All posts by Bad Historian

The Edge of Anarchy Part Five: The Pullman Strike

The Pullman Strike was the greatest uprising of working people in American history. If you haven’t listened to parts one through four of this special mini-series inspired by my book The Edge of Anarchy, I encourage you to do so. It sets the stage for what I’m about to describe.

political cartoon of the pullman strike

It all started in the spring of 1894 at the Pullman works on Chicago’s far South Side, one of the largest factories in the country. Workers there made rail cars, including the sleeping cars that the company was famous for that I describe in more detail in Part 3. Most of the workers lived in the adjacent company town. Their homes were owned by the company, which tried to control their lives both on and off the job.

Company founder George Pullman had cut employees’ wages that winter, but demanded that they continue to pay exorbitant rents for their homes. After the rent was taken out of their pay, many workers had only a few dollars to show for two weeks’ hard work. One employee’s check amounted to only two cents. He had it framed as an emblem of the company’s contempt.

But low pay and high rent were only the beginning of the workers’ complaints. The piecework Pullman demanded meant they had to maintain a frantic pace to make a decent wage. Foremen routinely abused workers. Company spies were everywhere, in the factory and in the town. Suspicion and resentment soon erupted into a strike.

The upheaval raised fundamental questions about American society.

George Pullman’s strategy was simply to close the plant and wait out his employees. Business was slow anyway, and his company was still taking in a steady stream of passenger fees from his sleeping cars.

The Pullman workers had joined the American Railway Union, the massive new labor organization started the year before by Eugene Debs, whose backstory I give in Part 4. It included all railroad-connected workers. That June in Chicago, the union was holding its first convention. Pullman workers appeared and asked for the members’ support for their strike. One of the most eloquent speakers was nineteen-year-old Jennie Curtis, a seamstress at the Pullman plant. She told the delegates: “We ask you to come along with us, because we are not just fighting for ourselves, but for decent conditions for workers everywhere.”

Continue reading The Edge of Anarchy Part Five: The Pullman Strike on the Unknown History channel at Quick and Dirty Tips, or listen to the full episode below. 

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The History of the Rise of Labor Unions in America

by Jack Kelly

In 1979, a young Vermont politician named Bernie Sanders made a short documentary film about Eugene Debs. He noted Debs’s accomplishments, he lamented the fact that Debs was largely a forgotten figure in history, and he reproduced excerpts from the speeches of a man he obviously very much admired. During his political career, Sanders has embraced many of Debs’s ideas. He even adopted Debs’s passionate, finger-pointing speaking style.

political cartoon of the condition of the working man at pullman

So who was Eugene Debs, and what was his role in the unions of that era, and why does his career seem so relevant today? Some remember him as the country’s first great socialist. Debs founded the Socialist Party in the 1890s and ran for president five times under that party’s banner. The last time he ran, in 1920, he was confined to a federal prison for speaking against the government—and he still got almost a million votes.

Debs helped make socialist ideas palatable to Americans. He’s the godfather of the democratic socialists who are jumping into today’s politics. Actually, many of his proposals, like publicly sponsored old-age pensions and subsidized medical care, were eventually enacted into law.

Debs saw labor and capital as equal partners who could work in harmony.

But before he was a socialist, Debs was an important nineteenth-century labor leader. When he was growing up in Terre Haute, Indiana, during the Civil War era, he loved trains. As a teenager, he found work shoveling coal into locomotive boilers. That led him to become an official in a fraternal organization for firemen, as they were called. Like many early craft unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen did not take aggressive steps to fight for members’ pay and working conditions. Instead, they promoted camaraderie and worked with the railroads to assure that those hired had the necessary skills.

But the exploitation of workers in Gilded Age America, especially on the railroads, became more and more severe. During the 1880s, Debs rethought the whole question of labor. Low pay was an issue. Danger on the job was a particular concern for those who worked on locomotives. Brakemen had to leap from the top of one car to another in order to turn brake wheels—try that at night or in a sleet storm. An astonishing 230,000 railroad workers were killed on the job in the quarter century following 1890. That’s 23 people every day. It was clear that the railroad corporations were not going to improve the situation unless they were forced to.

Continue reading The Edge of Anarchy Part Four: The Rise of Unions on the Unknown History channel at Quick and Dirty Tips, or listen to the full episode below. 

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The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington

by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

In 1776, an elite group of soldiers were handpicked to serve as George Washington’s bodyguards. Washington trusted them; relied on them. But unbeknownst to Washington, some of them were part of a treasonous plan. In the months leading up to the Revolutionary War, these traitorous soldiers, along with the Governor of New York, William Tryon, and Mayor David Mathews, launched a deadly plot against the most important member of the military: George Washington himself.

The First Conspiracy is the story of the secret plot and how it was revealed. It is a story of leaders, liars, counterfeiters, and jailhouse confessors. It also shows just how hard the battle was for George Washington and how close America was to losing the Revolutionary War.

In this historical page-turner, New York Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer teams up with American history writer and documentary television producer, Josh Mensch to unravel the shocking true story behind what has previously been a footnote in the pages of history. Meltzer and Mensch capture in riveting detail how George Washington not only defeated the most powerful military force in the world, but also uncovered the secret plot against him in the tumultuous days leading up to July 4, 1776. Keep reading for an excerpt of The First Conspiracy.

* * * * *

New York, New York

April 1776

The trap is set.

It’s quiet on this night. Moonlight shines over a clearing in a dense wood.

The silence is broken by the drumbeat of hooves in the distance, growing steadily louder. Soon several uniformed men on horseback emerge from the blackness. The party halts not far from a large wooden manor house that sits at the clearing’s edge. A few of the riders dismount and prime their muskets, standing guard. They scan the clearing, apparently thinking all is safe.

They’re wrong.

A moment later, another rider steps down from his horse. He’s taller than the rest and wears a long officer’s coat.

His name is George Washington, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental army.

There is a traitorous plan against him. He has no idea it’s coming.

For the last ten months, since the day he was appointed to his command, Washington has had a nearly impossible task: to organize a scattered mess of backwoods militias and untrained volunteers into a functioning national army. And not just any army. This small, inexperienced, poorly equipped group of soldiers needs to stand up to what is probably the biggest and most powerful military force in the world. By any normal measure, they don’t stand a chance—and Washington knows this, just as he knows that with every decision he makes, thousands of young soldiers’ lives could be lost.

Tonight, even more is at risk.

Washington has just arrived in the western woods of Manhattan, about two miles north of New York City’s bustling commercial district, which covers the island’s southern tip. He’s just finished a weeklong journey from Boston, and he’s here now to fortify the city against the first major British offensive of the war. What he’s facing is terrifying: Sometime in the next few weeks or months, a massive fleet of the vaunted British navy will swarm into New York Harbor—hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of soldiers prepared to invade the city.

They’re coming. It’s just a question of when.

The colonies have placed all their hope and trust in him. It is up to this one man, George Washington, to lead the small Continental army and withstand the massive attack.

Tonight, among the soldiers accompanying Washington, a few are dressed differently from the rest, in short blue-and-white coats with brass buttons. They’re known as the “Life Guards,” an elite group of specially trained soldiers handpicked to serve as Washington’s bodyguards. He takes particular pride in these men, whom he trusts above all others.

In the faint moonlight, Washington walks slowly toward the nearby manor house that will serve as his lodging for the next few critical weeks before the British attack.

Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741-1827). George Washington, 1776. Oil on canvas, 44 x 38 5/16 in. (111.7 x 97.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Dick S. Ramsay Fund, 34.1178

Yet what George Washington doesn’t know is that here in Manhattan, the coming battle isn’t the only thing he should fear.

There are other enemies waiting for him—enemies more dangerous than even the British army.

At this exact moment, three miles away due southeast in New York Harbor, a ship is anchored in the darkness. On board is one of the most powerful men of the colonies—the exiled Governor of New York—and he is masterminding a clandestine plan to sabotage the colonies’ rebellion. In the dead of night, small boats carrying spies shuttle back and forth to him, delivering intelligence from shore.

