My sixty-second podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Eric Ash about his history of the draining of The Fens in eastern England in the 17th century (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!
In this book John Hatcher has provided readers with a superb study of the prehistory of the British coal industry. "Prehistory" is the word for it, too for as he makes clear early in the book "There was no British coal industry before 1700. Nothing which remotely resembled a national industry ever existed within our period."(59) What Hatcher details instead is a series of local and regional industries which were the antecedents of the national industry that would emerge in the 18th and 19th centuries. To do so, he delves into the previously underutilized local studies of the collieries, which he integrates into the economic history of medieval and early modern England. The result is masterful account of its subject, one that is almost encyclopedic in terms of its description of nearly every aspect of coal mining and coal consumption and of enormous value to anyone interested in the subject.
Today The Fens is largely a misnomer, as the region of East Anglia is a flat, dry land studded with farms. Yet a few centuries ago it was a name that referred to the marshland environment of the area, one often inundated with water from the sea or from the rivers that fed into it. While these conditions was hardly conducive for growing crops, the grasses that flourished in the wetlands were ideal for animal husbandry, which was practiced as far back as the Roman occupation. During the 17th century, however, a number of parties began a decades-long project to drain The Fens that turned it into the environment which we know it as today.
Eric Ash's book describes how this occurred. He traces the beginnings of the project to the 1570s, when environmental changes that worsened the flooding convinced some in the royal government of the need to intervene. Until then flood management was the responsibility of sewer commissioners, prominent locals who sat on boards that were empowered to maintain flood control measures but whose resources and remit were limited to maintaining existing conditions. Now, however, the crown began to consider ambitious projects designed to drain The Fens and convert the pasture land to more desirable farmland.
The inhabitants of the Fens quickly objected to the government's proposal. Ash spends a good part of his book describing the various challenges to the projectors, which included political pressure, legal challenges, and even violence against the "projectors" and their employees. While efforts by the crown to secure a consensus proved elusive, it was not until first James I and then Charles I took the throne that the state grew more aggressive in its approach. Nevertheless, one of the virtues of the area of the first major drainage project, the Hatfield Level, was that the crown controlled most of the land in the area, thus forestalling much of the opposition encountered elsewhere. Work on the even larger Great Level drainage began soon afterward, and while it was disrupted by the civil war that broke out in 1641, the work continued intermittently until it was complete by the 1670s.
Synthesizing political, social, technological, and environmental history, Ash's book provides an excellent account of the efforts to drain The Fens in the 16th and 17th centuries. From it emerges an account of greed, environmental change, government power, and local resistance that has echoes in some of the debates over public projects and environmental regulation in our own time. Perhaps the most salient point to emerge from the book is how the efforts by people to utilize and shape their environment have long reflected their views of their relationship to it. This is true even today, for while the ongoing effort to restore The Fens embodies a very different set of assumptions and goals, they share with the drainage projects of the 17th century the idea that it is our goals which should determine its condition, even if our objectives today have brought us full circle to embracing the wetlands role The Fens had served for so long in the past.
My second Arguing History podcast is up! In it, I host historians Peter Marshall and Alec Ryrie in a discussion of the question, "Did the Protestant Reformation have to happen?" Enjoy!
One of the most pivotal periods of Western civilization occurred during the Renaissance and the Reformation, to culturally impactful events that overlapped one another across Europe. Heretics and Heroes is the sixth book in Thomas Cahill’s series “The Hinges of History” highlighting the artists and the priests that changed how Europe viewed creativity and worshipped God.
Cahill begins this volume talking about philosophical struggle over the ages between Plato and Aristotle, through it is the fourth time he has discussed this millennia-long debate during the series it allows Cahill to refer back to it in the text and gives the reader a basis to understand its importance during this era. Cahill continued setting up both the Renaissance and Reformation by highlighting moments during the Late Middle Ages, especially the effects of the Black Death, leading up to and allowed for these two important moments in Western history to occur. The ‘discovery’ of the New World by Columbus and rise of the humanists begin the look at the titular heretics and heroes that will dominate the book, using both events Cahill shows the changing trends in Europe just before both the Renaissance and Reformation completely change it. The Renaissance and it’s complete change of artistic creativity of the previous millennium is taken up first through the lives of Donatello, Leonardo, and Botticelli before focusing on its height and sudden stop as a result of the Counter-Reformation in the life of Michelangelo. Then, save for a brief look at the art of Northern Europe, Cahill turns to the Reformation of Luther and the Catholic Counter-Reformation with brief looks at the Reformed movements and the development of Anglicanism.
The entire book is packed with information in a very conversational style of writing which has always been one of the strengths of Cahill’s writing. As always with a popular history book, Cahill had to pick and choose what to focus the reader’s attention on while covering as much as possible about the subject he’s decided to write about. While Cahill is pretty successful at hitting the high points and pointing readers looking for information to the appropriate place to look, his personal opinions at times overwhelm the history and themes he’s trying to bring to fore. All history authors have their personal opinions influence their work; however Cahill’s armchair psychiatry and personal theological arguments that actually have nothing to do with the debate he’s writing about at that moment in the text. While Cahill’s personal opinions have been in all of the previous books of the series, this volume it seems to not be subtle but almost blatant.
Overall Heretics and Heroes is a fine addition to the “Hinges of History” series written in a very readable style by Cahill. However, unlike the previous books in which the reader was left with wanting more, the reader will be wishing less of Cahill’s opinion and more of actual facts. Yet even with this drawback and forewarning a reader will find this book very informative.