A tale of three cities, Bethany Hughes

Bethany Hughes is the British equivalent to Lorent Deutsch. She may have studied enough history to style herself a historian but what she writes says more about her than about her subject matter. She does have a great literary writing style. 

When reading this book I found myself stopping quite a few times and sighing in exasperation. A few examples (compiled as I read) why:

– she claims that the protests after the aborted coup in 2016 when people were waving (red) Turkish flags turned the city red (fair enough) and that this red mark was visible from space. Until someone shows me a satellite photo of that day with Istanbul reddish, my reply will be « Yeah, right »;

– she claims that Istanbul is the oldest political entity in the world, dating back 8,000 years. Now 8,000 years as a political entity is a very long time. I think Athens can only claim half that length. And her justification for this is that the oldest human remains found in Istanbul date from 8,000 years. I’m sorry, this doesn’t make Istanbul the longest political entity. It may make it the place with the longest uninterrupted human settlement, but a settlement isn’t a political entity;

– on Constantine’s adoption of Christianity with a dose of sun worshipping she says « and that’s how sabbath became Sunday ». Nice little sentence. Yes Sunday comes from sun. In English. English which is a Germanic language. Constantine spoke Greek and Latin. In Latin languages (French, Italian, Spanish), the name for Sunday comes from « lord » (dominus). So with the conversion of Constantine, sabbath became « the day of the Lord », not the day of the Sun;

– her insistence that pagan traditions were misogynistic and that Christianity offered a better life to women. Yes (Greek and Roman) pagan traditions were misogynistic, no debate there (well with graduations, i’d rather have been a Spartan woman than an Athenian one) but to imply that Christianity was better is a lie. The attraction of Christianity for women was the promise of a better after life (a concept lacking in most pagan traditions), because their daily life sure didn’t improve much. Of course 3 chapters after saying that Christianity is good for women she acknowledges that their life were still fairly miserable except if they were high born or rich. This just gives the feeling of a book written as she goes along with no proof reading for consistency;

– her insistence on telling the reader that she travelled to the places she talks about and when. Being a historical tourist doesn’t make you a better historian. Spending days in an office with hundreds of first hand accounts in Greek and Latin does. Checking the bibliography it seems she doesn’t read Latin or Greek but instead relies on old translations (from the early 20th century or the 60s/70s). I would have thought reading Latin and Greek (not to mention Arab…) being a minimum requirement when writing about Byzantium-Constantinople-Istanbul;

– the way she makes false parallels with the present such as saying that Justinian’s system for registering refugees was better than the current one in place in Istanbul for the Syrian refugees. I doubt that Justinian had to deal with millions of refugees so let’s not compare (which is not saying that the current system is good, but this comparison is simply stupid, wrong and helps no one)

– her statement that after Whitby, Christianity in Britain became less eastern. Whitby was a synod opposing Roman Christianity to Celtic Christianity. Yes, maybe Celtic Christianity was closer to Eastern beliefs than Roman one, but it is quite a stretch to make Whitby an east/west discussion, or to talk about eastern Christianity having any real influence in Britain. Come to think of it, the whole chapter about Constantinople and Britain is preposterous. From a tiny link (the tin trade) she makes a chapter to explain that Constantinople influence could be felt in Britain. I can’t decide if it’s a way to enlarge her subject matter – Constantinople – or the cliché British arrogance about being the centre of the world. If memory serves, Charlemagne had real ties to Constantinople. So if you want to talk about 8th century Europe and Constantinople, you talk about him, not about the tin trade from Tintagel!

