Jonathan Bate on How the Classics Made Shakespeare

Ben Jonson famously accused Shakespeare of having “small Latin and less Greek.” But he was exaggerating. Shakespeare was steeped in the classics. Shaped by his grammar school education in Roman literature, history, and rhetoric, he moved to London, a city that modeled itself on ancient Rome. He worked in a theatrical profession that had inherited the conventions and forms of classical drama, and he read deeply in Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca. In a book of extraordinary range, acclaimed literary critic and biographer Jonathan Bate, one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare, offers groundbreaking insights into how, perhaps more than any other influence, the classics made Shakespeare the writer he became.

Is Shakespeare on par with the ancient Greek and Roman writers of the classics? What made him stand out, rather than his contemporaries?

Astonishingly, considering that the theatre was still a fairly disreputable profession in Shakespeare’s time, people began comparing his works to those of classical antiquity even in his lifetime. His poems were compared to those of Ovid, his comedies to Plautus and his tragedies to Seneca. A few years after his death, his fellow-dramatist Ben Jonson wrote a poem in his memory—it’s included in the First Folio—in which he claimed that Shakespeare’s plays actually surpassed those of the ancients. Given that Jonson himself was phenomenally learned in the classics, that was a striking claim indeed. It does immediately provoke the question: why has Shakespeare and not Jonson or any of the other fine dramatists of the Elizabethan age become our classic, the modern equivalent of Sophocles or Virgil? That’s a question I’ve explored in my earlier books on the history of Shakespeare’s posthumous reputation—I return to it in the final chapter of this book, where I look at the classical idea of “fame”—but the implicit answer I have found, in the several years it took to research and write How the Classics made Shakespeare, is that the sheer range of his work was unmatched by any contemporary. Jonson was more obviously compared to Horace, Spenser to Virgil and Bacon to Cicero, but Shakespeare seemed to combine the gifts of them all. Similarly, Marlowe was great in tragedy and Jonson in comedy, but Shakespeare was, as he wittily puts it himself in Hamlet, the master of every genre, “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.”

How important was it that Shakespeare’s audiences understand allusions to fables and myths? Did Elizabethan theatre-goers have greater cultural literacy than modern audiences at Shakespeare plays when it came to understanding these references?

This is a big theme—and an anxiety—in my book. You have to remember that Latin was the absolute core of the Elizabethan schoolroom curriculum. Grammar school meant Latin grammar, morning, noon and night. The history, literature, thought and culture of ancient Rome—and, to a lesser extent, Greece—was everywhere in education, in the Elizabethan frame of mind, even, I suggest, in the architecture and iconography of the city of London. The theatres themselves were designed on Roman models. This meant that anyone who was literate, and probably quite a few citizens who were not, would have known what Shakespeare was talking about when one of his characters mentioned Hercules or Julius Caesar or Lucrece or Adonis or Actaeon or Alcibiades and a hundred others. My anxiety is that with the decline in knowledge of classical literature, history and mythology, many such references now pass over the heads of playgoers and students. For example, I have a riff in the book that begins with an inscription on a funeral monument in a London church in the parish where Shakespeare lived and then goes into a reference to Jason and the Golden Fleece in The Merchant of Venice. Both the monument maker and the playwright clearly assumed that people would know that story—but not many of us know it now (though maybe it is handy that Disney has reanimated some of the old classical myths!).

In the book, you say that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights agreed that “a work was good not because it was original, but because it resembled an admired classical exemplar.” If there are only 7 basic plots under the sun, why do modern audiences and writers frown upon stories that aren’t “original” while also still appreciating Shakespeare for his ability to pay homage to the classics? 

I like to tell my students that they need to get the nineteenth-century Romantic idea of genius and originality out of their head when they think about how Shakespeare put his plays together. It’s better to find an analogy in the way that art students were trained for centuries: you begin by copying the works of the great masters—that is how you hone your technique— and then you start performing variations on classical themes. That is how you prove your ingenuity: by variation and embellishment, not starting with a blank canvas. My book grew from a series of lectures at the Warburg Institute in London: it was the Warburg scholars, such as E. H. Gombrich in whose memory the lectures were named, who did more than anyone else to help us to understand this Renaissance process of offering original re-presentations that engage in dialogue with what they called “the classical tradition.”

Plenty of people have accused Shakespeare of plagiarism, or of lacking sufficient training in Greek and Latin. What are some other common misconceptions about Shakespeare that you’d like to rebut?

These claims go back to Shakespeare’s own time and to the indignation of university-educated dramatists, such as Robert Greene (who called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”), upon witnessing the rapid rise to theatrical prominence of the man from the backwoods with only a grammar school education to his name. But we need to remember that the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon produced some real talent—one of the schoolmasters was a published author of Latin verse, while Shakespeare’s fellow pupil Richard Field became a distinguished printer of books in many languages. The danger of the misconception created by jealous writers such as Greene is that it leads all too easily to the idea that Shakespeare couldn’t have been educated enough to write the plays … and that leads to all those ridiculous authorship conspiracy theories. The classical learning in the plays precisely matches that of the grammar school curriculum, with some later reading added on (notably the English translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans). The poems and plays are emphatically not written in the very different styles that we find among university-educated dramatists, Inns of Court trained lawyers, let alone aristocrats.

Is there any classic tale that Shakespeare reimagined that has made a lasting impression on you? 

I guess the one that has most haunted me is his adaptation of Ovid’s story of how the artist Pygmalion made a statue of a woman that was so beautiful that he fell in love with it and the gods then brought it to life. That’s an allegory of the power of aesthetic delight and a very sexy story, but also a slightly seedy one in which the woman is merely the object of desire. What is beautiful about Shakespeare’s reimagining is that the statue is not some abstract notion of female beauty, but a once and once again beloved wife who has been abused by unfounded male sexual jealousy and is then given back, so that the husband has a second chance—I’m talking, of course, about Hermione and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, where the reanimation at the end is an allegory of the power of theatrical magic (achieved through distinctively female agency in the form of Paulina) and at the same time a triumph of love as opposed to an act of sexual desire. The whole question of eros and its relation to theatre and to magic is at the heart of my book.

In your opinion, are there any writers from the past century who drew upon the classics and/or Shakespearean plots and might stand the test of time like Shakespeare still does today?

There was no guarantee that it would be Shakespeare rather than some other dramatist who became our immortal, and by the same account it would be a fool’s game to guess who will and who will not endure from the last hundred years. What does strike me, though, is that the poets whom I find myself reading—as Ben Jonson said we should read Shakespeare—“again and again” all seem to have been steeped in the classics, fascinated by the old stories and adept at translating, imitating and remaking them. I am thinking, for example, of W. B. Yeats, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. They were the poets who, along with Shakespeare, were my first “classics” when I was a teenager and a student.

Jonathan Bate is Provost of Worcester College and professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College. His many books include Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare and an award-winning biography of Ted Hughes. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC, has been on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is the coeditor of The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works,

International Sales Director Andrew Brewer: A Visit to Australia

Australia is large and a very long way away from the US and UK. These are well-known facts about the country. Less well-known, but common knowledge at the Press, is that Australia is a vibrant English-language book market, with a flourishing independent bookshop sector. Book sales are not dominated by online vendors. This is a very distinctive feature of the market there and makes it especially attractive for any English-language publisher, and especially one with global ambition.

But to return to the first point: Australia’s distance from our main centres of production means our books arrive there with a considerable freight cost applied. The result is an uncomfortable price fit with the local market. In addition the higher prices on our books actively encourage buying around, so individuals frequently take advantage of offshore online vendors, like The Book Depository in the UK (who offer free freight around the world). As a consequence, a proportion of our sales to Australia do not register in the ANZ territory at all.

