Category Archives: History

Death metal, by T Coles

I read this courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher. It’s out now.

Death metal is very much not my scene, but music documentaries are; Coles references the documentary series Metal Evolution from some years ago, which I adored. As a musical history of the last four decades, I found this really quite fascinating. Although it must be noted that reading the names of some of the albums and songs, as well as a description of what they’re singing about, wasn’t always pleasant. So if you’re really not in the zone for some lightly gross description, avoid this!

Surprising things include the fact that I actually recognised some names of bands! More surprising though is that the second chapter begins with a mention of Hildegard von Bingen, and the fact that in the morality play attributed to her from 1151, the instructions are for the Devil to be played with a harsh voice. Coles draws a comparison here to the ‘death growl’ that helps make death metal what it is. So that was quite a moment.

The book follows a straightforward historical line from the beginnings of death metal and its early influences in the 1980s, through to when they are finishing the book in late 2021. This means that some of what is being discussed is coming from that a period when stuff that’s regarded today as on nose was still accepted by most of the scene. The main issue here is the misogyny of some of the lyrics, and I was very relieved that in the final chapter Coles does reflect on how problematic much of that early stuff is, and how at least some modern bands are actively pushing back.

Does this make me want to listen to death metal? Nope. Does it make me appreciate it more as a musical genre? On an abstract level, yes. It’s good that books like this exist.

Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood

I read this via the publisher and NetGalley. It’s out in April 2023.

This is an angry book.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, or that the anger is unjustified. Just that Mendelson doesn’t make much effort to hide the fact that a lot about Big Dairy in America makes her angry, and that the appalling lack of science around the claims for milk make her angry, and that the fact drinking milk is pushed as some mighty panacea when actually the ability to digest cow’s milk as an adult human is largely restricted to humans descended from north-west Europeans… that makes her angry, too.

Some of the most crucial sentences for understanding the point of the book comes early on: “… the founders of modern Western medicine had no way of understanding the genetic fluke that allowed them… to digest lactose from babyhood to old age… That lack turned the one form of milk that is most fragile, perishable, difficult to produce on a commercial scale, and economically pitfall-strewn into a supposed daily necessity for children and, to a lesser extent, adults.”

Yeah.

The section I most enjoyed for itself was the first part, where Mendelson looks at the long history of dairying, and in particular points out that drinking “fresh” milk (which is a whole other discussion of terminology, given what happens to milk in most Western countries today) wasn’t something early herders did. Instead, they were using fermented milk – naturally fermented, from being left out in the heat. She goes through the science of what’s actually happening in this fermentation, discussing why the bacteria in the milk doing all of this doesn’t poison human consumers of such milk. There’s also a really interesting discussion about the archaeology and other evidence for dairying of various forms in numerous locations.

Science is a fairly big part of the book, which I also enjoyed. There’s a lot about what’s in milk of various types, and why, as well as how that’s connected to the digestive system of the various animals that humans choose to milk. Plus the discussion about how limited the ability to actually properly digest full-lactose drinking-milk is, among the adult human population. If you can digest milk as an adult, it’s you that’s the genetic mutation, not everyone else. Doesn’t that make all the soy milk etc-haters look like numpties.

The angry-making bit really starts when the discussion turns to the 18th century in Europe, and the way that ‘drinking fresh milk’ suddenly became imperative for children, in particular, and the idea that if children were denied all the milk they could possibly consume then somehow society was failing them. All of which is nonsense since… see above. And then, of course, it gets into how the industry makes claims, and medical types get on board, and honestly it just makes me really sad and horrified to see how outlandish claims based on ‘science’ (sometimes) that has now been superseded, or sometimes just based on a desire to make money, is still having a massive impact on how we think and act today.

Also? this insistence on drinking-milk all came as a) more people were living in towns and b) before good refrigeration and c) before adequate food-safety measures like pasteurisation (which gets a whole section here, because of the raw food movement) were in place. All of which meant a bunch of kids, in particular, actually got sick and many of them died because of the milk they were told they needed to consume in order to be healthy.