– her disparaging comment that « Viking rehabilitation does not deserve to be absolute ». Historians do not advance any Vikings rehabilitation. They give a more nuanced picture of what the Vikings were, insisting that western ecclesiastical sources only give their side of the story and that the Vikings should be seen not just as the bloody raiders that they undoubtedly were but also as a traders and as a civilisation complete with its poetry, religion and way of life. She does seem to have an issue with any civilisation that does not fit her beloved monotheist Islamo-Christian world. The sentence « the young girls they [the Vikings] offered as human sacrifice to the gods were gang-raped by Viking nobility before they died. It is hard to imagine the horror. » is a disgusting twitching of historical facts. Women servants were offered up in sacrifices to the gods when their master died. They were put to death and put on the ‘coffin’ ship with him. I have read accounts of the nobility (the warriors of the dead lord) having sex with these servants before they were killed, as a sort of offering to their lord. Calling it gang rape is tabloid speak. Yes it would be called gang rape now, but it was to all purpose a (cruel) sacrificial/religious act. But no decent historian would use that sort of description. This is not to say vikings were not raping and killing on raids, but mixing up that violence with religious acts is just historically wrong. She also doesn’t use the term gang rape to describe the systematic sexual assaults perpetrated by the Crusaders and later the Turks when they took the city. It seems only pagans « gang rape ». War rape is apparently not an « horror ». Neither is the making of eunuchs in huge numbers. Instead she goes at length to describe as « the third sex » and develop the ideas that eunuchs were perceived as angels. Sex slavery is also presented career prospect. Of course it was in a way, but that doesn’t make it any less horrible. In that again I get the feeling that monotheist violence is alright but pagan ritualised one isn’t. 

– « Montesquieu, Choderlos de Laclos and Racine had written excitable harem narratives ». I don’t know which ones she speaks of for Laclos and Racine but I guess she means Montesquieu’s lettres persanes. You know that satirical work which is about denouncing the French court and the politics of the country while pretending to be speaking as someone from another country? Of course there is a harem in it, but as Cyrano would say « c’est un peu court ». The Persan letters are so much more than an excitable harem narrative!!

– the way she deals with the Armenian genocide: it’s unclear, badly written and she does her best not to take any position, simply mentioning some theories and saying that anyway Ottomans were tried for war crime and that the estimate of 600,000 to 1 million dead is available in Ottoman archives. It’s a convoluted way to avoid using the « g- word ». And i can’t decide if it’s cowardice, lack of university knowledge on crimes against humanity or just supporting the official Turkish government line. 
For someone who claims to write about the history of Istanbul she spends little time on the Byzantine time, being more at ease with Christian Constantinople. Overall she seems happier to talk about monotheist culture than pagan ones (even if Julian the ‘apostate’ and Hypatia do get a decent mention). That’s fine but then don’t pretend you write about « three cities ». 

Her treatment of the role of Byzantium during the Peloponnese war is so quick that even though I have read Thucydides I had troubles understanding what she was saying.  

Also her insistence on calling Herodotus « the father of history » is grating. Yes he’s called like that but no point saying it every time you mention him. And if you want a father of modern history, Thucydides is your man. Herodotus was better on travellers’ stories than fact based history. But maybe that’s revealing as her book is more in his vein than in Thucydides’s.
So it’s a well written book. But it’s a story, not history. 

Revue de presse européenne de la semaine / this week in European politics (03-06/01/2017)

Happy new year 2017 !

Bonne année 2017 !

After an extended “I’m changing jobs, moving countries and going on holidays” break I’m back.

Since most of Brussels is still on holidays, it’s hard to find anything really interesting in the press at the moment, unless you haven’t had a Brexit indigestion yet. So let’s deal with the Brexit stuff first:

Something by Nick Crosby on the cause of British exceptionalism http://nickcrosby.eu/the-source-of-the-uks-exceptionalism/

And the accompanying Chris Kendall piece: http://ottocr.at/?p=543 . As an aside, I have just discovered Kendall’s blog – though I knew his twitter account – and it’s a very good one.

And now for something a bit différent

L’entretien de Malström avec Quatremer: http://bruxelles.blogs.liberation.fr/2017/01/04/commerce-les-etats-membres-critiquent-des-negociations-quils-ont-eux-memes-lancees/ Rien de bien nouveau mais quelques vérités bonnes à rappeler.

