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review 2017-07-26 08:42
Reshaping the environment to suit our needs
The Draining of the Fens: Projectors, Popular Politics, and State Building in Early Modern England (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology) - Eric H. Ash

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.

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url 2017-06-20 02:45
My fifty-fourth podcast is up!
Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation - Peter Marshall

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Peter Marshall about his new history of the English Reformation. Enjoy!

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review 2017-03-08 02:33
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 2 of 3)
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2 - D.J. Boorstin,Gian Battista Piranesi,Edward Gibbon,John B. Bury

The second volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 27 through 48 of the author’s vast magnum opus.  Beginning with the reign of Gratian and ending with the reconquests of Heraclius in 628 A.D., Gibbons relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments that saw the ultimate split of the Roman Empire, the fall of the West, and the continuance of Roman tradition in the East centered in Constantinople before glancing at the lives of the next 60 emperors of Byzantium over the next 600 years.

 

The deterioration of the Rome picks up with the reign of Gratian and his eventual overthrow leading to the unification of the Empire under Theodosius the Great before its finale split with the inheritance of his sons and then their successors over the next 50+ years.  Throughout the era of House of Theodosius, the various barbarian tribes made inroads into the Western Empire which included two sacks of Rome itself by the Visigoths and Vandals, as the long ineffectual reign of Honorius and his successors allowed the Empire to slip out of their fingers.  In the vacuum arose the genesis of future European states such as England, France, and Spain while Italy declined in population and political cohesion as the Pope began to fill not only a religious but political role.

 

The Eastern Emperors in Constantinople, unlike their family and colleagues in the West, were able to keep their domain intact through military force or bribes to turn away.  The bureaucratic framework established by Constantine and reformed by Theodosius was used to keep the Eastern Empire thriving against barbarian incursion and Persian invasions while creating a link to the Roman past even as the eternal city fell from its greatness.  Yet as the Eastern Emperors kept alive the Roman imperial tradition while continually orienting it more towards Greek cultural heritage, the internal conflicts of Christianity became a hindrance to social and imperial stability leading to rebellions of either a local or statewide nature or allowing foreign powers to invade.

 

This middle volume of Gibbon’s monumental work is divided in two, the first focusing on the fall of the Western Empire and the second on how the Eastern Empire survived through various struggles and for a brief time seemed on the verge of reestablishing the whole imperium.  Yet throughout, Gibbon weaves not only the history of Rome but also the events of nomadic peoples as far away at China, the theological controversies within Christianity, and the numerous other treads to create a daunting, yet compete look of how Rome fell but yet continued.

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review 2017-02-12 00:00
Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Ecclesiastical History of the English People - Bede,Leo Sherley-Price,D.H. Farmer,Ronald E. Latham If two brothers had married two sisters and one of the brothers and sisters have died can the survivors marry? I liked the book when it dwelt with all important questions such as that. I liked it when Bede would say that we go to church on Sunday because that is the day the lord arose and it has nothing to do with the Sabbath commandment. Also, entwined within the story there is an interesting history of the early development of Great Britain, who would have known that Pope Gregory would have been so puny? I didn't.

The best thing I can really say about having had read the whole book is it's one of those books that I knew I had to check off my list. I wish that I didn't have that kind of personality for which when I start a book I feel obligated to finish it.

All the miracles reported in this book sort of got tedious. I found a strange parallel between this book and the Book of Acts (by far, imo, the most important book in the bible and is the must read book of the bible). There is a multi-volume work on how Acts must be true since there are over 50000 other confirmation of all the events, places and people are confirmed by other sources. Bede has that same kind of phenomena going for it. There is as history inside the story but also fantastic events entwined. There was even a magical (i.e. divine intervention) of some body who gets out of chains while locked up in prison just as Peter did in Jerusalem with the aid of the Holy Spirit. There are also Tempests at sea which abate because God (or the Holy Spirit) answers the prayers and so on.

In Bede's defense, he never really says anything that's not strictly true. He'll say stuff like "I've been told by the most reliable monk 'A' that he saw 'B' who performed a miracle while 'C' was gone and related it to me". There's not a lie in the book and he's reporting them as fact. Or he'll say that 'miraculous events are still being reported there today'. I just kept thinking how Bede is not a Liar, or Lunatic, or reporting truly about the Lord, but is reporting on legends (or what we call urban legends) which are at best third hand hearsay. It's up to an author to write about what they think is credible because all acts of creation means something will be left out and what is put in the author is giving some credence to (a very obscure example would be to re-read the NYT to the run up to the Iraq War of 2003 and pay particular attention to the articles of Judith Miller. Everything she says within the articles are true, but the 'sin of omission' still lingers and what she wasn't telling meant she was wrong. Yes, I'm mad about that war and the lies that led to it and one day I'll get over it, but even a book written over 1000 years ago can illustrate the same kind of problems that journalist who want to mislead!).

Another thing about this book. Bede had a weird fixation on when Easter should be. I bet you he mentioned that over 20 times within the book. You ever wonder why October is the 10th month and December is the 12th month even though 'oct' means eight and 'dec' means 10. March used to be the first month since Christ was annuciated on March 25 (exactly 9 months before Christmas). The first month of the year was said to be March. Having forgot that fact at first I wasn't always following his Easter arguments.

There is some history in this book, it also tells you how people thought uncritically during this time, and if fables dressed up as real is your thing this book could be fun. For me, I wish I hadn't started it or I wish I could have stopped it. I clearly would not recommend it to anyone to read because there is a tedium to it that is hard to ignore.
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review 2016-10-04 03:45
Podcast #23 is up!
The Culture of Food in England, 1200-1500 - C.M. Woolgar

My twenty-third podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Chris Woolgar about his study of meals and food culture in medieval England (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

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