Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Pursuit of Glory by Tim Blanning

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

Over the last several years - perhaps even the last decade - I have been working through a variety of works on history. I had a pretty decent education, but it was largely focused on United States history, and suffered from the usual deficits of high school curriculum. It is difficult to really do more than give an overview and foundation given the constraints of time and memory. Thus, it has been fun and enlightening to go back and fill in details, particularly the cultural and practical ones usually eclipsed by war and politics.

Tim Blanning has made a career of study and writing on the history of continental Europe from the Seventeenth Century to the early Twentieth Century. In particular, he has written several books on different facets of the French Revolution.

I put this book on my list because a colleague and former boss of mine was reading it at a volunteer event we were at, and recommended it - from one book nerd to another. I was not disappointed.



To try to express the scope of this book in a blog post would be impossible. It ostensibly covers the five revolutions: scientific, industrial, American, French, and romantic, but that isn’t quite true. Because it focuses on Continental Europe, the American Revolution enters the book only as it affected Europe itself. More than that, the book goes far beyond the scope of these revolutions in an attempt to present a wealth of information about the era. The title, too, is a bit of a misnomer. The pursuit of glory applies perfectly to Louis XIV, a major figure to be sure, but his is hardly the only or even the dominant story. I suspect that there was no good title that would completely fit the book, so the author (or publisher) went with something that sort of fit and would grab attention.

I might compare this book with England Under The Stuarts, which I read last year. Both paint a historical picture of an era and a transition.

Starting and ending points are arbitrary, of course. The author justifies using 1648 as the beginning because he considers the political settlements of that year as an acknowledgement that confessional pluralism within greater Europe. The endpoint of 1815 likewise represents an arbitrary point by which the author considers the development of the modern state to have been completed.

Although the entire book was interesting, I particularly found the first section, “Life and Death,” to be fascinating. One of the benefits of learning the history of the everyday is that it makes it harder to glorify the past. It is fun, perhaps, to imagine being part of the nobility of the past, but the lives of everyday people were not so glamorous.

The three great killers of earlier times, greatly reduced these days: war, famine, and plague. The book explores these three, and the way that they all gradually shrank during this period, allowing significant increases in population.

On a related note, it was also interesting to read some of the writings on contraception from the early 1700s. It is easy to forget that even seemingly innocuous methods, such as withdrawal,  were both widespread and widely condemned by church authorities. I also found the quotes from very early feminists to be intriguing. The Ladies’ Defense by Mary, Lady Chudleigh is quoted extensively, as are a few other poems by women of the era. As someone raise in an environment where feminism was both oversimplified and vilified, it is good to have a reminder of the ills that women once bore - that some would have us return to: absolute control by parents, arranged and forced marriages, difficult or impossible divorce, acceptance of domestic violence, and so on. It was also enlightening to see the debate between those who claimed women were intellectually stunted, and those women who pointed out that they had been systematically denied educational opportunities. This debate may seem settled by the accomplishments of women, but it continues to play out in places like Afghanistan and Nigeria today.

The line between poverty and utter destitution was thin, and easily crossed in those days before a public safety net. For women, this meant that the slightest slip could easily lead to a life of prostitution as the only alternative to starvation. London in 1750 was estimated to have 10,000 prostitutes, while in Paris, one in thirteen women was a sex worker.

While poverty certainly was not ended by the industrial revolution, rural life was also less glamorous than often portrayed.

I never really thought about where the word “robot” came from. It was applied to its current context by Czech playwright Karel ńĆapek in 1920, but he merely used a word for the involuntary servitude owed by a serf to the lord. A serf wasn’t just required to pay a portion of his crop to the lord, like a sharecropper might. He was required to spend a good amount of his time working directly for the lord - and these days really added up. In exchange for this, the lord - in theory - had obligations to make sure his serfs didn’t starve, and so forth. The justifications made for the system sound strikingly like the justifications made for American Slavery - just with classism substituted for racism.

To a degree, the liberation of the serfs from these duties granted them some opportunities, but even then, impoverishment was widespread - and accepted.

