Welcome back! Although I have the occasional novel, and a focus on non-fiction, I have a particular weakness for really old and hilariously dated textbooks. Today’s special guest star isn’t outdated in terms of its content – like all math textbooks, the math itself is still perfectly good – it’s outdated in terms of its actual function. The very existence of such a book is made obsolete by digital calculators. Let’s explore!
Behold! This is Standard Mathematical Tables, 16th Edition. It’s about two and a half inches thick, printed on thin thin paper, and it’s crammed with exactly what it says in the title – tables. It was for a high school or college student, as a vital companion for a slide rule. Before there were pocket calculators or calculator apps on the phone in your pocket, there were slide rules. Here’s a nifty video on what a slide rule is, and how to use one (at least for the simple stuff).
Nifty, right? So, to make things faster, you might need a big fat reference book of various functions, worked out to several places, hopefully beyond whatever precision you need. Ultimately, this lovely book is all of the things – in text – that your phone can do in less time than it takes to turn a single page. This particular copy is actually in very nice condition, and I really like seeing all the neat and tidy tables inside. It’s a masterpiece of organization and precision.
Standard Mathematical Tablesmust have been pretty miserable to proof read, though, and check that all of these were actually correct. It went through sixteen different editions, too! I have no idea what they were adding, correcting, or updating, but I hope it was worth it.
When I saw this book for cheap one day, I decided to get it and keep it partially out of respect for the immense effort and expertise that went into making it, but mostly out of amazement for the forgotten calculating technology it represents. After a certain amount of time, this book stopped being merely out of date, and became a piece of history in its own right. But, at least, if I ever get a slide rule, I’ll be prepared.
A wildly obsolete calculating tool like Standard Mathematical Tableswon’t be found in the library’s collection, although our Friends of the Library book sales might offer up some unique finds if you are willing to hunt for them. The story of Standard Mathematical Tablesand its technological eclipse is a reminder that a non-fiction book is sometimes much more than a means of serving up facts.
This time, on a Very Special Episode of Katherine’s Bookshelf, I’ve got a Very Special book for you, and it’s one of my favorites, but not for the reasons you might think.
Cover to cover, this book is basically the history writing equivalent of a fresh cowpat steaming in the crisp autumnal air at dawn. A giant pile of bullplop and a hot mess. In fact, it’s one of the most notorious history non-fiction forgeries of the 20th Century.
Published in 1910 – just two years before the Qing Dynasty would fall, this book about the life and policies of Dowager Empress Cixi claims to be based on the diary of a court official, which just so happened to fall into Backhouse’s hands. Backhouse then went to Bland, who was a journalist at the time, and wrote the book with his assistance. Yes, this is absolutely a work of wild-eyed sensationalism, designed to appeal to what the English-reading audience already believed, and wanted to have reflected back at them.
The first tip-off that the whole thing was a hoax probably should have been that Backhouse was a dude, his co-author Bland was a dude, and the supposed court official was also a dude. (This wasn’t, for example, claiming to be based on letters of a court official’s daughter who was serving in the inner palace, which would have been at least plausible.) There is absolutely no way that any of these biological males ever would have gotten firsthand information of what was going on in the private quarters of the Forbidden City. That’s why there were court eunuchs, whose primary job it was to relay information and orders between the Empress and Dowager Empress’ offices and the court. It’s called the Forbidden City for a reason, not the Everybody Come in and Make Yourselves at Home City.
The most obnoxious part of all this for me is that it’s not like China Under the Empress Dowager by J.O. Bland was the first and only book about the topic available in English at the time. There were at least two previous accounts of Dowager Empress Cixi’s inner court atmosphere. One, published in 1907, was written by Katharine A. Carl, a painter who had made a portrait of her, and the other was a 1909 collection of published letters by the wife of the American Minister to China, Sarah Pike Conger. In 1911, just one year after the publication of China Under the Empress Dowager, a third account was published, this time by one of the ladies of the court, Princess Der Ling. But, of course, all three of these authors were women, which probably impacted their reception by the public. That’s not to say, of course, that these three books are without bias – Sarah Pike Conger and Katharine Carl had their own agenda and racist prejudices, naturally, and Princess Der Ling wanted to defend the Qing Dynasty. Nevertheless, they weren’t made up nearly whole cloth, as Backhouse’s infamous book was. Keeping their inevitable biases in mind, these firsthand accounts can be used to approach the truth, or at least something nearer to it.
