Why Women Historians Have No Home in ‘Global History’
Historical circles are all having a chuckle over the mauling of Alan Mikhail’s book, God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World (Liveright, 2020) in a collective review by Cornell Fleischer, Cemal Kafadar and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. (https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/cromohs/debate) The skewering of a serious historian who appears to have tailored his approach to appeal to non-historian readers, and in the process appears to have distorted the processes of credible historical analysis, while making extravagant claims of innovation and global significance, is read with sympathy and relief by most historians. With faintly malicious envy of historians who manage to make the break into trade publishing by compromising some basic professional principles, some historians read reviews like this with veiled glee. And the review contains some perfectly fair criticisms of the current ambition of historians not only to get tight with trade publishers but to use “global” pretensions to hype their work. But it also rides along on some barely concealed inequities that are disturbing.
I know nothing about Mikhail’s book, and only a little about the historiography on Selim before God’s Shadow. I am assuming that Fleischer-Kafadar-Subhrahmanyam criticisms of Mikhail have a sound basis, and should be of interest to Mikhail himself. His previous two books on Egyptian (Ottoman period) environmental history have won prizes, and as recently as 2018 the von Humboldt Foundation selected him for a large grant to continue his work. He’s a serious historian, if not notably broad before God’s Shadow. The reviewing triad have pointed out that apart from glowing reports in high-profile newspapers like the Washington Post, professional reviews have been more reserved and even negative, suggesting that “Mikhail – until now an environmental historian, primarily of 18th-century Egypt – is in fact less than properly equipped to write on the early 16th-century Ottoman Empire, let alone its impact on the world.” Already one feels a big of disingenuity creeping in —do the trio really believe that a historian of 18th-century Egypt cannot be “properly equipped” to write on the 16th century, or on issues of world impact? Surely historians are not factory-stamped with UL warnings. One hopes they learn and change as long as they live. If they have the ability to read documents, to read existing historiography, to think, and to write, they are surely properly equipped. That doesn’t predict success or failure —which presumably is what reviewers are out to assess. But this early passage suggests what is happening in the review —the selection, funneling and amplification of remarks made by other historians about this essay’s true targets.
If there have been so many negative reviews, who needs another one? The trio explain with surprisingly little concealment or apology that they are motivated by pique. They open the essay with the complaint that the book “has been the object of an effective publicity campaign mounted by the author, his agent, and their diligent circle.” Actually that is what authors, agents and their diligent circles do. But in the trio’s opinion (which they amply support with historical evidence), this is a bad book whose author was permitted by the Washington Post to indulge in a “prominent” long self-praise address highlighting his grandiose claims about Selim being pivotal to “America, Protestantism and coffee” (which are surely not claims that originate with him). It was in fact published in the “Made by History” blog, which is not particularly prominent or influential outside of American history circles. When “we” (evidently the current trio) attempted to remonstrate with the blog editor by pointing out errors of “fact and logic,” “we” were, to make it short, blown off. One reads this with sympathy. This is what happens when historians try to engage with published popular “history” —it’s a good effort and must continue, but this is what happens. Editors admit mistakes only under serious duress, publishers do what they can to insulate from criticism books they expect to be profitable. So expectations that WaPo would publish on their blog (which is not obviously a book review venue anyway) a new criticism from these historians were probably arrogant or naive. But anyway, that’s why we need another negative review.
The authors quickly and somewhat puzzlingly adjust the scope to get several other targets in their sights. It turns out they are not only after Mikhail for having made some (in their well-supported view) baseless claims, but it turns out this is what is wrong with global history generally: “Mikhail’s book is part of an unfortunate trend by which ‘global history’ has become an excuse for authors to make outlandish claims, based on the belief that they will not be subject to the usual scholarly scrutiny.” They mean after publication, evidently. In my experience even books on global history are given serious scholarly review before being accepted for publication (I can’t speak for Liveright). Again, one is sympathetic. In my field, we have had to suffer through 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (Bantam, 2002) and City of Light (from Little Brown & Co, 2003). Surely they were published over objections from scrutinous scholars, but there we are. And after the fact excoriation seems to have no apparent effect on sales.
