Short on History: Context and the Electoral Process

The recent US election has shown, among many things, that various segments of the population, but particularly younger people are missing a vital facet of education…knowledge of the past and how our written laws and systems of governance emerged from the circumstances of their era and reached up to become supra-generational universalisms (I just made that last one up). For instance, the hotly debated and debased electoral college. Some hate it, but they don’t know why. Some love it, but they don’t know what it is.

This is where context comes in. In the study of history (which we all should be doing, by the way) context is a short mental rehearsal of the key players, national and individual, and the geo-political or cultural spectrum of the day. Religious institutions and mores, popular societal trends, styles of government, etc. We do this when we begin to study a new historical topic. Good historians will write books interwoven with context, unfortunately, so will bad historians who make up non-existent context. One has to do a little individual research.

For instance, one popular slogan goes, “we don’t need that electoral college, we just need a popular vote!” Sounds all neo-socialist, get rid of the elitists, etc, but the reality is that government structures like the electoral college were originally implemented as a check and a balance against any one  side of the US government quadrangle of executive-legislative-judicial-demos (the voters) from misusing its power and presuming to take privileges that don’t belong to it. This was a reaction, in part to the governmental institutions of Enlightenment Era Europe (which only went so far), and the remaining monarchies that ruled nations through both religion and dominion or kingship. The balance of power wasn’t. It was also a reaction to the constitutional monarchy of England and the peculiarly interwoven parliamentary system through which aristocrats and semi-common men could rule. America sought a system with a greater balance of power.

And it is only through a kind of intergovernmental detente that our system works. Thing is, many people would like to up end the balance, from all sides of the political spectrum, in order to funnel power their way. Hence we have checks and balances, however imperfectly they function.

So there you have it, a small sampling of context and how it applies to understanding the past and the world around us now.

Where do you need to apply the tool of context for better understanding?

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

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One Egg A Week: WW2 Rations and Irrational Over-consumption

Have you ever walked through the supermarket, or the out-of-doors market (if you are lucky enough to have one nearby) and stopped to appreciate just how much food we have access to on a daily basis?

Intellectually we know that there are many places around the globe where food is not so plentiful nor available. Venezuela at the moment is struggling through famine triggered by political unrest and a decade of instability. In other places it is simply the norm to be without. However, to quantify scarcity is sometimes difficult as we stroll the aisles of the supermarket and decide if we want the artisan, “hand-made” (by machines shaped like hands) cumin basil crackers or the tomato pesto anise flavor? Gasp.

Was there a time when the western world had to face food scarcity? You bet! It was called the Second World War. Almost all of the European nations, and beyond, suffered from going without. For much of continental Europe that was a result of having been overrun by hostile armies and subjected to starvation so that food could be shunted back to the German Army. Russians, German citizenry, Italians, the French, the Dutch, Spaniards (who had been going without all through the 1930’s because of a civil war) all faced famine, and the list goes on and on. The British Isles certainly suffered, but theirs was, from the start, superimposed rationing to feed the populace and its soldiery. The Americans, too, ended up with varying degrees of rationing, but certainly not as strict as the British model.

And it is to British rationing that we’re going to turn to help get a sense of personal scale of scarcity. The Ministry of Food was the organization that implemented rationing for the populace at the behest of the British Government. When you look over the requirements you realize how little each individual was allowed, but you also see the care and thought given to maintaining vitamin intake for children (fruits and fruit preserves were to be given to children first to sustain healthy growth). Bread and Vegetables, especially the homegrown variety, were not rationed and people were encouraged to grow their own. For adults, vegetables were the mainstay of nutrition.

What was rationed, and here is where we can begin to appreciate what and how much we have on a daily basis, was meat. Meat was rationed by price, only so much per person per week and then only of what was available and sometimes that was offal, or organ meats…heart, lungs, intestines, etc. So, no hamburgers or juicy steaks every night for a week!