At the same time, two miles away from where Washington now stands, the Mayor of New York City, working in concert with the Governor, carries a secret cache of money. His plan is to tempt Washington’s soldiers to betray their army and their countrymen in a breathtaking act of treason.

And several blocks from the Mayor’s office, in one of the city’s underground jails, three prisoners whisper to each other in a dank cell, out of earshot of the guards. They have no idea that their quiet murmurs could change the future of the continent.

They are all players in an extraordinary plot:

A deadly plot against George Washington.

Most extraordinary of all, some of the key members of this plot are in George Washington’s own inner circle—the very men in whom he has placed his greatest trust.

You could call it America’s first great conspiracy—but at this moment, America doesn’t yet exist.

Some of the details of this scheme are still shrouded in mystery, but history provides enough clues for an astonishing story. This is a story of soldiers, spies, traitors, Redcoats, turncoats, criminals, prostitutes, politicians, great men, terrible men, and before it’s over, the largest public execution at the time ever to take place on North American shores. It all happens, amazingly, within days of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

That’s not all. The discovery of this plot, and the effort to investigate it, will lead colonial authorities to devise new systems of intelligence gathering and counterespionage. In many ways, this plot against George Washington would lead to the creation of a whole new field of American spycraft—now known as counterintelligence.

At its center is a deadly conspiracy against the one man on whose life the very future of America depends.

BRAD MELTZER is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Escape Artist, The Inner Circle, and many other bestselling thrillers, as well as the “Ordinary People Change the World” series. He is also the host of the History Channel TV shows Brad Meltzer’s Decoded and Brad Meltzer’s Lost History, which he used to help find the missing 9/11 flag that the firefighters raised at Ground Zero.

JOSH MENSCH is a writer and documentary television producer with a focus on American history and culture. He has produced, written and directed series for PBS, National Geographic, A&E, Discovery and other networks. He was also the showrunner on Brad Meltzer’s Lost History for the History Channel. Josh is a graduate of Princeton and Columbia Universities, and lives in Brooklyn with his family.

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The Battle for Blair Mountain

by Jess Montgomery

“Well. At least we weren’t coal miners.”

I heard that many a time, at family reunions or other gatherings, as I grew up.

On the surface, it sounds, well. snooty. Or worse—condescending.

But I don’t think that’s how the members of my family of origin meant it. After all, I had great uncles who’d gone off to work as coal miners and send money to their families back home on tobacco farms in eastern Kentucky. And several aunts who married into coal mining families.

Tobacco farming in my family of origin meant subsistence farming for food plus a bottom of tobacco to sell off each year, if it had been a good year, for cash to get through the winter. I think what my kin meant was that as difficult as tobacco farming was, it was at least easier and safer than coal mining.

I was from the first generation in my family of origin, going back generation after generation, to be born outside Appalachia. My parents left behind tobacco farming for my father to work as a tool and die machinist, first in a union shop, and then on his own.

So, when I landed upon the story behind The Widows, and realized it was set in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio, I was immediately drawn to the setting, though it was in a different part of the vast range of Appalachia.

The Widows was inspired by the first true female sheriff of Ohio, in 1925. Maude Collins was appointed sheriff after her husband was killed in the line of duty, and went on to win election as sheriff in her own right in a landslide in 1926.

But just as my protagonist, Lily Ross, is inspired by Maude—but becomes a character in her own right—the setting for The Widows is similarly inspired by the southeastern area of Ohio.

In real life, Maude was sheriff in Vinton County, which included buckwheat farms and a bit of coal mining, sometimes by individuals who happened on a seam or two, and mined out what they could for cash.  As I researched the area, though, I learned about the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds,” about 70 mining communities in a microregion of southeastern Ohio, which had its heyday from the late 19th through the early 20th centuries. Counties included in the microregion abut Vinton, and so I decided to create a fictional county for Ohio, Bronwyn County, which takes in part of the geography of Vinton as well as coal mining territory.

Officers of District 17, UMW, say the bomb shown here was dropped from a plane which flew over their camps, coming from the direction of Logan. It was picked up by the miners during the march on Logan. The bomb is now on display at the offices of District 17 on Summers Street, Charleston. Charleston Gazette, 11 December 1921.

In so doing, I created a challenge for myself: learn as much as I could about the region and, in particular, coal mining in that area and in the era leading up to 1925.

My research led me to the story of the Battle for Blair Mountain, which took place August 25 – September 2, 1921, in West Virginia.

It’s the second largest civilian uprising in U.S. history—surpassed only by the Civil War. And the largest labor uprising in the U.S.

And yet, I’d never heard of it. When I’ve asked other people if they’ve heard of it, the answer is usually ‘no,’ unless the group includes someone who comes from a long line of coal miners.

Ten thousand or so coal miners—weary of unsafe and harsh working and living conditions, low pay, and triggered by the blatant murder of a pro-union mayor at the hands of hired guns working for coal company management—finally rose up. It was, as one of the books I read on the subject put it, an “undeclared war.” (The book is the excellent The Battle of Blair Mountain by Robert Shogan.)

As tensions mounted, the law and community members took sides—some officers of the law and shop owners supporting the miners, and some in favor of management. The battle lasted ten days, with more than 10,000 coal miners armed with rifles, battling 3,000 much better equipped strikebreakers, including police, and, ultimately, by order of President Warren Harding, federal troops, and even a U.S. Army bomber—the only time, per an NPR story on this historic event, that U.S. military air power has been used against U.S. civilians.

Sheriff’s deputies fighting in Blair Mountain.

In the end, about a hundred coal miners were killed in the battle. Nearly a thousand more were arrested. Defending the arrested coal miners nearly bankrupt and broke the back of the United Mine Workers union.

An interesting note: Mother Jones, the great female unionizer, warned against this uprising, sure that it would end in a bloody outcome for the miners. She turned out to be right. Mother Jones’ spirit was the inspiration for the feisty spirit of another character in The Widows, Marvena Whitcomb, a unionizer who lost her husband to a coal mining cave-in caused by poor safety practices.

Both Lily and Marvena, in 1925 Ohio, in a coal-mining region close to West Virginia would have been aware of the Battle for Blair Mountain.

In an early scene in The Widows introducing Marvena, she speaks with a miner, Jurgis, of Daniel, Lily’s husband and sheriff of Bronwyn County, and his desire to avoid bloodshed:

“I trust Daniel. He don’t want no Blair Mountain.”

Jurgis shudders at the reference to the bloody standoff between miners and management just four years before in West Virginia. It was legendary, and had nearly killed off unionization efforts across America.

Read an extended excerpt of The Widows on Criminal Element

It would take the Great Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal era before the Blair Mountain region of West Virginia could begin unionizing efforts anew in the mid-1930s.

Army train proceeding up Coal River toward Blair. The first troop train arrived at St. Albans from Ohio and immediately marched into the coal mine district. Other trains brought the infantrymen and equipment from the Fifth Corps Area of the Middle West. Charleston Gazette, 6 September 1921.

In the past decade or so, another battle has waged over Blair Mountain—its placement on the National Register of Historic Places. The site was at last listed in 2009, only to be de-listed after coal company legal teams fought the placement.

Finally, in the summer of 2018, Blair Mountain has again received this designation.

The Battle for Blair Mountain has a rich and complex history. Hopefully, with the site’s designation on the National Register of Historic Places, more citizens will learn about this fascinating and tragic part of U.S. history, triggered by complex social and economic issues that still play out today.

Learn more at these sites:

JESS MONTGOMERY is the Literary Life columnist for the Dayton Daily News and Executive Director of the renowned Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Based on early chapters of The Widows, Jess was awarded an Ohio Arts Council individual artist’s grant for literary arts and the John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence at Thurber House in Columbus. She lives in her native state of Ohio.

