Category Archives: History

Memory and Matteo Ricci

Jonathan Spence’s book The Death of Woman Wang is an entrancing assessment of provincial China. It weaves together the stories of individuals, some of high rank, some freshly rescued from obscurity, with those of myth and legend, creating an absorbing, enriching portrait of a nation and of an era. In The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Spence takes a slightly different tack. Again his subject is China, but this time, rather than attempting only to look at the country from within, he incorporates the perspective of those who came from without. The eponymous subject of this work was a Jesuit priest from Italy, a keen proselytiser, and one of the pioneering Western missionaries sent to China to spread Christianity among its vast population. Continue reading

Microhistory as Literature

Microhistory can largely be defined as it sounds. It is not grand; it is not grandiose. It is small and intimate and its subjects are often obscure.

The subjects of more famous works of microhistory, for example Martin Guerre, the focus of an excellent book by Natalie Zemon Davis, are plucked from the great mass of the unknown, or have their stories transfigured from myth to something resembling reality.

Such stories are deeply personal in every case. There is something in them which avoids the coldness of even the most effective biography and the rigid, unfeeling rosiness of hagiography. They are personal. Thus microhistory can illuminate ideas about personhood, self-knowledge, and self-perception in years past. And it can, in the way all literature has the potential to do, tell us a more than a little about ourselves. Continue reading

The Paine Burnings

Today in Britain, there are some practices which we view with a kind of gentle paternalism; they’re customs which we think beneath us, or too antiquated to be of use. One of them is the practice of burning people in effigy, something which is now only practiced by oddballs, people whose ideas of vengeance and often humour are remarkably primitive. Continue reading

Abdelbasset al-Sarout and Inspiration

Inspiration can be still be found in the depths of war. And for me, inspiration of a kind has been found in the Syrian conflict. This is not the inspiration of a happy warrior, a ghoulish spectator to events, but rather the genuine sense of fellow feeling which can be found in observing others doing good and hoping for better. Continue reading

Bilingual Writing and Britain’s Place in the World

In the aftermath of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, a fairly momentous event in the history of the United Kingdom, it seems important – or at least valuable – to look at some reasonably basic things about our country. Many of the assumptions and fundamental preconceptions which we in Britain exhibit can be traced to two things: how we see ourselves, and how we view the rest of the world. In reality, those two issues are really one – the global and the national inseparable in an age of increasing and inescapable interdependence, in economic terms, with regard to political realities, and even in matters cultural. Continue reading

Individuality in the Age of Heresy

The question of individuality is an important one. What makes us individuals may not be similar in fundamental terms to what makes us people, but it is an essential component of personhood. Being different, being unique – these are facts to treasure, and there is something redeeming in being able to notice such things in others and in oneself. This uniqueness ought to extend beyond the intimately personal and into other areas of life; the right to act individually, without coercion of compulsion, is a vital one. And the ability to go about one’s business uninterrupted and unmolested is a fundamental aspect of living in a free society. The same can be said for the ability to think individually, to harbour different thoughts, some of which will be entirely unique. Even if they are incorrect or offensive to the current orthodoxy, the right to do so must be protected; and it follows that the same rights should be extended to speech. Continue reading