Other historical obsessions

sknox

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#1
OK, we've pretty well established that WW2 is number one.

What would be the next six? (I don't like top ten lists)

I don't mean which era or event most interests you, but rather what you would plug in to complete the sentence, "Why are people so obsessed with X?"

My candidate: the Fall of the Roman Empire. (capitals intended)
 

Foxbat

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#2
I'm finding it difficult to think of an historical obsession that doesn't include war (I'm sure there are and it's just that my tiny mind can't cope with the concept).

So, with that in mind, I think there are probably a lot of folk with an interest in the American Civil War. The Napoleonic Wars must be up there too. Personally, I find it's the Russian Civil War, the Crusades and the Punic Wars that I find most interesting.
 

night_wrtr

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#3
Agree that war tends to be a glue of fascination. I'll add in the Greco-Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. Alexander The Great as a person is up there, but his life is also highlighted by war and conquest.
 

sknox

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#5
Why are people so obsessed with ... the French Revolution? I'd vote that over the Napoleonic Wars because I include the latter in the former.

I'll also buy the Crusades. What else are people generally fascinated by?

I might propose the Middle Ages, though that is probably too broad a topic.

Americans are obsessed with the American Civil War. You folks across the pond, do you have something similar? I know there are plenty of re-creationists for the 30YW, the Norman Invasion, lots of things, but do any of them rise to the level of a general obsession (rather than the focus of hobbyists)?

I've always thought it peculiar that so many people look to the fall of the Roman Empire (a phrase that makes me cringe) but utterly miss the importance and relevance of the Roman Revolution.

Still interested to hear other thoughts. Again, for the purposes of this discussion, I'm looking for obsessions like WWII, not personal interests.
 

Foxbat

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#6
Americans are obsessed with the American Civil War. You folks across the pond, do you have something similar?
I think the closest we have is the English Civil War which was actually more of a British Civil War and often called the Wars Of The Three Kingdoms.

I think perhaps civil war becomes a particular obsession with some because the 'enemy' was once your neighbour and friend. When idealogical differences or grievances begin to fester within a community, how small a step is it from idealogical division to violence?
Perhaps given the vast number of casualties in their conflict, the Americans still feel this very strongly about this piece of history and goes some way to explain their obsession with the American Civil War.
 

Harpo

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#8
There's 'always' been a huge nostalgia for the various countercultural aspects of the 1960s (including Swinging London, Beatlemania, Woodstock, et cetera) and as the years go by that nostalgia will increasingly become a historical obsession.
 

sknox

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#9
It just occurred to me there is another way to measure "obsession" (we could perhaps call it popularity): by published books. I have to preface this by saying all observations are my own, not derived from actual study.

For example, early modern Scotland, plus Tudor England, comprise a startling percentage of books in historical romance. But spy novels, of course, are dominated by the Cold War and WWII. Mysteries and detective? Not so sure. Maybe 1930s and whatever decade is current. I don't think "present day" should count for this thread, though. So, besides, 1930s, maybe Edwardian era.

Here again I invited non-English speakers to chime in for their own cultures.

To return: historical fantasy is dominated by the age of Arthur, followed by Rome. Generic fantasy is such a hodge-podge of pseudo-medievalisms, it's hopeless to try to categorize it.

Anyway, even this quick survey shows there are definitely genre-specific "obsessions" and that these to not really match up with the interests of straight history (that's what sparked the original thread regarding WWII). I'm not sure what to make of it, only that human beings are varied not only at the individual level but also (seemingly) at the group level. I mean, why is historical romance not dominated by 18th century Poland, or 13th century France? No idea.
 

Foxbat

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#10
Perhaps the answer to your question about 18th century Poland or 13th century France is simply that they are not as well known by the general public as the age of Arthur or Rome and it may be that the authors have chosen periods that are not too taxing on readers with only a vague idea of history?

It's also worth keeping in mind that there may be many folk like me who enjoy learning history and yet have zero interest in historical fiction and, if that's the case, then any crossover assumptions may be fatally flawed.
 