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Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life

by Lucy Worsley

Drawing from the vast collection of Victoria’s correspondence and the rich documentation of her life, author Lucy Worsley recreates twenty-four of the most important days in Victoria’s life. Each day gives a glimpse into the identity of this powerful, difficult queen and the contradictions that defined her. Queen Victoria is an intimate introduction to one of Britain’s most iconic rulers as a wife and widow, mother and matriarch, and above all, a woman of her time. Keep reading for an excerpt.

* * * * *

‘I will be good’: Kensington Palace, March 11, 1830

Her teacher hands her a book. Folded within its pages is a chart listing Britain’s kings and queens. Victoria, in her white dress and coral necklace, has pretty light brown hair and a chubby lower lip that tends to fall open unless she remembers to keep it closed. She’s just short of eleven years old. The knowledge of her place in the succession has so far been kept from her. Look at the chart, she is told. Her uncle the king George IV is gravely ill. He cannot live long. Who will come next?

What follows is one of the best-known and most dramatic scenes in Victoria’s life. Sitting at the rosewood table in Kensington Palace where she did her lessons, she studied the chart, thought it through and worked it out. When her oldest uncle George died, her next oldest uncle William would take over. And when he died, she must herself become queen.

‘I see I am nearer the throne than I thought,’ Victoria is supposed to have said. ‘I will be good!’

It would become the most celebrated statement of Victoria’s childhood, rousing words, with a message of responsibility and duty: one must step up to the challenge of ruling one’s country, as well as learning one’s French.

But did it really happen?

One detail at least is agreed by all sources: that the setting was Kensington Palace. It was the sleepiest and most sedate of the numerous royal palaces. Kensington was ‘a place to drink tea’, by contrast to Windsor Castle – ‘a place to receive monarchs’ – and Buckingham Palace, where you went ‘to see fashion’. During Victoria’s Kensington childhood, anyone going for a walk ‘quietly along the gardens, fancies no harsher sound to have been heard from the Palace windows, than the “tuning of the tea-things”’, or the playing of a piano.

Behind closed doors, though, the atmosphere at Kensington was far from peaceful. Victoria would come to believe it was not so much a palace as a prison. Deep in the gardens, she was growing up in isolation. Her guardians deliberately kept her well away from both the greedy eyes of her future subjects, and the disreputable, high-society world of George IV. She was comfortable, she was well-fed, she had toys. But she was also under considerable psychological strain. She formed the center of a small and close-knit circle whose adoration placed her under what was sometimes intolerable pressure.

Into this pressure-cooker of adulation came the bracing influence of Johanna Clara Louise Lehzen. She’d arrived at Kensington in 1819 as Feodore’s governess. Five years later, Victoria was old enough to need a governess of her own. Prince Leopold, still giving financial help to his sister’s household, decided that Lehzen should do the job. Although he did not live at Kensington, his influence was very great. Victoire had £6,000 a year, voted by Parliament at the time of her marriage. Leopold, though, had £50,000 annually, a wildly generous provision made at the time of his short-lived marriage to the late Princess Charlotte. The wider royal family considered that Leopold could easily bear some of the living costs of his sister and niece. Yet leaving Leopold to shoulder the financial responsibility like this meant that the royal family also sacrificed a good deal of their own power over Victoria. Because he paid for things, Victoria would become almost the property, indeed the puppet, of her beloved ‘Uncle Leopold’.

And Leopold now chose Lehzen. This was partly because he thought she would be a counter-influence against Captain Conroy, who controlled much of what went on at Kensington, and whom Leopold distrusted. ‘Lehzen’, as the household called her, was an intense character, with dark-eyed, dark-haired ‘Italian’ looks, and a disordered digestion. She’d say that she ‘did not know the feeling to be hungry’ – something that would later cause trouble with her pupil – and that all she ever ‘fancied were potatoes’. She suffered from migraines, which some people misinterpreted as a drinking problem. It was family tragedy that had forced Lehzen to find work as a governess. She was the youngest daughter of a pastor in Hanover; her mother had died when she was young, and three of her sisters had also passed away before reaching twenty. Lehzen was born the wrong side of the scenes to sit down at table with aristocrats and courtiers, and was eventually made a baroness to eliminate the difficulties in etiquette that this caused.

Lehzen had the self-discipline, plus the selfless dedication, that her position demanded. But she considered the job offer that Leopold made (via Victoire) very carefully before accepting. ‘After a short silence,’ Lehzen recollected of the interview, ‘I said that I had often thought of the great difficulties which such a person might have to encounter in educating a Princess. As a condition of her service, Lehzen asked that she might always be present when Victoria met third parties, so that her influence would be paramount. Although Victoria met few outsiders, this did not mean that she spent much time alone. Every aspect of her progress through girlhood was kept constantly under watch. ‘I never had a room to myself,’ Victoria claimed in later life, ‘till I was nearly grown up always slept in my Mother’s room.’ Victoria told one of her own children that she was not even allowed to walk downstairs unaccompanied in case she fell. Even when she walked out in Kensington Gardens, the young princess felt, people constantly ‘look at me … to see whether I am a good child’.

As she was already living at Kensington Palace, Lehzen must have been aware that her charge would be difficult to manage. The celebrated fiery temper of the Hanoverian dynasty was already visible in the little girl: people called her ‘le roi Georges in petticoats’. ‘Did she not feel unhappy when she had done wrong?’ a tutor once asked her. ‘Oh no,’ Victoria replied. Her mother Victoire was still finding all this very difficult. Her younger daughter ‘drives me at times to real desperation’, she admitted.

Victoire watched Victoria so closely and carefully because of the legitimate fear that despite her late husband’s will, George IV might at any time try to remove her daughter from her care. Previous kings had always made their own educational arrangements for their heirs, and precedent was everything in the royal family. George IV’s personal dislike of Victoire meant he was constantly ‘talking of taking her child from her’.

The lonely Victoire, with her debts and responsibilities and grief, was scatterbrained and prone to making poor judgments of character. But she redeems herself with her charm and warmth, and clearly loved her children. ‘Her kindness and softness,’ it was said of her, ‘are very delightful in spite of want of brains.’ She was gradually learning the language of her adopted country, but still apologized to visitors ‘for not speaking English well enough to talk it’. This is one of the reasons she had grown so dependent upon Captain Conroy.

Victoire never wrote – nor presumably spoke – quite as a native. Did she, therefore, talk to her daughter in German? The unpopularity of the German Hanoverians in Britain explains Victoria’s own later insistence that she did not. ‘Never spoke German … not allowed to,’ she stoutly claimed. Her schoolroom timetable does reveal, however, that she had a formal German lesson twice a week. And the German accents of Victoria’s mother, Lehzen and Späth did certainly affect her spoken English. Her tutor Mr. Davys, brought in to supplement Lehzen with more formal lessons, recollected that at first ‘she confused the sound of the “v” with that of “w”, and pronounced much as muts.’

It must have been hard for Victoire when her own daughter began to talk about ‘my angelic dearest Mother, Lehzen, who I do so love!’ But a coldness was gradually creeping into Victoire’s relationship with Victoria, not least because Victoria had picked up on her Uncle Leopold and Lehzen’s distrust of Captain Conroy. ‘I have grown up all alone,’ Victoria later declared. This was not technically true; it was more that she felt alone. In reality, she was constantly surrounded not only by servants but also, as time went on, by Conroy’s family. His wife was a frequent visitor, and his daughters, Jane and another Victoire, became Victoria’s approved playmates. With them, she played with rudimentary jigsaws called ‘dissected prints’, made cottages out of cards, dressed up as ‘Nuns’ or ‘Turks’ or rode upon a pony called Isabel. It doesn’t sound like a lonely life, but the loneliness that she experienced stemmed from the fact that her intimates were chosen for her.

Conroy, for his part, had insinuated himself completely into Victoire’s confidence. It’s clear that he was adept at exploiting her lack of self-belief. ‘So often, so very often,’ she confessed to him, ‘what you said so often and what hurt me, but unhappily is true, I am not fit for my place, no, I am not. – I am just an old stupid goose.’ Victoire also worried that Conroy had appointed a rather dubious clerk to pay the palace bills. She later admitted that ‘she was afraid of him – he might be dishonest’. Victoire’s own vagueness confused and irritated Conroy in return. ‘The Duchess lives in a mist,’ he said, ‘and therefore she is very difficult to deal with.’

