Monday, 29 October 2012

Andrew Marr's History of the World: A Review

I'm enjoying Andrew Marr's "History of the World" on BBC1 which has been rolling through world history at a cracking pace. Of course the problem comes with what to leave out and what to keep in. And the history can be a bit slipshod both in its presentation, and in how it treats what happened.

One case in point is the slave trade. The rise of the slave trade is highlighted, yet it is the British or French or Americans who are enslaving Africans; no mention is given of the fact that the slave trade operated though some Africans tribes capturing and selling off other African tribes people as slaves. The start of the slave trade was African enslaving African, and this continued even after America, Britain and France had outlawed the slave trade in their countries. And the end of the slave trade is presented as a triumph of enlightenment values about the rights of man, which in Britain it most certainly was not; it was a group of Evangelicals, the Clapham Sect, with William Wilberforce as their spokesman who led the fight against slavery and for its abolition. The philosopher John Locke, an enlightenment thinker if ever there was one - had a very profitable arrangement out of slavery and had several thousand dollars invested in The Royal African Company, as well as a slave trading company formed to develop the Bahama Islands.

Another case in point is Galileo. The Catholic church followed Aristotle in believing the earth to be the centre of the universe, which is given a religious slant although at that time, the Church had relatively recently rediscovered Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas had worked hard to mesh Catholicism with Aristotelian philosophy.

The primary argument which Aristotle had, which was very influential in the Middle Ages was the Tower. That had nothing to do with Tower of Pisa! It was a thought experiment. Drop a stone from a Tower. If the earth is spinning round,  the stone will not fall where you will expect it might, because between letting go, and it landing, the ground below must have been moving, so it would fall to the side of where you would expect. We know that isn't the case, and the reason is something actually counter-intuitive called relative motion. But the argument seems sound, and that - a rational argument - was the church position. In fact Galileo demonstrated problems with motion like this by throwing a heavy ball from one side of a ship to the other while the ship was going fast. The ball - on the Aristotelian argument - would have moved further down the ship, because the ship was moving along, and the other side would have moved while the ship was in the air. But, of course, motion is relative to a framework and it doesn't.

Galileo, we are told, could see the moons of Jupiter, proving that one planet had satellites rotating around it, not around the sun. The picture we are given on the TV is crystal clear - the moons rotating around Jupiter in high definition CGI. That creates an entirely false perspective for the casual viewer who wonders why the church could not see as well as Galileo! In fact, while he improved his telescope, it was still so poor that the planet Saturn was drawn with "ears" (rather like Andrew Marr's) on either side rather than rings.

And there is no evidence that is no evidence that Galileo ever uttered the words "eppur si muove"  - "and yet it moves" - this is very likely a myth. The first record comes from Giuseppe Baretti's Italian Library, in 1757, over a hundred years after the death of Galileo. That's an incredibly poor source, and most historians would be inclined to treat it with justifiable suspicion, especially as other mentions of the phrase derive from that one source.

Jenner's breakthrough with cowpox as a vaccine source for small pox is rightly celebrated, but what Marr doesn't tell us is that far from being welcomed with open arms, the medical world ridiculed and ignored him, so that he had to publish privately in 1798. The medical community still could not believe that a cure based on folklore, discovered by a country doctor:

Jenner needed more firm proof for his vaccine so he repeated the trial with many other children, including his own 11-month-old son.

Finally, he published all his findings into one booklet, known as, 'An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae; a Disease Discovered in some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of The Cow Pox', printed in 1798.

Still his critics were numerous and vociferous, particularly members of the Clergy, who felt it was unethical to introduce an animal's disease into a human. Jenner was the source of many jokes and cartoons which showed people he had inoculated as running around with cows heads.

Medicine, as a profession became more respected and more prevalent in society in the following 100 years, doctors became celebrities and the 7th International Medical Conference, held in 1881, gave medical practitioners a certain prestige. This was all to late for Jenner, who died in his home village in 1832, eight years before his vaccine became the government prescribed standard for the prevention of smallpox. (1)

It is also worth noting - as Marr does not - that Jenner did not make money from his discovery

Jenner believed the vaccine should be available for all and did not patent it, meaning he made no money from it. Doctors however, could still charge patients for the inoculation. (1)

Marr gives instead an account in which Jenner's discovery is at once published, and is immediately seen as the breakthrough that it was. The real history is far more messy.

I think that while the broad sweep of Marr's project is brilliant - the "big picture" approach is worth doing, it does have dangers that history can be glossed over. Do all revolutions follow the same pattern? Do all absolute rulers regimes follow the same path? This too is debatable; there's a strong cyclical history approach in some of his commentary as he tries to focus on past and present, and I wonder what might be missed out in those circumstances. Britain's change of government - the bloodless "glorious revolution" - gets a brief mention, but the bloodshed and carnage of the reign of William of Orange in Ireland is often glossed over, which is where Michael Portillo's "Things We Forgot to Remember" on Radio 4 is a good counterweight.

And there's also a striking lack of neutrality in some of his presentation. The Counter-Reformation suggests something wholly reactionary, which is why modern historians like Diarmaid MacCulloch use the term "Catholic Reformation", because while in part it was a reaction to the Reformers, it was also a reformation of its own internal practices and corruption as well.

All told, it is an entertaining series, but it is a pity the free booklet "How Do They Know That?" which Andrew Marr mentions at the end of each show wasn't supplemented by one entitled "And How Did They Get That Wrong?".



Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoy Andrew Marr's history program but Downton Abbey wins hands down. I can always look at the history program on iplayer :) later.

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoy Andrew Marrs history program but Downton Abbey wins hands down. I just view the Andrew Marr program on iPlayer later.

Anonymous said...

im glad to have found this reveiew as all i have found so far are complaints about the reconstructions, and the lack of detail in the show. well i am an a level history student and i thoroughly enjoyed it. i can see where it may have its faults and for experts on the topics it may seem vague, but for people who need an introduction into these areas of history i think it is a very helpful start. i dont understand the problems people seem to have with the reconstructions, every reveiw i have read complains that they are laughable and uneccesary, personally i had no problem with them and dont see why people made such a fuss. did people expect him to get through the complete history ofthe world? i enjoyed learning about the areas he focussed on