Recipe books of the era recommend stews and pot pies with minimal meat supplemented by plentiful vegetables. My favorite cookbook from this era, incidentally, is a reprint by the Imperial War Museum called, Victory Cookbook: Nostalgic Food and Facts From 1940-1954 by Marguerite Patten OBE, 2002. I found it at a wonderful booksale held in the Guildhall in the city of York…a story for another time. This volume presents reprints from government material produced during the war, much of which was the work of a young woman named Marguerite Patten, whose creativity helped inspire home cooks throughout the war.

Milk was also rationed, 4-6 cups per person, per week. Think of what that meant, if you are a regular consumer of hot chocolate you could have a cup every other day, but you couldn’t get the chocolate. But what if you wanted pudding…that requires milk and, whoops, you just used up your allowance. Or baking, which often requires milk… there it went again. Milk in your tea (which was also rationed, think of that the next time you order a 28 oz glass of sweetened iced tea!)? What do you choose? And yes, you could combine a family’s portion, but how did you refrigerate it until you could use it? Refrigeration wasn’t universal in the 1940’s. Powdered milk was a big bonus, but it wasn’t the same as fresh.

Something to contemplate the next time you see all those gallons of milk lined up in the dairy section as you absentmindedly grab one.

Then were was cheese and butter, 2 oz (yes, two thumbs-size slices worth) of each per person each week! That would give you roughly one small sandwich or two after-dinner cheese chasers or a quick gobble for an afternoon snack…no cheesy, gooey grilled sandwiches to eat four bites of and throw the rest away. And butter, you have to bake with butter, remember? So, cookies, scones, cake…all required major planning and the pooling of amounts between family members (which, in the days of mothers being the main organizer of home was all planned and implemented by mom, kids didn’t get to take their cheese stash to their room and watch it mold).

A lot to think about. Belts were tighter then, and interestingly, mass produced bread was made with 1/2 regular “white” flour and 1/2 whole wheat or whole meal flour. As statistics were compiled during this time period, it was found that the health of the nation actually improved as a result of this austere, but very healthy diet.

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

And then we get to eggs, or, I should say, egg. Just one a week, and sometimes just one every two weeks. No high-protein, cheesy, three-egg breakfast omelets, no scrambled eggs, probably few egg dishes at all as these precious few eggs would have gone to work in the weekly baking. Things improved somewhat when powdered eggs were made available from the US, but if you have ever had the misfortune to consume powdered eggs regularly you will realize what a glorious blessing it is to have fresh eggs at all! Let alone the ability to buy 4 dozen at will!

Then there was sugar, and this is killer because I think it is safe to say that we nowadays could be referred to by archaeologists looking back at us from well into the future as the “sugar-eaters”, so much do we consume it in sweets and even in things that should be savory. Sweets were rationed to 12 oz every four weeks. If this was granulated sugar imagine, 12 ounces is just a cup and a half, and the average cookie recipe these days typically calls for 2 cups of sugar, per batch! So for a month you could enjoy the stale remnants of your monthly less-sweet cookie baking binge. But again, even pooled together for a family of four, you would need this sugar mostly for preserving fruits, if you could get them, or making faux-fruit preserves from vegetables…Carrot Marmalade anyone? (quite serious, there was a recipe!).

So, as we step off the nostalgia tour bus, I hope you can use this personal-scale food scarcity overview to get a sense of how blessed you may be. While it is vital to do what we can to help others in need, to not waste what we have, and to share, we also need to take a moment, a deep breath, a bowed head, and thank God for what we have. America has a history of overflowing abundance and it is a very popular mindset right now to try to apologize for that abundance (while gorging on it, it seems), but ungratefulness is not improved by embarrassment or apology. To be grateful is to be grateful. Out of gratefulness flows generosity, while out of embarrassment flows self-consciousness and self-centeredness.

So let’s be grateful for our blessings, look outward and share what we have!

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

Tomorrow’s History: Brexit – Should We Be Surprised?