By early 1830, when Victoria was ten, it was clear that George IV – blind, obese, addicted to laudanum and hiding away at Windsor – was dying. Lehzen has left a description of her pupil in early adolescence. ‘My Princess,’ as Lehzen calls her, ‘is not tall, but very pretty, has dark blue eyes, and a mouth which, though not tiny, is very good-tempered and pleasant, very fine teeth, a small but graceful figure, and a very small foot.’59 Victoria’s minuscule feet were well displayed in the pretty, flat, ribboned pumps of contemporary fashion. At the age of fifteen, her foot would be 21.3 centimeters long, making her, in modern terms, a British size two.

It was George IV’s impending death that eventually made it clear that the truth of Victoria’s position must be revealed to her. William, Duke of Clarence, and his wife Adelaide (from the double wedding at Kew) were next in line to reign. But the tragic early deaths of their four children meant that when William took the crown, Victoria would become his heir presumptive. This she needed to know.

There are two rival accounts, Lehzen’s and Mr. Davys’s, of how she learned of her future fate, and 11 March 1830 is the most likely date. Yet each witness has a self-serving desire to claim the honor of having announced her destiny to the little girl, and their accounts are incompatible.

Mr. Davys later told his son that he had been the one to reveal her future to Victoria. During lessons, he says, he had ‘set her to make a chart of the kings and queens. She got as far as “Uncle William”, before coming to a stop.’ Who, Mr. Davys asked, was the next heir to the throne? ‘She rather hesitated, and said, “I hardly like to put down myself.”’ According to Lehzen, though, it was she, not Mr. Davys, who slipped a ‘chronological table’ of the kings and queens of England into Victoria’s history book. Possibly this was a well-known teaching aid called ‘Howlett’s Tables’. ‘When Mr. Davys was gone,’ Lehzen reminisced, years later, ‘Princess Victoria opened, as usual, the book again and seeing the additional paper said: “I never saw that before.”’
‘It was not thought necessary you should, Princess,’ Lehzen answered.

‘I see I am nearer to the Throne than I thought,’ Victoria declared. Lehzen next produces a record of a speech that is quite frankly implausible for a little girl. ‘Many a child would boast,’ Victoria is supposed to have said, ‘but they don’t know the difficulty; there is much splendor, but there is more responsibility!’

In Lehzen’s sentimental – and highly Victorian – version of the scene, Victoria then raised her right forefinger, as if making an oath. She ‘gave me that little hand’, Lehzen continued, saying the words that everyone remembers.

‘I will be good!’ the princess promised.

It seems too good to be true, a parable told by a fond governess that shows both teacher and pupil in the best possible light. Yet Victoria, reading this account years later, certainly recollected that something along those lines had indeed occurred. She noted her own memory of the day in the margin of Lehzen’s account: ‘I cried much,’ she records, on learning that she would be queen, ‘and ever deplored this contingency.’

On 13 March 1830, Victoire reported to the Bishop of London that her daughter knew all, and that there had been no stage management by Lehzen or Davys and their family trees and exhortations. ‘What accident has done,’ Victoire wrote, ‘I feel no art could have done half so well … we have everything to hope from this Child!’

And Victoire gains credibility as a witness if you look at the dates on which the various accounts were written. Lehzen’s and Davys’s were set down years later, deep into Victoria’s reign, when each was eager to claim a legacy in the formation of her character. I think that we have, after all, to trust the daffy duchess’s account from just two days after the event, and accept that one of the most dramatic scenes in Victoria’s life – ‘I will be good!’ – was merely dramatic license.

The Duchess of Kent’s educational arrangements also had another advantage. Victoria’s curious upbringing, despite the strain it placed upon her, despite her hostility to Captain Conroy, would turn out to be an excellent strategy in terms of public relations. Her childhood seclusion meant that she could, in due course, be presented to her people as a most interesting young lady.

The most interesting young lady, in fact, that the world contained.

Interested in more from Lucy Worsley? Listen to an excerpt of the Queen Victoria audiobook:

LUCY WORSLEY is a historian, author, curator and television presenter. Lucy read Ancient and Modern History at New College, Oxford and worked for English Heritage before becoming Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces. She also presents history programs for the BBC and is the author of several bestselling books, including Courtiers: the Secret History of the Georgian CourtCavalier: The Story of a 17th Century Playboy, and more. She lives in London, England.

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A Long Tale to Tell: Crime and Imprisonment in the United States

by Tony Platt

In the United States, there is a long history of police violence and failed attempts to counteract it. Beyond These Walls offers a far-ranging exploration that tracks the legacy of crime and imprisonment, from the historical roots of the American criminal justice system to our modern state of over-incarceration, and offers a bold vision for a new future. Author Tony Platt, a recognized authority in the field of criminal justice, challenges the way we think about how and why millions of people are tracked, arrested, incarcerated, cataloged, and regulated in the United States. Keep reading for an exclusive essay from the author.

* * * * *

Police killings of civilians are so commonplace that it now requires an unusual circumstance for social media and journalists to take note. The death of Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford Jr. was newsworthy in November because police in Hoover, Alabama, mistook this African American man for a dangerous criminal when in fact he was trying to Thanksgiving shoppers from a shooter.

Bradford was one of three people killed by the police that day. The other two were not so newsworthy.

In 2014 and during the presidential campaign, activists compelled the media to resurrect many of the dead victims of police violence as full human beings, their deaths recorded on YouTube and debated at political conventions.

We learned their names and about their lives: Freddie Gray, Jr. killed as a result of spinal injuries suffered from a “rough ride” in a Baltimore police van; Eric Garner arrested for selling “loosies” and choked to death by police in New York; Michael Brown Jr., shot by police in Ferguson, his body left for hours in a public place in the sweltering Midwest heat; twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, shot to death by Cleveland police who claimed they mistook the boy’s toy gun for a real one.

We also learned about the decisive role of racism in the deaths of African Americans. A study of 1,217 fatal police shootings from 2010 to 2012 reported that black youth were twenty-one times more likely than their white peers to be killed.

In December 2014, responding to “recent events that have exposed rifts in the relationship between local police and the communities they protect and serve,” President Obama created a Task Force on 21 Century Policing. What sparked the president’s attention was not so much the killing by police of African Americans, for such an event is a routine by-product of modern policing, but rather the spread of large and often furious protests proclaiming “I can’t breathe” and “Black lives matter,” just as urban riots and antiwar protests of the 1960s had triggered President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders and President Nixon’s National Commission on Campus Unrest.

“There have been commissions before, there have been task forces, there have been conversations, and nothing happens,” said President Obama, encouraging his blue-ribbon task force to come up with solutions to the “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.” This time, he promised, it “will be different,” not just “an endless report collecting dust on the shelf.”

Obama’s task force generated some modest reforms: equipping police with body cameras, restricting the use of some military hardware, and training police in multicultural sensitivity. Moreover, Obama’s Department of Justice pressured local police departments via “consent decrees” to root out their worst practices.

Despite these reforms, there was no significant change in the behavior of the police during Obama’s last two years. And any hope of significant change was quickly erased by a Trump administration that came into power committed to “Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community” and drastically reducing federal oversight of local police departments. In a 2017 speech, Trump essentially encouraged police to rough up suspects.

This cycle of extra-legal police violence, public outrage, reform, and back to business-as-usual has a long history. In the late 19 and early twentieth centuries, the professionalization of policing was supposed to stop lynching in the South and corruption in the North. Nothing changed. Police racism was still so entrenched in 1951 that the Civil Rights Congress petitioned the United Nations for relief from “acts of genocide against the Negro people. Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it’s the policeman’s bullet.”