It is always interesting to find parallels between the past and our own times. This quote from England’s John Howlett could have been written about 21st Century America - particularly the Ayn Rand conservatives:

There is, indeed, I cannot help thinking, something peculiarly ungenerous in our complaints of the burdensomeness of our poor. Within the last forty years the rent of our houses and land are increased eight or ten millions; the wealth of our farmers and tradesmen is augmented in similar proportion; that of our merchants and leading manufacturers in a degree infinitely greater. And shall we grudge to allow of this abundance two millions a year towards the support of those from the labour of whose hands and the sweat of whose brows we have derived the whole? Shall we grind their faces, and squeeze them to death, and then have the cruel absurdity of ascribing their fate to their increasing vice and profligacy?

It is so easy to forget that both the French Revolution and Marxism arose in response to real problems, and that societies ignore those problems at their peril.

On the political side, the author did an excellent job in tracing the rise of nationalism - a plague that still infects our thoughts. Pride in one’s own nation isn’t necessarily an evil. There is nothing bad about lauding Shakespeare or Beethoven (or Twain perhaps as an American example). However, this benign pride was also accompanied by a corresponding denigration and dismissal of other nations and their accomplishments. As is all too common, this then led to demonization of others, attributing moral defects to the “enemy.” In particular, it is striking how each nation believed the other was a pit of sexual immorality and disease.

Particularly good was the list of the elements of nationalism: a foundation myth, a mythical hero or heroes, special assistance from God, cultural achievement, an alibi for failure, and a gnawing sense of grievance at foreign oppression. It’s not difficult to see these beliefs in the great wars of the 20th century - and indeed the three centuries before that. More immediate - and disturbing - is the way these ideas are central to a certain segment of conservative Christianity these days, those still preaching Manifest Destiny and so-called Providential History. All the elements are there.

There were some humorous political quotes too. There is the (probably apocryphal) statement by Cardinal Lambertini before he was elected pope.

I advise you to come to a decision: if you wish for a bigot, choose Aldobrandi; if you prefer a man of learning, elect Coscia; if you like a buffoon, here I am.

Come to think of it, that would have made a great political slogan.

Also hilarious was a Russian noble’s cynical description of the political system as “Despotism tempered by assassination.”

A few more interesting observations I felt were worth jotting down:

The amusements of the nobility were plenty bloody, and are looked on with horror today in most cases. However, at the time, they were considered to be “manly” pursuits. Then, as now, there was a horror of perceived “effeminacy” and a variety of prescriptions for preventing it.

One was cockfighting. Robert Howlett put it thusly:

There is not a surer sign of a Nation or Peoples degenerating into effeminacy, and so consequently falling into Poverty and utter Ruin, than when they totally change the Warlike Exercise of Cocking for mimical Plays, silly Dancing, and such like Fopperies. Cocking fits a Man either for Peace, or War, and creates both Courage, and Constancy, with Good-nature, and ingenuity all glued together.

That sounds utterly ludicrous now, but we still do the same thing when we prescribe whatever “manly” exercise of the day is trendy, selling it on the fear of “effeminacy” and the degeneration of culture and manhood.

Another interesting fact was that French was at one time the universal language, replacing Latin as the language of the educated classes. In turn, it would be replaced by English, in large part because Napoleon managed to alienate pretty much the entire rest of the world.

Speaking of Napoleon and his wars, it strikes me that World War One really should have been called World War Two, and Napoleon’s campaigns given the honor or disgrace of being the first. The parties involved were similar, and the war engulfed as much of the world as WWI. (Both were less worldwide than WWII.) Even more telling, the casualty rate compared to population was actually higher in the Napoleonic wars than in WWI.

Despite the fact that the subject is rather involved and the scope broad, the author is able to make everything interesting with his excellent writing and obvious enthusiasm for his topic. It isn’t a “page turner” for the simple reason that there is much to digest, but it is compelling, and I found myself eager to return to reading it.

One final bit that I cannot help but share. During this period, literacy went from a luxury of the privileged classes - and usually only males - to a widespread and egalitarian necessity. More than that, it became a source of pleasure to a great many. Some were rather appalled at the unwashed lower classes taking to books, but others were delighted to see reading run rampant across social boundaries. As clergyman Johann Beyer put it, “No lover of tobacco or coffee, no wine drinker or lover of games, can be as addicted to their pipe, bottle, games or coffee table as those many hungry readers are to their reading habit.”

Guilty as charged.

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