Dave

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#11
I think you have all covered them, but based upon the number of books sold I would put the Tudors, and especially Henry VIII top. Henry was certainly quite a character, as was Thomas Cromwell, but the fiction available is heavily romanticised and historically inaccurate.

In the book sales, I think the Tudors would be closely followed by Rome, which I think is also understandable. Then closely followed by the "English" Civil Wars, now more properly known as the War of the Three Kingdoms. Our education system is/was appallingly England-centric, and before, after and during the two parts of the wars in England, fighting continued in Scotland and Ireland and was possibly even more brutal. However, I learnt absolutely zero about Scottish and Irish history at school. I knew nothing about my Covenantor ancestors, nor did I know anything about Oliver Cromwell in Ireland or the later Protestant plantations or the English absentee landlords. For example, I was taught that the Irish potato famine was due to bad climate, which undoubtedly played a large part, but does not explain the Irish American emigrants dislike of the English. It is because of this poor education that English people today cannot understand current Scottish and Irish feelings towards independence, sovereignty and Brexit, as they simply haven't been given the right tools.

I believe school is where most people first develop an interest in history, even if like me it doesn't develop until much later in life, so the curriculum needs to be much wider. The obsessions are possibly because of the very narrow topics covered at schools. I certainly was taught zero about 18th century Poland or 13th century France. My children seemed to learn only about the Second World War and Hitler. I have read University lecturers complaining about that very point too when they get new intakes of undergraduates. My daughter took A level History but instead of time periods, her course topics were 'the struggle for Africa' and 'the history of Medicine' and that seems to be the way History is now taught in school. That is certainly more interesting than the way History was taught to me, but I don't think you can isolate one topic like that, from everything else going on at the same time around it, and to still have a complete understanding.
 

sknox

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#12
I hear you, Dave. That's why college-level courses start with survey courses.

I have another view, one that rarely gets tested, but it has always made sense to me. A survey course necessarily can spend little time on any one topic, resulting in a student perception that history is mostly a long list of names and events. Another way to approach an introductory course would be to focus on very specific topics. I would, in fact, focus on the "obsessions" list we have cobbled together here. The topics are intrinsically interesting. Yes they tend to turn on war, but even war can be taught from a variety of perspectives, so there's plenty of room for flexibility on the part of the teacher.

By starting with a specific, the students can get to know the period in some depth, gain some appreciation for the human story, for narrative, for the sources and how to interpret them. For, in short, how history is done. To me, that's the important thing to teach; it's the method and philosophy, not the fact list.

I would make the survey course the capstone, aimed at history majors. Because only when one has some grasp of historical method, and has been exposed to several specific courses, can one even begin to make sense of the broader narrative. I base this in part on my own experience: it was not until I had to teach Western Civ that I finally realized how many gaps were in my historical narrative. Despite having taken Western Civ, plus a survey of the Middle Ages, plus specific medieval courses, the Merovingians were still a black hole, I had only the dimmest notion of the tenth century, and of the Balkans I was as ignorant as a freshman. That's when I began to form my idea that surveys were for grad students.

I wonder if obsessions are not self-perpetuating. We have many sources for Elizabethan England, so the era gets studied often and in depth. This provides grist for the novel and movie mills, which in turn stokes interest, which funnels more students into those Tudor-Stuart courses, and there we go again. It's much tougher to generate that kind of interest for the Hanseatic League. :)
 

svalbard

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#13
I wonder if obsessions are not self-perpetuating. We have many sources for Elizabethan England, so the era gets studied often and in depth. This provides grist for the novel and movie mills, which in turn stokes interest, which funnels more students into those Tudor-Stuart courses, and there we go again. It's much tougher to generate that kind of interest for the Hanseatic League. :)
It helps when you have Shakespeare batting for your cause :)
 

Steve Harrison

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#14
I have recently been obsessed with American history, seen through the presidency. I started off with biographies of Adams, Jefferson and Washington (in that order), moved on to Robert Caro's epic four part (hopefully five part) Lyndon Johnson bio (best political bio I've ever read) and I've just finished David McCulloch's wonderful book on Harry Truman and a terrific TV documentary series on the two Roosevelts.