One of the reasons for the angry nature of the book is its focus on the modern American dairy industry. I’m not going to claim that the Australian industry is immensely better, because I don’t know all that much about it, but I do know that we do things a bit differently. And then there’s the way in which drinking-milk is still being pushed as necessary… to populations that are, overwhelmingly, unable to digest full-lactose milk as adults. I think that’s just appalling.

Don’t read this as a fun history or science of milk. Do read it if you’re interested in how drinking-milk got to be the thing it is today – which is genuinely fascinating, as well as infuriating. There’s discussion of Kellogg’s, and milk-drinking cults, and the furore around pasteurisation and homogenisation, and the raw milk fad as well…

Sewer, by Jessica Leigh Hester

I read this via NetGalley. It’s out in November 2022.

OK, first thing to note is that you probably want a relatively strong stomach to read all of this… and you definitely don’t want to read it while eating. While it’s not revolting, there are some descriptions of sewers and fatbergs that are not the most pleasant of reading experiences.

Secondly, stop flushing wipes. No, seriously. Even the ones that say they’re flushable. Stop flushing them. They’re not really flushable. When you put something down the toilet it doesn’t ACTUALLY, magically, disappear. It still needs to go somewhere. And wipes? Oh, they do not disintegrate and become harmless like you might imagine. Stop. Flushing. Wipes.

This book is really remarkable. As with the best of the Object Lesson books, it’s personal and it’s deeply researched and it’s fascinating. Hester is convincing in her argument that sewers are vital to understand because they help us understand our past, as well as consider our future. She is also adamant that investing in sewer infrastructure is something that has been lacking (and I’m completely terrified and appalled by some of the stories about that) and is vitally important for our future. No one wants a return to typhoid and cholera in places like London. Which also means that those places without good, sturdy, reliable sewers – ones that DON’T JUST EJECT WASTE INTO THE OPEN WATER – absolutely need financial assistance in getting that done. If you don’t think that’s a priority… you’re wrong. Simple as that.

Highly recommended for the civil engineer in your life, or the person who’s always asking ‘why is it like that?”, or the person with the more-scatalogical-than-necessary sense of humour.

Also, STOP FLUSHING WIPES.

The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society

I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in January 2023, from WW Norton.

Janega aims to explore medieval attitudes towards women in a variety of contexts – appearance, sexuality, education, work, maternity and so on – and to show how that is similar to, different from, and informing modern attitudes. I think she does an excellent job on the first, but I think there’s something lacking in the second.

The introduction to the concept of “the Middle Ages” is excellent, as is her argument for why studying this period is important, both for understanding the development of attitudes towards women and more broadly. Janega uses an excellent variety of sources to demonstrate how medieval society – particularly at the elite level, but also how that percolated through the other 99% – developed their ideas; through theologians (mostly male, but also Hildegard de Bingen of course), and medical texts, becoming educational manuals, as well as through ‘pop culture’ like ballads and Christine de Pizan’s poetry, and visual art as well. She also destroys some really important myths, like the notion that women as workers is a modern invention (you think a “farmer’s wife” is sitting around doing nothing?) and that beauty standards are in some way objective and timeless (all those images of nude Eve with a wee pot belly).

I do think that some of the ideas Janega draws together from medieval and modern are really important. The thing about beauty, for instance: that only the wealthy could attain what was regarded as truly beautiful, but that women shouldn’t be seen to work at BEING beautiful; if you did work on being beautiful that was vain and therefore sinful; if you were poor and somehow, miraculously, beautiful, you were clearly meant to be amongst the great instead… and so on. Also, beauty and virtue going together. It’s painfully clear how these things resonate today, with issues of cost as well as luxury time all coming together – think of women who are on public transport in their sneakers, with their high heels in their bag. Beyond the beauty issues, Janega talks about a lot of other issues for modern women and how these are similar to/different from our medieval counterparts. However, I didn’t feel like the links were drawn quite strongly enough between the medieval and the modern to show how one developed from, or reacts again, the other.