Nevertheless, our sales and distribution partner in Australia – Footprint – have done a consistent job getting Princeton books into bookshops there, both chain and independent, and I travelled to Australia to judge this at first hand in February. Like the books, I also arrived with a considerable freight cost applied. It was my good fortune to be accompanied by Sarah Caro who, as well as joining me for some of my meetings, was there on the lookout for future authors among the local academic community. Sarah also found time to fulfill another of our global Princeton duties – adding to the Princeton in the World series:


We visited Melbourne and Sydney. There were many displays of Princeton books to be seen. Here are some highlights:

Readings Bookshop, Melbourne. This is a great bookshop, close to the university. Bright, modern, lively, with knowledgeable and engaged staff.

More from Readings. The Ancient Wisdom series was a constant bookshop companion throughout the trip, showing up in virtually every store we visited. We already know it’s a great series, but in distant locations like Australia, a series like this has great value for the way it extends the Princeton brand.      

Ai Weiwei books stacked up at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

The HIGHLIGHTS wall at the lovely Kinokuniya store in Sydney, where we see more Ancient Wisdom on display (middle drop, third shelf down).

And here is Ai Weiwei’s Humanity (bottom l/h corner), playing its part in the Crazy Good Asian promotion at the front of the Kino store:


Along with our visits to accounts, we were invited to the opening of the new campus bookshop at the University of New South Wales, where author Marcus Zusak gave an entertaining speech (he’s also a very friendly guy). Another striking element of the event was hearing the vice-chancellor of the university tell the audience that books and bookshops were central to the university’s vision for their students; this is an enlightened viewpoint!

The Future:

One result of the higher prices applied to Princeton books, and the buying around among consumers to better the local price, is rather flat sales year-to-year, which do not map onto our overall international sales growth.

So what are we doing to address this? One strategy is to experiment with locally produced editions of our books specifically for the ANZ market. The first such experiment will be John Quiggin’s Economics in Two Lessons. Quiggin is at University of Queensland, and his Zombie Economics did well for us in Australia. Because the trade market there has a strong preference for new titles in paperback, we will produce our edition of Quiggin in paper, priced at the level the market expects. It will be an interesting trial run for a programme we hope we can extend steadily over time.

In the longer term, we would also like to print more of our titles closer to the ANZ market. China is the obvious location. Production in China should reduce to some extent the cost-to-market for our books. Australia represents a wonderful opportunity for our books to sell, whilst also offering significant challenges. We look forward to establishing ourselves more firmly in the bookselling world there.


Opportunity costs: can carbon taxing become a positive-sum game?

Climate change, caused by human activity, is arguably the biggest single problem facing the world today, and it is deeply entangled with the question of how to lift billions of people out of poverty without destroying the global environment in the process. But climate change also represents a crisis for economists (I am one). Decades ago, economists developed solutions – or variants on the same solution – to the problem of pollution, the key being the imposition of a price on the generation of pollutants such as carbon dioxide (CO2). The idea was to make visible, and accountable, the true environmental costs of any production process. 

Carbon pricing could stabilise the global climate, and cap unwanted warming, at a fraction of the cost that we are likely to end up paying in other ways. And as emissions were rapidly reduced, we could save enough to compensate most of the ‘losers’, such as displaced coal miners; a positive-sum solution. Yet, carbon pricing has been mostly spurned in favour of regulatory solutions that are significantly more costly. Why?

Environmental pollution is one of the most pervasive and intractable failures of market systems (and Soviet-style central planning). Almost every kind of economic activity produces harmful byproducts, which are costly to dispose of safely. The cheapest thing to do is to dump the wastes into waterways or the atmosphere. Under pure free-market conditions, that’s precisely what happens. Polluters pay nothing for dumping waste while society bears the cost.

Since most energy in modern societies comes from burning carbon-based fuels, solving this problem, whether through new technology or altered consumption patterns, will require changes in a vast range of economic activities. If these changes are to be achieved without reducing standards of living, or obstructing the efforts of less developed countries to lift themselves out of poverty, it is important to find a path to emissions reduction that minimises costs.

But since pollution costs aren’t properly represented in market prices, there’s little use in looking at the accounting costs that appear in corporate balance sheets, or the market-based costs that go into national accounting measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For economists, the right way to think is in terms of ‘opportunity cost’, which can be defined as follows: The opportunity cost of anything of value is what you must give up so that you can have it. So how should we think about the opportunity cost of CO2 emissions?

We could start with the costs imposed on the world’s population as a whole from climate change, and measure how this changes with additional emissions. But this is an impossibly difficult task. All we know about the costs of climate change is that they will be large, and possibly catastrophic. It’s better to think about carbon budgets. We have a good idea how much more CO2 the world can afford to emit while keeping the probability of dangerous climate change reasonably low. A typical estimate is 2,900 billion tonnes – of which 1,900 billion tonnes have already been emitted.

Within any given carbon budget, an additional tonne of CO2 emitted from one source requires a reduction of one tonne somewhere else. So, it is the cost of this offsetting reduction that determines the opportunity cost of the additional emission. The problem is that, as long as the CO2 generated ‘disappears’ into the atmosphere (and, eventually, the oceans), corporations and households do not bear the opportunity cost of the CO2 they emit.

In a properly working market economy, prices reflect opportunity costs (and vice versa). A price for CO2 emissions high enough to keep total emissions within the carbon budget would ensure that the opportunity cost of increasing emissions would be equal to the price. But how can this be brought about?

In the 1920s, the English economist Arthur Pigou suggested imposing taxes on firms generating pollution. This would make the (tax-inclusive) prices paid by those firms reflect social cost. An alternative approach, developed by the Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, stresses the role of property rights. Rather than setting a price for pollution, society decides how much pollution can be tolerated, and creates property rights (emissions permits) reflecting that decision. Companies that want to burn carbon must acquire emissions permits for the CO2 they produce. Whereas the carbon-tax approach determines a price and lets markets determine the volume of polluting activity, the property-rights approach sets the volume and lets the market determine the price.

There is no necessary link between imposing a carbon tax and distributing the resulting payments. However, natural intuitions of justice suggest that the revenue from carbon pricing should go to those adversely effected. At a national level, the proceeds could be used to offset the costs borne by low-income households. More ambitiously, a truly just system of global property rights would give everyone equal rights, and require those who want to burn more than their share of carbon (mostly, the global rich) to buy rights from those who burn less.

This raises the question of whether emissions rights should be equalised going forward, or whether historical emissions should be taken into account, allowing poorer nations to ‘catch up’. This debate has been rendered largely irrelevant by dramatic drops in the price of renewable energy that have sidelined development strategies based on fossil fuels. The best solution seems to be ‘contract and converge’. That is, all nations should converge as fast as possible to an emissions level far below that of currently developed countries, then phase out emissions entirely.

Carbon taxes have already been introduced in various places, and proposed in many more, but have met with vigorous resistance nearly everywhere. Emissions-permit schemes have been somewhat more successful, notably in the European Union, but have not taken off in the way envisaged when the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997. This disappointing outcome requires explanation.

The ideas of Pigou and Coase provide a theoretically neat answer to the market-failure problem. Unfortunately, they run into the more fundamental problem of income distribution and property rights. If governments create emissions rights and auction them, they create public property out of a resource (the atmosphere) that was previously available for use (and misuse) free of charge. The same is true when a carbon tax is proposed.

Whether property rights are created explicitly, as in the Coase approach, or implicitly, through the carbon taxes advocated by Pigou, there will be losers as well as gainers from the resulting change in the distribution of property rights and, therefore, market income. Not surprisingly, those potential losers have resisted market-based policies of pollution control.