So the hammer has fallen, the vote was taken, and England (the United Kingdom as it presently stands: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland) will depart from the EU. The uproar has been, understandably, intense. Millenials and Gen-X blame Baby Boomers for voting to leave. For wanting sovereignty as a nation and cutting off the socialist ideal of the supranational confederation called the European Union.

As an aside, it seems ironic that the very generation that has voted strongly to withdraw were the same age as the present Millenials and Gen-X are when Britain first joined the EU in 1973. Perhaps, through the hard won wisdom of experience, they have learned something and upon that experience have made their present choice? It’s a thought.

A few questions about the dynamics surrounding Brexit arise: Is Britain floating out there all alone in the North Atlantic with no safety net? Is there such a thing as a long-term “supranational” league? What will happen to Europe? Who will the “big-cheese” of the continent be? What does it take to make a “united” Europe?

Leagues of nations

In our day and age, we have had experience with supranational organizations, in other words, confederations or treaty organizations in which nation states have agreed to subsume their individual sovereignty (to varying degrees and sometimes unwillingly) in favor of a power or structure that issues oversight and force upon said states. In other words, the United Nations, a kind of world congress or parliament with the power to enforce its will upon various nations. Governed purportedly by those it represents, by those very nations in congress and committee. (I question the success of this. Is there really one nation that can with objectivity judge the actions of another?)

Though the ideal of world unity, in the best of circumstances, has a ring of hopefulness to it, I remain a cynic about the actual success of this endeavor under human auspices. I believe it will take a more Divine benevolence to affect the change to peace among the peoples of the world. Peace comes with a price tag of obedience.

Returning to supranational organizations, the UK does already belong to a league of nation states that is larger in number than the EU. This financial safety net is called the Commonwealth of nations and is a vestige of much of the economic power that was wielded by Britain in the heyday of its Empire. That commonwealth has 53 member states, some of which were part of the former empire and some which were not, and it stretches around the globe, particularly in Africa and Asia. It wields, through economic cooperation and shared ideals regarding the rule of law, a considerable amount of power and influence. It counts among its members India, which has developed significant economic momentum in recent decades.

The immediate financial destruction of the UK is therefore not guaranteed, as many Brexit opponents and foreign observers have predicted.

Supranational on the long term?

Do these multi-national leagues or confederations have significant longevity? I have my doubts.

If we step back to look at ancient Rome, we see a supranational organization called…the Roman Empire. It ruled other proto-nations, peoples who gave up their sovereignty mostly by force to obey the Emperor (a religious figure it should be noted) and to some degree benefit from the financial advantages of the trade within the empire. This usually came after thousands of people from whichever ethnic group were slaughtered to prove to them how superior life (or in their case, death) by empire was.

Before Rome came other empires, Greek, Persian, Babylonian, Assyrian. None of them, Rome included, has significant longevity as a supranational conglomeration for very long. Rome strung out the original empire (with fluctuating borders here and there) for about 500 years (a good run), albeit a fairly bloody one. Persia, in various degree and conglomerations for longer than that (kind of). China as an entity went back and forth from a confederation of conquered nations to merely a group of ethnically related, but separate kingdoms just as Egypt did through the centuries. The 13th and 14th centuries A.D./C.E. being the heyday of Chinese empire, and possibly an argument could be made for the present.

Large alliances of peoples have the fluid capacity to shift and lurch in shape and form. They become, unruly. And in the ancient world unruliness was put down by force. A lot of very, violent force. The likes of you and I being the fodder of such force, and odds are, if we shift back to such a militant world climate, we will again be so. Sad to say.

Modern times

What about the United States of America as a confederation? Well, first of all the “states” are as currently defined, really just provincial organizational units of the centralized government, and aren’t peopled by individuals with a long-standing unified ethnic and/or language heritage, as one might describe the European “nation” states. We are a melting pot with a shared history of “coming to America” (even the Native Americans) through the centuries, particularly the 19th century. As a national alliance we are coming up on 240 years of history this year. Not a bad run, historically speaking, but with recent mismanagement (both politically and morally) the future looks, at present, bleak.