Sur contexte (abonnement gratuit permettant de lire un certain nombre d’articles), un bref récapitulatif de la place de l’Europe dans les programmes de la primaire socialiste (et les liens vers les programmes) : https://www.contexte.com/article/pouvoirs/primaire-a-gauche-les-deux-europe-sont-toujours-la_63431.html

Et dès que j’ai le temps, j’écris quelque chose sur l’excellent livre d’Elisabeth Badinter sur Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche (Le pouvoir au féminin).

Flamboyant Second Empire, Xavier Mauduit et Corinne Ergasse

Le livre résumé par son éditeur (Armand Colin)

Napoléon III a longtemps été décrié mais l’homme est plus complexe qu’il n’y paraît. Sous le Second Empire, entre 1852 et 1870, la France connaît des avancées spectaculaires qui la font entrer dans la modernité et dans la révolution industrielle.

Que ce soit dans les sciences et techniques, les arts et la littérature, la politique, la vie quotidienne, l’éducation et la santé, l’architecture et l’urbanisme, le Second Empire a transfiguré la France.

Xavier Mauduit et Corinne Ergasse nous invitent à redécouvrir, avec plaisir, l’histoire méconnue de ces vingt années flamboyantes.

Parmi ses nombreuses escales, ce voyage à travers le temps nous conduit notamment à Paris, que le baron Haussmann transforme en ville lumière ; à Compiègne, pour assister aux somptueuses réceptions du régime ; à Bordeaux, qui envoie ses meilleurs crus à l’Exposition universelle de 1855 pour leur premier classement ; à Deauville, où le duc de Morny crée la station balnéaire emblématique du développement des lieux de villégiature, et partout en France où les hommes ont cru le progrès sans limite.


Le résumé si je l’avais écris

Ringard le Second Empire ? Dépassé, uniquement préoccupé de faste, d’opérettes d’Offenbach et de robes de Charles Frederick Worth ? Pas du tout !

Le Second Empire, c’est l’entrée de la France dans la révolution industrielle, le développement du chemin de fer (toutes ces nouvelles gares parisiennes), les expositions universelles, les grands projets d’urbanisme, les débuts de l’impressionnisme ! Le Second Empire c’est donc le début de la France moderne.

Embarquez pour une découverte expresse du Second Empire, entre grandes avancées techniques et petites histoires.



Se tient en ce moment à Orsay une exposition « Spectaculaire Second Empire ». Ce livre est le compagnon idéal de l’exposition. Organisé autour de grands thèmes (le quotidien, l’urbanisme, sciences et techniques etc…) il présente sur un ton dynamique et souvent humoristique et ironique (« la politique agricole impériale » ; « Al2O3, quoi ! Apparition de l’aluminium ») ces inventions ou ces pratiques que nous tenons pour normales et qui sont nées durant le Second Empire.

Comme le style est enjoué (et enlevé), le livre se lit très vite. On est bien loin des cours d’histoire de Première où le Second Empire se résume à « Coup d’Etat de 1852 – Guerre de Crimée – Expédition du Mexique – Défaite de Sedan ».

C’est une bonne introduction à l’histoire du période mal connue, une sorte de Que-sais-je qui pour une fois ne serait pas indigeste (ni écrit en arial 9).


Vous aimez les crinolines ? Vous voulez savoir pourquoi il y a une station Pereire du RER C ? Pourquoi la gare d’Orsay ? Qui est à l’origine du Salon des Refusés ? Flamboyant Second Empire a les réponses !

This week in European politics / Revue de presse européenne de la semaine (17-22/10/2016)

Der Spiegel on the changing face of Britain (in English):



Dave Keating on the Waloon parliament veto on CETA and the implications for any Brexit deal:



The Guardian‘s « Brexit means Brexit » column



Et pour alléger l’atmosphère, les Grecques nous propose un roman-feuilleton sur les coulisses du Parlement européen (réservé aux aficionados de Borgen et autres séries politiques)


This week in European politics / Revue de presse européenne de la semaine (03-07/10)

Désolée si cette revue de presse est 100% anglophone cette semaine

Brexit is the flavour of the week, with the British Prime Minister outlining her vision for Britain. A vision that makes me think that in a couple of years I will no longer go for shopping and theatre weekends in London. Either because as a not filthily rich foreigner I will not be welcomed anymore (I’m sure they will still welcome oligarchs or petrodollar people) or because there might not be much cultural life left in London. Time to read V for Vendetta (by Alan Moore) again folks.