Overall I do think this is a very good book about historical European ideas of women: who they are and can be and should look like. Janega does make some imortant commentary on modern women, too – the fact that I wanted a tighter connection does’t detract from her powerful statements. This can definitely be read with little knowledge of the European Middle Ages.

Cleopatra’s Daughter, by Jane Draycott

I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in November 2022.

Ever since I read a biography of Beregaria – the only English queen who never even visited England – I have been very keen on biographies of women who have just been overlooked. (It wasn’t Berengaria’s fault; she was married to Richard I while he was on his way to crusade, then he got kidnapped and then he was off fighting in France, so… she never got across the Channel.)

Did I know Cleopatra VII had a daughter? Yes. That she was taken as a prisoner by Octavian back to Rome? Yes, although it wasn’t as immediately accessible knowledge. Did I know that this daughter then went on to marry Juba. king of Mauretania, and that she ruled there with him for many years? NO I DID NOT. And I kind of feel a bit aggrieved that I got to be 42 without knowing this.

Draycott has written a quite splendid biography, especially considering the limitation of the source material available. One of the things I particularly like about her style is that she’s not pretending knowledge that she doesn’t have. The reality is that there’s very little information about Cleopatra Selene’s childhood, either in Alexandria or in Rome; so Draycott presents what is known for children and families in those places in those times, indicating that this is a good estimation. I like this approach a lot.

Having said that the material is limited, I was surprised at the sources that do exist – see above, not knowing anything about Cleopatra Selene’s adulthood. There are (probably) statues (identifying ancients in statue is notoriously hard); there are coins; and there are some written references, too. So it’s not all a guessing game ; and when Draycott does make some leaps (like Zenobia maybe being a descendent??), she’s pretty clear about the tenuous nature of the links.

It’s likely that both Cleopatra Selene’s twin, Alexander Helios (yes, yes, Mark Antony, you have a great sense of humour AND hubris), and their younger brother Ptolemy, both died as young boys – Draycott makes a compelling case that this was probably from natural causes, given that Rome was a malaria-ridden swamp and that there doesn’t seem to have been a reason to kill the boys and leave the girl alive. Cleopatra Selene marries Juba, also a sort-of captive in Rome, and then they’re sent off to rule Mauretania – possibly, Draycott argues, with Cleopatra Selene taking an active part as co-ruler, given the example she’d been set by her own mother. She seems to have lived there for around 20 years, although there’s no definite date of her death recorded anywhere.

Finally, I particularly liked Draycott’s handling of the question of Cleopatra Selene’s ‘ethnicity’. That modern understandings (or imaginings) of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are very different from what people of her time would have thought about themselves or others, that it can’t be resolved what colour her skin was given the lack of definite knowledge about Cleopatra VII’s ancestry, and so on. I think she deals sympathetically with the idea of Cleopatra being ‘Black’, within the context of both not knowing for sure and those ancient people having different notions of what it means; she does make the firm point that Juba himself was (what today would be called) a Black African, and therefore their children were ‘mixed race’ and ‘mixed ethnicity’ (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, African). I like that Draycott is aware of these issues and isn’t pretending that such discussions don’t exist, or that they are somehow irrelevant to the discourse she’s part of.

Well written, thoughtful, and giving a broad understanding of both Cleopatra Selene as a human (as much as can be from the limited sources) and her context in time and place. This is what I want from a biography.

The Curious History of the Heart

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in April 2023.

I am conflicted about this book. It has some really interesting points… but it also makes what I regard as some silly, and some egregious, historical mistakes. The author isn’t a trained historian but he is writing about history so it really needed to not have those problems.