Seven down, 38 to go...
 

Venusian Broon

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#15
I have recently been obsessed with American history, seen through the presidency. I started off with biographies of Adams, Jefferson and Washington (in that order), moved on to Robert Caro's epic four part (hopefully five part) Lyndon Johnson bio (best political bio I've ever read) and I've just finished David McCulloch's wonderful book on Harry Truman and a terrific TV documentary series on the two Roosevelts.

Seven down, 38 to go...
Did you see the recent Ken Burn's directed series on the Vietnam war? I thought that was excellent - in its scope, with a quite a lot of its focus on the politics in the Whitehouse and the three main presidents that were embroiled in that mess, in explaining the history of the fight itself, but also getting personal stories from all types of ordinary people and their actions.

I was particularly amazed to be told that Nixon may have deliberately interfered and sabotage the peace talks in 1968 so as to improve his election chances.

And it had Trent Reznor doing the music, which is always a plus in my books.
 

Steve Harrison

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#16
Did you see the recent Ken Burn's directed series on the Vietnam war? I thought that was excellent - in its scope, with a quite a lot of its focus on the politics in the Whitehouse and the three main presidents that were embroiled in that mess, in explaining the history of the fight itself, but also getting personal stories from all types of ordinary people and their actions.

I was particularly amazed to be told that Nixon may have deliberately interfered and sabotage the peace talks in 1968 so as to improve his election chances.

And it had Trent Reznor doing the music, which is always a plus in my books.
I watched the first episode yesterday and was very impressed. My holiday viewing is now sorted!
 

Caledfwlch

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#17
Our education system is/was appallingly England-centric, a.
Utterly agree - I went to school in Wales.
This is the extent of what we were taught about "Wales" in the 5 years I was there.
"in AD 60, a Roman General came up with a cunning plan, and was thus able to invade Anglesey" (the Teacher didn't even have in her text book, or apparantly, the capacity to research what she was blankly droning out at us and make it more interesting - like for example the fact that the proper modern name for the island is Ynys Mon, and in Roman Conquest times, it was known as "Mona")
ooh, she also forgot to mention that Mona was the Vatican of Britannia, the religious centre of Druidic / Pagan Britain, and the Romans were so desparate to invade it, because it was the last Druid stronghold, and as the Druids were inspiring British Warriors into remarkable actions, and causing major damage to the Roman War Machine, they were determined to exterminate them. This is likely why we have all these claims of mass ritual sacrifice, mass murder, etc for death magic, sacrifice to the Gods etc, yet no such ritual site, which would surely contain hundreds, maybe thousands of bodies in mass graves have been found - one would imagine such rituals would take place in an important Place of Ritual, not at random parts of the countryside :D

That was it - a Welsh classroom, and that was the only bit on "Wales" we did, and it wasn't even Wales back then. :rolleyes:
No mention of sources of pride, or our remarkable history of course, like the fact that William the Bastard and his Norman Chaps pretty much took the entirety of the Kingdom of England in 1 battle, but took over 200 years to fully invade, defeat and occupy tiny old Cymru.
No mention of Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) and that that even around the 9th century, Hywel codified the ancient Celtic/British laws, and creating fair legislation - Women in Wales, as were Women in Eire under the similar ancient Brehon Law, were treated better and fairer under the justice system, than Women in many Countries of the world right now, such as Saudi Arabia.

No mention of the Last Prince of Wales, Owain Glyndwr and the Welsh War of Independence, which with more help from France, and the lack of certain bad decisions later, maybe some better timing and he would have been successful.

Glyndwr and the WWI seem to be pretty much ignored by most fiction and non fiction writers, even in Wales, yet it's hell of a tale, the Lord who rebels, declares himself Prince, due to his royal blood, and right to be King of Gwynedd, smashes 3 English Armies which hugely outnumbered him, and brought the King of England to the brink of bankruptcy, utter ruin, and quite possibly all sorts of civil unrest in England, had the last major battle failed, then that is what would have happened.

The thing that I love about the WWI also, is it's connections to other major events of the time period.
After Glyndwr was defeated, the King offered all Welsh War Bowmen Pardons if they joined his Army to go to France, which many accepted. Had they not been offered that, or if enough had refused, could it have affected the outcome of Azincourt? since that famous battle would be depleted of a great many Welsh Archers, who had just spent the last several years waging a Guerrilla War, and thus it seems fair to assume they were incredibly well experienced, and good at their job.

Then there is Sir Dafydd ap Llewelyn ap Hywel (Who is better known as Dafydd Gam, & I think is mentioned by Shakespeare as "Davy Gam".
A lot of historians dispute the Story - citing a lack of Sources, but pretty much every single one of those Archers, formerly fighting for Welsh Independence would have considered Sir Dafydd to be utter vermin, a vile Traitor to his people & his homeland, so they are unlikely to have made up stories of alledged bravery. Sir D, was a Welsh Lord, who was asked by Glyndwr to join the WWI, but refused, as he was a man who kept the Oaths he made, and he had made an Oath of Loyalty to Henry V. According to the stories, at Azincourt, a French Noble, The Duke of Alencon, and his Men, made what was effectively a suicide attack, charging their Cavalry into the English Lines, smashed their way through, the Duke got within inches of Henry V, swung his weapon, and would have landed a mortal blow on the King had Sir D not lept to the King's defence, and took the mortal wound himself.
There is also talk and dispute that Sir D may have been Knighted as he lay dying.

That's just a tiny piece of fascinating Welsh History, that connects into wider British, English & European History, the same is true for the other Home Nations, stories and times we never heard about, except for the odd, random documentary on BBC4.
Instead in School, what we got for literally the whole of the 5 years after Agricola was WW2, WW2, WW2, WW2, WW2, WW2.
And not even anything particularly interesting - It's hard to recall back 27 years, to when I was 11/12, but ISTR that it was pretty much exclusively the Holocaust, and the A Bomb. I had a massive, ridiculously heavy Tome at home, the "Readers Digest guide to WW2" full of colour pictures, photographs, maps and so on, and I learned far more from that book, than in 5 years of school - IIRC, in School, despite doing Hiroshima etc, we didn't even get told that the plane to drop the first Atomic Bomb was the Enola Gay.
School Lesson never even mentioned anything the crew of the Enola Gay may have said.
Yet, from my huge book, I discovered the Pilot made a famous quote. "My God, what have we done!!!"
 

Foxbat

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#19
My kids here in Scotland seem limited to WW2, WW1, WW2, WW1, WW2 ...
That's interesting because when I was at school in Scotland (admittedly a very long time ago), I seem to recall very little of WW1 or WW2 in the curriculum - a fact that disappointed me at the time.

I do remember spending a significant chunk of time on the Industrial Revolution, a little on the Jacobite Rebellions. The rest of it was spent on English history. So, if my memory isn't playing tricks on me, I think we fared better than the Welsh system back then, but it was still fairly English orientated.
 

Caledfwlch

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#20
I recently read an interesting take on viewing and exploring history
I think bbc4 did a TV documentary with a similar premise about Great Britain called something like swords and muskets.

It was by Chris Kyle and called American Gun: a history of the United States in 10 Firearms. Kyle it seems is an ex Navy Seal and published a book called American sniper.

Interesting book to be fair and an unusual way of viewing history but it does make sense and pull together and you can see how these guns were vital at certain crucial points.

The Continental Army had master marksmen armed with "Kentucky Rifles" and they devastated British command and control by sniping officers. The creation later of the 95th Rifles Regiment by the British Army was a direct consequence - it realised it needed highly mobile marksmen outside of ordinary regimental command structure to combat units such as those feared Yankee Snipers and they also realised the value of such units when waging war in Europe.
 

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