Despite these accounts, two of which beat his to publication, and each of which had more direct information, Backhouse’s book was more salacious and conformed better to what his audience wanted to believe. The media echo-chamber is not a problem of the present alone, it’s a problem of human nature, and definitely not unique to the 21st Century and the Internet. Does anyone remember the Maine? William Randolph Hearst? Turn-of-the-century Yellow Journalism? We should. So spare a thought for your information, how you get it, from where and why.
Rather than a collection of books, here’s a pair of books that enrich each other if read together!
Content Warning: contains depictions of animal abuse. (Yes, especially for Black Beauty. Wait, you don’t remember that? Read the unabridged version, they probably cut all the really harrowing bits to make it more palatable for kids.)
Let’s talk about the changing place of animals in society!
Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eatby Hal Herzog is built on the premise that animals that live in close association with humanity are framed by human cultures in terms of three broad categories: pets, vermin, and livestock. Different cultures might construct the categories along different lines, or even apply them to individuals rather than entire species, but the book nevertheless seeks to apply this theoretical framework to all of them in order to better understand the place of animals in the human world. Interesting topic, and the first of two books to bookend this discussion.
Complications and Guinea Pigs
While Herzog’s book is certainly valuable, there’s a lot of nuance in current and historical cultures that complicate things, and for that, let’s talk about the very strange ride guinea pigs have had. Today, in the continental USA, we see them as pets, a popular choice for the classroom, or children. Alternatively, they’re the proverbial lab animals, which isn’t quite the same as a pet or livestock, but isn’t vermin, despite the fact that the other major lab animal, rats, are definitely thought of as pests before pets outside an experimental setting. Guinea pigs as a species already occupy a complex place in our society, and it used to be even weirder.
Historically, and currently, in the cultures of the Andes which created the domestic guinea pig, the animal is a highly regarded food source, called cuy in Peru (cuyes, plural). Okay, so I might have to have to ease you into this if you didn’t know already. You know how there’s the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and Cattlemen’s Beef Association, dedicated to promoting the use of beef in American kitchens? It’s what’s for dinner. They’ve got beef recipes, and information, and function as a means for beef producers to communicate about the state of the industry, as well as make beef look as good as possible to the public. There’s a similar industry and promotional board in Peru, for guinea pigs, and they have a website, too: Cuy Peru. More than worth a click if you can read Spanish, and even if you can’t. Just brace yourself for whole roasted guinea pig, like we do chicken here. (Scroll almost to the bottom for recipes.) So, pet in one culture and livestock in another, simple, right? No. The guinea pig had a long breakout career in Europe as a status symbol, more akin to a fancy watch, designer purse, or car than a pet or even a purse dog.
At the time the Spanish brought guinea pigs back, European cultures had a very different relationship with animals than we do today, mostly because the framework of morality in general was very different. In this context, it didn’t matter whether animals could think and feel, because morality was about sin, and the God-given order. This is how there were pig trials in the middle ages – a killer pig was acting out of this order, and it was up to human ecclesiastical court systems to put it to rights. (If you’re wondering why a pig would kill someone, the answer is that they’re seriously omnivorous, and are absolutely capable of killing and eating people, especially if the person is unconscious or can’t get up under their own power at the time. That’s why it’s such a big deal in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy falls in the pig pen. At the time, I guess people would have known this. Modern audiences probably don’t have enough experience with farm animals to recognize the danger. Anyway, just go to your search engine of choice and look for “killed and eaten by pigs” for a nicely horrifying roundup of the recent cases.) Animals, in this framework, were there to be used by humanity as we saw fit. This led to a huge amount of horrible animal abuse, society-wide and often formalized. I’m not talking about bullfighting alone, either, more like bull-baiting, bear-baiting, rat-baiting, anything-baiting, organized fights between basically any animal that will fight, goose pulling, cock throwing, and fox tossing, just to list a few.
