Josephine Quinn: The Phoenicians never existed

The Phoenicians traveled the Mediterranean long before the Greeks and Romans, trading, establishing settlements, and refining the art of navigation. But who these legendary sailors really were has long remained a mystery. In Search of the Phoenicians by Josephine Quinn makes the startling claim that the “Phoenicians” never actually existed. Taking readers from the ancient world to today, this monumental book argues that the notion of these sailors as a coherent people with a shared identity, history, and culture is a product of modern nationalist ideologies—and a notion very much at odds with the ancient sources. Read on to learn more about the Phoenicians.

Who were the Phoenicians?

The Phoenicians were the merchants and long-distance mariners of the ancient Mediterranean. They came from a string of city-states on the coast of the Levant including the ports of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and Beirut, all in modern Lebanon, and spoke very similar dialects of a language very similar to Hebrew. Their hinterland was mountainous and land connections were difficult even between these neighboring cities themselves, so the Phoenicians were very much people of the sea. They had a particular genius for science and navigation, and as early as the ninth or tenth century BCE, their ships were sailing the full length of the Mediterranean and out through the straits of Gibraltar to do business on the Atlantic coast of Spain, attracted by the precious metals of the west. Levantine migrants and traders began to settle in the Western Mediterranean at least a century before Greeks followed suit, founding new towns in Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, and North Africa. Their biggest Western colony was at Carthage in modern Tunisia, a city which eventually eclipsed the homeland in importance, and under its brilliant general Hannibal vied with Rome for control of the Mediterranean: when Carthage was eventually destroyed by Roman troops in 146 BCE, it was said to be the wealthiest city in the world.

But doesn’t your book suggest that the Phoenicians didn’t even exist?

Not quite! The people we call Phoenician certainly existed as individuals, and they often have fascinating stories, from the Carthaginian noblewoman Sophonisba, who married not one but two warring African kings, to the philosopher Zeno of Kition on Cyprus, who moved to Athens and founded the Stoic school of philosophy. But one of the really intriguing things about them is how little we know about how they saw themselves—and my starting point in this book is that we have no evidence that they saw themselves as a distinct people or as we might say, ethnic group.

“Phoenician” is what the Greeks called these people, but we don’t find anyone using that label to describe themselves before late antiquity, and although scholars have sometimes argued that they called themselves “Canaanite,” a local term, one of the things I show in my book is how weak the evidence for that hypothesis really is. Of course, to say that they didn’t think of themselves as a distinct people just because we don’t have any evidence for them describing themselves as such is an argument from silence, and it could be disproved at any moment with the discovery of a new inscription. But in the meantime, my core argument is when we don’t know whether people thought of themselves as a collective, we shouldn’t simply assume that they did on the basis of ancient or modern parallels, or because ethnic identity seems “natural.”

So how did the Phoenicians see themselves?

This is the question I’m most interested in. Although there is no surviving Phoenician literature that might help us understand the way these people saw the world, Phoenician inscriptions reveal all sorts of interesting and sometimes surprising things that people wanted to record for posterity. They certainly saw themselves as belonging to their own cities, like the Greeks: they were “Byblians,” or “Sidonians,” or “Sons of Tyre.” But one of the things that I suggest in my book is that in inscriptions they present themselves first and foremost in terms of family: where a Greek inscription might give someone’s own name and that of their father, a Phoenician one will often go back several generations—16 or 17 in some cases. And then Phoenician-speaking migrants develop new practices of identification, including regional ones. We see particularly close relationships developing between neighboring settlements in the diaspora, and between people who are from the same part of the homeland. But we also see new, Western identities developing—‘Sardinian,’ for instance—which bring together Phoenicians, Greeks, and the local population.

And I think we can get further by looking at the evidence for cultural practices that Phoenician speakers share—or don’t share. So child sacrifice rituals seem to be limited to a small number of Western settlements around Carthage, but the cult of the god Melqart, the chief civic deity of Tyre, is practiced by people of Levantine origin all over the Mediterranean. And on my interpretation, Melqart’s broad popularity is quite a late development—in the fifth or fourth century BCE—which would suggest that a sense of connectivity between Phoenician-speakers in the diaspora got stronger the longer people had been away from their homeland. But at the same time, the cult reached out to other Mediterranean populations, since Melqart was celebrated by Greeks (and later Romans) as the equivalent of their own god Herakles.

Politics played a part in the construction of identities as well, and this is particularly apparent in one episode where an attempt seems to have been made to impose the notion of ‘being Phoenician’ on other people. By the late fifth century BCE Carthage was the dominant power in the western Mediterranean, controlling trade routes and access to ports, taxing defeated enemies, and beginning to acquire overseas territory as well, at the expense of other Levantine diaspora settlements. And at pretty much exactly this time they begin to mint coinage, and their very first coins have an image of a palm tree—or, in Greek, a phoinix, which is also the Greek word for Phoenician. It’s hard to resist the impression that celebrating a common ‘Phoenician’ heritage or identity put a useful political spin on the realities of Carthaginian imperial control.

If there’s so little evidence for genuine Phoenician identity in the ancient world, where does the modern idea of “the Phoenicians” come from?

The name itself comes from the Greeks, as we’ve already said, but they didn’t use it to delineate a specific ethnic or cultural group: for them, “Phoenician” was often a pretty vague and general term for traders and sailors from the Levant, there wasn’t a lot of cultural or ethnic content to it. You don’t get the same kind of detailed ethnographic descriptions of Phoenicians as you do of, for instance, Egyptians and Greeks. And the Romans followed suit: in fact, their particular focus on Carthage meant that the Latin words for “Phoenician”—poenus and punicus—were often used to mean ‘North African’ in general.

It wasn’t until the modern period that the idea of the Phoenicians as a coherent ethnic group fully emerged, in late nineteenth century European histories of Phoenicia that relied heavily on new and specifically European ideas about nationalism and natural cultures. This is when we first find them described as a racial group, with an “ethnic character.” And these notions were picked up enthusiastically in early twentieth century Lebanon, where the idea that the Lebanese had formed a coherent nation since antiquity was an important plank of the intellectual justification for a new Lebanese state after the collapse of the Ottoman empire—another story I tell in the book.

A more recent example of this comes from Anthony D. Smith’s wonderful 1988 book, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, which argues that although true nations are a modern phenomenon, they have precursors in ancient and medieval ethno-cultural communities. Among his ancient examples are what he sees as ‘pan-Phoenician sentiments’ based on a common heritage of religion, language, art and literature, political institutions, dress and, forms of recreation. But my argument is that in the case of the Phoenicians at least we are not dealing with the ancient ethnic origins of modern nations, but the modern nationalist origins of an ancient ethnicity.

Is there any truth to the stories that the ancient Phoenicians reached America?