Bringing together actual nations which indeed have their own long-standing history, a specific ethnic history, and a unique language is more complex. In part because somebody has to admit that somebody else is in charge. One nation has to take the lead. We idealize the thought that it is possible to have shared power, but the reality of human nature and interaction proves that, throughout history, to be a fallacy. At best we can create balance of power, or mutually assured destruction to withhold us from the brink.

We are usually left with, on the positive side benevolent, enlightened dictatorship or oligarchy (often dressed up as a republic). On the dark side, this descends into the worst atrocities of the 20th century (as was seen in Germany and Russia, and other places).

So, supranational organizations do indeed have term limits. Sometimes they run long and other times they run very short. I think the EU, as it stands, has run short. Europe has never been a particularly non-violent place. Its history is layered with conflict as is not surprising when many peoples with long-standing histories jostle in close quarters.

Nationalism is alive

This brings up another reality. The renaissance of nationalism. The media called it the “Arab Spring” a couple of years ago, but really it is a spirit of nationalism that has moved the peoples of the world to recognize that they are unique and demand respect as individual nations, and can’t be combined into one “world” through the auspices of a socialist paradise. In fact, the dream of the socialist ideal in which individuals and individual nations subsume their identities for the “greater good” as defined by someone important ruling from somewhere else, has turned into a nightmare. Economically certainly and now spiritually.

The “Nationalist Spring” has descended upon us, and is the right wing swing following on the left wing sweep of the past several decades. It is reactive, violent, and purposeful (compared to the limpid alternatives) and won’t be going anywhere for a while.

So where does “Brexit” fit into this?

It is a part of the ethos that is emerging, the recognition of national identity. It is a sign that the EU, as a whole, is a failure. The UK, despite the slams against it as a puny island nation, is actually a significant economic engine and banking state. It funded a significant portion of the EU, but mismanagement (iconized by the March 2016 terrorist attacks that took place right outside the headquarters of the EU and at the Brussels airport – ie. an entity that cannot even protect itself from existential threats), the ineptitude of the handling of the refugee crisis by the other driver of the EU, Germany, through its weakening political leadership under Angela Merkel, and petty, but punishing policies handed out to member states make for an ultimately untenable internal dynamic.

Europe cannot be unified or centralized through economic bureaucracy alone, it must have a spiritual identity around which to develop oneness of mind and ideals. The indelibly anti-Europe force of the moment, the Islamic confederation of co-religionist nations has that unified calling (for better or worse). In the course of time Europe (with a strong central Germanic core) will develop something similar and then, batten down the hatches, we’ll be in for a world-halting rodeo.

Without this eventual unity of calling and religious fervor, Europe can’t fulfill its destiny. The aimless atheism and agnosticism of socialism doesn’t even have the force to coalesce that ardent, atheistic Communism did. Religious fervor goes above and beyond even that, it has the power to change the earth for the better…or worse. It really depends on in whom you place your faith.

A surprise?

We all wondered what the outcome of the Brexit vote would be. Many assumed that things would remain as they are, but a spirit of change is sweeping around the globe and to expect the status quo to remain ad nauseam is naive. We must learn to expect the unexpected.

Does this mean that England is a lost cause? Perhaps, not yet. Taking the long view and waiting to gather additional evidence is a necessary part of analyzing current events in the light of history.

As the old curse goes: “may you live in interesting times.” I think it’s fair to say that we do!

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

‘Brexit’ Turmoil Pales in Comparison to ‘Game of Thrones’ – Welcome to Reality Avoidance

I have some thoughts on the ‘Brexit’ situation, and those will follow soon, but I thought I would post some “news of the absurd” first.