So. Firstly, in the timeline at the start, it says that someone ‘discovered’ the stethoscope. Uh, no. Maybe this is something that will be corrected before publication, but my copy doesn’t say this is an uncorrected proof. Minor, I know, but annoying. Also minor but annoying is saying that the Greeks “began practising medicine around 700 BCE” (p47), because I’m pretty sure that people were medicating themselves and setting bones in the place we call Greece well before that date, even if they did see illness as divine punishment; Asclepius exists as a god before that time.

Less minor and more than annoying is Figueredo’s insistence on the term “the Dark Ages”, which he seems to use to cover the entirety of what is more usually called the Middle Ages. I reject the term ‘Dark Ages’ for any period – it’s completely outdated and ridiculous – and I don’t remember ever seeing it used to refer to Europe beyond about 1000 CE? Certainly not after the 1200s. But on p26 he says Europe “fell into the Dark Ages for a thousand years” and that there was “a prohibition on scientific discovery”. I’m not going to say that the Church was throwing its arms open to science in this time, but at the same time – it’s just wrong to say that ‘science’ (whatever we mean by that) was in abeyance for a millennium in Europe. He also talks about the fall of the Roman Empire being in 476 CE, which is one of those superbly Western-oriented statements that must make historians of Byzantium tear their hair out.

One of the good things about the history part of this book is that it is not entirely Euro-centric. There’s discussion about how Hindu writings viewed the heart (around whether the heart was the seat of the soul etc), and quite a lot about Islamic views too. This latter actually leads to one of the other annoying statements, which is that without Islamic translations of ancient texts “the Renaissance in Europe would have begun with no past knowledge to build upon” (p72). Which is hilarious because it’s horse/cart: without those texts there IS no Renaissance. ANYWAY. He does give credit to the Islamic scholars so that’s excellent. There’s also some discussion of Mesoamerican attitudes, too, although perhaps a little too much focus on human sacrifice (which I thought was a bit more doubted these days, but I am definitely not an expert in that area).

My final annoyance with the historical aspect of the book is a linguistic one. There’s not very much discussion – or even acknowledgement – of the difficulties of translation around such words as ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ (as distinct from ‘that lump of stuff in your head’). Again, not the author’s area, but when you’re discussing cultural differences between whether emotions are seated in the heart or the brain, these things matter. So I found that disappointing. And this was only made worse by the start of the chapter about the word itself (chapter 28), where he states that the Indo-European word itself derives from the Greek and the Latin… which is another horse/cart problem, given how much earlier the Indo-European is. Again, maybe that will be fixed before publication, because it’s pretty egregious.

All of this makes it sound like I didn’t like the book, which isn’t completely true. I do think it’s an interesting overview of the place of the heart in ancient societies, and coming into the European medieval period. I think that the modern sections are fascinating, which realistically makes sense given that the author is a surgeon and therefore the modern science of the heart is, actually, his area. He writes well, and in a manner that is accessible for the non-doctor. I had no idea about the modern understanding of the heart-brain connection, or that there are neurone in the heart, so all of that was fascinating – the idea that the heart is a little brain is wild!

Maybe it’s mean, but I think the historical aspect needed to be treated a bit more seriously. If you want the book to be seen as a significant contribution to understanding the place of the heart in human culture, it needs to be as faultless as possible. This could be that, but it’s not quite there.

Perfume, by Megan Volpert

I received this book from the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out now, RRP $19.99.

I adore the Object Lessons series. It’s such a magic idea: take ordinary objects and explore them from as wide-ranging a set of perspectives as possible, and suddenly you show (what we all sort of know) that the ordinary hides an enormous amount of the un-ordinary.

They’re teeny little books – not even as tall as my handspan, and I don’t have huge hands. The cover is delightful, the overall design is lovely, and as an object I just love it. And the contents match that delight.