I’m afraid not! It’s an old idea: in the early eighteenth century Daniel Defoe argued, not long after he published Robinson Crusoe, that the Carthaginians must have colonized America on the basis of the similarities he saw between them and the indigenous Americans, in particular in relation to “their idolatrous Customs, Sacrificings, Conjurings, and other barbarous usages in the Worship of their Gods.” But the only real evidence that has ever been proposed for this theory, an inscription “found” in Brazil in 1872, was immediately diagnosed by specialists as a fake.

The idea that Phoenicians got to Britain, and perhaps even Ireland, makes more sense. Cornish tin could certainly have been one attraction. There’s no strong evidence though for Phoenician settlement on either island, though the possibility captivated local intellectuals in the early modern period. One of the chapters I most enjoyed writing in this book is about the way that scholars in England concocted fantasies of Phoenician origins for their homeland, in part as a way of differentiating their own maritime power from the more territorial, and so “Roman,” French empire—at the same time as the Irish constructed a Phoenician past of their own that highlighted the similarity of their predicament under Britain’s imperial yoke to that of noble Carthage oppressed by brutal Rome.

These are of course just earlier stages in the same nationalist ‘invention of the Phoenicians’ that came to fruition in the nineteenth century histories we’ve already discussed: stories about Phoenicians helped the British and the Irish articulate their own national identities, which in turn further articulated the idea of the Phoenicians themselves.

Why did you write this book?

One reason was I really wanted to write a book about the ancient Mediterranean that wasn’t limited to Greece and Rome—though plenty of Greeks and Romans snuck in! But there’s another reason as well: “identity” has been such a popular academic topic in recent decades, and I wanted to explore its limits and even limitations as an approach to the ancient world. There are lots of reasons to think that a focus on ethnic identity, and even self-identity more generally, is a relatively modern phenomenon, and that our ideas about the strength and prevalence of ancient ethnic sentiments might be skewed by a few dramatic but unusual examples in places like Israel and perhaps Greece. I wanted to look at a less well-known but perhaps more typical group, to see what happens if we investigate them not as “a people,” but simply as people.

 

QuinnJosephine Quinn is associate professor of ancient history at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College. She is the coeditor of The Hellenistic West andThe Punic Mediterranean.

 

John Tutino: Mexico, Mexicans, and the Challenge of Global Capitalism

This piece has been published in collaboration with the History News Network. 

TutinoMexico and Mexicans are in the news these days. The Trump administration demands a wall to keep Mexicans out of “America,” insisting that undocumented immigrants cause unemployment, low wages, and worse north of the border. It presses a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, claiming to defend U.S. workers from the pernicious impacts of a deal said to favor Mexico and its people. Meanwhile U.S. businesses (from autos to agriculture) work to keep the gains they have made in decades of profitable cross-border production and marketing. Their lobbying highlights the profits they make employing Mexicans who earn little (at home and in the U.S.), and by their efforts subsidize U.S. businesses and consumers.

The integration of Mexico and the U.S., their workers and markets, is pivotal to U.S. power, yet problematic to many U.S. voters who feel prejudiced in a world of globalizing capitalism and buy into stereotypes that proclaim invasive Mexicans the cause of so many problems. Analysts of diverse views, including many scholars, often imagine that this all began in the 1990s with NAFTA. A historical survey, however, shows that the integration of North America’s economies began with the U.S. taking rich lands from Texas to California by war in the 1840s, driving the border south to its current location. U.S. capitalists led a westward expansion and turned south to rule railroads, mining, petroleum, and more in Mexico before 1910—while Mexican migrants went north to build railroads, harvest crops, and supply cities in lands once Mexican. The revolution that followed in part reacted to U.S. economic power; its disruptions sent more Mexicans north to work. While Mexico struggled toward national development in the 1920s, displaced families still moved north. When depression stalled the U.S. economy in the 1930s, Mexicans (including many born U.S. citizens) were expelled south. When World War II stimulated both North American economies, the nations contracted to draw Mexican men north to work as braceros. Mexico’s “miracle” growth after 1950 relied on U.S. models, capital, and labor-saving technology—and never created enough work to curtail migrant flows. The Mexican oil boom of the 1970s tapped U.S. funds, aiming to bring down OPEC oil prices to favor U.S. hegemony in a Cold-War world. By the 1980s the U.S. gained cheaper oil, helping re-start its economy. In the same decade, falling oil prices set off a debt fueled depression in Mexico that drove more people north. NAFTA, another Mexican collapse, and soaring migration followed in the 1990s. The history of life and work across the U.S.-Mexican border is long and complex. Through twists and turns it shaped modern Mexico while drawing profits, produce, and Mexicans to the U.S.

The Mexican Heartland takes a long view to explore how communities around Mexico City sustained, shaped, and at times challenged capitalism from its sixteenth century origins to our globalizing times. From the 1550s they fed an economy that sent silver, then the world’s primary money, to fuel trades that linked China, South Asia, Europe, and Africa—before British America began. By the eighteenth century, Mexico City was the richest place in the Americas, financing mines and global trade, sustained by people living in landed communities and laboring at commercial estates. It’s merchant-financiers and landed oligarchs were the richest men in the Americas while the coastal colonies of British America drew small profits sending tobacco to Europe and food to Caribbean plantations (the other American engines of early capitalism).

Then, imperial wars mixed with revolutionary risings to bring a world of change: North American merchants and slave holders escaped British rule after 1776, founding the United States; slaves in Saint Domingue took arms, claimed freedom, destroyed sugar plantations, and ended French rule, making Haiti by 1804; insurgents north of Mexico City took down silver capitalism and Spain’s empire after 1810, founding Mexico in 1821. Amid those conflicts, Britain forged a new industrial world while the U.S. began a rise to continental hegemony, taking lands from native peoples and Mexico to expand cotton and slavery, gain gold and silver, and settle European migrants. Meanwhile, Mexicans struggled to make a nation in a reduced territory while searching for a new economy.

The Mexican Heartland explores how families built lives within capitalism before and after the U.S. rose to power. They sought the best they could get from economies made and remade to profit the few. Grounded in landed communities sanctioned by Spain’s empire, they provided produce and labor to carry silver capitalism. When nineteenth-century liberals denied community land rights, villagers pushed back in long struggles. When land became scarce as new machines curtailed work and income, they joined Zapata in revolution after 1910. They gained land, rebuilt communities, and carried a national development project. Then after 1950, medical capitalism delivered antibiotics that fueled a population explosion while “green revolution” agriculture profited by expanding harvests while making work and income scarce. People without land or work thronged to burgeoning cities and across the border into the U.S., searching for new ways to survive, sustain families, and re-create communities.

Now, Mexicans’ continuing search for sustainable lives and sustaining communities is proclaimed an assault on U.S. power and prosperity. Such claims distract us from the myriad ways that Mexicans feed the profits of global corporations, the prosperity of the U.S. economy, and the comforts of many consumers. Mexicans’ efforts to sustain families and communities have long benefitted capitalism, even as they periodically challenged capitalists and their political allies to keep promises of shared prosperity. Yet many in the U.S. blame Mexico and Mexicans for the insecurities, inequities, and scarce opportunities that mark too many lives under urbanizing global capitalism.

