibraryThing pages here!