The story of Martin Guerre is one of the most fascinating in early modern history. Perhaps that is why it is so well documented, both in chronicles and legal writing at the time and more recently, where it has served as the subject of films in French, German and English, and books, including one by Natalie Zemon Davis, which I recently had the pleasure to read. Continue reading
In the novel Saturday, Ian McEwan rests an assessment of the state of the British nation upon a single man. During the course of one day, the reader bears witness to the story of Henry Perowne, a successful surgeon, a good man, whose experience becomes suddenly less secure and less detached through a deceptively minor incident on the road. Private dramas intermingle with national ones, and the whole book is shot through with a dramatic sense of place and time, beginning with what is perhaps the most visceral symbol of the fragility of the post-9/11 world order: a flaming aeroplane. (As is later elaborated, ‘everyone agrees, airliners look different in the skies’; they seem either ‘predatory or doomed’.) And unlike many novels of the same theme, which fictionalise events and float within a vaguely contemporary setting, McEwan’s effort is entirely rooted, nailed to the ground; it takes place explicitly on Saturday, February 15, 2003 – and its entire edifice is supported and contained within the context of the anti-war protests which took place on that day, as well as the prospect of war which animated them. Continue reading
The Syrian uprising is on the verge of its fifth anniversary. To a great extent it has become the essential conflict of our times. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – the prospect of peace, regardless of some apparently encouraging signs from the United Nations, remains a chimera. Much – and understandably so – has been written about what Syria has become, and what led it there: the murders, the torture, the senseless slaughter, the almost inconceivable devastation.
There is no shame in this; it is necessary and I have done more than my fair share. But sometimes this analysis is insufficient. Sometimes it is better to write from an unconventional perspective; sometimes what is missing from the equation is a greater sense of historical understanding. Continue reading
The ghosts of the past continue to entrance. While the topic of Montaillou – the thoroughly individual history of the village of the same name by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie – and memory is a particular enthralling one, it can also serve as an ultimately ineffable subject, something which could prove completely out of the grasp of those who no longer occupy the same space and time as those whose lives they study. The historian is well suited, however, to studying the concepts of time, space and individualism in Middle Ages Foix; and they are no less fascinating. Continue reading
Arguably one of the greatest achievements of 20th century historical scholarship, Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie is a tremendously comprehensive study of peasant society in the comté de Foix in the Middle Ages. Both the region and the book are unique – the former because it stood almost alone in the 14th century as a home and haven for the Albigensian heresy, and the latter because it benefits from an effectively singular source: the Fournier Register, which comprises records kept by a particularly enterprising bishop – Jacques Fournier – that detail the progress of his prosecution of the Inquisition in Languedoc. Continue reading