I chose the fox tossing example above, because this is the time period that saw the rise of the guinea pig in European culture. Arriving from South America with the silver galleons, guinea pigs acquired an association with this trade, and the power and wealth that came from it. Guinea pigs featured in portraits to underline elite status, and guinea pigs also played a starring role in still life paintings, whose purpose was often a visual treatise on the dominance of the expanding European trade empires. Here’s some weird European guinea pig art.
Britain and Horses
Eventually, though, there was a major shift in the calculus of European morality, a key part of which was an equally major re-evaluation of the way in which animals were treated. Beginning in the late 1600’s, and concluding in the mid 1800’s, new measures of morals emerged, focusing on the idea of avoiding doing harm and being compassionate. It was believed that compassion shown to animals mirrored a person’s capacity for compassion to their fellow human beings, and so kindness became a new standard of behavior. The series of prints by Hogarth, The Stages of Cruelty, presents a moral along these new lines, just as the idea began to get popular traction, and here’s a link to the Tate Museum’s online exhibit on the print series so you can examine it in further detail. In a nutshell, the inevitable end result of animal cruelty is that it becomes cruelty to humans, which ends in the murderer’s corpse getting dissected by surgeons in public, as was the practice at the time.
Protip: if you have to propagandize about morals, they’re new and need to be taught.
Although modern ideas of the right way to treat animals come from the Enlightenment and Victorian Sentimentalism, a much more similar place than the earlier medieval framework, there are some key differences. Emerging nationalism also played a vital role, and in the case of Britain, the way in which people should treat horses in particular became a defining cultural touchpoint that persists to this day. In case you were curious, here’s a retrospective on the Great Horsemeat Contamination Scandal of 2013. The book that in large part forged this identity was Black Beauty.
Black Beauty follows the life of the eponymous horse through a series of thoughtless and cruel masters, highlighting the way in which horses were used and abused, and advocating for better treatment by tugging at the readers’ heartstrings rather than laying out a rational argument, in contrast to Hogarth.
Ultimately, filtering down to us from Hogarth’s time, and Anna Sewell‘s, our own cultural sorting scheme for animals settles into the categories outlined by Hal Herzog in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. It has only been two and a half centuries, yet we take this understanding for granted.
Available in book, downloadable ebook and audiobook formats.
This is the grand dame of the bookshelf, an early-ish edition of Etiquette by Emily Post. When it comes to the bookshelf collection, I don’t really care whether I get a first edition. But I do like my etiquette books to be from a range of dates, and this one, whose publication history to this point spanned almost the entire 1920’s, shows just how much American society was changing. Take a close look at that list of editions!
End pages and such are anything but boring. Read closely: the use of the word “edition” indicates that the book was altered and edited for the print run. If it was just being reprinted to meet explosive demand for the book, they would be labeled “printings” instead – as you can see after the publication of the New and Enlarged Edition in 1927. So, something was actually being changed in the content of the book, continuously, from July 1922 through November 1927. There are five editions in 1923 alone. I would hope that the core content of the book was ready for publication with its first edition, but this is a huge number of subsequent tweakings, and I would wager that they weren’t all simply fixing typos. Given that it’s an etiquette book, it looks like it’s being edited to keep up with the changing expectations of society.
Polite behavior is, as nearly every etiquette manual points out, a matter of being considerate and compassionate. That doesn’t change. What does change is whether you’re expected to know what an ice cream knife is for, and if visiting cards are necessary, or if you must be able to play bridge and golf in order to survive in business. These details can change very quickly.
We don’t use ice cream knives, and bridge is no longer so vital to building business and social connections. Dining has become steadily less and less formal, too. However, the fancier the occasion, the more it might conserve practices of a century ago. If you find yourself faced with the prospect of a twelve-course dinner, Emily Post has you covered.