In a dash for the finish line of the race to avoid reality, comes the mournful, anxious wails of fans of the ultra-violent fantasy TV series, “Game of Thrones.” Outstripping the international impact of the British exit from the European Union, for the Bible-literate, the prophetic implications of such a move, and certainly the political turmoil presently in the UK with Prime Minister David Cameron stepping down (not necessarily a bad thing for the UK) is the concern that production will cease on the main sets of the series that are located in Northern Ireland because the EU subsidizes the production costs (Anthony Joseph, “‘Way to go Brits!’ Game of Thrones Fans Fear the Hit Show Will Be Thrown into Chaos After Brexit Vote Raises Risk Bosses Won’t Be Able to  Finish Filming in Northern Ireland,” The Daily Mail at DailyMail.co.uk, June 24, 2016).

Aw, shucks. That’s tragic.

And now onto grown-up things. Folks, this is serious business. A little entertainment is fine at times, but it would behoove us to channel all that opinionated energy into the present rather than the “make-believe” non-world of fictional dramas.

Stand up for some real things, take responsibility for the culture, your personal character and the time in which you live. Your choices now will affect the future. (I look favorably on Brexit, by the way, and I believe it may not be the complete catastrophe that it is bemoaned as – just in the interest of disclosure.) Nationalism has not gone away. The apparent world peace producing potential of the EU was not what it seemed.

We live in interesting times, no doubt about it.

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

A Look at D-Day through the Eyes of A Village: Aunay sur Odon

Many lives were lost during the Normandy invasion. Among the Allies and the Axis troops, but also the collateral damage that occurred in the small villages and towns over and upon which was the battlefield for Europe at that time.

Sometimes historic events and genealogy merge and you find yourself at a crossroads. In this case my own family history with the village of Aunay-sur-Odon, in the French department of Calvados near the Normandy coast. Many centuries ago my mother’s ancestors followed William the Conqueror across the channel to England and later to Ireland, and possibly back to Wales. At some point they made a greater leap and came to America, maybe in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. (Regardless, we got here somehow.)

The village of Aunay-sur-Odon as the bombs fell. Source: By Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16076017

The village of Aunay as the bombs were dropping. Source:By Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16076017

But the real story took place back in the village of Aunay after the June 6, 1944 events of D-Day, as the Allies progressed further into the countryside of Normandy and eventually across France. On June 12th, in the British sector, a decision was made to bombard a strategic crossroads between the towns of Caen and Vire, and Bayeux and Falaise. That crossroad village was Aunay-sur-Odon. The initial bombs were dropped and the village centre was obliterated along with the lives of 100 people.

Aunay after the bombardment. Source: By Reeves (Fg Off): - http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//9/media-9416/large.jpgThis is photograph HU 92982 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30877964

Aunay after the bombardment. Source: By Reeves (Fg Off): – http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//9/media-9416/large.jpgThis is photograph HU 92982 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30877964

Then, a few days later, another decision was handed down that called for the bombardment of the entire surrounding town. On June 14 and through the night into the 15th, the entire town area was barraged. 25 percent of the population was killed.

Undoubtedly, in the crush of events that pushed the invading armies across France to free the enslaved peoples of Europe, the decisions were made quickly and with the full knowledge that collateral damage would happen. The Germans dug themselves in where they could and wanted to keep the roads open for their own defenses. A strategic crossroads was a viable and necessary target for the Allied forces. This is the nature of war.

So, as we remember the sacrifices of the men who died valiantly for their countries, we also need to be reminded that war takes a very real toll on the civilians who are caught in the crossfire, or, in this case, the crossroads. It is always thus, regardless of the conflagration. There is collateral damage, often innocent people, but always those who simply want to stay out of the way but cannot.

War is not always glorious. Mostly, war is death.

Keep thinking history.