So let’s get started on this Brexit means Brexit means little Britain review.


A summary of the main proposals from May’s speech from the Guardian:



A take on the « citizens of the world » comment in May’s speech from Quartz (I didn’t know the site, it presents itself as a « a digitally native news outlet, born in 2012, for business people in the new global economy »



And to close this topic, the scariest vide of the week, from LBC (article and context by the Independent)


Revue de presse européenne de la semaine / This week in European politics (26-30/09/2016)

From the Guardian on « The man who brought you Brexit ». Sometimes hard to read but very interesting.



Another Brexit piece, on the British diaspora, from Brussels to Berlin



On the issue of referenda (and why democracies can’t govern with them), from The Economist



Après l’affaire Barroso, l’affaire Kroes. L’édito de Quatremer sur la corruption des élites en Europe




Yes, it’s rather quiet these days. Or rather there is a certain lack of good articles. I blame the US elections for that. Hopefully after them normal service will resume in the press rooms.

Revue de presse européenne de la semaine / This week in European politics (12-16/09)

The main highlight of the week was the State of the Union address given on Wednesday. I hope you had printed your bullshit bingo in advance.


So talking of speeches, this « confession » article from Ryan Heath of Politico. Now, I’m not Politico biggest fan (but I do like the Playbook). But I’ve written speeches although I’ve never been a speechwriter as such. And I know what it’s like to write a speech for someone who is too busy to tell you what they want or so « important » that the levels of management between him and you do not consider you should meet him. In my case it went well (no funny anecdote), the big man was happy with the speech and didn’t even stray from it. But this account from Heath had a nice « vécu » feel to it:



On SOTEU, a bit of wry humour from Les Grecques



Quatremer et un portrait très humain de Juncker (la sympathie mutuelle est assez visible dans l’article)



From the « Brexit means Brexit » humoristic (or not) series in the Guardian:




Not politics really, but a fascinating read on the UK’s secret war in Oman in the 60s, from the Guardian Long Read series



14 Juillet d’Eric Vuillard

Petit conseil en passant, si vous aimez la fiction historique, le premier vendredi de chaque mois, l’émission la Fabrique de l’histoire sur France culture est consacrée aux nouvelles parutions (livres, BD, films) en terme de fiction historique. C’est comme ça que j’ai lu:

Et donc ce week-end (plus exactement en à peine deux heures dimanche soir), j’ai lu (dévoré) 14 Juillet d’Eric Vuillard chez Actes Sud (existe aussi en version électronique, très pratique pour connaître la définition de certains mots tombés en désuétude. Vous saviez qu’un charron c’était quelqu’un qui fabriquait des charrettes? À replacer au scrabble).


Résumé sur le site de l’éditeur:

La prise de la Bastille est l’un des évènements les plus célèbres de tous les temps. On nous récite son histoire telle qu’elle fut écrite par les notables, depuis l’Hôtel de ville, du point de vue de ceux qui n’y étaient pas. 14 Juillet raconte l’histoire de ceux qui y étaient. Un livre ardent et épiphanique, où notre fête nationale retrouve sa grandeur tumultueuse.


Résumé si on m’avait demandé de l’écrire

Le 14 juillet 1789 comme si vous y étiez. Un récit presque heure par heure (ou même minute par minute) de la prise de la Bastille par le peuple de Paris. Toute la litanie des oubliés de l’histoire, ces petits commerçant, ces artisans, ces chômeurs de la place de Grève qui en ce jour caniculaire de l’été 1789 ont fait tomber le symbole du pouvoir royal.