Can a wall can solve problems of dependence and insecurity pervasive on both sides of the border? Or would it lock in inequities and turn neighboring nations proclaiming shared democratic values into ever more coercive police states? Can we dream that those who proclaim the liberating good of democratic capitalism may allow people across North America to pursue secure sustenance, build sustaining communities, and moderate soaring inequities? Such questions define our times and will shape our future. The historic struggles of Mexican communities illuminate the challenges we face—and reveal the power of people who persevere.

John Tutino is professor of history and international affairs and director of the Americas Initiative at Georgetown University. His books include The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500-2000 and From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750–1940.

Yuri Slezkine’s author tour in the UK

PUP Publicity Assistant Amy Stewart attended The House of Government author Yuri Slezkine’s event at the Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film & Music in the UK. Read on to find out more about Slezkine’s talk and his other European events. 

SlezkineFor a book which is framed so significantly by the architecture of a vast Moscow apartment block, what better place for Yuri Slezkine to complete his time in the UK than inside Blenheim Palace for the Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film, & Music just across the road from our European office in Woodstock? Slezkine spent an hour in conversation with BBC Media Correspondent Nick Higham about his extensive book The House of Government, which Higham praised as ‘quite a remarkable book’ and one of the longest he has read for a while.

Slezkine’s event at Blenheim focused on the nature of his research and the tension between academic nonfiction and fiction within his new book. Slezkine stressed that, although his book has a distinctive narrative that could be likened to fiction, the book is founded on the extensive research he has been conducting over the past twenty years. Slezkine allowed his audience an insight into his research by detailing some of his interviews with residents who had spent some of their childhood in the Moscow apartment block. Many of Slezkine’s sources arose from these interviews where he was given previously unseen photographs and letters from the residents’ years in the House of Government.

A final point of interest from Slezkine’s event at Blenheim Palace was his position as a historian: whether he judges Slezkinehis characters himself or simply lays them out for his reader to come to their own conclusions about real historical events. Slezkine swayed towards the latter which seems to further highlight this book’s uniqueness.

Prior to this event, Slezkine had a jam-packed week in the UK with sold-out events in London, Cheltenham, and Oxford. Starting with full events at the Kings Russia Institute and the LRB Bookshop, Slezkine also appeared at the Cheltenham Literary Festival then ventured over to Oxford for a packed event in Blackwell’s, followed by his event at Blenheim Palace which the whole office went over to see.

Overall, a very exciting week for the European Office!

A peek inside The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper

HarperHere is the monumental retelling of one of the most consequential chapters of human history: the fall of the Roman Empire. The Fate of Rome is the first book to examine the catastrophic role that climate change and infectious diseases played in the collapse of Rome’s power—a story of nature’s triumph over human ambition. A poignant reflection on humanity’s intimate relationship with the environment, The Fate of Rome provides a sweeping account of how one of history’s greatest civilizations encountered and endured, yet ultimately succumbed to the cumulative burden of nature’s violence. Check out the trailer to learn more.

 

Kyle Harper is professor of classics and letters and senior vice president and provost at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425 and From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.

Richard Rex: 95 Theses on Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

RexLegend has it that on October 31, 1517, German professor of theology Martin Luther nailed Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, sparking the Protestant Reformation in a single, rebellious act. In The Making of Martin Luther, professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge Richard Rex shows that this momentous event never occurred. In this major new account of the most intensely creative years of Luther’s career, Rex takes a provocative look at the intellectual emergence of one of the most original and influential minds of the sixteenth century. Lucidly argued and elegantly written, The Making of Martin Luther is a splendid work of intellectual history that renders Luther’s earthshaking yet sometimes challenging ideas accessible to a new generation of readers. To learn more about the ideas in his book, read on for Richard Rex’s Ninety-Five Theses on Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. 

I                          Martin Luther did not nail the Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in     Wittenberg on 31 October 1517.

II                        That was a myth created by Philip Melanchthon through the conflation of hazy reports and recollections nearly thirty years later.

III                       The Ninety-Five Theses were posted that day – by mail, to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht von Hohenzollern.

IV                       The Ninety-Five Theses did not cross all Germany within four weeks. It was not until January 1518 that they spread like wildfire.

V                        The Ninety-Five Theses neither expressed nor reflected Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, which he had not yet formulated.

VI                       The key to justification by faith alone was the sense of certainty of divine grace which it conferred upon believers.

VII                     Such certainty is not only absent from the Ninety-Five Theses, but is explicitly denied in Luther’s covering letter to the archbishop.

VIII                    Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is a simple doctrine which many people, even some Protestants, find hard to understand.

IX                       Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone was unthinkable without the prior development of the theology of indulgences.

X                        Justification by faith alone represented not so much the abolition of indulgences as their ultimate extension and elaboration.

XI                       Indulgences were not selling salvation or forgiveness. They were remittances of punishment in reward for charitable acts or gifts.

XII                     It was not the unpopularity of indulgences that drove Luther to protest in 1517, but their popularity.

XIII                    Luther did not proclaim what many had long thought but never dared to say. He said what had never before been thought.

XIV                    The Protestant Reformers came not from the margins of the late medieval church, but from its intellectual and moral elite.

XV                     Although there were many Protestant Reformers, Luther was neither one among many nor even first among equals.

XVI                    Luther was the one: they were the many. No Luther, no Reformation.

XVII                  The personality cult of Martin Luther in his lifetime saw the structure of a saint’s cult applied to a living person.

XVIII                 No other Protestant Reformer was the object of such a cult in their lifetime.

XIX                    Luther alone of the Protestant Reformers saw the impossibility of reconciling justification by faith alone with the Epistle of James.

XX                     All the early Protestant Reformers took their lead from Luther and found their inspiration in him.

XXI                    Ulrich Zwingli alone claimed that his path to Reformation was entirely independent of Luther’s.

XXII                  That Zwingli was entirely independent of Luther’s influence is mere flummery, dependent on Zwingli’s unsupported word.

XXIII                 Zwingli made this claim only after he had fallen out with Luther. It was not true.

XXIV                 Andreas Carlstadt was unwilling to play second fiddle to Luther, but was unable to snatch the lead from him.

XXV                  Philip Melanchthon was a derivative thinker who always bore the impression of the last person to sit upon him – usually Luther.

XXVI                 Martin Bucer was one of the most original Protestant Reformers, but lacked the charisma to win a significant following for himself.

XXVII               John Calvin’s most distinctive religious ideas were derived entirely from others, most notably from Martin Bucer.

XXVIII              John Knox was a prophet of the Old Testament disguised as an apostle of the New.

XXIX                 Ulrich von Hutten adopted Luther’s cause solely for the impetus it might give to the concept of the German Nation.

XXX                  Ulrich von Hutten had no grasp of Luther’s religious teaching as such.

XXXI                 The idea that Luther himself was only following the teaching of Augustine of Hippo is a radical misunderstanding of both men.

XXXII               For Luther, Augustine only ever said two things of real value – and he invariably misquoted one of them.

XXXIII              Luther’s doctrine of original sin was not Augustine’s, but one that Augustine repudiated when it was imputed to him by his opponents.

XXXIV              Luther’s misreading of Augustine on original sin was rich in consequences for his theology.

XXXV               Despite the early influence of Augustine upon him, Luther shed Augustinian habits of thought as completely as the Augustinian habit.

XXXVI              Renaissance humanism was not in any significant sense a ‘cause’ of the Protestant Reformation.

XXXVII            Luther always knew that he disagreed with Erasmus. Erasmus only slowly came to realise that he disagreed with Luther.

XXXVIII           By the time Erasmus saw Luther as a threat to the unity of Christendom, it was too late for his weight to turn the scales.

XXXIX              Erasmus failed to grasp the revolutionary significance of Luther’s teachings.

XL                      Luther perfectly appreciated the essentially conservative character of Erasmus’s religious teachings.

XLI                    Luther’s theology was formulated not in the language of Renaissance humanist scholarship but in that of the Vulgate Latin Bible.

XLII                   Luther’s theology depended not on the Greek or Hebrew scriptures, but on the Vulgate Bible and on the Latin theological tradition.

XLIII                  Luther’s appeal to the Bible alone was plausible and popular, but was soon shown by events to be fatally flawed.

XLIV                 This ‘scripture principle’ resulted in so many rival versions of Christianity that it showed itself to be no practical use at all.

XLV                   Luther never fully thought through the Biblical tag he loved to quote against his opponents: ‘All men are liars’.

XLVI                 For Luther, the plain sense of scripture meant taking Christ literally when he said, ‘This is my body’.

XLVII                For Zwingli, the plain sense of scripture meant not taking Christ literally when he said, ‘This is my body’.

XLVIII               Luther thought Zwingli a Nestorian. Zwingli thought Luther a Eutychian. Each knew the Bible was on his side.

XLIX                 Neither Luther nor any other Reformer advocated the right of the individual to make up their own minds about what the Bible taught.

L                         ‘Anticlericalism’ was not a ‘cause’ of the Reformation, though criticism of and violence against the clergy played their part.

LI                       Anticlericalism was not a growing problem that was bound to culminate in catastrophe for the late medieval Church.

LII                      If the friars had been widely resented and hated around 1500, Luther would hardly have joined an order of friars.

LIII                     Criticism of priests in the later Middle Ages was nowhere near as pervasive and corrosive as that of politicians in our own times.

LIV                    Medieval anticlericalism no more necessitated a Reformation than modern ‘antipoliticianism’ necessitates a revolution.

LV                      Just as we have no word for the denunciation of politicians, so too medieval Europe had no word for the denunciation of priests.

LVI                    The printing press was neither intrinsically nor necessarily more favourable to Protestantism than to Catholicism.

LVII                   The printing press might be considered the creation of the late medieval Church. The earliest printed item may have been an indulgence.

LVIII                  The classic printed text of the Reformation was not the popular pamphlet but the official catechism.

LIX                    The idea that preaching was in decline on the eve of the Reformation is a comical misapprehension.

LX                      The rapidly growing provision for preaching in the late medieval Church was a springboard for the Reformation.

LXI                    Luther and the Reformers were not the first to preach in the vernacular: preaching to the laity was always in the vernacular.

LXII                   Luther’s was not the first German translation of the Bible, though it was the most widely read and the most influential.

LXIII                  It is a misleading simplification to suggest that Luther invented congregational singing.

LXIV                 Lay participation in church music was an increasing feature of late medieval Christianity: Luther himself had been a choirboy.

LXV                   Far from being in terminal decline, late medieval Christianity was flourishing as never before.

LXVI                 The devotion of late medieval Christians to the upkeep and embellishment of their parish churches is one of the wonders of history.

LXVII                The Reformation was, from one perspective, the excommunication of the dead.

LXVIII               The elimination of the cult of the saints is one of the most striking achievements of the Protestant Reformation.

LXIX                 There is a deep affinity between the rejection of images from churches and the denial of the real presence of Jesus in the eucharist.

LXX                   The Reformation was a bourgeois phenomenon, but not a bourgeois revolution.

LXXI                 Yet Protestant beliefs and practices were no better suited to life in early modern cities than were those of Catholicism.

LXXII                The Reformation can to some extent be viewed as a rebellion of the rich against the poor.

LXXIII               Yet far from favouring capitalism, the early Reformers were even more firmly opposed to ‘usury’ than were their Catholic opponents.

LXXIV              The connection between Protestantism and the rise of capitalism was essentially fortuitous. There were plenty of Catholic capitalists.

LXXV                The connection between the Reformation and the enrichment of specific individuals was direct and unmistakable.

LXXVI              Luther was appalled when German peasants inferred from his doctrine of ‘Christian Liberty’ that Christians ought to be free.

LXXVII             It was the decisions of a generation of princes of the Holy Roman Empire that determined the fate of the Protestant Reformation.

LXXVIII            Princes were as likely as anyone else to be caught up in the fervid popular enthusiasm for Luther and his teachings.

LXXIX              Nowhere did the Catholic Mass cease to be celebrated until and unless it was forbidden by public law.

LXXX                Nowhere did Protestantism, once introduced, disappear except as a result of strenuous persecution.

LXXXI              The offer of the eucharistic chalice to the laity was one of the most potent and appealing symbols of the Protestant Reformation.

LXXXII             In almost all its forms, precisely because of its biblical focus, Protestantism did not weaken, but strengthened, patriarchal ties.

LXXXIII            Protestant polemic against Catholicism routinely deployed the stereotypes of misogyny along with accusations of effeminacy.

LXXXIV           The beards sported by so many Protestant Reformers consciously embodied and eloquently expressed their patriarchal proclivities.

LXXXV             Luther did not think Roman Catholicism made forgiveness too easy: he thought it made forgiveness too difficult.

LXXXVI           Luther did not think Roman Catholicism gave people a false sense of security: he felt it gave them no security at all.

LXXXVII          Luther remained a loyal Catholic until he could no longer believe that the religion of the Pope was the true Catholic faith.

LXXXVIII         The one thing on which almost all Protestants agreed during the Reformation was that the Pope was Antichrist.

LXXXIX           Luther invented the concept of the ‘invisible church’.

XC                     Luther’s belief in the existence and activity of Satan was almost as lively and compelling as his belief in Christ.

XCI                    Protestants and Catholics alike accused each of ‘judaizing’, deploying against each other the stereotypes of antisemitism.

XCII                   The ferocity of Luther’s antisemitism was extreme but not unique.

XCIII                 For example, Luther’s Catholic opponent, Johann Eck, published an encyclopaedic reiteration of the infamous ‘blood libel’.

XCIV                 Luther’s virulence in all controversy shocked not only his opponents but even his friends and followers.