This book from Katherine’s Bookshelf is, exactly as the title suggests, an encyclopedia of interior design… from 1947. Hmm. So, what were fashionable home interiors like in 1947? Let’s see:
Having flashbacks to grandma’s house yet? In 1947, Colonial is in. Nothing says 18th Century Colonial like a giant plaid sofa. Also: ashtrays, ashtrays everywhere. There’s an ashtray on every single table and end table in this picture. I like the rug though. I can definitely appreciate a nice hooked rug. It’s huge. All you need to make a hooked rug is a small crochet hook, some burlap, yarn, and time – lots and lots of time.
Basically, the entire book is exactly like this, which points up the problems with many interior decorating and home improvement books. If it’s incredibly fashionable, it’ll go out of fashion eventually. On-trend rapidly mutates into dated, exactly because it’s so evocative of the time period in which it was popular. Warm gray wall paint and white tile are headed that way very soon.
Another interesting aspect is that it’s fundamentally aspirational. Nobody buys a book on home improvement if their home is already improved. You don’t need advice for painting if you’ve already painted. Everything in this book is about how things should be, but aren’t yet. In the same sense that the styles shown within might be evocative of grandma’s house, few people in 1947 actually had houses that already looked like this. Like us, they made do with hand-me-down furniture and their walls were already painted. Not everyone was moving into new houses in Levittown. Some people had apartments, and some people had 1920s Cape Cod houses, or Victorian era townhomes, or shotgun houses. It’s important to read books like The American Woman’s Encyclopedia of Home Decorating to remind ourselves that the actual Mid-Century as it was actually lived in wasn’t entirely Mid-Century Modern. For every hilarious Uranium Red Fiestaware plate, there’s a whole lot of very bland porcelain teacups. Cultural memory is highly selective, filtering through only the most novel and iconic designs. The past as we remember it is not the past as it was lived.
It’s time for Big Ideas! Welcome to a mini-series-within-a-series on history and how it is made.
One way to think about history is as a story, a series of events that happened, and when. Get comfy, and settle in, because this post will explore the events of the Wars of the Roses, from the lead up through the aftermath – one of the most headache-inducingly complicated historical narratives I could think of. In the end, after the dust settles, and the Tudors take over, I’ll discuss the value of treating history this way, and what we can really learn from it.
Story Time (Skip to the Relationship Map if you Feel Your Eyes Glaze Over)
A long time ago in England (about 600 years ago), King Edward III had three sons (who survived to adulthood and are important to this story). His first son, Edward the Black Prince, had a son, who became King, Richard II. His second son, Lionel of Antwerp, went on to have kids, and that branch would be the House of York (White Rose). Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, had a son, who would depose Richard II, and become King Henry IV. Descendants of John of Gaunt are the House of Lancaster (Red Rose). John of Gaunt also had another son, by a mistress, and his name was John Beaufort, and he was legitimized later, so he could inherit and hold titles. So, for those keeping score at home, the new King, Henry IV, and John Beaufort are half brothers through their father.
Henry IV has a son who becomes king, Henry V, who marries Catherine of Valois. They have a son, who becomes king too: Henry VI. After Henry V dies, Catherine of Valois goes on to marry a second time, this time a wealthy Welsh landlord, Owen Tudor. This marriage produces another son, Edmund Tudor. Remember the half-brother of King Henry IV, John Beaufort? He had a daughter, Margaret Beaufort, and she marries Edmund Tudor.
Meanwhile, the latest King, Henry VI, marries Margaret of Anjou. He has increasing trouble keeping up with all his kingly duties, though, so she’s actually the one in charge of things, and he has two advisers, also. One of these advisers is the wealthy and influential descendant of Edward III’s second son Lionel of Antwerp, Richard of York. The other is another wealthy power-broker, Richard Neville, AKA Warwick the Kingmaker. Richard Neville married his daughter Anne Neville to Henry VI’s son and heir, Edward of Westminster. You hanging in there? Breathe into a paper bag if it gets too complicated and you need a break.