J’ai un vague souvenir d’un texte de Michelet étudié pour mon bac de français (je pense qu’on devait avoir un thème « peuple » parce qu’on a aussi fait un extrait du Cri du peuple de Vallès) qui narrait un épisode de la Révolution française, les femmes qui donnaient leurs bijoux pour que l’or serve à acheter des armes pour les soldats de la République. Ma prof avait eu ce mot « Michelet ce n’est pas de l’histoire, mais c’est un merveilleux romancier ». Personnellement, le style Michelet ne m’avait pas enthousiasmée plus que ça. Mais c’est à ce texte du bac de français que ce livre m’a fait penser.

Vuillard a fait un travail de recherche documentaire énorme pour ce livre, pour avoir des noms à donner à certains de ces hommes (et femmes) qui ont fait la Bastille, mais il reste surtout un romancier qui conduit son récit sur un rythme haletant. Je n’ai posé le livre que parce que mon train entrait en gare et qu’il fallait bien quitter ma place. Je l’ai repris dès que possible une fois rentrée chez moi.

14 juillet c’est un tableau de Bruegel mis en scène par un cinéaste avec un sens du détail hors du commun. Je n’ai jamais rien lu de pareil. Renvoyant Michelet à ses placards d’écrivain nationaliste glorificateur de la République (rien de mal à cela, Michelet est de son époque je suppose), Vuillard montre que l’Histoire n’a pas de besoin de Chevalier Bayard ou de Jeanne d’Arc pour être passionnante.

Pour voir la prise de la Bastille et la Révolution différemment, prenez 2h30 de votre temps (allez, 3h si vous lisez lentement) et lisez ce 14 Juillet d’Eric Vuillard, c’est une petite merveille.

Revue de presse européenne de la semaine / This week in European politics (05/09-09/09)

It’s back to school after the long summer break…

Not a lot of things happened in the EU bubble this past week. « Brexit » apparently means « Brexit » but what it does actually mean is anyone’s guess.

The Commission reminded the USA that competition law had been part of its exclusive powers since the beginning of the then EEC and that yes sometimes US firm could fall foul of EU law.

So here’s a (very) short round-up of articles. And there’s not even a youtube video to be seen.

Quatremer et la décision Apple de la Commission (article du 02/09)



From « Brussels2Berlin« A good analysis of the rise of the AfD in Germany. No, it’s not the end of Merkel, but yes it’s worrying.


And this nice and interesting blog also has a good take on the Apple decision too :




Et pour finir, un peu d’humour (presque belge): Bruxelles sur le divan vue par Les Grecques:



Hopefully next week we’ll have a multi-lingual speech from the EC president. Yes, it’s State of the European Union Address time again (on 14/09). I advise using a bullshitbingo card for this, such as the one helpfully provided by Jon Worth:



Revue de presse européene de la semaine / This week in European politics (25-29/07/2016)

This is the last one before a summer break that I intend to spend far away from any media outlet. For my own sanity.


One of The Economist‘s blog has a good article on the consequences 100 years down the line of having undermined the power of the Ottoman caliph and switching the centre of Islam from the Turks to the Arabs. It’s a short and interesting read that does not pretend to have fool-proof explanations for the current sorry state of things, but is a useful reminders that in foreign policy, actions can have long-lasting consequences:



Keeping with The Economist, this blog post on German reaction to last week’s events. Bearing in mind that the scale is different in Germany and in France, it is still a sobering read:



Les Décodeurs du Monde ont un petit guide bien utile qui permet de raison garder face aux solutions miracles proposées par les uns et les autres face à la menace terroriste:


Pour en finir sur le thème attaques terroristes, un blog dont je recommande chaleureusement la lecture, pour des analyses fines de quelqu’un qui sait de quoi il parle et ne tombe ni dans l’hyperbole ni dans l’hystérie:



Et enfin, sur un thème purement européen, la nomination, par Jean-Claude Juncker, de Michel Barnier en tant que négotiateur du Brexit côté Commission. L’opinion de Jean Quatremer dans Libération: