Monthly Archives: July 2013

Dracula and the Witches

In June 2009 I visited Salem, Massachusetts, for the World History Association conference. Salem was wonderful, and the conference so engrossing that we were perhaps the last people on earth to notice that Michael Jackson had just died.

Salem was full of summer visitors, most of them there to see witches, and there were witches everywhere: rag dolls made into toothless crones, witches on broomsticks, witches with pointy hats, and memorably, witches made of black licorice. None bore much relationship to the characters in The Crucible, but nearly all the visitors were drawn to Salem by the play. Imagination, and enthusiastic marketing, did the rest.

Yet there’s so much more to Salem than the the 1692 witch trial. One of the privileges of history conferences is that there is often a guided tour given by someone who knows the history of the region, and we were taken on a walking tour by a PhD student who really knew her stuff. Nathaniel Hawthorne lived here while writing A Scarlet Letter, and the customs house where he worked still exists. Salem was an important port before the shipping trade moved to Boston in the 1820s and 1830s, and tea merchants coming back from China and the Pacific started the exotic collection of items that became the Peabody Essex Museum, the oldest in America.

I’ve just been travelling in Romania. Last week I visited Bran Castle in Transylvania, universally but in accurately known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’. Bram Stoker modeled Dracula on Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia. Dracul, the family name, comes from ‘dragon’, though it also has an overtone of ‘devil’. Vlad ‘the Impaler’ was gruesome enough – he is said to have impaled a whole Turkish army on a forest of spikes. He may just possibly have spent a few months in his childhood at Bram Castle, but he bears very little resemblance to the toothy gentleman in an opera cloak of Hollywood films, just as the toothless crones of Salem bear little relationship to the real victims of the witch trial.

20130716-101429.jpg

Cultural heritage and tourism can make for an uneasy mix. As a historian, I would like to think that visitors to a historical site go away knowing more about their history. The truth though is that many people prefer their history in bite-sized gobbets of stereotype, preferably with added blood and gore.

In Australia, many tourists are perfectly content to see a convict site like Port Arthur in terms of blood-soaked triangles and a cat-o’-nine-tails, rather than learn how the penitentiary system worked.

As a historian, I find this trivialization of important historical sites depressing, but I can see the appeal from the perspective of tour guides. Maybe in the end, as Jimmy Stewart says at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ‘When truth becomes legend, print the legend.’

Crane Brinton, Egypt, and The Anatomy of Revolution

More than 2 years ago, I wrote this post on the historian Crane Brinton and his theory of revolutions. The Arab Spring was just beginning.
In Egypt today, that first phase of revolution is well and truly past now, but Brinton’s idea of phases seems worth revisiting, now that the army is once more engaged in the political process (did it ever go away?) Napoleon Bonaparte notoriously said that it only took ‘a whiff of grapeshot’ to silence popular protests in the streets of Paris. Is the next step the emergence of the Man on Horseback? If so, who? Brinton’s ideas were simplistic and reductive, but influential, and perhaps they still are in driving outside perceptions.

Historians are Past Caring

‘Alligators and revolutions both eat their children’, wrote one letter writer to The Australian yesterday, one of many commenting on events in Egypt at present.  I suspect this may be a slander against alligators, but it does sum up what many people feel, consciously or unconsciously about the idea of revolution: all revolutions have a lot in common, and it is very easy for the process to go pear-shaped very quickly.

I know just enough about Egyptian history to understand all those cartoons with Hosni Mubarak being fitted for a sarcophagus, and to know that a lot has happened since the last pyramid was built, which tends to be ignored, at least by cartoonists.  (Pyramids are very easy to draw)

But Revolutions are another thing.  Academics in the humanities love revolutions, in art and literature as well as history.  Which is odd, really, when you consider how anti-democratic most universities…

View original post 707 more words

Quilts and their stories

The Queensland Art Gallery has a new exhibition, Quilts 1700-1945, which runs from 15 June to 22 September 2013. Most of the quilts come from the Victoria and Albert Museum, with a few from the Imperial War Museum, and the exhibition is billed as ‘200 years of British quiltmaking’, but there is also one important Australian quilt, the Rajah Quilt from the National Gallery of Australia.

The quilts show a mixture of decorative patchwork, embroidery, and collage.  The earliest quilt dates from the 1690s; the last from the Second World War.  I’d recommend the exhibition to anyone interested in textile history or women’s work or domestic decoration – though I confess that I’m always at a bit of a loss when it comes to deciding just where to draw the boundary between Art and Craft.  For me, these pieces, lovely as they are, definitely fall on the ‘Craft’ side of that line.

My overwhelming feeling, coming out after a couple of hours, was sheer relief that I have never had to spend my time doing all that work! By hand! By candlelight!  Yet I know people who love quilting, will happily spend time hand sewing patches, and take delight in the finished product.  I’m afraid I’m just not one of those people.

For me, the pleasure of the show lay rather in the stories that lie behind many of these quilts.  Continue reading

Waiting for the royal birth

English: Mary Beatrice d'Este, Queen of James ...

Benedetto Gennario, Mary d’Este (of Modena) with baby James, 1690s  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Duchess of Cambridge – aka Kate Middleton – can thank her lucky stars.  Despite the intrusions of the paparazzi, and idiotic Australian radio presenters, she will give birth in a hospital in relative privacy, and with adequate pain relief.  She can also expect that both she and her baby will emerge from childbirth safe, and that this firstborn, either boy or girl, will become the heir.

It hasn’t always been so.

Giving birth to the heir to the throne was once a very public act, because both these issues were critical. In times when childbirth was much more dangerous, there was always room for suspicion that a live baby might be substituted for a dead one, or a boy might replace an unwanted girl.

Usually the ladies of the court would act as witnesses to the birth, but occasionally, the men would be invited in as well.  When the security of the monarchy was at stake, politics trumped privacy every time. Continue reading

The Mullet Run in Southeast Queensland

It was about 30 years ago.  I had been staying with friends in Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane.  It was an overcast day in early winter, with only a few desultory surfers in the water, when 5 or 6 people arrived on the beach with a long net.  Two of them waded out into the surf holding the net and dropped it into the water, enclosing about 10-15 metres between them.

Then the whole group joined in to drag the net back to shore.  It was hard work, for the net was brimming with frantic fish, swarming and jumping in the surf.  They had caught hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sea mullet.

Locals in the know turned up with buckets.  They sold a lot on the beach and packed the rest in polystyrene boxes to sell later.  They backed a 4WD on to the beach, packed away the catch, and were off before the Fish Marketing Board could know or intervene.  From start to finish, the whole affair took less than an hour. Continue reading