So, Richard of York and Margaret of Anjou basically hate each other, because he figures that the House of York descends from the second son of Edward III, and not the third, like the House of Lancaster, so by rights, he should be King instead. He gets Richard Neville’s support and fights with Margaret of Anjou and the House of Lancaster to get Henry VI deposed. In one of these battles, Edward of Westminster, the King’s heir, is killed. THEN Richard Neville has his daughter, the newly widowed Anne Neville, marry Richard of York’s youngest surviving son, also confusingly named Richard. He also marries off his oldest daughter, Isabel Neville, to Richard of York’s third surviving son, George. Then, Richard of York dies in battle, too. His oldest surviving son eventually wins the fight, and deposes and replaces (and, let’s face it, probably has murdered) poor Henry VI, who has been held hostage, rescued, and then re-captured, and ends his life in the Tower of London. Richard Neville switches sides, and mounts a rebellion with George against Edward IV. Richard Neville is killed in battle, Edward IV puts down the rebellion, and has his brother George drowned in a butt of wine for his backstabbing ways. Somehow, the new King Edward IV actually dies of natural causes, and has a son, the new King Edward V.
BUT WAIT, there’s more! It turns out that Richard of York’s youngest son Richard thinks that HE should be king, and has Edward IV’s marriage declared illegal, so that King Edward V is now illegitimate, and has him thrown in the Tower of London with his younger brother (they’re both just kids at this point). He’s declared King Richard III, and then the two “Princes in the Tower” just… disappear. (Again, probably murdered on the order of Richard III.) So… remember Edmund Tudor, from waaaaay back there? He had a son, who figures that he’s as close as anybody to being King, and comes back from France and defeats Richard III, who dies in battle, and, in the distant future, is discovered buried under a parking lot (confirmed by DNA testing in 2013). The End.
That was complicated and horrible, so here’s a relationship map, to help you figure out what happened:
Fun fact: my history knowledge strong points are really East Asian and African history, not European, so I didn’t really know most of this until I researched this article. In fact, I picked this particular topic purely because I didn’t know much about it. We’re learning together! Yay! It really doesn’t help things that nearly every dude is named either Edward or Richard. At least the various Henrys are numbered. So that’s the story of the Wars of the Roses. But, in the end, after all that, what has changed? England has a different king. The family in charge is now these guys, not those guys. The Tudors would continue the foreign policy aims of trying to get back France, so that didn’t change. The social structure is the same. The economic structure is still the same too. It’s a story dramatic enough for a whole batch of Shakespeare plays, but is the series of events actually important enough to how the world turned out to remember in detail?
On one hand, you can argue that without the Wars of the Roses, there isn’t a Henry VIII to have a succession crisis and kickstart the Catholic vs Protestant divide that would dominate the politics of later England (and then the United Kingdom, and everything including the potato famine in Ireland, and even a really scary undertow of Brexit negotiations much later).
For want of a nail a horseshoe was lost
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost
For want of a horse, a rider was lost
For want of a rider, a battle was lost
For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail
On the other hand, the horseshoe nail approach ads nothing to our understanding. Sure, it’s easy to say that future events come from events in the past, but that’s the very definition of what “past” even is: it’s the events that led here, so of course that’s what they do. There’s a lot of value in looking deeper, and asking more questions. If it wasn’t Henry VIII, would it have been someone else anyway, due to rules of succession and legitimacy being what they were? Could someone in a position of power have simply done the same thing, with their own pivotal decisions? Or, if you prefer, would the real reason be the way that English culture passed property on to children, and the critical role of religion in supporting this system? These questions are the core of historiography – the discipline of how history is written.
In a very literal sense, history is the practice of finding meaning in events of the past. History is writing about events of the past, but FOR the sake of the present and ultimately the future. Otherwise, why remember it? For everything you know about history, consider all that has been forgotten, or left unknown. History is what we choose to remember, and how we choose to remember it. As for historiography, narrative alone isn’t bad, and can be compelling. Remember, the narrative of the Wars of the Roses itself – with lots of spin, of course – was good enough for Shakespeare. Next time, we’ll dive into the dueling perspectives of historiography, and the question of whether it is pivotal decisions or socioeconomic forces that drive this narrative.
Logic! It’s fantastically useful stuff. Use it all the time for sorting out your options, thinking up plans, and generally making your life easier. There’s some very real limits to it, though, and whether an idea checks out logically doesn’t always have anything to do with its relevance to the real world. Here’s the test: can this idea be used to predict what will happen?