XCV                  In 1500, western Christendom was a seamless robe. By 1600, it was a patchwork quilt. That was the Reformation.

An interview with Kathryn Sikkink on human rights in the 21st century

SikkinkEvidence for Hope makes the case that, yes, human rights work. Critics may counter that the movement is in serious jeopardy or even a questionable byproduct of Western imperialism. But respected human rights expert Kathryn Sikkink draws on decades of research and fieldwork to provide a rigorous rebuttal to pessimistic doubts about human rights laws and institutions. Sikkink shows that activists and scholars disagree about the efficacy of human rights because they use different yardsticks to measure progress. Comparing the present to the past, she shows that genocide and violence against civilians have declined over time, while access to healthcare and education has increased dramatically. Exploring the strategies that have led to real humanitarian gains since the middle of the twentieth century, Evidence for Hope looks at how these essential advances can be supported and sustained for decades to come.

 

 

Kathryn Sikkink is the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her books include The Justice Cascade (Norton) and Activists beyond Borders. She lives in Cambridge, MA.

The Great Leveler shortlisted for the Cundill Prize

We’re delighted to announce that The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel has been chosen as a finalist for the prestigious Cundill Prize alongside The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsar by Daniel Beer and Vietnam: A New History by Christopher Goscha. Administered by McGill University in Montreal, the Cundill History Prize rewards the leading historians of our time. Previous winners include Thomas W. Laqueur, Susan Pedersen, Lisa Jardine, Anne Applebaum, and Diarmaid MacCulloch.

“The three finalists for the 2017 Cundill History Prize are extraordinary works of history: beautifully crafted, well-researched, and ambitious. They tackle big issues and help us to know ourselves and our world better. We live in complicated times and the work of historians such as these provides us with the necessary background, understanding, and insights to enable us to formulate the sorts of questions we ought to be asking.”

—Margaret MacMillan, Chair of the Jury

Scheidel

Richard Rex on The Making of Martin Luther

Rex

The Making of Martin Luther takes a provocative look at the intellectual emergence of one of the most original and influential minds of the sixteenth century. Richard Rex traces how, in a concentrated burst of creative energy in the few years surrounding his excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1521, this lecturer at an obscure German university developed a startling new interpretation of the Christian faith that brought to an end the dominance of the Catholic Church in Europe. Luther’s personal psychology and cultural context played their parts in the whirlwind of change he unleashed. But for the man himself, it was always about the ideas, the truth, and the Gospel. Lucidly argued and elegantly written, The Making of Martin Luther is a splendid work of intellectual history that renders Luther’s earthshaking yet sometimes challenging ideas accessible to a new generation of readers. Read on to learn more about this key figure of the Protestant Reformation.

Why The Making of Martin Luther?
Martin Luther was very much a self-made man, though he would not have appreciated the compliment. From his point of view, he was made by God—not only in the basic sense soon to be inculcated by the catechism, but in the special sense that God had raised him up as an apostolic and almost apocalyptic figure to renew the preaching of the Gospel on earth. My book sets out the process by which Luther came to a new understanding of the relationship between the individual Christian and God, a process which integrally involved coming to a new understanding of himself.

Apostolic?
A vital word. Luther’s professional focus on the epistles of Paul—generally known at that time simply as ‘the Apostle’—in the 1510s was the crucible in which both his new account of the Christian faith and his new understanding of himself were forged. Luther modeled himself increasingly on Paul and came to see himself in apostolic guise.

Apocalyptic?
Definitely. Luther cannot be properly understood if due account is not taken of his sense of the imminence of the end times. Like most of his Christian contemporaries, he did not expect the world to last that much longer, but his own sense of the end of days was much more urgent, largely because of his conviction that the Papacy, which was swift to condemn him and his teachings, must be the Antichrist. The medieval myth of the Antichrist, which Luther adopted and adapted, saw this terrible figure as the herald of the final act of human history. If the Antichrist was in action, then the end really could not be far off.

Is your book a full biography?
The Making of Martin Luther is biographical, but not a biography, still less a full biography. Its unrelenting focus is on the development of Luther’s thinking, of his theology. If it was not for Luther’s ideas, we would never have heard of him. Chronologically, it is concerned with the first half of his career, the period of radical innovation, rather than with his last twenty years, the years of consolidation. It’s about how Luther brought down one establishment, not how he built up another.

One of your chapters is entitled ‘The Catholic Luther.’ Why?
Luther, like all the first generation Protestant Reformers, started out as a Catholic, and neither he nor the others can be understood without reference to their shared Catholic background. Luther only developed his ideas because he was a theologian. And he was only a theologian because of a very ‘Catholic’ event in his life: his ‘conversion’ to the professional religious life in fulfillment of a vow made to a saint in a thunderstorm. And Luther’s new ideas, though radical, reflected central concerns of late medieval Catholic theology, such as sin and grace, and the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. For example, Luther’s consuming sense of the superabundant sufficiency of Christ’s Passion for the redemption of sin was, paradoxically, a version of the same idea that lay beneath the Catholic doctrine and practice of indulgences, against which he notoriously protested.

There are lots of books about Luther, even lots of new books. Why read this one?
The story of Luther is still bedeviled by misunderstandings—about what his key ideas were and when they emerged, about what was really different in his ideas, and about the Catholic ideas from which he increasingly stood apart. Some misunderstandings can be traced back to Luther himself, whose vast and diverse output requires very careful and contextual interpretation. Others are canonized in the long tradition of Luther studies, passing like viruses from one biography to another. Historians can struggle with the theology, and theologians can stumble over the history and chronology. I’m not the best historian, and I’m not the best theologian. But few historians of this period can match my grasp of the theological issues, and few theologians can match my capacity to interrogate sources historically. This book has sought to put the story together again from square one, on the basis of a critical and unsentimental engagement with the sources. It strips away the rust of tradition to reveal an entirely fresh image of Luther in the crucial phase of his life.

Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Queens’ College. His books include Tudors: The Illustrated History and Henry VIII and the English Reformation. He lives in Cambridge.

Kyle Harper on The Fate of Rome

Here is the monumental retelling of one of the most consequential chapters of human history: the fall of the Roman Empire. The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper is the first book to examine the catastrophic role that climate change and infectious diseases played in the collapse of Rome’s power—a story of nature’s triumph over human ambition. The Fate of Rome provides a sweeping account of how one of history’s greatest civilizations encountered and endured, yet ultimately succumbed to the cumulative burden of nature’s violence. The example of Rome is a timely reminder that climate change and germ evolution have shaped the world we inhabit—in ways that are surprising and profound. Recently we interviewed Kyle Harper about his new book:

What is the fall of the Roman Empire?

The fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most dramatic episodes of political dissolution in the history of civilization—the long process that saw the fragmentation and disappearance of central Roman authority around the Mediterranean. In the second century, the Roman Empire was the world’s dominant superpower. One in four people on earth lived inside its borders. There was peace and prosperity on a scale never before seen. Five centuries later, Germanic kingdoms had conquered most of the west, and the Islamic caliphate was triumphant in most of the east. Population fell by maybe half, and there was less wealth, less trade, cruder institutions, and technological regression. The “fall of the empire” is a shorthand for all of the events and processes that led an empire that seemed invincible in the second century into a state of disintegration by A.D. 650.

What caused the empire to fall?

Historians have offered more than 200 answers, and obviously there was no single cause. But I argue that we have to allow environmental change—climate change and pathogen evolution—a dominant role. Human societies are deeply dependent upon their physical and biological environments, and these environments are radically unstable. The earth’s climate system has experienced significant climate change, even in the relatively stable epoch we know as the Holocene. And the biological environment—the set of organisms we share the planet with—has been wildly in flux, in ways that have redirected the course of human history. The empire was an intricate machine that depended on demographic and economic foundations, which fueled the army and the fiscal system. The Romans built their empire—unbeknownst to them—under unusually favorable climatic conditions. In a sense, their luck started to run out in the middle of the second century, with a sequence of climate change and new kinds of disease. Of course, these challenges did not spell the end of the empire. But the new reality became a part of the ongoing struggle to maintain their political dominance. Ultimately, the catastrophic pandemics that Rome suffered undermined the stability of the imperial machine.

How does new evidence change our answers to old questions?

Historians are the great unintended beneficiaries of at least two exciting new kinds of information about the past coming from the natural sciences. First, paleoclimate data. The need to understand global warming, and the earth’s climate system in general, has produced a treasure trove of new insights into the climate experienced by our ancestors. Two, genomic data. Thanks to the affordability of genome sequencing, we are learning a stunning amount about the story of the great killers of the past. The history of the bacterium that causes bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, has really started to come into focus. It is a relatively young pathogen that evolved in central Asia and caused three great historical pandemics, the first of which afflicted the later Roman Empire in the reign of Justinian. This pandemic was probably as devastating as the medieval Black Death, carrying off something like half of the entire population. And, now, its genetic traces have been found in graves of the sixth century. What is most exciting, however, is the consilience—the leaping together—of new kinds of evidence and more traditional historical sources. I hasten to add that we historians are constantly finding new texts and documents and producing better understanding of old texts and documents. The ongoing, humanistic study of the Roman Empire is just as important as the thrilling scientific evidence. The pieces are starting to fit together.

How did diseases affect the course of Roman history?

All underdeveloped societies bore a heavy burden of infectious disease. Most deaths in the Roman world were caused by infectious disease. And the very success of the Roman Empire, paradoxically, exacerbated the endemic disease burden. The Romans were unhealthy. The dense urban habitats were unsanitary environments where low-level gastroenteric diseases were rampant. The transformation of the physical landscape facilitated the spread of mosquito-borne pathogens like malaria. The interconnection of the empire created a unified ‘disease pool’ where chronic diseases like tuberculosis and leprosy spread further than ever before. But, above all, the empire—and its massive trade contacts beyond the borders—opened the gate for newly evolved diseases, like smallpox, bubonic plague, measles, and possibly others—to enter the Roman world. The evolution of new, acute, directly communicable diseases created disease events—what are properly called pandemics—of a magnitude that had never been seen before. Three pandemics in particular—the Antonine Plague, the Plague of Cyprian, and above all the Justinianic Plague—shook the foundations of the Roman Empire.

Does the argument that “the environment did it” reduce the role of human factors?

There is simply no compelling way to describe the fall of the Roman Empire without an enormous allowance for human factors. The Empire was a human creation. Its fate was shaped by human choices and human structures. But I argue that we can actually understand the human element more deeply, and more sympathetically, with a deeper knowledge of the environmental dimensions of Roman history. The Romans were far from helpless victims of environmental catastrophe. They harnessed the power of the environment. They reshaped the disease ecology of the empire, with unintended consequences. They were resilient in the face of stress and strain. But we should not shy away from recognizing the power of nature. The physical and biological environment is an integral part of human life. There is really no separating human and natural factors in the story of Roman civilization.

What lessons can we learn from the fall of the Roman Empire?

The Romans have always captivated the imagination. The empire they built was truly extraordinary, in its scale and longevity and in the ways that its precocious development presaged modernity. And the dissolution of this empire has always been a poignant theme for reflecting on how even the greatest and most powerful of human constructions are ultimately transient. To be sure, our world is very different from the ancient world. We live long lives thanks to germ theory, public health, and antibiotic pharmaceuticals. Anthropogenic climate change is a greater risk than solar variability or volcanic winters. Still, we learn from the past because history is a humanistic discipline. We study the past and in the process emerge with a deeper, richer sense of what it means to be human. I hope that The Fate of Rome leaves its readers with a new sensibility toward the relationship between humanity and the environment. We care about the Romans because their civilization seemed to break free of some of the constraints that nature had imposed. But nature is cunning. Germs evolve. Surprises and paradox lurk in the heart of progress. The deep power of evolution can change the world in a mere moment. I hope the book sensitizes us to the awesome power of nature at all scales, from the microscopic to the global.

How did you decide to write a book on Rome and the environment?

I’ve wanted to write this book for a long time. I’ve been very fortunate to be around extremely creative people, including Michael McCormick, who was one of the first historians to insist that people in a traditionally humanistic field should pay attention to things like climate science, archaeological genetics, and bioanthropology. But only in the last couple of years has it even become possible to start pulling all the evidence together. The sequencing of the ancient genome of Yersinia pestis, for instance, is a watershed, as is the much clearer definition of the “late antique little ice age” achieved from tree rings and ice cores. All of this has happened in the last few years, and for those of us studying Roman history, it’s unbelievably fortunate. I think my book is the first to try to tie all this together with a robust model of how the Roman Empire actually worked, and what’s exciting is that over the next decade there will be lots of new evidence and plenty of revision to the story that I tell.

I also am lucky to be a Provost at the same time I’ve been working on this book. It means that I get to interact with atmospheric scientists, anthropologists, ecologists, microbiologists, and so on, on a daily basis. I have very generous colleagues who have helped me trespass across other disciplines. In turn, I hope my book shows why history is so valuable and so essential to other fields. Historians have a part to play in helping us understand everything from the landscape of global health to the chemistry of the atmosphere. In short, just as the natural sciences can help us understand human history better, so too can a deeper knowledge of the history of our species help us understand the natural world.

HarperKyle Harper is professor of classics and letters and senior vice president and provost at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425 and From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.

Matthew Simonton: American Oligarchy

SimontonThe 2016 election brought the burning issue of populism home to the United States. Donald Trump is, in many ways, part of a larger movement of populist politicians worldwide who have claimed to speak in the name of the “ordinary people.” (Marine Le Pen in France and Viktor Orbán in Hungary are other examples.) As with other populists, Trump’s presidency brings with it unsettling questions about illiberalism and ethno-nationalism. But in all the talk about “making American great again,” we are in danger of losing sight of a deeper problem, one which Trump will not change and in fact will likely exacerbate: the steady creep of oligarchy. The United States Constitution is enacted in the name of “We the People.” Abraham Lincoln famously described America’s political system in the Gettysburg Address as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Yet how much authority do ordinary citizens truly possess in today’s America? As the ancient Athenians would have put it, does the demos (people) in fact have kratos (power)?