In the same vein, they complain that in the outlandish-claims genre, there is often a reprehensible lapse into “great man” history: Flashing before readers the name of some individual who has been previously unappreciated as the originator or the critical moving force behind most of what we experience today. Again, one is sympathetic. For one, Selim could not have originated everything, since Mehmet II originated everything, as I think I handily demonstrated in Hammer & Anvil. But seriously folks, this is the coin of the realm of any degree of popular history. Human interest, vivid stories and global impact all in one package. I had occasion to point out that this approach to Empress Dowager Cixi, as used in Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (Knopf 2013) was fatal to any kind of sensible historical thinking (or credible use of historical documentation). It is s point worth making.
The authors then begin to randomly side-swipe other books that they consider to lack self-restraint in making claims for amazing new revelations. They point out that Romain Bertrand set a fashion for self-described “global historians” cobbling together sherds of primary and secondary scholarship with nails of “politically correct Left Bank tiers-mondisme” (I don’t personally see this style of French historiography starting as late as 2011). And then they make a strange detour to fire potshots at Valerie Hansen’s The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World —and Globalisation Began (Scribner 2020). This is where they will get many reader’s attention.
Before wondering why they wanted to make this particularly desultory attack, let’s examine its substance. They write, “But Hansen also claims that in the year 1000 CE, the circumnavigation of the globe was possible for the first time, because the Vikings (or Norsemen) had made contact with north-eastern America, and – in a dubious leap not supported by leading specialists – also allegedly with the Mayas.” Now, Hansen is a well-respected historian of the Tang and Song periods in China, the Liao empire, and parts of Central Asia, and the year 1000 falls right within her specialization. Did she really say anything about the Vikings and circumnavigation, with or without the Mayans (which I would use in preference to “Mayas”)? This made me curious so I bought the Hansen book to see what she really said.
First, the book does not have the word “circumnavigation” in it. Hansen knows, as we all do, that nobody was circumnavigating the globe in 1000. What she writes about is the way that landmasses, in her view, were successfully linked by short transoceanic voyages —the Vikings from Europe to America, the Malays from Southeast Asia to the Indian Ocean, the Polynesians from Southeast Asia to the Americas, and so on. Nothing all that surprising in view of the past 20 years of historical, anthropological and human population research, and nothing particularly extravagant. Also distinctly different from what our doughty trio would have you believe. “Hansen also claims that in the year 1000 CE, the circumnavigation of the globe was possible for the first time” is plain false.
The Vikings and the Mayans bit is worth lingering over, in part because Hansen’s book is not amply documented and it is not always easy to know precisely how many sources she has for any particular point (the awkward “Notes” too often suggest a single source for a single point, which is not overwhelmingly convincing in itself). The question of whether Norseman had made it to the Yucatan peninsula before 1000AD has been discussed for a long time. It was evidently sparked by an 18th century German memoir, first published in English in 1892, which recounted that when the Spanish arrived in Mexico they found the natives conversant enough with Norse saga that they could discuss it together. The local lore seemed to suggest a Norse arrival in Yucatan (perhaps in 998AD), which inspired traditions of tall blond men in the land and of course the great white god Quetzalcoatl (but of course you got there yourself before you read that); Quetzalcoatl was also a feathered serpent (suggestive of the appearance of Viking long ships) who arrived from the east. At the same time, Norse oral history retained several memories of a band who sailed around Ireland and never returned. There is no physical evidence to suggest that this lost band somehow washed up in Yucatan. The only remote supporting physical evidence is a mural from the Aztec palace at Chchen Itza that appears to depict white captives (which could well be body paint). See discussions here https://thorvald.is/?page_id=392 and here (and yes this is one of the least authoritative venues you can find): https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/pre-columbian-murals-and-norse-sagas-suggest-vikings-met-aztecs-and-outcome-was-not-pretty-021084?nopaging=1.