There’s a Robert Louis Stevenson story called The Bottle Imp. Go read it in this collection, here, if you like. No plot spoilers, but I will be discussing the premise of the story, so if you want to read it before we get to that, do. The main idea of the story is this: there’s a bottle that contains an evil imp. It can grant any wish except to prolong the bottle owner’s life, and if you die with the bottle in your possession, you go straight to Hell. The only way you can get rid of the bottle is to sell it to someone for less than you paid for it. Here’s where it gets interesting.
Truth and Consequences
Let’s play a game, and think about the Bottle Imp problem logically. Eventually, there’s an ultimate loser: someone stuck with the bottle who bought it for a single penny, and they can’t sell it. So, following that, the next person up, who sold it to them, bought it for two cents, and must have known that they wouldn’t be able to sell it to someone for one cent. There must have been someone above them who got it for three, but should have known that they couldn’t sell it for two, because the person who got it for two would have to convince someone to take it for one, which nobody would ever do. Theoretically, nobody should ever take the bottle for any price, because the problem of not being able to sell it for a cent should cascade up the chain of prospective bottle owners. This is, of course, assuming that everyone involved is thinking logically (and whenever you hear that phrase, you should also assume that this perfectly spherical, frictionless dog hunts perfectly spherical, frictionless partridges in a vacuum).
The trouble here is that real people just aren’t rational actors, any more than real hunting dogs are spherical and frictionless. Realistically, everybody in the chain, down to perilously close to the bottom, is probably going to think “eh, I’ve got plenty of time, and I’m sure I can find some sucker to sell the bottle to” – and, in the main, they’d probably be right. The existence of the whole idea of gambling in general testifies to the idea that people – real people – generally do a terrible job of thinking logically and rationally. If the odds could really be in your favor in the long term, casinos wouldn’t exist.
Sometimes, especially when dealing with real human behavior in the real world, logic does a truly wretched job of predicting real-world outcomes and decisions. There’s a distinction between logic, and actual utility. Most of the time, logic is very useful, but sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with questions of real human behavior, not so much.
Bud Dorsey, lifelong photographer, has compiled a small collection of photos that focus on West Louisville, as well as the people that make up the community. With an Introduction by Dorsey about his journey through multiple cameras, you feel that you are walking alongside him while capturing photos. They range from his childhood in Beecher Terrace, his service to our country in the naval forces, and on to photo shoots forJet Magazine.
When America heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death on April 4, 1968, Louisville had rioting in the street. Survival was not guaranteed on 28th & Greenwood Streets, Dorsey says, because it was the police who started the riots. If you have lived in Louisville but haven’t been to the West End, you will see what Dorsey witnessed in this collection of his photographs.
Mr. Dorsey also includes photos of folks from around the country in the music industry, such as James Brown and Michael Jackson, and political activists like Anne Braden and Dick Gregory.
A tour de force for local history and visual art, this book shows the compassion of West Louisville from its past to the present, with hope for the future.
[Editor’s Note:An exhibit of Mr. Dorsey’s photographs from Available Light are on display at the the Muhammad Ali Center until January 5, 2018]
Women’s wrestling appears to be garnering interest with the public again due, I surmise, in part to the rise in popularity of the Netflix show GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling). Stepping into the square this year are two books which throw a spot light on the world of women in the ring.
The first is Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling by Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy. It offers short biographies of several athletes from around the globe and their journey into the world of female wrestlers. Two of the women are from Kentucky whose paths led them from an attraction at a freak show in a circus to a tag team matched up again male wrestling tag teams. While some will see wrestling as a charade, which by in large it is, the performers/wrestlers display athletic prowess and drive to do whatever it takes to get ahead even if it results in broken bones or missing teeth, as displayed in the book.
Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy present a good mix of information, past and present, up to the latter half of 2016, as well as images of each female wrestler. There is still enough mystery in the field of women’s wrestling to keep the reader wondering what the future may hold for this rough and tumble sport. If shows like GLOW are of interest or if wrestling draws your attention check out this latest non-fiction title.