Several indicators suggest that that power, if it ever was actually held by the people, is slipping away. Princeton University Press authors Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens have brought before our eyes hard truths about our “unequal democracy,” the fact that, too often, “affluence” brings “influence.” Gilens and the political scientist Benjamin I. Page demonstrated in an important article from 2014 that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens … have little or no independent influence.” Readers familiar with the findings of the economist Thomas Piketty have heard that the U.S. and other advanced capitalist economies are entering a new “Gilded Age” of wealth concentration. Can anything turn back inequality—what President Barack Obama called “the defining challenge of our time”—and the widening gap in political power and influence that comes with it?

The ancient Greeks had an answer to the problem of inequality, which they called demokratia. It is well known that Greek-style democracy was direct rather than representative, with citizens determining policy by majority vote in open-air assemblies. Yet democracy meant more than just meetings: political offices were distributed randomly, by lottery, on the assumption that every citizen was qualified (and in fact obligated) to participate in politics. Office-holders were also remunerated by the state, to ensure that poorer citizens who had to work for a living could still share in the constitution. Princeton author Josiah Ober has examined the ideology and practice of ancient democracy in multiple publications. In his latest work—similar in its conclusions to those of the ancient historian Alain Bresson—he has argued that democracies created fair rules and equal access to opportunity that secured citizen dignity and discouraged runaway economic inequality. Thus, as much as ancient democracies fall short of our contemporary standards (and they had grave faults in the areas of slave-holding and gender relations), they might constitute a model, however imperfect, for thinking about reducing both economic and political inequality.

On the other hand, many Greek city-states had a form of constitution based on diametrically opposed premises, and which encouraged opposite tendencies. This was oligarchia, the “rule of the few.” Ancient Greek oligarchs—members of the wealthy elite—most assuredly did not believe in citizen equality. Oligarchs thought that their greater wealth, which (by their lights, anyway) afforded them greater intelligence and virtue, made them uniquely qualified to rule. The non-elite, which then as today represented the poorer majority, had to be kept out of politics. (For a recent argument in favor of such an “oligarchy of the wise,” see Princeton author Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy.)

In my book Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History, I chart the rise of oligarchic thinking, showing that it emerged in conscious reaction to democracy, or the “power of the people.” Faced with the challenges democracy brought to their affluence and influence, oligarchs devised a new set of political institutions, which would ensure that the people could make no inroads into oligarchic privilege. This was not simply a matter of attaching property requirements to office-holding, although oligarchs certainly considered that essential. Oligarchies also stacked the judicial system in elites’ favor; sought to control the people’s speech, movement, and association; hoarded and manipulated information crucial to the city’s well-being; feathered their own nests with economic perquisites; and on occasion even resorted to extra-legal assassination to eliminate subversives. Oligarchies were, in short, authoritarian regimes. Engaging with contemporary scholarship in political science on authoritarianism, I show that ancient Greek oligarchies confronted the same basic problems that haunt modern authoritarians, and experimented with similar institutions for preserving their rule. In ways that have not been fully apparent until now, oligarchs and demos resemble today’s dictators and democrats.

As history shows us, inequality in one area (wealth) tends to convince elites that they have unequal abilities in another (politics). Yet in situations like that of Classical Greek oligarchy, when the wealthy obtain the unaccountable political power they desire, the result is not enlightened government but increased oppression. It would do citizens of modern democracies good to bear this in mind. In the United States, many are frustrated with politics, and with democracy in particular. Liberals worry about the supposed ignorance of the electorate. Conservatives want to restrict what majorities can legislate, especially in the area of economics. And the last election saw countless voters openly embrace a vision of America as headed by a billionaire strongman. In longing for a restriction on democracy, however—even if “only” meant for those with whom we disagree—we increase the likelihood of a more general oligarchic takeover. We play into oligarchs’ hands. If the Greek example is any indication, such short-term thinking would bode ill for the freedom of all citizens—and it would only make inequality worse.

Matthew Simonton is assistant professor of history in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University. He received his PhD in classics from Stanford University. He is the author of Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History.

Zora Neale Hurston in 2017: How Art Can Help Us Remember and Understand Disaster

Princeton University Press will donate the net proceeds from the sale of The Flood Year 1927 to hurricane relief through December 31, 2017

by Susan Scott Parrish

ParrishHarvey. Irma. Jose. Maria. Since August 17, one hurricane has chased the tail winds of its predecessor without pause. Three of these have made landfall in the United States, making the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season a record-breaker in number and intensity. We are getting used to having each season push the previous one out of our awareness—out of that space we leave in our brains to house the images and statistics of environmental disasters. Can you who live outside Louisiana remember the interminable, flooding rains of August 2016? This season, though, the attention obliteration rate has sped up. In our minds, we hold maps of damage, YouTube clips of world-bending wind, or aerial shots of inundated neighborhoods for but one week, when the mind needs to clear out room for the newer data. If you or your loved ones have not been directly in harm’s way, what will it take to help you remember Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria?

This is where well-crafted works of art can make a difference. Here I am using a broad definition of “art” to include documentary and feature films, books of nonfiction and fiction, collage and painting, drama, in-depth podcasts and so on. Part of why we will long remember Katrina is because of the catastrophic human error at play. Another reason is the artists who fashioned durable cultural markers in its aftermath. From Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke to Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun to Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina to Kara Walker’s “Post Katrina, Adrift,” each artist put significant attention into choices about representation: Lee’s ironic or plangent juxtaposition of sound and image, Eggers’s tight point-of-view narrative focus, Trethewey’s alternation of memoir and lyric poetry, and Walker’s careful reworking of a Theodore Gericault monumental history painting. Their attention to aesthetics, to making meaning and form coalesce, calls us to give our attention to an event long after its apparent end.

Let us go back before 2005, then, and think about art’s relationship to a much older hurricane and flood, a disaster that might have slipped from history were it not for a remarkable work of fiction. I want to think about Zora Neale Huston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and how it has kept awareness of the Okeechobee hurricane and flood of 1928 alive all these years—and how it was virtually alone in doing so until historians and journalists told its story in nonfiction form in the early 21st century.

Located west of Palm Peach, Lake Okeechobee covers over seven hundred and twenty square miles, making it the third largest freshwater lake within U.S. borders. Okeechobee used to release its waters in a slow cascade southward through saw-grass prairies all the way down to the Bay of Florida. Beginning in the 1880s, entrepreneurs from the northern U.S. and Britain dug massive canals west, east, and south of the lake to drain off the vast and now arable acreage to its south. What had been the Everglades became nine foot-deep rich earth—“the muck”—which came to yield large crops of vegetables and, most of all, sugar cane. Knowing that flooding was a possibility in a hurricane-prone region, the state built, between 1923 and 1925, a five-foot-high mud dike along forty-seven miles of the lake’s southern border. Housing for the agricultural laborers, who had emigrated there from throughout the South and Caribbean, stood right up against the presumably contained lake.

On September 16, 1928, a hurricane touched land on the eastern coast of Florida at Lake Worth with 130mph winds. With an eye 25 to 30 miles across, the winds pummeled Palm Beach around 6:45pm and then, moving as a counter-clockwise whirl in the darkness, came at Lake Okeechobee from the northwest corner, pushing a ten-foot wall of water over its bottom rim, and breaking down the paltry dike across a twenty-one mile expanse. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people died that night, almost half of the local population. More than three-quarters of the dead were African-American and Afro-Caribbean. According to one historian, more people of African descent died on that day than any other single day in U.S. history. While sixty-nine white bodies were placed in a marked burial ground at Woodlawn Cemetery in Palm Beach, six hundred and seventy-four black bodies were placed in a mass grave at the pauper’s field in West Palm Beach; another sixteen hundred were interred in Port Mayaca, on high ground to the east of Okeechobee—sites which remained unmarked until 2003. Scores of corpses were lost in the Everglades, and scores more were burned in funeral pyres. African-Americans were conscripted at gunpoint to do all of this work of gruesome clean up, including the putative separation of bodies by race, something the bodies’ decay made unintelligible.

Because Florida leaders were trying to develop the state as a holiday oasis, and a sure real estate investment, they didn’t want news of the disaster to travel. Most of the deaths had taken place quickly, in the middle of the night, fifty miles west of Palm Beach, in a rural locale full of migrant workers. The powerful who had access to national media to broadcast the disaster chose to remain quiet. The powerless did not seem to have a storyteller of note. At least not right away.

Zora Neale Hurston was not in harm’s way during the September 16th hurricane and flood, but she heard oral accounts when in Florida the following spring. In 1935, she then spent time in Belle Glade, a town on Lake Okeechobee’s southeastern edge, when she was gathering music for the Library of Congress, at which point she surely gathered more oral testimony of the flood and its aftermath. In late 1936, while in Haiti, Hurston wrote what would become one of the great American novels of the century, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

It tells the story of Janie Crawford, her search for a natural-feeling and play-filled love, an adventure as big as the horizon, and a way to shed the plantation legacies of her family and region. Hurston the ethnographer included many scenes of tale-telling, believing that how a community amuses itself was as deep a truth as how it withstands assaults. Because of its humor, contemporaneous reviewers—like Richard Wright and Alain Locke—dismissed the novel for its “minstrel” echoes and its lack of “sharp” social analysis. When the novel was revived by black feminists in the 1970s, it was as a story that empowered black women—to seek their desires and to speak when and how they wanted. The 80s and 90s saw critical appreciation of how finely Hurston intertwined the oral black vernacular with standard written English. Since Katrina and the levee disaster of 2005, Hurston’s deep engagement with the overlapping histories of race and environment in the U.S. has become increasingly evident. In other words, people are now paying more attention to the hurricane and flood toward whose crescendo and violent denouement the entire novel moves.

About three-quarters of the way into the novel, Janie is finally married to someone, Tea Cake, whose sensitivity to the green world seems to match her own. They are “natural” together, more aware of fish and trees and bees than social propriety or acquiring property. Picking beans just southeast of Lake Okeechobee, the pair lives in low-lying company quarters pushed up against the massive lake. It is mid-September, 1928. As signs appear of the approaching hurricane, Tea Cake wagers that they should stay behind. He forgets his own environmental knowledge and puts trust in the white bosses who haven’t evacuated. Hurston’s narrator bitingly comments on the weakness of this decision: “if the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry. Their decision was already made as always.” Trusting white authority and distrusting one’s own affiliation with nature turns out to be a dismal mistake. The lake bursts through the feeble mud dike and reclaims its old wetlands sovereignty: Okeechobee “seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters.” All in all, “the sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.”

Evacuating too late from the ‘Glades, Tea Cake and Janie make their harrowing way eastward to Palm Beach. During the journey, Janie tries to cover them with debris but is instead carried aloft over and into water. While saving her, Tea Cake is bitten on the cheek by a rabid dog. They finally reach what they believe to be the “city of refuge,” Palm Beach. It turns out, though, that the violence of the storm has here turned into human-on-human violence. Two white guards force Tea Cake at gunpoint to join a “small army” to clear wreckage and separate dead bodies Jim Crow-style. Tea Cake soon goes mad from the rabies and becomes homicidal with his wife. Janie shoots and kills him in self-defense.

When the novel was first published in 1937, its cover featured a woodcut image of a harrowed landscape. A Jehovah-like figure is hurling bolts and winds at the earth; trees bow in response and a house squats in flood waters up to its roof. Clearly, Hurston saw the hurricane and flood, which provided the book’s climax, and brought about the death of its male hero, as central to the story. Though contemporaneous reviewers were distracted by what they took to be the novel’s “quaint” humor, they missed the storm and the fact that Hurston buries prophecies about the storm to come in that very humor. Later critics who focused exclusively on the romantic odyssey also missed the fact that Hurston, through the flood, judges the apparently fitting third husband, and finds him wanting. That he failed to listen to his own environmental experience and defers instead to his white boss indicates the limits of the potential for their love. Finally, the exposé of Jim Crow, deferred through so much of the novel to make space for a study of the southern black community on its own terms, finally arrives with—and in the shape of—the man-made disaster. Hurston carefully included historic details from the ’28 flood that she had gathered through oral research so that the flood would not be simply a dramatic device but also act as a memorial structure to the officially unmarked disaster.

Every time Their Eyes Were Watching God is read, there is the potential for a profound encounter with this almost ninety-year-old event. Though Florida boosters at the time did not want the story broadcast, Hurston slowly transformed its obscured details and hidden remains into a meaningful story to withstand the decades. This September, Florida officials have been transparent about the vulnerability of their state. And Florida mayors have been some of the first to prepare in advance for how climate change will change their coastal cities. Even in this condition of open-eyed avowal, artists continue to have a role. Artists’ capacities to summon human care for strangers encountered through narratives and representations and to invest them with meaning is a crucial part of our world.

Susan Scott Parrish is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World and The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.

 

Walter Scheidel longlisted for the 2017 Cundill Prize

We are delighted to announce that The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel has been longlisted for the prestigious Cundill History Prize 2017. Celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2017, the international prize recognizes the best history writing in English. A press conference reception will be held to announce a short list of the three finalists on 26 October 2017 in London. On 16 November, 2017, the three finalists will be invited to the Cundill History Prize Gala in Montreal where the winner will be announced. We offer our heartfelt congratulations to Professor Scheidel and to all of the authors selected for this honor.

Scheidel