The strongest resistance arises when businesses that have previously dumped their waste into airways and waterways free of charge are forced to bear the opportunity costs of their actions by paying taxes or purchasing emissions rights. Such businesses can call on an array of lobbyists, think tanks and friendly politicians to defend their interests.

Faced with these difficulties, governments have often fallen back on simpler options such as regulations and ad hoc interventions, such as feed-in tariffs and renewable-energy targets. These solutions are more costly and frequently more regressive, not least as the size of the cost burden and the way it is distributed is obscure and hard to understand. Yet the likely costs of climate change are so great that even second-best solutions such as direct regulation are preferable to doing nothing; and the delays caused by resistance from business, and from the ideologically driven science deniers in their pay, have been such that, in the short run, emergency interventions will be required.

Still, the need to respond to climate change is not going away any time soon, and the costs of regulatory solutions will continue to mount. If we are to stabilise the global climate without hampering efforts to end the scourge of global poverty, some form of carbon pricing is essential.

Economics in Two Lessons: Why Markets Work So Well, and Why They Can Fail So Badly by John Quiggin is forthcoming via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

John Quiggin is the President’s Senior Fellow in Economics at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. His previous book, Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us (Princeton), has been translated into eight languages. He has written for the New York Times and the Economist, among other publications, and is a frequent blogger for Crooked Timber and on his own website: Twitter @JohnQuiggin

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Yan Xuetong on Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers

XuetongWhile work in international relations has closely examined the decline of great powers, not much attention has been paid to the question of their rise. The upward trajectory of China is a particularly puzzling case. How has it grown increasingly important in the world arena while lagging behind the United States and its allies across certain sectors? Borrowing ideas of political determinism from ancient Chinese philosophers, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers explains China’s expanding influence by presenting a moral-realist theory that attributes the rise and fall of nations to political leadership. Yan Xuetong shows that the stronger a rising state’s political leadership, the more likely it is to displace a prevailing state in the international system. Using the lens of classical Chinese political theory, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers offers a provocative, alternative perspective on the changing dominance of nations on the global stage.

How did you come to make the connection between political leadership and the rise of great powers?

Reading Chinese political writings pre-Qin, I found that all ancient Chinese political thinkers attributed the prosperity or decline of a hegemon to its rulers. Since all of the ancient Chinese hegemons experienced the process of rise, boom, decline, and perish with no substantial change in the institution of those states, the only variable ancient Chinese thinkers could identify was the change in leadership quality. As such, it raised, for me, two questions: how does an effectively similar political institution bring about different results and why does the rise and fall of hegemons correspond to different leaderships when the institution remains unchanged?

What is your book bringing to the conversation on the rise of great powers that hasn’t been addressed before?

Most of the IR literature on the rise of great powers focuses on a specific strategy for obtaining international leadership and then dissects why that strategy works. Meanwhile, IR writings often explain the rise and fall of great powers with different factors. For instance, imperial over-expansion is often applied as one of the main factors to a hegemon’s decline while technology invention to its rise. In contrast, this book takes a leadership-focused approach and brings to attention the human element in political decision making and demonstrates how the mentality of the leadership contributes to the effective rise and fall of hegemons. The leadership focused approach integrates three levels of analysis: individual, state and system. This approach not only offers an explanation for the rise and fall of great powers, but it can also explain the changes in international configurations, norms, orders, and systems.

Can you say a bit about the connection between ancient Chinese philosophy and modern political theory?

Ancient Chinese philosophical writings offer many analyses about the relations between ancient Chinese states that are applicable to modern international relations. This is because pre-Qin China was composed of many independent states that were vying for power in a manner that resembles current international jockeying. For the ancient Chinese philosophers, China constituted the entirety of the known world, whereas for modern scholars, the geographical range for the known world has expanded to encompass the entire planet. However, although the geographical size has expanded, there remains a structural parallel between current international entities and those of the interstate relations of the pre-Qin era. As such, generalized observations by ancient philosophers about the patterns of interaction amongst sovereign entities of power remain relevant in the modern era. This is much like how Art of War by Sunzi has been scaled down to derive insight towards modern military affairs. For instance, ancient Chinese philosophers described the differences between wangdao (humane authority) and badao (hegemony) in establishing and maintaining interstate order. This distinction is also applicable to how international norms work in current global system.

What do the ancients have to tell us on a topic that is generally thought to be firmly grounded in the present?

Ancient Chinese philosophers tell us that the order of a social system, no matter domestic or interstate, is based on a hierarchical relationship among its actors. Absolutely equal relations results in chaos. Any form of organization requires the existence of leaders and subordinates. Absolute equality leads to mob justice, as seen in the social bullying that occurs on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms where there are no accepted community leaders. Therefore, political leadership is the prerequisite of all types of structured relations and social orders. It follows that different types of leadership produce different social orders. The uncertainty of the present international politics since 2017 is mainly the result of a lackadaisical and confrontational international leadership. People may have different explanations for the lack of a reputable international leadership, but they generally agree that its absence is the major reason for the current disorder.

What accounts for China lagging behind other developed nations, even as it becomes increasingly important on the world stage?

China’s material capability is second only to that of the US. Nevertheless, China is not viewed as an international leader by the developed countries mainly because its political system is based on a cult of personality rather than the rule of law. A cult of personality is more efficient for governance than the rule of law, but it is far more susceptible to catastrophic disasters because of its restriction on freedom of expression. For the sake of preventing disasters and compelling state leaders to correct their wrong decisions, it is worthwhile for major powers to consider establishing a remonstrant system, which was a popular institution of central government in ancient China.

Do nations always rise at the expense of other nations?

Yes. There is a zero-sum structural conflict between rising powers and the status hegemon. “The rise of great powers” is defined as a process of a rising power reducing the capability gap with the status hegemon until it surpasses the latter. Since all hegemons regard maintaining international domination as their strategic interest, being surpassed by a rising power represents a huge loss. Meanwhile, due to the zero-sum nature of power distribution, the rise of a new great power must bring about a relative decline of other major powers’ international status, even as their absolute capabilities continue to grow.

What are some examples of the political leaders who have contributed to China’s rise, and how exactly did they have this positive impact?

The Chinese government headed by Deng Xiaoping represents a proactive political leadership contributing to China’s rise. The core of Deng’s political principles were opening-up and reform. “Opening-up” guarantees the right direction of reform and “reform” replaces the outdated methods with current advancements. That is why all the three leaderships after Deng flag that principle as their political guideline. Although the reforms after Deng have not been as dramatic, Chinese leaders have implemented more reforms than their concurrent counterparts in other major powers. While it is true that since 1978 Chinese leaders have all adopted some regressive policies that undermined the growth of national capability, these harmful policies were less detrimental to national growth than the policies of their counterparts in other major powers.

Within the framework of your argument, what accounts for the diminishing international stature of the United States?

The relative decline of the US is the result of having less positive political reform than China since the end of the Clinton administration. The Bush administration adopted an aggressive leadership, which prioritized military expansion abroad over political reform at home. Obama’s administration was unsuccessful at implementing political reform despite its best intentions to do so. Trump’s administration is an economically aggressive leadership, adopting regressive policies rather than reform. Trump’s policy of abandoning international leadership provides a strategic opportunity for China to improve its international influence. However, Trump’s leadership is not unique to his time. At present, the leaderships of many major powers are similar to Trump’s authoritarian rule. The result of current strategic competition between major powers is likely to be determined by leadership which undermines national growth rather than implementing reforms.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

First, I hope this book helps policy makers realize that the growth of national capability is determined by the reforms implemented by the nation’s leadership and that capability of a leader can be determined by how much reform they can implement. Second, I hope IR scholars will pay attention to the role of political leadership, especially international leadership, in their analysis of international changes after reading this book. Third, I hope readers are inspired to vote for their national leaders based on the reforms their candidates have accomplished in their political careers rather than their rhetoric.