Throughout the 20th century, the police sided with capital against labor; with guardians of the sexual and gender status quo against gays, lesbians, and feminists; and with rightwing politicians against civil rights and other movements for social justice. In 1964, James Baldwin knew hardly anybody in Harlem, “from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, broad-based social protests generated a new round of reforms and public inquiries into police atrocities. National commissions called for diversifying the racial composition of police departments; many cities created civilian review boards to weed out bad cops, and the U. S. Department of Justice began to monitor law enforcement agencies that blatantly subverted the Constitution. But none of these reforms addressed the quasi-military mission of policing embedded in the foundations of the profession or the absence of democratic governance of policing. And so the brutality and killings continued.

The report of Obama’s task force is already gathering dust, joining many others on the shelves, including a 1969 national report that I co-authored and in which we warned that “this nation cannot have it both ways: either it will carry through a firm commitment to massive and widespread political and social reform, or it will develop into a society of garrison cities where order is enforced without due process of law and without the consent of the governed.”

Why the police and other institutions of the carceral state—criminal and juvenile courts, prisons and jails, private police, and national security operations—have been so resistant for so long to structural change is explored in Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States. To end the tragedy of the punitive state will take new ways of thinking, a revitalized imagination, and reckoning with a historical legacy that bleeds into the present.

TONY PLATT is a Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law & Society, University of California, Berkeley. The author of numerous books dealing with issues of criminal justice, race, inequality, and social justice in American history, including Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States, he previously taught at the University of Chicago, Berkeley, and California state universities. Platt’s experience as a political activist and public intellectual informs his research and publications. He lives in Berkeley, CA.

The post A Long Tale to Tell: Crime and Imprisonment in the United States appeared first on The History Reader.

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Vikings at the National Museum of Copenhagen

For years, tourists have been puzzled by the “Absent Vikings” at the National Museum in Copenhagen. A revamp of the relevant part of the Prehistory exhibition has caused an uproar among historians and archaeologists. Is this fair?

Girl looking at Poster by Jim Lyngvild © Karen Schousboe/CC by 4.0
Girl looking at poster by Jim Lyngvild © Karen Schousboe/CC by 4.0

Absentee Vikings have for a long time puzzled innocent tourists visiting the National Museum in Copenhagen. Where are the Vikings, one might occasionally hear them ask the guide, who would in accordance with the official, though, unwritten policy politely answer, that in fact, Vikings were a romantic notion. In Denmark, there existed a late iron age before the Middle Ages would take over some time in the late 10thcentury, he or she would explain.

Hence, all the love lavished on the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age had been allowed to peter out on the threshold of that which in a European context would be considered the High Middle Ages. To quote from the official website, the exhibition – The prehistoric period – presents the archaeological treasures from the period up to AD 1050. This, despite the fact that Denmark formally entered the written history of Europe at the end of the 8thcentury, when King Godfred according to the Royal Frankish Chronicles acted as a friend to the Saxons and a significant foe of Charlemagne. Carried out together with Norwegian and Swedish Vikings, followed the Viking conquests of the Danelaw, Ireland, and Normandy. In the end, the Danish King, Cnut the Great, ended up ruling England, Ireland, Norway and Denmark in what has been widely regarded as a mighty Northwestern Viking Empire.

But no, this story had no place at the National Museum in Copenhagen in 2005, when the exhibition for Prehistory was curated anew. We may speculate why? Was it a reflection of an on-going internecine strife between on one hand the “old” prehistorian archaeologists in Copenhagen and on the other hand, the youngsters studying Medieval Archaeology in Århus under the supervision of Else Roesdahl, known for her well-regarded book on the Vikings? Or was it more of a question of the academic conviction that Vikings were a misnomer for “Iron-Age” people living between the second half the 6thcentury and until c. 1050/1080? Which, in fact, is a sympathetic position to hold on to as these people seemed to exhibit a cultural continuity in terms of religion, art, ways of life and perhaps social organisational forms. (Hence, it has recently become more fashionable to let the Viking Age “start” earlier and earlier; however, that is another story).

New Exhibition Planned

The last few years have shown that such finicky considerations have no appeal in a world dominated by HBO and the Internet. At the same time, powers-that-be have discovered that Vikings are a branded commodity, which sells valuable tickets to tourists. Thus, Oslo is currently re-building the home of their magnificent finds from Gokstad and Oseberg, while Uppsala has revamped their exhibition of the finds from the Vendel Era. At the same time, the University in Uppsala have found funding for a huge and very important research project The Viking Phenomenon. Meanwhile, the wrecks of the Viking Ships in the Firth of Roskilde in Denmark are in danger of being swept away during the next winter storm, while the discovery of the Vikings in Copenhagen have seemed like locating a needle in a prehistoric haystack.

New Director and New Ideas

Pagan Temple at Funen, built by Jim Lyngvild © Jim Lyngvild
Pagan Temple at Funen, built by Jim Lyngvild © Jim Lyngvild

In 2017 the Anthropologist, Rane Willerslev, took up the position as director of the National Museum in Copenhagen. Known for his “Wild Thinking”, he soon took it upon himself to sweep just a bit of the cobweb under the floorboards of the venerable 18thcentury “Mansion of the Princes”, which houses the museum. Although severely hampered by financial cuts, he soon decided to make a home for a large permanent Viking exhibition planned to open in a couple of year’s time. As a precursor, he decided to do something about the dissatisfied tourists and proceeded to revamp the three rooms, where the Vikings had been carefully hidden from the view of the non-initiated. Also, the intention was probably to try out a more daring and “wild” approach before going full-scale at a later time.

To this end, he struck up collaboration with a kindred spirit, a wild designer, Jim Lyngvild, known for being an aficionado of Vikings as well as the leader of a pagan Norse Temple on the island of Fyen. As Lyngvild also runs a “Viking Business” selling design and cosmetics, he volunteered to be the creative designer of the exhibition for nothing except expenses. Quid Pro Quo!

The Exhibition

As it stands, the exhibition consists of three rooms, of which the first has hardly been touched. In one end, a phantasy recreation of a pagan temple like the one at Tissø has been attempted. The two following rooms present a mixture of a number of large oversized posters presenting “archetypal” Vikings as imagined by Jim Lyngvild. These are paired with a rather traditional exhibition of all that glitters – hoards and jewellery galore.

A couple of weeks ago the exhibition was launched with considerable fanfare. HBO was invited to the grand opening, which the company used to launch the second part of the fifth season of “Vikings”. As was anyone, who wished to pay for a ticket for the party. Obviously copied from the world of media and entertainment, the idea was to turn the old-fashioned and somewhat dreary and academic unveiling of a new museum exhibition into a show where the high and mighty might hobnob with the “influencers”, Viking re-enactors, and media people, while drinking “Wings of Orkney’ Cocktails based on “Highland Park Valkyrie”. At the event, the director, Rane Willerslev, obviously fought an uphill battle to blend at least some respectability into the happening. To say the least, Jim Lyngvild conquered the stage. The proceeding may be seen here below.


Wax heads at the Viking Echibition at the National Museum in Copenhagen © Jim Lyngvild
Wax heads at the Viking exhibition at the National Museum in Copenhagen © Jim Lyngvild

To say the least, the collaboration between the National Museum, HBO and Jim Lyngvild has been met with a massive bombardment of comments, reviews, and scorn, bordering on rage on the social media and elsewhere. One explanation is that the Museum just a few weeks before fired 30 people, among them at least one expert on Viking culture and history. Academia felt snubbed and with some rights. Another explanation, though, is the manifestly “wrong” rendering of the Vikings.

During the “proceedings” on Facebook, the photos of Jim Lyngvild has for instance been picked apart and shown to feature copies of artefacts from 3 to 400 years as well as romantic reproductions from the 19thcentury. Clad in sumptuous brocades and silks, there are no “stinking peasants” in the gallery – the expression is Jim Lyngvild’s. Also, the wax-heads are splendidly tattooed, while the filed and probably coloured teeth do not seem to feature. While we know, they maltreated their teeth, we don’t know whether the Vikings were actually tattooed. And on it went…


The Buried Voelve from Fyrkat © Natmus
The Buried Voelva from Fyrkat as reconstructed by the National Museum © Natmus
The Voelve as imagined by Jim Lyngvild © Karen Schousboe/cc-by-4.0
The Voelva as imagined by Jim Lyngvild © Karen Schousboe/cc-by-4.0

The question, though, is what we should think of the exhibition.

