Old books can be wonderful sources of information, ideas, and even inspiration. I collect them and sometimes even read them. Reading a 100 year old book in your field of interest is a challenge and can be a rewarding experience.
It is a challenge because it is dangerous. I worry that I might accidentally learn something that is no longer true. What if I remember it at some later time, like at a cocktail party or while giving a lecture, but don’t remember the source: “… As is well known, flies spontaneously generate from certain forms of mud …”
Repost from gregladen.com … apropos recent discussion on this blog.
It is rewarding because of what one learns about what one “knows.” I am sometimes surprised to find that certain knowledge, which I thought was au currant, was extant generations ago. I like to find the source of misconceptions, or at least, I can get a cheap thrill reading a leading person in the field making the kind of goofs I expect … and of course use as a teachable moment … from my newest students.
It is especially interesting to see how the world was viewed by scholars prior to some fundamental change in thinking, like how proto physical scientists thought of matter before the discovery of the atom and atomic forces.
I’ve been reading “The Leading Facts of English History” by the American writer and historian David H. Montgomery. It is dark maroon cloth bound textbook, and cost $1.14 at the time of publication in 1900. From the price we can infer that a nickel meant something in those days (otherwise it would have been priced $1.19). I think that would have been a Buffalo nickel.
The boards are heavily annotated by an early owner of the book. Perhaps the original owner inscribed his name, but it can only barely be made out. It appears to be “Herbert H. Hov….” (can’t make out the last two or three letters). The list of English Sovereigns is cribbed on the back boards, starting with Henry II and ending with Queen Victoria. Victoria was alive and kicking as Queen of England at the time the book was published, but since her dates (1837-1901) are given in full, Herbert H. was using a volume that was at least a couple of years old.
It is fun to read an old book in one’s own area of interest. I know next to nothing about English history, but I was reading for the first few chapters on “Britain Before History Begins” and “The Relation of the Geography of England to it’s History.” These chapters cover the entire period of human evolution through the Neolithic and touch on geology, paleoclimate, and the beginnings of food production and the ages of metal.
The book was written before the development of modern chronology for Europe (not that the currently used periodization is ever used without a disdainful comment these days). It was written after the Eolithic was discovered but before the Eolithic was discovered to have not actually happened. The ancient savage brutish cavemen are described in the usual pejorative way, later “races” are given more credit for their humanity but not much more, the Romans are worshiped but the Britons imbued with a sense of ruddy freedom, etc. In other words, the early periods are treated in the usual pitifully backwards way of the Victorians, and you can get a more entertaining version with a few carefully made adjustments to your Netflix Que. One is reminded how far archeology has come in a century.
But there were a few items that really stood out for me, that made me think, made me laugh, made me cry. Well, OK, they really just made me laugh, but that’s perhaps unexpected from a dusty old book.
First, in reading the history of the “races” that appeared and disappeared in Europe it is noted that the Celts “Though divided into tribes and scattered over a very large area … all spoke the same language; so that a person would have been understood if he had asked for bread and cheese in Celtic anywhere from the borders of Scotland to the southern boundaries of France.” [page 8] Aside from the obvious slur on the Scottish, I find this remarkable. Is this just a truism of old? Does anyone still think this? If anyone knows where this may have come from please let me know!
Early writers dealing with geography anywhere near the ocean, or the cultural geography of lands separated by the sea, seem to make the same very interesting error in their geo-judgment. We know today that global sea level fluctuates, and in particular, over the last several million years, this fluctuation is in tune with ice volume. The more ice (during glacial periods) the more water thus trapped in glaciers, and the lower the sea level. In this way the British Isles are sometimes Isles and sometimes just high spots on the European continent. We also know that land goes up and down, thus changing the relationship between dry terrain and the sea, but this is slower and less frequent. Most of the time a major change in the position of the shoreline occurs not because the hard rocky land moves up and down by tens of meters, but rather because the soft wet stuff we call the ocean goes up and down. Not only is this verified fact but it also seems to make sense. If your history need a land bridge between a continent and a nearby island, it seems easier to move the water than the land, especially if you know about glaciers.
The author of “The Leading Facts…” knew about glaciers and discusses them in some detail, but in speaking of the connection between the British Isles and France, across the narrow and shallow channel, it does not seem to occur to him to move the sea, but rather, he assumes the land has moved vertically. (To some of us science nerds, this is a real knee slapper!)
Another aspect of this particular work that I find fascinating is frequent reference to Native American culture. This book is written by an American who is an authority on Britain as well as American History, and it is written for an American audience. Therefore, his references to Native American customs are to present day (remember, this is 1900) practices of present day Native Americans, and not as a reference to esoteric distant barbarian tribes, as all his other ethnographic references are. Moreover, this is written as though the author assumes that the average American reader has a certain baseline of information about current day Native practices. I think a British author would lump Native Americans with all of the”barbarian tribes” to which frequent reference is made in this sort of text.
The authors casual use of the “Ethnographic Present” of his own time reminds me of a similar but more poignant time-transgressive experience I had when I was doing an industrial archeology project in Lowell Massachusetts, in the early 1980s. I was interviewing, on the site of a recently demolished 19th century mill, some retired workers who had worked in this factory, as did their fathers. This was a factory build in the 1860s, and these guys had worked there in the late 1940s onward, but remembered going down to the mill with their fathers back in the 20s or 30s.
At one point the issue of Native American sites that might be in the area, and thus might need investigation and protection, came up. “You’ll find them across the river,” one of the men said, pointing towards the great waterfalls from which the early factories drew their hydro power. “Right,” I said, “I read that the Native Americans once built fish weirs over there by the falls. So you have an interest in local Indian history, do you?”
“Well, not really,” he replied. “My dad and I used to use ’em for target practice, from just about where we are standing now…” Spooky.
But I digress…
The thing I found in this old Maroon book that I wanted to share most is in the chapter “The Relation of the Geography of England to it’s History.” Here the author is speaking of the role of Britain through the ages in trade:
… the position of England with respect to commerce is worthy of note. It is not only possessed of a great number of excellent harbors, but it is situated in the most extensively navigated of the oceans, between the two continents having the highest civilization and the most constant intercourse. Next, a glance at the map will show that geographically England is located at about the center of the land masses of the globe. It is evident that an island so placed stands in the most favorable position for easy and rapid communication with every quarter of the world. On this account England has been able to attain and maintain the highest rank among maritime and commercial powers.
OK, never mind the Bevis and Butthead remarks you are thinking right now (heh heh … he said intercourse….). I’m thinking here of the phrase “…England is located at about the center of the land masses of the globe.”
Wow. I would have thought the center of the land masses of the globe would be somewhere near the center of the earth. Probably “north” of the actual center, as much of the Earth’s dry land is in the northern hemisphere. There can’t be a center of the globe that is also on the surface of the globe! If all the continents were mushed together, then maybe, but really … how could this be? But wait, the author refers to a map. So I go to the page the map is on and laugh. I laughed all the way to the scanner, scanned it, and share it with you now:
Holy crap, I’ll be a monkeys’ nephew. Clearly, England IS the center of the universe, according to this map. But what I find really funny is that the North Pole is a close second!