Yan Xuetong is professor of political science and dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His many books include Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power.

Marion Turner on Chaucer: A European Life

More than any other canonical English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer lived and worked at the centre of political life—yet his poems are anything but conventional. Edgy, complicated, and often dark, they reflect a conflicted world, and their astonishing diversity and innovative language earned Chaucer renown as the father of English literature. Marion Turner, however, reveals him as a great European writer and thinker. To understand his accomplishment, she reconstructs in unprecedented detail the cosmopolitan world of Chaucer’s adventurous life, focusing on the places and spaces that fired his imagination.

What compelled you to write a biography about Chaucer that focuses on place rather than chronological events in his life?  

I was trying to find a way to get under his skin. Although we have an extraordinary amount of information about Chaucer—mainly because he was a government servant, and records were meticulously kept—we don’t have personal letters, diaries, recollections, the kind of material biographers of more recent subjects can access. But I realised that I could get into his head—his imagination—by focusing on his environment: the art he saw, the streets he travelled, the kinds of buildings and structures he lived in. He had an extraordinarily adventurous life—travelling to multicultural communities in the Iberian peninsular, being taken prisoner and ransomed in the Hundred Years War, travelling at least twice to Italy, picking up manuscripts on the way, seeing slave markets in Genoa and the art of Giotto in Florence. Some of my chapters focus on actual places, such as Navarre, Vintry Ward in London, or Reims; others on more conceptual spaces such as Peripheries, Thresholds, and the Cage; and others on institutions such as the Inn, the Great Household, and the Abbey. For me, this structure enabled me to get inside Chaucer’s world, to think, for instance, about what it was like to live in a much more public way than we do now. And this structure also allowed me to follow particular themes and threads more organically than a strictly chronological structure would. At the same time, I am interested in the development of his imagination across time—in how he became the poet of the Canterbury Tales—so I did maintain a rough chronology, with the book divided into three parts that each span a phase of his life. One wonderful thing is that many of the places that mattered in Chaucer’s life can still be viewed today—the walls and Tower of London, for instance, or the medieval town of Olite in Navarre. I found tracing his footsteps to be profoundly important as I researched the book.

Why was writing a narrative poem in English so revolutionary in the 14th century? What was particularly challenging about that task, from a linguistic and stylistic standpoint?

People had been writing long poems in English before Chaucer, and indeed there is an unbroken tradition of poetry in English going back to Beowulf and even earlier. But it wasn’t a prestigious language in Chaucer’s day—the prestigious languages were French and Latin, and English was very much the poor relation. Then things started to change, and Chaucer was at the forefront of that change. In the second half of the fourteenth century, Chaucer was part of an upsurge in the production of texts in English—other poets, such as Gower, Langland and the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were also writing in English, religious writers including the female author Julian of Norwich were beginning to write texts, and English was increasingly used in government—for instance in the law courts.

Chaucer was an innovator in what he did with English. At this time, court poets were writing in French, and it was completely new to write a courtly love poem—these were called ditz amoureux—in English. When Chaucer wrote his first long poem, the Book of the Duchess, it was very much in the style of French poets, such as Machaut and Froissart. Chaucer then went into a kind of experimental frenzy—he developed all kinds of new verse forms, and really pushed the boundaries of what English poetry could do. Most notably, he invented the iambic pentameter—the ten syllable, five stress line that became the building block of English poetry, and was used by later poets such as Shakespeare. Chaucer had to borrow a lot of words from other languages, and invent new words, to expand what English could do. He even complains in one short poem about the scarcity of words in English. Indeed, he was so newfangled that he invented the word newfangled!

Clearly, Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most important figures in the English literary canon because of his myriad contributions to the language and the poetic form. Is there anything that readers might find surprising?

So many things. The idea of Chaucer as father of English literature came about after his death, in the fifteenth century, and has gathered momentum ever since then. But in many ways, it really misrepresents him, and makes people think of him as a rather establishment, patriarchal, national figure. One of the things that I want to get across in this book is that he was a great European figure—and that for Chaucer the idea that being English somehow meant not being European would have been crazy. His choice to write in English was very much inspired by what Italian poets (such as Dante and Boccaccio) had been doing—he was part of an international trend to focus on more accessible vernaculars, rather than prestigious, exclusive languages. His life was outward-facing—he travelled a great deal, was multilingual, and in London was living at the heart of global trade networks. You could buy spices from Indonesia in London in the fourteenth century, and Chaucer’s childhood ward had more immigrants living there than any other London ward.

And much of Chaucer’s writing is indeed focused on the importance of allowing different kinds of people to read and to tell stories. In contrast to his sources, when Chaucer wrote a tale-collection he ostentatiously made sure that the tellers were from myriad social groups, and refused to allow principles of hierarchy to dictate the order of the tales. Another great example is his dream poem, the House of Fame, a poem which attacks the idea of the canon, and emphasises that a poet or storyteller can’t only rely on old books—they have to go to the streets, listen to their neighbours’ gossip, find inspiration in life as well as libraries. Literature, for Chaucer, was dynamic and living, and that is one reason why it has survived so well and continues to inspire so many contemporary poets to make their own creations. He’d have loved that!

A particularly disturbing anecdote from the book reveals that Chaucer was very likely accused of raptus, or rape, though this is hotly contested by literary critics who hold that his treatment of female characters made him more sympathetic towards women in general. What does this shred of evidence mean for us as readers, when we’re forced to grapple with the overlap between an important writer’s public and private lives, or between their works of fiction and their reality? 

That’s such a difficult question, and it has many parts to it. I suppose the key question here is what is the relationship between life and works? It seems to me to be very dangerous to assume that because someone shows sympathy to women in their writings, or music, or films, they could not also be personally violent towards them. Whatever Chaucer, or Marlowe, or Ezra Pound did or thought does not, ultimately, affect my judgement of their art. And if we only read works written by people of whose opinions and actions we approved, we’ll certainly be intellectually impoverished. I do think there is a difference if we are talking about people such as Roman Polanski, or Michael Jackson, whose victims are still alive today—a difference in terms of our sensitivity towards and respect for those people. A separate question is whether Chaucer was indeed guilty of this accusation—and that remains an open question, which scholars are still debating, and which I do talk more about in the book. I’m also interested in many aspects of his relationships with women in this biography—in particular his daughter, whom no one has written about before, and his first employer, Elizabeth de Burgh, who dressed him in scandalously tight trousers when he was a teenage page.

What do you hope that readers take away from Chaucer? 

One of the mantras of the Canterbury Tales is ‘diverse men, diversely they said.’ In other words, different people have different opinions. Chaucer himself is profoundly interested in perspective, in the idea that what you see depends on where you are standing—both literally and metaphorically, That’s something that contemporary scientists and artists were interested in too, as men such as Oresme debated about the rotation of the earth, for instance. In the Tales, Chaucer shows us that the same tale can be told in contrasting ways by different tellers; that readers or listeners will interpret stories in varying ways; and that no one interpretation is final or authoritative. I hope that readers will be caught by surprise and interest when they read about the global medieval world, or about Chaucer’s preoccupation with imagining astral flight, or about Chaucer’s role looking after the king’s falcons, or about what it was like to be imprisoned in 1359, or about Chaucer’s journeys amongst Jewish and Muslims communities, to give a few examples. But mainly I hope that each reader finds something that fascinates them, something that maybe challenges a previously-held assumption or belief—but what that is might be different for each reader.