To begin with, we should not doubt that the intentions are all good. Rumour has it that an American tourist, who in 2013 saw a steel-skeleton exhibiting the fragments of the huge Viking ship, wreck 6, marvelled at the technological expertise of the Vikings in their ability to build ships of steel! Most people visit such exhibitions with no prior background or knowledge except what they may have gleaned from shows like HBO’s Vikings. To plunge them into a traditional exhibition of “things put upon things” will profoundly discourage them. It is like insisting to set up a modern concert house and then proceed to perform nothing but monophonic works when people have been accustomed to listen to grand polyphonic compositions. In the 21stcentury, we binge on Netflix and expect other forms of entertainment to live up to some of the kick, we get out of watching series like The Last Kingdom, The Tudors and Vikings.

So what to do? By creating a whacked-out vision of what a Viking might look like, one might imagine that a visitor would love also to open his or her eyes to what we think it really felt like living as a Viking?

Following down this path, though, the challenge becomes two-fold. The dreamy vision (like those of Jim Lyngvild’s) would at least have to be accompanied by a faithful reproduction of what we think Vikings really looked like (as best we can). Perhaps try and reconstruct some “heads” like for instance that of Gorm buried beneath the Jelling church. Also, we should at least have to try out old-fashioned models and reproductions, or better still, virtual reality to help people to a satisfying experience.

This has not been attempted. Instead, the curators have accompanied the grand posters and the Viking wax heads with collections of hoards of fabulous silver and gold ornaments, which no one with a normal eyesight will be able to enjoy properly. With no magnifiers in sight, and signs written with white on black and small typos in a murky atmosphere, I gave up studying the exhibited objects in detail. At least, we might ask, where is the app, with close-up photos of the exhibited treasures and fitted with proper explanations, fit for the uninitiated? In short, while Jim Lyngvild had been allowed his fun, the curators had apparently been swept aside or left clueless. Which we know, they are not.

In the years to come, the Viking experts at the museum will hopefully get their reprieve followed by a pardon, while Jim Lyngvild is allotted a less prominent role to play in the plans for the grand exhibition, which is in the pipeline. The work of Jim Lyngvild is both fascinating and hilarious. And visitors obviously enjoyed the fun. But it needs a serious dialogue partner in order for the National Museum of Copenhagen to fulfil its proper role, which is to tell the magnificent story of the Vikings, ca. 600 – 1080.

We live in hope…


Putting a Face to the Vikings
The National Museum in Copenhagen
Ny Vestergade 10, Copenhagen





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Did Climate Change Foster the Decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire?

The story of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has in recent years been more and more considered as a reflection of 4thcentury widespread draughts on the Eurasian Steppes, the wanderings of the Huns, and the forced migration of the Germans. The questions raised in an exceedingly important meta-study of the literature is to what extent the facts fit with the history?


Climate and the Decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire: A Bibliometric View on an Interdisciplinary Approach to Answer a Most Classic Historical Question
By Werner Marx, Robin Haunschild, and Lutz Bornmann.
In: Climate, Vol 6, No 5
Open Access

Bayesian change point analysis of NAO and historical accounts of droughts and famine with primary migration events. Figure generated in R (3.3.2) by © B. Lee Drake From: Changes in North Atlantic Oscillation drove Population Migrations and the Collapse of the Western Roman EmpireBayesian change point analysis of NAO and historical accounts of droughts and famine with primary migration events. Figure generated in R (3.3.2) by © B. Lee Drake From: Changes in North Atlantic Oscillation drove Population Migrations and the Collapse of the Western Roman Empire
Bayesian change point analysis of NAO and historical accounts of droughts and famine with primary migration events. Figure generated in R (3.3.2) by © B. Lee Drake
From: Changes in North Atlantic Oscillation drove Population Migrations and the Collapse of the Western Roman Empire. In: Nature (2017). Scientific reports Vol 7, Article No 1227

Most historians interested in the rigor mortis of the Late Antiquity and the transition to the Early Middle Ages have acquainted themselves with the ground-breaking work of Ulf Büntgen, and Michael McCormick outlining the calamitous climatic events following the Roman Optimum.

But what exactly are the facts behind these and several other studies published during the last decades? And how do we get an overview of what is firm evidence, and what are suppositions? Enter the recent study by Werner Max, Robin Hauschild, and Lutz Borman, who has carried out something as exotic as a bibliometric analysis. About the method applied, they write in the abstract:

“Based on the Web of Science (WoS) database, we applied a combination of three different search queries for retrieving the relevant literature: (1) on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in general, (2) more specifically on the downfall in connection with a changing climate, and (3) on paleoclimatic research in combination with the time period of the Roman Empire and Late Antiquity. Additionally, we considered all references cited by an ensemble of selected key papers and all citing papers of these key papers, whereby we retrieved additional publications (in particular, books and book chapters). We merged the literature retrieved, receiving a final publication set of 85 publications. We analyzed this publication set by applying a toolset of bibliometric methods and visualization programs.”

Applying these methods, such meta-studies are well known from the medical sciences, but as to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time they have been applied to a humanistic field; and more specifically one, which is as contested as the one dealt with here. Scholars and scientists familiar with the questions about “The Decline and Fall” will know that positions range from historians, claiming it never to place, to those who believe the shifts were tectonic in nature. Thanks to the newly published article by Werner Marx and his co-authors, we are now able to get a solid overview of the debates, the climatic indicators and proxies, as well as the problems encountering historians working in this relatively new field of research.

So what are the findings?

According to multiple studies of paleoclimatic data-sets, a climatic shift did indeed take place sometime after the Roman Optimum, when a favourable climate was arguably decisive for the growth of the Roman Empire. This was caused by a solar maximum, which had set in ca. 150 BC. Sometime after AD 250–400, however, the climate turned unstable. The probable reason was the sun-induced melting of Arctic Ice, gradually depressing the Gulf Stream, which moves hot water from the Gulf of Mexico and Bermuda. We know that this probably contributes to a shift in the path of the upper atmospheric yet-streams – the so-called North Atlantic Oscillation – turning the climate into something like what we are currently experiencing in present-day Europe: Hot, and dry summers, followed by cold winters (with obvious variations across the continent). Most of all, though, the weather turned increasingly volatile. “At the risk of oversimplifying”, the authors conclude that, yes, the climate archives reveal, there was indeed a Roman Climate Optimum, which was followed by a Migration Period Pessimum (a phrase first coined in 2008).

Exactly when this deterioration of climate set in, however, is somewhat contested. Some claim that this shift set in, ca. 150 and thus coincides with the Marcomanic Wars (AD 166 – AD 180), others ca. 250, and yet some scientists indicate ca. 400 as the tipping point. As the height of the migration period arguably set in during the 4thcentury, this has repercussions for the historians trying to argue for a series of climate-driven events, from The Marcomanic Wars (AD 166 – AD 180) to the crossing of the frozen River Rhine on New Year’s Eve AD 406. Others claim a more fundamental convergence of events, cobbling the deterioration of the climate with severe droughts on the Eurasian Steppes, pushing in the 4th century the Huns to the frontiers of their habitat, propelling the Germanic people in front of them. But if the deterioration set in as late as ca. 400, this line of argument is faulted from the beginning.

The authors find that this lack of precise knowledge hampers the specific conclusions, which may be reached, and add: “We do not want to advocate for simple or reductionist theories – we do not know if the fluctuations of the climate were a triggering factor; the data only deliver a possible connection,” they prudently write. They are well aware of the fact that simple causality is impossible to outline, simply because the “Decline and Fall” took place over several centuries and involved multiple groups of different people reacting to as diverse climatic conditions as a humid North Germania and an arid Mediterranean region. Having said that, the authors carefully call for more detailed interdisciplinary studies of how it all played out locally and temporally. History is the story of how people react to the events happening in their immediate surroundings. Among these, climatic events may be decisive. Not least when they present themselves in a pre-modern context as three or more years of prolonged excessive draught or humidity. In order to move ahead, we need more local studies of local climate change and changes in settlement patterns as those which for instance have been carried out in Sweden following the events of AD 536  or the studies by Armin Volkmann of the events in the Oder region in Northern Germany.

The Bibliometric Approach

Historians may enjoy this study for its precise and “cool” overview of the present status quo of the debate concerning the linkage between the “Climate” and the “Decline and Fall”. As the authors write, however, bibliometric approaches are also valuable because they avoid the bias involved in more traditional “state of the art” synopses of any literature, we are so familiar with. On the other hand, the method is hampered by the fact that humanistic scholars still seem to write books, which are not generally refereed in such large databases as WoS or Scopus. In the present study, though, this was compensated for by taking into consideration the bibliographic links in the ten most quoted articles and chapters in books, from which the 85 were recruited. The article is highly recommended.

Below is a list of the ten must-reads, which this important paper links to. The remaining 85 papers are listed in the article.

Karen Schousboe


The Fate of Rome: climate, disease, and the end of an empire.
By A Moravcsik
In: ForeignAffairs97(1),160-160(2018)

Approaches to the environmental history of Late Antiquity, part II: Climate Change and the End of the Roman Empire.
By M. J. Decker
In History Compass (2017) vol 15, No 2.

Changes in North Atlantic Oscillation drove Population Migrations and the Collapse of the Western Roman Empire
By B. Lee Drake
In: Nature (2017). Scientific reports Vol 7, Article No 1227

Rome and the Classic Maya: Comparing the Slow Collapse of Civilizations
By Rebecca Storey and Glenn R Storey
Routledge 2017

The Environmental Fall of the Roman Empire
By Ken Harper
In: Dædalus (2016), Vol 145, No 2, pp. 101 -111.

The environmental, archaeological and historical evidence for regional climatic changes and their societal impacts in the Eastern Mediterranean in Late Antiquity
By Adam Izdebski, Jordan Pickett, Neil Roberts, and Tomasz Waliszewski.
In: Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 136, p. 189-208.

Climate Change during and after the Roman Empire: Reconstructing the Past from Scientific and Historical Evidence
By Michael McCormick, Ulf Büntgen, Mark A. Cane, and Edward R. Cook,
In: Journal of Interdisciplinary History (2012) Vol 43, No 2, pp.169-220

2500 years of European climate variability and human susceptibility.
By U. Büntgen U, W. Tegel, K. Nicolussi, M. McCormick, D. Frank, V. Trouet, J. Kaplan F. Herzig, U. Heussner, H. Wanner, J. Luterbacher and J. Esper
In: Science (2011) 331: 578-582

Climate change and human history. Some indications from Europe, ad 400-1400.
By Neville Brown
In: Environmental Pollution (1994), Vol 83, No 1–2, pp. 37-4

Climatic Change and Agricultural Exhaustion as Elements in the Fall of Rome
Ellsworth Huntington
The Quarterly Journal of Economics (1917) Vol 31, No 2, pp. 173–208



Co-Authorship of all authors (435) from the 85 papers dealing with the fall of Rome or the time period of the Roman Empire in connection with climate change. © Werner Marx et all. Source: WoS/VOS Viewer

More LInks:

The Dust Veil AD 536

Climate and Migrations in Early Medieval Germany

The post Did Climate Change Foster the Decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire? appeared first on Medieval Histories.

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An American Journalist Under Castro’s Shadow

by David Ariosto

For David Ariosto, the island of Cuba is an intriguing new world, unmoored from the one he left behind. From neighboring military coups, suspected honey traps, salty spooks, and desperate migrants to dissidents, doctors, and Havana’s empty shelves, Ariosto uncovers the island’s subtle absurdities, its Cold War mystique, and the hopes of a people in the throes of transition. Beyond the classic cars, salsa, and cigars lies a country in which black markets are ubiquitous, free speech is restricted, privacy is curtailed, sanctions wreak havoc, and an almost Kafka-esque goo of Soviet-style bureaucracy still slows the gears of an economy desperate to move forward.

But life in Cuba is indeed changing, as satellite dishes and internet hotspots dot the landscape and more Americans want in. Still, it’s not so simple. The old sentries on both sides of the Florida Straits remain at their posts, fists clenched and guarding against the specter of a Cold War that never quite ended, despite the death of Fidel and the hand-over of the presidency to a man whose last name isn’t Castro.

And now, a crisis is brewing.

In This Is Cuba, Ariosto looks at Cuba from the inside-out over the course of nine years, endeavoring to expose clues for what’s in store for the island as it undergoes its biggest change in more than half a century. Keep reading for an excerpt.

* * * * *

I sipped an amber rum. Habana Club. Seven years. No ice. He palmed a Bucanero beer, half wrapped in a flimsy white paper napkin. Curls of Cohiba smoke wafted between us, giving the room a translucent look and an acrid taste. Castro was having a drink. And so was I. It was a Friday evening in late November 2010, and we were ensconced on opposite ends of a small subterranean saloon on the western outskirts of Havana. It was my last night in Cuba.

Jammed in the crevices of my back pocket was a one-way ticket to Miami, scheduled for the following morning, the first leg of a connecting flight to New York City. For the past year and a half, Havana had been home during my stint as a photojournalist for CNN on an island still forbidden to most Americans. But now I was ready to leave—forever, I thought. My father, who lived in the pinelands of southern New Jersey, had been sick following acute kidney failure, which punctuated my own recognition that life in Castro’s Cuba didn’t much suit me anymore. So I had found a job as an editor in New York, exchanged my house on the Caribbean for a studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and traded the guayabera for a suit and tie; Cuban heat for a wintry chill. Crazy, it seemed, but Gotham was beckoning.

Then again, this was my last night in Havana. Better make the most of it.

“Do you know who that is?” whispered Antonina, a server in La Fontana, the private, family-run restaurant, or paladar, to which that smoky bar was attached.

“No,” I replied. “Who?”

There was usually a breezy familiarity in the way she spoke, imbued with a Caribbean warmth and that marbles-in-your-mouth accent for which much of Cuba is known. The banter was usually light. The topics rarely serious.

But tonight was different. Antonina seemed different, the burden of her words a bit heavier than usual. Inside that paladar, a steady crop of regulars had shuffled in. Rum and cigars, coupled with a live singer or guitarist, usually helped to lighten the mood. But tonight, a palpable tension gripped the air. And the staff seemed to feel it. It was a sensation to which many had grown accustomed.

Situated on a leafy street a few blocks from Havana’s rocky northern coast, La Fontana had opened in 1995 when authorities still investigated private restaurants for their numbers of tables and chairs (more than twelve could provoke a raid). Its clandestine feel—there was no sign outside and a surrounding stone wall all but hid the restaurant from view—was part of a broader bid for its very survival. And it looked it. The Castro government had almost never regarded privatization kindly, granting business licenses only when economic forces compelled a drip of liberalizing reform. But in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, a financial crisis had ensued. For decades, Cuba had relied on subsidies from Moscow. In their absence, it teetered on the brink of collapse. Absent his old Kremlin ally, Fidel looked inward for answers and reluctantly allowed a few private restaurants to surface in a fraught attempt to gin up local commerce. La Fontana’s two owners, Horacio Reyes-Lovio and Ernesto Blanco, were among the beneficiaries of the new tone and would soon become successful restaurateurs—a dangerous prospect on an island dominated by Communist hard-liners who had spent their careers fending off “yanqui capitalists.” New concentrations of wealth were forming that could undermine the Revolution. So the two businessmen kept their profiles low and were quietly, if not begrudgingly, allowed to thrive. Perhaps even government officials were loath to shut down one of the few haunts where they could still score a decent meal.