As in many autobiographies/memoirs, there is a mixture of good, bad and ugly. Brooks’ book is no different. Memories of her early years show the hardships – being bullied as a child and being raised by her older siblings – while her parents worked just to keep food on the table. As a child, Brooks was drawn to the world of wrestling as she watched the excitement in the ring and the fancy ring attire. She also struggled with anorexia and depression but she always knew she wanted to be in the ring, at the center of attention.
At one point in the book she talks of traveling to a plethora of different venues around the States and Mexico. Each chapter builds Brooks’ story and brings the reader along on her journey to the ring. There are lists at the end of the chapters in which Brooks’ rates her experiences.
Three bite-size non-fiction reviews tied together with a delicious topical dipping sauce!
The theme: Mansa Musa, Sultan of Mali, was arguably the wealthiest person ever to live. No kidding. You know you’ve reached mythological levels of lucre when you show up on maps made by people living halfway across the known world with an annotation about how much gold you have. Mali was such a rich kingdom because the territory it controls – centered around the city Timbuktu – is situated on the Niger River and in a position to control trade across the Sahara to and from the European subcontinent.
By Papischou (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Akan people of Ghana and Ivory Coast are still known for the quality and quantity of their goldwork. A stupefying amount of trade flowed through Timbuktu, with most of it paid for in gold, mined out of ore-bearing seams just to the South. There’s a reason we call the ocean-border of Ghana the Gold Coast. Did I mention the gold?
I like to imagine Sultan Mansa Musa swimming in it like Scrooge McDuck. But that would probably understate how much gold he had. According to legend, Mansa Musa had so much gold, that when he went on the Hajj he took an enormous caravan including camels with sacks of pure gold dust on their backs, and crashed the unsuspecting economies of entire city states with inflation because their markets literally could not handle the influx of gold. Did this actually happen? Historical accounts disagree (with most saying it did happen). However, we do know that the Sultan bankrolled a massive building boom in Mali, with new mosques, libraries, and colleges sprouting up in cities all over the kingdom.
By BluesyPete (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Above is a prime example of Malian architecture, the Great Mosque of Djenne. These are not cheap to build. Here’s another one, financed by the Sultan himself.
By KaTeznik (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 fr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
If the style of these buildings look weirdly familiar, like they belong to a desert planet orbiting twin suns in a galaxy far far away, it’s because Star Wars Episode IV: a New Hope was filmed on a relatively tiny budget, largely on location in Tunisia, which has some of the same classically Northwest African architecture. The Skywalker home was an actual house, which is now Hotel Sidi Driss. Bits of Star Wars set are strewn all over parts of the Tunisian desert. Understanding history is all about making connections, after all, so put on that John Williams soundtrack, and read on!
Sodium Chloride makes for some seriously gripping reading. Doesn’t hurt that it’s really well written.
As for the big picture of what (aside from gold) the Kingdom of Mali was built on, and where Timbuktu fit in on the world stage of the international salt trade, Mark Kurlansky’s excellent overview Salt: A World History will put it nicely in context. Salt was first published in 2002, but it’s every bit the excellent true world history it’s ever been.
I like my histories dense and well-seasoned with primary material. Bonus points for Ibn Battuta!
If, however, what you wanted was a history of the city of Timbuktu – the center, but not the capitol, of Mali – read Timbuktu: the Sahara’s Fabled City of Gold. This book gives a very thorough treatment of the history of the city, especially the establishment of the trade and the Kingdom of Mali, and the heyday of the city as a hub of trade for caravans across the Sahara.
I couldn’t resist.
For an even more focused view on the world of Sultan Mansa Musa and how it intersects with our own there’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. The Kingdom’s wealth and economic connections meant a massive heap of documentation, making the medieval libraries and colleges of Timbuktu a treasure-trove of manuscripts. When Mali’s most recent rebellion broke out in 2012, the race was on to secure and hide the priceless documents before the historic buildings and the knowledge they housed were destroyed by Islamist forces. History is littered with tragic library-burnings – Alexandria, Hanlin Academy – but, this time, the books were saved, and our world is truly richer for it in wealth of knowledge, not gold.