Marion Turner is associate professor of English at Jesus College, University of Oxford.




Justin Smith on Irrationality

It’s a story we can’t stop telling ourselves. Once, humans were benighted by superstition and irrationality, but then the Greeks invented reason. Later, the Enlightenment enshrined rationality as the supreme value. Discovering that reason is the defining feature of our species, we named ourselves the “rational animal.” But is this flattering story itself rational? In this sweeping account of irrationality from antiquity to today—from the fifth-century BC murder of Hippasus for revealing the existence of irrational numbers to the rise of Twitter mobs and the election of Donald Trump—Justin Smith says the evidence suggests the opposite. From sex and music to religion and war, irrationality makes up the greater part of human life and history.

What led you to write a book about irrationality?

I had long supposed that human thought and behavior have been a relatively static thing for the past 200,000 years, that there is a fairly narrow range of species-specific responses to the world around us, and that these are not going to fundamentally change until or unless we become a different sort of animal. The past few years have tested this long-held assumption. I came to feel that the world was going mad, that many people, including many I know and love, were now speaking and reasoning as if they had passed through to the other side of a looking-glass, or had come back from the other side, and were now communicating in a frenetic glossolalia or in pretend robot-voices. And it terrified me. I began to wonder whether this is not a normal process of disillusionment one can expect to go through at a certain stage of life, when the scales fall from our eyes and we realize that human beings have been bonkers all along and that society is just a flimsy tarp that camouflages this madness, or whether, instead, there really is something important about the present moment that is bringing the irrationality out, like methane from below the ice of the melting tundra. It seemed to me the best way to answer this question would be to investigate it historically, with a maximally sweeping view, attempting so to speak a genealogy of irrationality, one which reaches back into the past, but always with an eye to understanding the present. 

You say that irrationality is ineliminable from human life. Why do you think humans are so inherently irrational? Why doesn’t it seem to matter to us if there are facts that directly contradict our irrationally-held beliefs?

The point of emphasizing its ineliminability is that, again at least until we become a different sort of animal by evolution or by genetic engineering, harm to human beings will be reduced if we understand irrationality as something to be managed, in the way we manage our proneness to tooth decay and do not simply knock our teeth out and replace them with dentures, rather than as something to be obliterated, like polio or cancer. Historically, every attempt at structuring society in a perfectly rational way has been a folly, and has resulted in tremendous individual suffering, in part because the human beings made to endure such political projects remain exactly the same inwardly as humans in those societies that have found effective ways to manage all our dark impulses and unjustifiable but beautiful attachments rather than simply to suppress them. In this respect my argument is kind of boring in its centrism and its attachment to the golden mean, but it also discerns, I think, an important dialectical connection between the two poles in question: do not become too devoted to reason, or you will be pulled over into the opposite extreme. 

Can groups like LessWrong ever really eliminate irrational decision-making as it relates to artificial intelligence and business operations?

Of course not. As I say in the book, they’d be a lot better off just reading some Virgil or Shakespeare and not worrying so much about whether it’s helping them to better apply Bayesianism to their daily lives, rather than acting as if human flourishing is equivalent to making rationally justifiable choices. I mean, obviously, if you spend your days writing Harry Potter fan-fiction, which seems to be a thing in that subculture, something has gone very wrong, and no amount of formal epistemology or probability theory can rescue you from what appears to an outsider to that subculture as an obviously bad choice, not just of how to spend one’s time, but of a whole form of life. 

Is there any benefit to thinking or behaving irrationally?

Sometimes, but it can also kill you, so you need to make your decisions wisely. Sometimes it’s a good idea to smoke; sometimes it’s a good idea to be foolhardy in combat; sometimes it’s a good idea to free solo climb El Capitan. Other times it’s not. The big mistake is to suppose that one can turn to philosophy to find ‘rules for living’ that would dictate generic principles applicable in all circumstances, rather than acknowledging that the only answer is, often, what may be called a radical choice, ungrounded in any principle or rule. 

So, what can we take away from all of this?

The book is an essay and not a theoretical or argumentative work, which means that it is a contribution to a genre in ill repute among academics, and runs the risk of being dismissed by my philosopher-peers as conveying little more than what is called on Twitter a ‘mood’. I can live with that. Moods can be diagnostically very useful, and we certainly know more about what people were really thinking, say, in the 16th century, when we read Montaigne than when we read Francisco Suárez. In any case if the book were making a theoretical argument, it would almost certainly be wrong. In being honest about its true character as an essay, I may hope that at least some readers will be able to share the mood of it, and perhaps thereby to accompany me in the project of becoming a bit wiser. 

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris 7–Denis Diderot. His books include The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton). An editor at large of Cabinet Magazine, he also writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and other publications.

Princeton University Press and Cornell Lab of Ornithology to Partner

Princeton University Press is proud to announce a new publishing partnership with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a world leader in the study, appreciation, and conservation of birds.

Starting with the Autumn 2019 season, Princeton University Press and the Cornell Lab will publish diverse books and other products uniquely designed for everyone from experienced and amateur birders to the environmentally conscious and generally “bird curious.” The partnership will officially launch with the release of two interactive, regional bird-a-day 2020 calendars, and a comprehensive, beautifully illustrated birder’s life list and journal. Cornell Lab of Ornithology books for children will continue to be published by the Cornell Lab Publishing Group, an imprint of WunderMill children’s books.

“We are delighted to be working with Cornell Lab,” says Robert Kirk, Princeton University Press Executive Editor and Publisher of Field Guides and Natural History. “The Lab leads the world in bird-related citizen-science initiatives and is home to an impressive array of experts in many fields. We look forward to harnessing the individual and collective knowledge within the Lab to create innovative books and products that will appeal to birders everywhere.”

John Fitzpatrick, Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says, “The Lab is looking forward to this new publishing partnership to engage ever-growing audiences in learning about and protecting birds and nature.”

Walter Mattli on Darkness by Design: The Hidden Power in Global Capital Markets

MattliCapital markets have undergone a dramatic transformation in the past two decades. Algorithmic high-speed supercomputing has replaced traditional floor trading and human market makers, while centralized exchanges that once ensured fairness and transparency have fragmented into a dizzying array of competing exchanges and trading platforms. Darkness by Design exposes the unseen perils of market fragmentation and “dark” markets, some of which are deliberately designed to enable the transfer of wealth from the weak to the powerful. Essential reading for anyone with money in the stock market, Darkness by Design challenges the conventional view of markets and reveals the troubling implications of unchecked market power for the health of the global economy and society as a whole.

How did you come to write this book?

Right after the 2007-2008 financial crisis I became interested in questions regarding the regulation of big banks in order to prevent abuse, market distortions, and further scandals and crises. I wanted to look at the ways in which the very same contributors to the financial crisis benefited from it, but I discovered that a number of financial experts were already examining the topic and producing very insightful research. I thus decided to shift my attention to an important related area that many knew little about: the structure and governance of capital markets. After talking to several dozen market actors and doing some preliminary research, what struck me as particularly interesting was the puzzling transformation of equity market structure: the move from centralized to fragmented markets in the early 2000s. I wasn’t convinced by the conventional view of this transformation; I therefore began to investigate the question of market structure and governance more carefully. In the process, I made interesting discoveries that I felt should be explored more fully and presented to a broad audience.

Can you explain the title? What exactly is being hidden?