Did Hansen misuse this legend to concoct a flimsy framework for her book in order to grab the attention of credulous readers? Our reviewers would have you think so. But they don’t make bold to characterize the book this way themselves. Instead, they find another reviewer to quote to discredit Hansen: “As the noted historian Noel Malcolm has written in a critical review of this book in The Telegraph (19 April 2020): “Hansen triumphantly declares that in 1000 these Norsemen had thus ‘closed the global loop,’ and that ‘for the first time an object could have travelled across the entire world.’ “ Personally, I don’t rely on The Telegraph for my historiographical education. There are plenty of reasons not to do so, but in this case Malcolm has as maliciously misrepresented Hansen as our trio has —but here, they rely upon him to do their dirty work. Here is what Hansen actually wrote:
Let us begin our global journey with the one certain moment of contact between Europe and the Americas before 1492: when the Vikings landed on Newfoundland in 1000. From there we’ll travel around the world, following the routes described by written sources and reconstructing others on the basis of archeological finds.
In 1000, Viking explorers closed the global loop. For the first time an object or a message could have traveled across the entire world. True, we do not know—yet!—of any item that did so. But because the Viking voyages to Canada in the year 1000 opened up a route from Europe to the Americas, it is fact—not supposition—that a network of global pathways took shape in that year. And so we begin our history of globalization then. (p.25)
To be clear, what Hansen does in part of this passage is beg the question. For students reading this: “beg the question” does not mean “raise the question.” Those who use “beg the question” as some kind of poetical way of saying “raise the question” have robbed the language of the real and unique meaning of “beg the question,” which is to engage in the logical error of pretending that an unresolved question has been resolved , and proceeding to a lot of implications on the basis of that fantasy resolution. You see a lot of that happening lately? That’s the because the “raise the question” as “beg the question” crowd have stolen from the language the ability to nominalize this ubiquitous and insidious practice and correct it.
So back to Hansen. She certainly begs the question. She tells you that it is in fact unknown whether the Vikings went to Yucatan, then tells you all the significance of them having gone there. It is heuristic, true, and heuristic discourse is a legitimate part of doing history. Nevertheless the whole Vikings in Yucatan day trip in the book is unwise and certainly unnecessary —because contrary to what our trio would have you believe, the book does not rest on assumption of circumnavigation in 1000, nor does she need the Vikings to have gone to Yucatan to make her point.
It is a big problem that our trio has clearly implied that Hansen’s “closed the global loop” comment was in relation to the speculative evidence about Yucatan, and not about Newfoundland, as Hansen’s text clearly shows it was. Such a misrepresentation suggests an inability to decode some very transparent English, or an inability to reason out some fairly basic historical ideas —or that they did not read the book, but just read a review of the book by Malcolm. Doing their own embedded review on the basis of Malcolm’s review would be a huge malpractice, however, so let’s assume that didn’t happen.
What was this side-swipe of Hansen really about? On the pettiest level, one cannot fail to note that Mikhail and Hansen are both in the history department at Yale. I wouldn’t get the idea on my own that the Yale history department is full of attention seeking historians who don’t care what depths of the incredible they have to plumb to get their books into the trade market; yet plenty or readers can come away from this review with that notion newly implanted in their minds.