– Amanda Stiver

EXPERIENCE HISTORY:  If you are interested in the the D-Day invasions and want to experience them as the news reports came to America through the radio broadcasts that day, tune into Conyers Old Time Radio and listen as they broadcast the original recordings from Invasion day. Try to imagine yourself, gathered with your family around the radio, waiting to hear exactly what was happening across the Atlantic Ocean. Imagine that your brother, husband, or, possibly, father was overseas and his life was on the line that day. Imagine also the villagers and people of France as they braced themselves for what was to come in the next few days once the invasion had begun.

If you’ve missed the June 6 broadcast, you can listen to some of the recordings here at Complete Broadcast Day D-Day from Archive.org.

Tomorrow’s History: Weekly Roundup (Austria Moves Right-wing – Unphotogenic: The ‘Not-Kate’ Effect)

Austria’s Far-right Party Loses Election, But Wins As A Movement

While Americans continue to be entranced by the ongoing boxing match between U.S. Presidential candidates, another election has just thrown a spotlight on political conditions across the Atlantic. Austria, which for many people is associated more with Edelweiss and Von Trapps than political innovation, has just given the rest of the world a rare opportunity to see a political future in advance.

Ironically, Austria has, in many ways, been right at the heart-beat of European politics, from the Holy Roman Empire on to the time of the First World War, and most definitely during the Second World War and the short-lived Nazi supremacy, it has often shared the fate of its neighbor, Germany.

In this case, jubilation has broken out across most of the European Union after Alexander Van der Bellen, a leftist and academic took the election for the Austrian Presidency. Interestingly, he won by a miniscule (only 31,000 votes) majority following the counting of absentee votes, a unique and curious circumstance that is likely only to feed the fires of the political opposition that barely lost (Bernd Riegert, “Opinion: Black Eye for Austria as Van der Bellen Wins Presidency,” Deutsche Welle at DW.com, May 23, 2016).

The opposition candidate, Norbert Hofer, is a right-wing politician who supports a nationalist, EU-skeptic state and opposes whole-sale entry of refugees from the Middle East. And while he may not be seated in government, the real news is that a right-wing party has gained enough momentum in Europe to take and nearly win a presidential election. And where Austria goes, Germany may follow, a well acknowledged relationship governs these two language-sharing states. The centrist Social Democrats of Austria lost the election in a big way (the same party with which German leader Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat [which is a political party, not just a statement of faith], has a ruling coalition), indicating Austria may have just become a harbinger of the political winds that are about to change in Germany.

The refugee crisis has served on the one hand, to highlight the precarious nature of the European Union and it’s fragile infrastructure of allied nations. On the other hand, it has shown that when large numbers of people (in the millions) begin to shift around the globe there will be wars. This has happened from the very ancient past onward. If a million people move from one place to another, and there is not enough room where they are going, they will bump others to the side and be perceived as a threat. That threat has been perceived in Europe, and the beginnings of a militant reaction are evident, even in this latest Austrian election.

It is well to remember the purported Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.” I think it’s safe to say that interesting times have arrived!

The Awkward Ones: Being Unphotogenic In The Age Of Digital Cameras

And now, let’s go lighthearted for a change.

I recently read an amusing article by British journalist Sarah Vine. She commented on the unfortunate fashion choices of the Princesses of York, Beatrice and Eugenie, that clashed with the willowy grace of the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) at a recent garden party held at Buckingham Palace. Kate, in a beautiful cream suit flowed gracefully in the direction of adoring party-goers, whilst trailing behind were the York sisters, who with less statuesque height chose frocks that were somewhat unusual in shape (read: ill-fitting), and bold in print and color. In the framed image, they follow behind the Duchess looking as though they are glaring daggers at the back of her head. Sigh, such is life for the imperfectly photogenic.

In reality, in the image, the sisters were undoubtedly looking elsewhere (and do in fact possess their own brand of beauty), but in the “click-click” nature of digital photography that one frame caught what looked like both a fashion and a deportment faux-pas. The author of the article goes on to discuss the challenges of those who don’t look good on camera, or who always look slightly goofy, while others always seem to be perfectly composed. I can relate to the former! (Sarah Vine, “I Know Exactly How Beatrice and Eugenie Feel When They’re Photographed Next To Kate: I’ve Been There Too, Says Sarah Vine,” The Daily Mail at DailyMail.co.uk, May 25, 2016.)