A retired regulator with a distinguished 15-year record at the helm of two major financial regulatory organizations confessed to me that he no longer understands how these complex capital markets really work. The average investor is even more in the dark about these markets. When an investor sends an order to buy or sell a stock by the click of a mouse, the order may take a lightning journey through a maze of dark pools and exchanges before being filled. How does the investor know that on the journey to execution the order was treated fairly and was filled at the best available price?

The title, Darkness By Design, refers to almost invisible exploitative trading schemes or arrangements in today’s capital markets that are deliberately designed and governed to enable the transfer of wealth from the weak to the powerful.  

To understand the mechanism of such exploitation, it is important to go beyond conventional accounts of how markets work and acknowledge the extent to which markets are political organizations. What the many conventional accounts of the function of markets overlook is the extent to which markets are deeply political organizations or governance systems where what is being hidden is the extent to which power politics shapes markets. Contending groups intensely battle to shape market rules and structure according to their own narrow preferences. Power is central to explaining markets both in the sense of general power politics arguments about who wins or loses, and in the sense that markets themselves are political institutions governed by power relations.

What are the origins of the market fragmentation that we’re seeing today? 

It’s worth recalling that for over two centuries, securities markets in all major countries tended toward greater concentration. Concentration of trading in one large organized public market or trading “pool” seemed natural and inevitable, because the greater the number of users of an exchange the more attractive that exchange is to new or potential users, since new buyers and sellers are more likely to find a counter-party in a large market than in a small one. That is to say, a central market naturally has the highest concentration of orders: it has the greatest trading depth (volume of bids and offers) as well as breadth (range of tradeable securities). In other words, it has the highest liquidity, and liquidity begets liquidity: the bigger the flow of trades, the stronger the pull.

My book questions the conventional view of the move from centralization to fragmentation that says that centralized markets were monopolistic and inefficient and that this led to the fragmentation of the market. In this narrative, investors are the principal beneficiaries owing to narrower trading spreads and lower commissions, but this deeply entrenched conventional view is flawed. A key finding of my book is that power politics caused the market fragmentation—it was a plot by a coterie of powerful insiders who had grown weary of the traditional way of organizing trading, viewed the old model increasingly as contrary to their economic interests, and quietly pushed for a different market structure more aligned with those interests.

How is market fragmentation hurting us now?

In today’s fragmented markets characterized by many “shallow” pools of liquidity—a proliferation of public exchanges, broker-dealer dark pools, and other private off-exchange trading places—costly new technology is often used by powerful market operators in quiet and nearly invisible ways to maximize their profits at the expense of ordinary investors. Specifically, information asymmetries and secrecy—often deliberate governance-design strategies—have enabled a small but powerful group of unscrupulous market operators to milk conflicts of interest, often in undisclosed or hidden ways, at the expense of the unsuspecting investing public.

Latent in the minds of many victims of these strategies is a belief that “modern” markets are technologically determined and that technological progress must be good. But new technology is neither bad nor good; its social value is solely determined by the incentives or motives of the users of this technology. The rise of fragmentation, or market transformation more generally, matters because it shapes the incentives of market actors to invest in either good or bad governance.

Good governance is about managing conflicts of interest for the long-term benefit of all in society whereas bad governance milks the conflicts of interest for the benefit of the few on the backs of the many. Over the past decade and a half, fragmentation has given rise to bad governance. Market makers have fewer obligations, market surveillance is neglected or impossible, and enforcement is rendered ineffective.

It is important to note that market fragmentation is by no means limited to the US equity market. Elsewhere, too, market centralization has been replaced by varying levels of fragmentation.

Is this story all doom and gloom? Are there any positives? What would have to happen to address the issues related to market fragmentation?

Darkness by design is not inevitable—the mantle of darkness can be lifted through a combination of steps based on several fundamental principles, including market transparency based on stringent disclosure rules and robust market intelligence, a level playing field for market participants, proper accountability for market disruption and bad governance, and, crucially, market consolidation or centralization. The reason is that dominant exchanges in such market systems have particularly strong reputational concerns and the requisite financial resources to invest in good governance. Dominance means high public visibility, which brings with it great reputational vulnerabilities.

In highly fragmented market systems, the many market organizations have an incentive to cut corners. Why focus on delivering high quality public goods, such as price discovery, if competitors can simply free ride, and, in addition, good money can be made by milking conflicts of interest? Once such behavior becomes permissive and the unspoken norm, no significant reputational costs result from engaging in, abetting, or condoning bad market behavior.

Regulatory intervention in capital markets by governments plays a role in lifting the mantle of darkness. However, it is rarely the only answer and not necessarily the most effective one. It is bound to face considerable practical and especially political challenges, not least from powerful defenders of the status quo who will fight change tooth and nail. There is another answer: market solutions to market failures, sometimes nudged or facilitated by regulators. Specifically, greater consolidation and market centralization are possible—not through regulatory intervention but perhaps through market processes.

Consolidation of markets at the national or transnational level, with one or more dominant exchanges, is likely to generate a fairer, simpler, more transparent, and more efficient marketplace than the one created by a fragmented system and characterized by shallow liquidity scattered across a wide range of exchanges, dark pools, and internalizers. 

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

A key contribution of this book is the empirical analysis into historical patterns of market structure and governance. The book shows the market transformation that took place over time. Central to the analysis is the role of power politics in shaping market structure and governance: changes in the distribution of power in capital markets alter market actors’ relative influence in pushing for or opposing change. Specifically, over the last decade and a half, transformations have taken place which have resulted in fragmentation and badly governed markets, thereby adversely affecting aspects of quality and fairness in these markets. I hope the book will encourage readers to become more cautious and will equip them to ask tough questions of their brokers in order to better protect their interests when investing in capital markets.

Walter Mattli is professor of international political economy and a fellow of St. John’s College, University of Oxford. His books include The New Global Rulers: The Privatization of Regulation in the World Economy and The Politics of Global Regulation. He lives in Oxford, England.

90 Years Ago Today: Einstein’s 50th Birthday

This post is made available by the Einstein Papers Project

Einstein’s fiftieth birthday appears to have been more of a cause for celebration by others than for himself. Having lived under intense scrutiny from the (mostly) adoring public and intrusive journalists for 10 years already, Einstein made valiant efforts to avoid attention from the press on this momentous occasion. He was particularly keen to avoid the hullabaloo ratcheting up for his fiftieth in Berlin. The day before his birthday, a New York Times article, Einstein Flees Berlin to Avoid Being Feted reported that: “To evade all ceremonies and celebrations, he suddenly departed from Berlin last night and left no address. Even his most intimate friends will not know his whereabouts.”

Einstein’s decision allowed him and his family relative respite. While Einstein hid in a countryside retreat, “[t]elegraph messengers, postmen and delivery boys had to wait in line hours today in front of the house No. 5 Haberland Strasse, delivering congratulations and gifts to Albert Einstein on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday today,” according to the March 15 issue of the Jewish Daily Bulletin. Above is one card of the many that Einstein received on and around his birthday; it was made by a pupil at the Jüdische Knabenschule, Hermann Küchler.

After all, an intrepid reporter did find Einstein – in a leafy neighborhood of Berlin called Gatow, half an hour from the city center. A report for avid fans, Einstein Found Hiding on his Birthday, in the March 15 edition of The New York Times provides a gamut of details from the color of his sweater to the menu for his birthday dinner and the array of gifts found on a side table. Happy reading, on this, the 140th anniversary of Einstein’s birth!


Einstein’s 50th will be covered in Volume 16 of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Of the many and various resources we refer to for historical research, the two used for this web post were: The New York Times archive: Times Machine and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Archive. Access to the Times Machine requires a subscription to The New York Times. The card, item number 30-349, is held at the Albert Einstein Archives at HUJI.