But I think something more serious is going on. Let’s look at who else the trio decides to irrelevantly make fun of in the course of reviewing Mikhail. They don’t even start a new paragraph before landing on Carol Delany’s book on Columbus (Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages that Led to America, Free Press, 2011). They point out that she is not among “professional historians, with positions in the history departments of prestigious universities,” leaving the reader to speculate whether she works in the produce department or issues parking tickets. In fact she is an anthropologist who spent most of her career at Stanford, fairly recently received an NEH fellowship, and in retirement is associated with Brown. She doesn’t always do straight anthropology. Her book, Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of the Biblical Myth (Princeton, 1998) was highly regarded professionally and inspired an opera. The trio has a perfectly legitimate reason (unlike in Hansen’s case) to focus at least momentarily on this book, since Mikhail seems to rely upon it heavily (or at least he cites it a lot, which is not the same thing). The problem is, there is no evidence they read Delaney’s book. This is surprising in Fleischer’s case, since Delaney’s book is inspired by more than 30 years of what looks like credible scholarship on Columbus and millenarianism. Instead of reading the book, the trio does a burlesque presentation of it by quoting the review (and you will find this is the only negative review of the book) by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, who described it as demonstrating “‘incompetence in research, a lack of critical discrimination and a chutzpah reminiscent of Columbus’s own,’ and further that the authors (Delaney included) ‘have embarked on their odysseys in leaky vessels, with sails full of hot air instead of a speeding wind.”
This is embarrassingly unprofessional on several accounts. First, the authors do not indicate that they know.(and do not allow the reader to know) how much of this quote actually applies to Delaney’s book; second, they do not reveal to the reader that reviews of that book by scholars of religion and history are not in the main negative; and third, the original sin of not reading this book themselves, but making their review a platform for its pillory. But along with wondering how they are picking their extraneous targets, one has to wonder, what is it they like so much about Fernández-Armesto’s outlying review?
I can say from my own experience that Fernández-Armesto wrote an outlying review —the only negative one in a string of complimentary reviews— of my little book What is Global History? (Polity, 2008). I do believe my book shows a preference for materially-oriented, conceptually progressive history —in other words, not the sort that Fernández-Armesto does. Though above I argued that historians are by default licensed to venture into fields they have not previously mastered, I have never been impressed by the canned, conventional Chinese history summaries that Fernández-Armesto (and for that matter Subrahmanyam) are inclined to employ; let’s be venturous but with a respect for depth. Fernández-Armesto complained that my book was “hectoring,” which fortunately was not the impression made known by any other readers. In view of his attempted slaughter of Delaney, my treatment was mild, and I am retrospectively flattered. Nevertheless you don’t have to read a lot of Fernández-Armesto’s reviews to figure out that he is a practitioner —and not necessarily a conscious, intentional one— of genteel misogyny. And anybody who promotes his opinion of women scholars over the views of others is also a practitioner, perhaps also unconscious and unintentional.
The trio can always protest that near the end of the review they slip in a quote from Caoline Finkel that agrees with them on the weakness of Mikhail’s scholarship. But that is irrelevant. Compared to global history, there is a relatively high number of women doing history of the Islamic world, and the Ottomans in particular. Being able to find one to quote is inevitable. However, in global history woman professionals are few, and the attitude displayed in this review is part of the reason. Anybody would be hard pressed to name more than a dozen women historians with consistent involvement in global history. Our reviewer trio just happened to find two of them to gratuitously smear in the course of reviewing somebody else. They rather give the game away when commenting (which in another context would draw my agreement): “In the matter of such dubious global histories then, the critic is spoilt for choice.” Yes, and among that plethora of choice, look who we picked.
Genteel misogyny doesn’t mean excluding women, though it can mean ignoring them, which is common in global history. It means allowing men historians to forcefully press a point, but only allowing women to “hector.” But more often it means, as here, crediting bad reports of women historians over good reports, for no particular reason. Repeating and amplifying second-hand assessments whose merit you have no way to directly assess —in this case, just for the amusement of the reader. Going out of the way to find opportunities to deride them or their work; even if done honestly (not the case here), going out of the way to do it is misogynist.
Our three musketeers have convinced me that Mikhail’s book is probably not the definitive book on Selim. But they didn’t convince me of anything else apart from their inability to see themselves and their reviewing behavior through the lens of anything other than complacency with their own privilege and their regrettable reviewing practices.