Volpert has written eight chapters: Science, Literature, Space, Time, Technology, Performance, Self and Other. They include a lot of research – into individual fragrances, the science of smelling (and not), the history of perfume production, the place of scent in narratives, and philosophy as well – plus a lot of the personal. (There’s an interesting moment where Volpert talks about the ‘loud’ fragrances she wore as a teacher, during the height of Covid while students and teachers were masked up… and then someone pointed out to me that if people could smell her perfume, they were probably wearing their masks wrong, and I was a bit dismayed.) Volpert talks about her own experiences with scent, and attitudes, and how her use and understanding of perfume have reflected her understanding of herself.

As well as being intrigued by the subject, I really enjoyed Volpert’s writing. The nose as “a helmet covering the outermost portion of one’s brain” is an image that’s likely to hang around as long as a 15 year old boy’s overdosing on Brut.

I have been ambivalent towards perfume all my life. I was gifted a perfume in my late teens, and that one scent has remained the one I’ve used for… an awful long time, partly because I like it and partly because I was both too lazy and too scared to go exploring other options. This book has challenged my thinking around what perfume means, and what it is for.

Off the back of reading half this book, I am going to a perfume masterclass from a local perfumery, and I’m pretty intrigued. I may not become an everyday-perfume-wearer, but I’m open to the idea.

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, by Katherine Rundell

Courtesy of Allex&Unwin, it’s on sale now ($34.99, hard cover, and it’s beautiful).

This book is wondrous – glorious – it’s poetic and soaring in its language, honest and brutal and passionate in its analysis of John Donne; a wonderful biography, a snapshot history of late Elizabethan/ Jacobean politics and drama, and an inspired defence and encomium for Donne’s poetry.

I loved it. Clearly.

I come to John Donne loving him for “Death be not proud”; I am not the greatest lover of poetry, but I know that piece by heart. I come to this book with some knowledge of the era, although not exhaustive. Neither of these things are necessary for an appreciation of this book – firstly, because Rundell chiefly praises Donne as the preeminent English poet of love (news to me), and also because Rundell gives a lovely, succinct explanation of all the things that have an impact on Donne’s life.

As a biography, the structure of this book is inspired. It’s largely chronological, thankfully, although bits of poetry and prose are scattered throughout to help illuminate Donne’s life. Each chapter, though, is structured around an aspect, or transformation, of Donne as a human. Early on these are the obvious changes, from child to youth and so on. But there’s also “The Convert (Perhaps)” – because Donne was born to a Catholic family in England when that could get you killed (like Donne’s own brother); and then the variety of positions Donne has, both personally: the Anticlimatically Married Man and Ambivalent Father; and professionally: The Flatterer, Clergyman, and (Unsuccessful) Diplomat. Throughout, Rundell’s conceit of Donne as a multifaceted man is born out – in his own experiences, and in writing. And his writing sings throughout, for all that – as Rundell points out, as people forget with Shakespeare and other contemporaries – there’s only one piece of Donne’s work in English in Donne’s own hand known to the 21st century. The rest has been put together by scholars over 400 years, and there are quibbles over words, so we’re really not entirely sure if what we have is what he meant (go look up the variations on Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech for an idea of what scholars are dealing with).

As a biography, this is masterful. As literary criticism, it’s very readable and gives me a huge appreciation for Donne’s mastery of language; he was brilliant and in love with language and with humanity and, indeed, both life and death. Rundell is unflinching in examining his misogyny, too, placing it in historical context as well as its personal meaning.

And as a book, Rundell has herself written a gorgeous, poetic, masterful work. She has a marvellous turn of phrase (“the Habsurgs kings with enormous jaws and close friendships with the Pope”), she is simultaneously devoted to and clear-eyed about her subject, and she conveys her ‘act of evangelism’ about Donne and his work in a way that I wish more people were capable of.

It’s not often I get to read and review a book that makes me so unambiguously happy that it exists.

Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior

How exactly did I get to this age without reading a biography of Matilda??

Well… it’s not entirely my fault, because there just haven’t been that many. And oh, couldn’t we talk about the reasons for that. And in fact Catherine Hanley does discuss some of the reasons for the lack of historical focus on this astonishing woman, and puts in the historical context for how she was discussed 900 years ago as well.