Christian Sahner: Islam spread through the Christian world via the bedroom

There are few transformations in world history more profound than the conversion of the peoples of the Middle East to Islam. Starting in the early Middle Ages, the process stretched across centuries and was influenced by factors as varied as conquest, diplomacy, conviction, self-interest and coercion. There is one factor, however, that is largely forgotten but which played a fundamental role in the emergence of a distinctively Islamic society: mixed unions between Muslims and non-Muslims.  

For much of the early Islamic period, the mingling of Muslims and non-Muslims was largely predicated on a basic imbalance of power: Muslims formed an elite ruling minority, which tended to exploit the resources of the conquered peoples – reproductive and otherwise – to grow in size and put down roots within local populations. Seen in this light, forced conversion was far less a factor in long-term religious change than practices such as intermarriage and concubinage. 

The rules governing religiously mixed families crystallised fairly early, at least on the Muslim side. The Quran allows Muslim men to marry up to four women, including ‘People of the Book’, that is, Jews and Christians. Muslim women, however, were not permitted to marry non-Muslim men and, judging from the historical evidence, this prohibition seems to have stuck. Underlying the injunction was the understanding that marriage was a form of female enslavement: if a woman was bound to her husband as a slave is to her master, she could not be subordinate to an infidel.

Outside of marriage, the conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries saw massive numbers of slaves captured across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Female slaves of non-Muslim origin, at least, were often pressed into the sexual service of their Muslim masters, and many of these relationships produced children.

Since Muslim men were free to keep as many slaves as they wished, sex with Jewish and Christian women was considered licit, while sex with Zoroastrians and others outside the ‘People of the Book’ was technically forbidden. After all, they were regarded as pagans, lacking a valid divine scripture that was equivalent to the Torah or the Gospel. But since so many slaves in the early period came from these ‘forbidden’ communities, Muslim jurists developed convenient workarounds. Some writers of the ninth century, for example, argued that Zoroastrian women could be induced or even forced to convert, and thus become available for sex.

Whether issued via marriage or slavery, the children of religiously mixed unions were automatically considered Muslims. Sometimes Jewish or Christian men converted after already having started families: if their conversions occurred before their children attained the age of legal majority – seven or 10, depending on the school of Islamic law – they had to follow their fathers’ faith. If the conversions occurred after, the children were free to choose. Even as fathers and children changed religion, mothers could continue as Jews and Christians, as was their right under Sharia law.

Mixed marriage and concubinage allowed Muslims – who constituted a tiny percentage of the population at the start of Islamic history – to quickly integrate with their subjects, legitimising their rule over newly conquered territories, and helping them grow in number. It also ensured that non-Muslim religions would quickly disappear from family trees. Indeed, given the rules governing the religious identity of children, mixed kinship groups probably lasted no longer than a generation or two. It was precisely this prospect of disappearing that prompted non-Muslim leaders – Jewish rabbis, Christian bishops and Zoroastrian priests – to inveigh against mixed marriage and codify laws aimed at discouraging it. Because Muslims were members of the elite, who enjoyed greater access to economic resources than non-Muslims, their fertility rates were probably higher.

Of course, theory and reality did not always line up, and religiously mixed families sometimes flouted the rules set by jurists. One of the richest bodies of evidence for such families are the biographies of Christian martyrs from the early Islamic period, a little-known group who constitute the subject of my book, Christian Martyrs under Islam (2018). Many of these martyrs were executed for crimes such as apostasy and blasphemy, and not a small number of them came from religiously mixed unions.

A good example is Bacchus, a martyr killed in Palestine in 786 – about 150 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Bacchus, whose biography was recorded in Greek, was born into a Christian family, but his father at some point converted to Islam, thereby changing his children’s status, too. This greatly distressed Bacchus’s mother, who prayed for her husband’s return, and in the meantime, seems to have exposed her Muslim children to Christian practices. Eventually, the father died, freeing Bacchus to become a Christian. He was then baptised and tonsured as a monk, enraging certain Muslim relatives who had him arrested and killed.

Similar examples come from Córdoba, the capital of Islamic Spain, where a group of 48 Christians were martyred between 850 and 859, and commemorated in a corpus of Latin texts. Several of the Córdoba martyrs were born into religiously mixed families, but with an interesting twist: a number of them lived publicly as Muslims but practised Christianity in secret. In most instances, this seems to have been done without the knowledge of their Muslim fathers, but in one unique case of two sisters, it allegedly occurred with the father’s consent. The idea that one would have a public legal identity as a Muslim but a private spiritual identity as a Christian produced a unique subculture of ‘crypto-Christianity’ in Córdoba. This seems to have spanned generations, fuelled by the tendency of some ‘crypto-Christians’ to seek out and marry others like them.

In the modern Middle East, intermarriage has become uncommon. One reason for this is the long-term success of Islamisation, such that there are simply fewer Jews and Christians around to marry. Another reason is that those Jewish and Christian communities that do exist today have survived partly by living in homogeneous environments without Muslims, or by establishing communal norms that strongly penalise marrying out. In contrast to today’s world, where the frontiers between communities can be sealed, the medieval Middle East was a world of surprisingly porous borders, especially when it came to the bedroom.

Christian Martyrs under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World by Christian C Sahner is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

PUP Volunteerism Highlight: The Oxford Hot Water Bottle Project

Many of us in the #ReadUP world are inspired by the university press mission to contribute to society in the form of knowledge and ideas. But the ethos is not bound to the pages of a book; many of our staff and peers are also invested in community development and engagement. To support these commitments, and encourage community building within and far beyond our publishing house, we have formed a Community Building Committee, which includes as one of its pillars a volunteer committee. Over the last year, PUP staff have convened colleagues across departments and the globe to help serve meals at community kitchens, collect donations for many local organizations, rebuild trails in local preserves, send books to incarcerated readers, rebuild a library collection destroyed by fire in Rio, and as this blog post by senior publicist Katie Lewis shares, reached out to the homeless population in Oxford. The enthusiasms we bring to all of our collaborations, from books to community building events, enliven every chapter of our collective publishing narrative.

–Christie Henry, Director

Oxford is one of the UK’s most affluent cities, and the least affordable.

Oxford, the closest city to Princeton University Press’s European office, is a beautiful, historic centre of academia, culture, architecture and history. One cannot help marvelling at its beauty and noticing the affluence of the university colleges, which make up a large part of the town centre. But there is another side to Oxford that is just as visible, even if it does not make it into the guide books.  

Homelessness is a global problem, but it is particularly acute in Oxford. According to Homeless Oxfordshire, a charity that provides shelter, safety, hot meals and basic facilities for about 550 homeless people in the city and surrounding areas, the number of rough sleepers in Oxford has increased by 175% since 2012. There has also been a spike in deaths among homeless people in Oxford this winter, as reported by The Guardian.

The high numbers of rough sleepers in Oxford may be due the affluence of the city and the fact that many of its inhabitants, students and tourists can spare a little change. Rough sleepers from other parts of the country are known to make their way to Oxford in the hope of receiving more casual financial help (change on the streets) than they might in their home towns.

Oxford is also one of the most economically uneven cities in the UK: an area called Blackbird Leys is one of the most socioeconomically deprived areas in the country, despite being only a couple of miles from the grandeur of the world-class university. The economic situation there may go some way to explaining why Oxford’s homelessness problem is so severe.

Homelessness is also perhaps particularly prevalent in Oxford due to the high cost of housing – Oxford has been widely held as the UK’s least affordable city since at least 2014. According to Homeless Oxfordshire, the average Oxford house price of £491,900 is around 16 times the average yearly household income of £29,400, and the rental market reflects this, with many rented rooms just as expensive as those in London, without the artificially boosted salaries enjoyed in the capital.  

