While my opinion of Margaret McMillan’s The Uses and Abuses of History isn’t that high, I did agree with one thing: most of the people writing popular history these days aren’t professionally trained historians, and this isn’t a good thing. While the historical profession has moved on from many outmoded approaches to historiography, we still find the same positivistic “hurrah for the modern world!” narrative histories crowding our shelves, because a) they’re entertaining and b) they support the status quo. More importantly, these works make money, even when the actual “history” behind them is questionable or even laughable. However, the vast bulk of popular history, while irritating, doesn’t get me nearly as angry as blatant works of non-history that, against all reason, gain popular support. To put it lightly, it sometimes amazes me what publishers get away with putting in the “history” section of bookstores. Two books come to mind:
1421: The Year China Discovered the World (2002)by Gavin Menzies makes me want to tear my hair out every time I see it, not only because of its premise, but also because it’s so popular. Much like Black Athena launched the first major thrust of the Afrocentrist movement, 1421 attempts sinocentrism in a fairly blatant fashion. The irony here is that Black Athena’s author Martin Bernal was a Chinese historian by trade, treading into waters he knew little about to form his thesis, but even he didn’t plunge into this type of mess. Menzies, however, isn’t a historian at all. A vast army of ghostwriters tried to make up for this, but the severe lack of factual evidence makes 1421 an exercise in sensationalism sans content. 1421 posits that Ming Admiral Zheng He’s latter voyages did not merely take him across the Indian Ocean and to Africa, but that the treasure fleets sailed around the world. There are no primary sources that support this claim, forcing Menzies to draw shaky conclusions by connecting vastly disparate bits of information in truly remarkable ways. Half of the “proof” found in 1421 is outright fabricated, but that hasn’t stopped this book from capturing the public imagination. 1421 really is “rewriting history” in the worst way possible, by papering over the past.
If an enormous Chinese fleet did sail around the world in 1421, they managed to very cleverly hide any trace that they had done so. Obviously, this is what an opulent treasure fleet meant to gain tribute from other nations was supposed to do, pass by with nary a hello or a cracked pot.
Followed by 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, a title worthy of a 17th century author, which somehow manages to be even worst.
There are some books that shouldn’t exist. Every time I think about them, I wonder: “Who would write this? Why would you write this? What was the point?”
Enter Where Troy Once Stood (1990) by Iman Jacob Wilkens, and a good argument for why most pure economists shouldn’t write history books. Wilkens’s text isn’t nearly as damaging, and, fortunately, not nearly as popular as 1421. I think most people realize how ludicrous the premise is:
The Trojan war took place in England.
Yes, there is an entire book based around this sentence.
There is so much utterly wrong with that statement that it makes me want to cry. The basis for this thesis is also an utterly strange one, and summarized thusly on the official website:
The transfer of place-names naturally led to the belief that the events described in the epics took place in Greece and the Mediterranean and that the Achaeans were Greeks. (Troy in England)
Yes, indeed. Everything else in the Iliad is taken as truth, but there’s just one thing wrong: the names. They’re Greek. We can’t stand for this! And thus follows the worst piece of historical “detective work” you could imagine. I have a very simple response: if the names present in The Iliad changed over time, and Homer worked from earlier sources, how in all that is holy did every other description remain completely accurate? How?
It seems the Anglocentrism present in the 19th century (including claims that the garden of Eden was, in fact, in England) hasn’t died. All the more strange, considering that the author is Dutch.
I don’t know…a headache?
A plea for publishers to stop marketing these books as history, because they clearly aren’t? But no, Harper Collins put a great deal of time and effort into 1421 (perhaps more than Menzies himself did). Considering how many copies have been sold, I don’t see publishing companies ceasing on such false claims to legitimacy.
It’s true that most professional monographs tend to be highly theoretical and often dull. It’s true that they don’t make much money. It doesn’t have to be so. The Night Attila Died (2005) by Michael A. Babcock, for instance, manages to be a serious monograph and engaging as well. Even if Babcock’s claims don’t, ultimately, add up, there’s nothing wrong with Babcock’s method. Perhaps we need more books like his, as a counterweight to the sort of popular history discussed above. Historians who actively engage with public interests rather than retreating into academia. Otherwise, we’re stuck with snorting at popular history, rather than trying to change it for the better.