By the time I arrived in Havana, in June 2009, that old paladar had been transformed into a favorite hangout for politicians, their staffs, and foreign businesspeople alike. It was a place to eat, drink, and—in my case—write, mostly from the vantage point of a still somewhat naïve American journalist. A fixture there, I’d often scratch out pages alone atop one of the few polished wooden tables in back, filling a leather-bound notebook with run-on sentences, notes, and smears of blue ink. They were random observations, mostly. A sort of blind attempt to piece together this confounding puzzle of a nation that I now called home. His approach. Her look. Their meeting. A dribble of insight that seeped through the censors of state-run newspapers.

Typical street in old La Havana, Cuba. Photo Credit: Christophe Meneboeuf
(Creative Common CC-BY-SA License)

After a few months and what amounted to a few notebooks full of mostly useless pages, I had gotten to know the restaurant’s staff. One was Antonina, whose frankness and sharp tongue seemed matched only by her curiosity. It was the former that made us friends and the latter that would drive her to leave the island as a refugee. But before she did, her occasional rum-topped whispers would help fill in my own knowledge gaps, chasms really, when it came to Cuba. Men like Ricardo Alarcon, then president of Cuba’s National Assembly, were among La Fontana’s well-heeled patrons who often chatted and sipped mojitos with a hardy crop of familiar faces. I’d try without much luck to listen in, attempting to discern with whom he was meeting and what they were discussing. Business could be conducted this way, and the eavesdropping went both ways.

But tonight, my last night, I wondered why Antonina was so serious and to whom she had so subtly pointed. Passing behind me with a tray of empty glasses, she leaned into my ear.

“That’s Alejandro,” she whispered, brushing back the unkempt strands of raven-colored hair that dropped in front of her face.

By “Alejandro,” Antonina had meant Alejandro Castro Espín, a colonel within Cuba’s powerful Interior Ministry and a member of the Castro family, whose inherited importance seemed to be out- pacing much of the rest of the Castro clan’s. It was President Raul Castro’s only son who now sat across from me at the bar. How could I not have realized that before? Of course, in November 2010, the extent of Alejandro’s importance was not yet clear. He had yet to broker secret deals in Ottawa and Toronto with top Obama advisers Ben Rhodes and Ricardo Zúñiga, nor had he presided over a spy-for-spy negotiation that would lay the groundwork for détente. What was clear was that Alejandro was already a player and a de facto top adviser to his father. More importantly, he was rumored to be gaining in power atop the senior echelons of the very agency tasked with Cuba’s surveillance and counterintelligence; his ministry spied on journalists and dissidents alike. And by apparent coincidence, in my final hours in Cuba he sat across from me, slouched over a beer.

“Coño!” exclaimed Rafa—employing his favorite Cuban expletive— when I later told him of the encounter. Rafael, or “Rafa” for short, was a driver at CNN, and his eyes bulged as he pronounced just the ño in that typical Cuban habit of dropping whole syllables. Though he quickly recuperated, casually popped his shoulders, and gave me this simple—though at the time nonsensical—explanation:

“This is Cuba.”

I had come to loathe that line, which was by now all too familiar—a favorite amongst those who seemed intent on explaining the unexplainable. In literal terms it meant little. Yet it also perfectly encapsulated everything about Cuba that was maddening, unknowable, and completely out of your hands. Even Cubans without a basis for comparison seem to know, perhaps by way of the trickle of information that seeps in from outside, that their island is somehow different.

“This is Cuba.”

That Alejandro Castro Espín, one of the very men responsible for the sort of paranoid patina that coats the island, just so happened to be seated at my go-to bar on my last night in Havana . . . yeah, “This is Cuba” seemed apt.

DAVID ARIOSTO is Executive Producer of GZERO media at the Eurasia Group. Previously, he has worked for Brut, CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera America, Reuters and National Geographic. Between 2009 and 2010, Ariosto was based in Havana, Cuba, working as a photojournalist for CNN. He continues to make reporting trips to the island several times each year. Ariosto also holds a Master’s of Public Policy degree from George Mason University and a Bachelor’s of History degree from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He lives in New York.

The post An American Journalist Under Castro’s Shadow appeared first on The History Reader.

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In Austrvegr: The Role of the Eastern Baltic in Viking Age Communication across the Baltic Sea
By Marika Mägi
BRILL 2018



Marika Mägi’s book considers the cultural, mercantile and political interaction of the Viking Age (9th-11th century), focusing on the eastern coasts of the Baltic Sea. The majority of research on Viking activity in the East has so far concentrated on the modern-day lands of Russia, while the archaeology and Viking Age history of today’s small nation states along the eastern coasts of the Baltic Sea is little known to a global audience.

This study looks at the area from a trans-regional perspective, combining archaeological evidence with written sources, and offering reflections on the many different factors of climate, topography, logistics, technology, politics and trade that shaped travel in this period. The work offers a nuanced vision of Eastern Viking expansion, in which the Eastern Baltic frequently acted as a buffer zone between eastern and western powers.


1 Viking Age Cultural Contacts across The Baltic Sea: Behind the Interpretations
1.1 The Evolutionary Development Model
1.2 Eastern Baltic Archaeology and the Concepts of Different Cultural Impacts
1.3 The Character of Communications across the Baltic Sea
1.4 Conclusions

2 Clan-Based Collectivists or Hierarchical Individualists? Late Prehistoric Societies in the Eastern Baltic
2.1 Finland
2.2 Estonia
2.3 Latvia and Lithuania
2.4 Prussia
2.5 Comparing Social Systems in Different Regions in the Eastern Baltic
2.6 Conclusions

3 Making Trade: Cultural Landscapes and Communication Routes
3.1 Maritime Landscapes in Countries around the Baltic
3.2 Long-distance Trade Routes through the Eastern Baltic
3.3 Travelling along Viking Age Routes
3.4 Points in Communication
3.5 Different Modes of Communication in the Eastern Baltic
3.6 Conclusions

4 The Historical Reality: Places, Place Names, and Ethnonyms in Written Sources
4.1 Estland(s) in the East
4.2 Pre-viking and Viking Age Eastern Baltic in Scandinavian Sources
4.3 What Was Rus’?
4.4 Languages and Personal Names
4.5 Conclusions

5 Networks Take Shape: Communication Through the Eastern Baltic 600–850
5.1 Cultural Situation around the Northern Part of the Baltic Sea
5.2 Viking Colonies in the Southern Half of the Eastern Baltic
5.3 Pre-Viking Period Hill-Forts and Trade Centres along the Eastern Baltic Coast
5.4 Conclusions

6 West Goes East: Viking Age Long-distance Communication and the Eastern Baltic 850-ca. 1000
6.1 Viking Age Centres Connected with International Trade Routes in the Eastern Baltic
6.2 Cultural Landscapes along the Eastern Way
6.3 Cultural Landscapes in the Middle Part of the Eastern Baltic
6.4 Coin Finds in the Eastern Baltic
6.5 Interpreting Routes and Centres in the 9th–10th Centuries
6.6 Conclusions

7 Between Consolidating States. The Eastern Baltic Areas in the 11th and 12th Centuries
7.1 Interaction with Scandinavian Kingdoms
7.2 Northern Eastern Baltic in the Final Centuries of Prehistory
7.3 The East Attacks
7.4 Landscapes around the Daugava Route
7.5 Southern Couronian Coast
7.6 Coins and Trade
7.7 Conclusions

8 Summing up and Conclusions
8.1 Two Cultural Spheres in the Eastern Baltic
8.2 The Shared Cultural Sphere of Warriors
8.3 Written Sources and Places on the Eastern Coasts of the Baltic Sea
8.4 Different Periods in the Viking Age


Marika Mägi, PhD (2002), Tartu University, is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Medieval Studies at Tallinn University. She is an archaeologist and historian and has published mainly on Viking Age and Middle Ages in Estonia and neighbouring areas.

The post Austrvegr appeared first on Medieval Histories.

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