But it brings up an interesting historical question (one the author also posits): What must it have been like before cameras were around? Back when the best you could hope for to perpetuate your physical appearance was a painting or sculpture? It’s a thought, isn’t it.

Imagine a time when animation of features, expression, and voice were valued over the angles of cheekbones and thinness of limbs. Imagine that strength of arm, determination of mind, aptitude of intellect, ability to cultivate and grow plants and animals, keep a clean, healthy, productive home, cook nutritious, delicious meals, and raise healthy, balanced children was the stuff of which virtue was made, and didn’t take a back-seat to some rarefied, hormone-driven vision of what feminine “beauty” is. Difficult isn’t it?

Let Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice fame help us, when the subject of his contemplations are demanded of him by the hovering Miss Bingley, he replies, “…My mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.”

Fine eyes, no less! When was the last time I heard that?!

Difficult as it may be, I think we need to spend time in that past world, imagining it more often. I have nothing against the photogenic, beauty adds to our world, but we need to find a better balance! Beauty of virtue is a thing, too (for more info, please read the book of Proverbs, chapter 31 in the Bible). If we let it, history can remind us that there is more to this life than just surface value.

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

Book Review: “The Silver Branch”

Sometimes historical curiosity comes from reading historical fiction. Specifically, in this case a Rosemary Sutcliff book.

“The Silver Branch,” a book by Rosemary Sutcliff (Image: Amanda Stiver)

I recently read The Silver Branch by Sutcliff (a great read, originally aimed at a teen/young adult audience, but good for all ages). The Eagle of the Ninth, its better known companion, precedes The Silver Branch, but the former was checked out of my local library so I had to jump into the middle of the series. Thankfully each part of the trilogy can stand on its own.

I was thrown back to the Roman Empire, in the 3rd century AD in the province of Britannia. As the characters, Roman, British, Irish, Dalriad, and Saxon, among others, coursed through the story from skirmishes, to escapes, from espionage, to battle the story of a rift in the Roman Empire unfolds. Three Emperors claimed three parts of the empire and the book concerns the subordinates who either undermine or support the man, Carausius, who ruled Britannia. The emperors are historical figures, but the main characters of the story, Justin and Flavius, though woven into the historical events, are fiction.

Improbable?

As fiction goes, this is reasonably legitimate. There are some flaws, as many others have noted before, particularly the eagle standard (which appears again in this book after its introduction in The Eagle of the Ninth) not being a legionary standard in actuality. An eagle was found in the ancient city of Calleva (Silchester), but it wasn’t the eagle of the ninth. Still, it’s probable.  Some historical fiction is so outlandish that the story becomes completely ridiculous. Sutcliff’s writing is believable, albeit, a number of crucial events and actions are undertaken by one fictional family, but a clear thread is necessary to make a story readable.

The Silver Branch piqued my curiosity about Roman Britain, a part of history, which was, unfortunately, the Swiss Cheese of my historical knowledge – full of holes. In high school and college the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Israelites as well as the Scythians, Chinese, and then English, European and American history from the time of Elizabeth I up to World War II was my focus, partly because those were the classes on offer, but also because the late Roman Empire seemed to be rather gasp-y and sad, so I tended to skip it, but now I find myself filling in my knowledge of this era. Rome had such an impact on so many cultures as friend or as foe that it really is essential knowledge of the world.

Finding your gateway to history

A nice piece of historical fiction like The Silver Branch is a good stepping-stone to delving into a new section of history. I’m interested enough now to crack my textbooks and get the slightly dryer, though still important details about Roman history clear in my mind.

Sutcliff is a fine writer and this book makes for a great literary-historical adventure!

– Amanda Stiver