Let me say upfront: it may be 900 years ago, but the THEFT of the English crown from Matilda by her cousin Stephen STILL MAKES ME MAD.

Matilda: oldest child of the English king; married at 8 to a foreign emperor; widowed; named her father’s heir (because her brother had drowned); crown STOLEN by Stephen; spends many years fighting Stephen for the right to be monarch of England; eventually manages to have her son named Stephen’s heir, lives to see her son crowned king (although not literally, because being present would have made all the menfolk feel a bit uncomfortable). Matilda was amazing.

Matilda’s epitaph places her in the context of three Henrys: her father (Henry I of England), her first husband (with a complicated set of titles but eventually crowned emperor of ‘the Empire’; his lands included what is today Germany and various other bits), and her oldest son (Henry II of England). This epitaph is not surprising given 12th century attitudes. It’s probably also not the surprising that she has continued to be placed in this context.

Hanley does a really great job of using the existing contemporary documents (all histories written by men, mostly monks, as well as charters and other such legal documents) to give a reasonable suggestion of what Matilda was doing, Matilda was responsible for; reasons for Matilda’s actions and how she worked within, as well as bucking against, 12-century expectations of a royal daughter/wife/mother.

This is why a feminist, and now gender, lens is so important for history. Matilda was often described as ‘haughty’ and other such words… for doing exactly what her father, in particular, was praised for doing. She makes a really nice point of how when Stephen’s queen (…also Matilda, it was as bad as Henry) acted in a masculine way on behalf of Stephen, it was praised; but do so for your OWN benefit, and you’re a ranting virago.

Filling in a gap in my knowledge, this book was priceless (my MA was on this Matilda’s grandmother, also Matilda; this Matilda’s daughter-in-law is Eleanor of Aquitaine). As a thoughtful look at a hugely important part of English medieval history, I think it’s accessible to general readers who are prepared to deal with the Henrys and Matildas.

Making Australian History: Anna Clark

Not a review book! One that I saw in the delightful bookshop in Queenscliff and barely even stopped as I walked past, grabbed it, and paid for it.

(Who am I, reading historiography about Australian history? Australian history? My how I have changed.)

Sometimes I forget how much I love historiography. And I really, truly love it. A history of history writing/making itself? How much more meta can you get?? And Clark writes just so beautifully. This entire book is a delight.

Clark aims to present a history of how Australian History (the capital H is discussed very frankly and thoughtfully) has been written over… a very long period of time; and also how the writing of Australian History has helped to construct that history. Clark is under no illusions about the reality that History writing is part of the colonial project, and I think one of the great ongoing themes here is how Clark starts to unravel, deconstruct, illuminate, and reflect on that very process.

(Do the adjectives give a sense of how much I enjoyed this book?)

Another of the great aspects of this book for me is that it’s not entirely chronological – something else that she discusses frankly in the introduction. Chapters are thematic, and vaguely chronological, and also generally chronological within the chapter; but chronology is not the be-all of history writing, important as it is. I deeply enjoyed that there were chapters on ’emotion’ and ‘gender’ that ranged across time, to show how those things have affected history writing at various points.

Each chapter has a focal text, one that Clark uses as an instrumental text (in a broad sense) to get at a particular idea. Which is precisely something that I’ve done in the classroom, and it works really beautifully in the book to draw out and illustrate particular ideas. It’s a really great way of managing the flow of the chapters.

… it’s just really great. I think it serves as a good, thoughtful introduction to how Australian History has been written, thought about, and itself produced the Australia we live in today. Clark uses the ‘whispers’ and alternate texts and sometimes things that haven’t always been considered as history to give a sense of just what can be meant by ‘Australian history’. You don’t need an in-depth knowledge of history, or historical theory, to enjoy this – although you do need to be prepared to really think about the ideas being presented.