I started handing out hot water bottles to Oxford’s rough sleepers in January 2018 when it occurred to me how horrible it would be to be out in the snow without the cosy hot water bottle that I enjoy on my lap in the Princeton office during the colder months. I started a JustGiving page and with the help of a friend, handed out 50 hot water bottles over the next couple of weeks.

Handing out hot water bottles in the snow.

This year, I was thrilled when Princeton University Press decided to make the “Oxford Hot Water Bottle Project” one of the beneficiaries of its volunteering programme. PUP kindly funded the purchase of 360 hot water bottles, and my colleague Keira Andrews and I have been handing out freshly-filled hot water bottles to chilly Oxford citizens on particularly icy evenings this winter.

Whenever the temperature reaches freezing or below, the council actions its Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP), meaning that shelters open their doors to anybody, not just those with a link to Oxford. The shelters’ aim during this time is to get as many people out of the cold as possible. However, there are lots of people who, for various reasons, prefer not to go to shelters even in sub-zero temperatures, and those are the people that we aim to help.

Rough sleepers can refill their hot water bottles at The Handle Bar, a wonderful bicycle-themed café on St Michael’s Street in Oxford. As well as serving utterly fantastic food in a lovely environment, they have also gracefully put up with filling dozens of hot water bottles for us so far, and have agreed to refill bottles for anyone who asks. The Handle Bar and its staff are an invaluable resource to us, and we are very grateful.

It is always very moving and humbling to spend a few hours connecting with people on the streets and trying to fathom what it must be like to feel cold for weeks and weeks on end. Hopefully, Princeton University Press’s partnership with The Handle Bar will bring relief and the promise of slightly more comfortable nights out in the cold to growing numbers of people.

–Katie Lewis, Senior Publicist, European Office



Caitlyn Collins on Making Motherhood Work

Collins Making Motherhood Work coverThe work-family conflict that mothers experience today is a national crisis. Women struggle to balance breadwinning with the bulk of parenting, and stress is constant. Social policies don’t help. Of all Western industrialized countries, the United States ranks dead last for supportive work-family policies: No federal paid parental leave. The highest gender wage gap. No minimum standard for vacation and sick days. The highest maternal and child poverty rates. Can American women look to European policies for solutions? Making Motherhood Work draws on interviews that sociologist Caitlyn Collins conducted over five years with 135 middle-class working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States. She explores how women navigate work and family given the different policy supports available in each country.

Tons of academics and journalists have written about motherhood and work-family conflict. What’s different about your book?

 Making Motherhood Work pushes the conversation about work-family conflict beyond national borders. There’s clear consensus: the United States’ free market approach to social provisioning is failing families. Working mothers’ struggles are only intensifying. We need structural change. Many of these writers point to European-style policies as promising models.

This book is the first to compare work-family policies cross-nationally from the perspective of mothers themselves. I begin—rather than end—with the question of policy. What’s life like under these different policy models? Making Motherhood Work complements accounts of U.S. women’s experiences with stories from European women. I engage them in a virtual transatlantic conversation to consider a wide range of possibilities to better support mothers and families. Women’s perspectives should be central to any endeavors in the U.S. to craft, advocate for (or against), and enact work-family policy as a force for social change.

How did you approach the research for the book?

I conducted interviews with 135 middle-class working moms in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States over the course of five years. I spent time with women in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces, and with their children, partners, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues. We can think of these women as a conservative test of how employed moms think and feel about work-family conflict. As sociologist Pamela Stone writes, if middle- and upper-class working mothers struggle to manage work and family, these difficulties are akin to “the miners’ canary—a frontline indication that something is seriously amiss.” Things are much, much harder for mothers who are low-income, have little formal education, unrewarding jobs, unreliable or no transportation, and for people without legal residency or citizenship. Studies with these women are vital. I hope this book inspires more research on disadvantaged mothers across national contexts.

Where do mothers have it “best”? Can we import their policies to the U.S.?

The most satisfied women live in Sweden. I left Stockholm feeling optimistic about prospects for working moms. Cultural attitudes and work-family policies can play in reducing gender inequality. I show that Swedish social policies are part of a larger cultural discourse about parenting, work, and gender equality. Their social democratic policies operate in the context of societal beliefs that child-rearing is a collective responsibility, that both men and women can and should work for pay and care for their families, and that workplaces recognize and support employees’ nonwork responsibilities and interests. These cultural beliefs are incompatible with the neoliberal ideology ascendant in the US. In other words, work-family policies are symptomatic of larger ethical and cultural understandings of what is and isn’t appropriate for mothers. As such, they play a role in reproducing the existing social order.

The larger point is this: context matters. We can’t roll out a Swedish or German or Italian policy in the U.S. and expect it to have similar consequences. Instead, with any policy, we need to examine its assumptions, content, and practical implications in relation to the wider political, economic, and social context. We need to evaluate policy reforms in light of prevailing cultural ideals to understand their effects on mothers. They’re likely to differ in important ways for different groups of women.

What about dads? They struggle to manage work and family life, too.

Absolutely they do. I focus on mothers because in all industrialized countries, they’ve historically been the targets of work-family policy. Women are still responsible for most housework and childcare. They report greater work-family conflict than men. And they use work-family policies more often than men. The conversation needs to be about dads as much as about moms.

These policies are necessary but insufficient if they’re offered to and used mostly by women and not men. In other words, work-family policies should be enacted in a cultural environment supportive of gender equality. Policies can be pro-mother without being pro-equality. To be clear, ridding a society of sexism isn’t a necessary precondition for implementing work-family justice oriented policies. But we need a renewed conversation about gender equality policy and policy instruments aimed at changing men’s behavior alongside work-family policy debates to improve the social and economic climate for all working parents.

What’s the one takeaway you want readers to remember?

Work-family conflict is not an unfortunate but inexorable part of life as a working mom today. This book shows that mothers’ stress is not of their own making, and it can’t be of their own fixing. Work-family conflict is a phenomenon that societies have created. This means that societies can change it, too. U.S. Americans can enact policies to remedy the unequal social conditions that fuel mothers’ stress and undue burden for caregiving. What we’re missing is the political and social will to do so.

You argue we should abandon the goal of “work-family balance.” Instead you advocate a social movement for work-family justice. What does that mean?

Framing work-family conflict as a problem of imbalance is too individualistic. The U.S. is a nation of mothers engulfed in stress. Suggesting mothers seek “balance” doesn’t take into account how institutions contribute to this stress. We need a social movement centered on work-family justice. I define this in the book as a system in which each member of society has the opportunity and power to fully participate in both paid work and family care. The rhetoric of justice highlights the reality that this conflict isn’t the outcome of individual women’s shortcomings or mismanaged commitments. Instead, it’s the result of cultural attitudes and policies embedded in workplaces and systems of welfare provisioning. In Erik Olin Wright’s words, as with all social problems, work-family conflict doesn’t reflect some fixed law of nature. It reflects the current social organization of power. Mothers don’t need balance. They need justice.

What’s the one social policy you would implement if you could wave a magic wand to help U.S. moms?

High-quality, affordable childcare. My next project is an ethnographic study of the U.S. childcare system, an extractive market we don’t tend to talk about in these terms. Without a robust public option, consequences are dire for kids, parents, businesses, and our economy. Like work-family conflict, the crisis of care is not inevitable. But it’s central to reproductive justice. We can do more, and better, for U.S. families.

Caitlyn Collins is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Find her on Twitter at @caitymcollins and read more here: