What History Is

The conclusion of Peter Ackroyd’s The History of England Volume I: Foundation* includes a sentence I can’t stop thinking about: “The writing of history is often another way of defining chaos.” He goes on to say how convenience, circumstance, misjudgments, and errors play a large part “in what we are pleased to call the ‘development’ of institutions.”

None of this should come as any surprise. History is the story of people and who among us has not had a life of turmoil and coincidence (and if you have, I don’t want to hear from you)? Opinions change, even the most hardened beliefs transform or are discredited, everything is in a constant state of transition even if it sometimes seems just the opposite. It really is chaos with the historian struggling to piece together and interprete a whole mess of personalities into some kind of narrative that makes sense and gives us a sense of continuity and identity and belonging.

Ackroyd’s use of the word ‘pleased’ particularly pleases me because history can all seem so fated, so predetermined in hindsight as though people in the past were any different than people today. It’s easy to forget that, though. I think it’s why many people don’t (or think they don’t) like history (You do! Trust me!). Life was just as confusing and frustrating and overwhelming and wonderful 1000 years ago as today. History is the stories of people just like you and me.

I’m in the midst of deciding what “chaos” I want to take on as my next book project. It all feels so big and daunting right now with so many voices shouting for attention and roads of unknown possibilities. But it’s also exciting, like the throws of a new relationship. I’ll let you know what I find.


* This was a last minute “I have pounds to spare” purchase at the Heathrow airport before a flight home that turned out to be a remarkable page turner. I’ve had great luck with my hasty book buying (another great airport purchase was Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World that kept me from fully enjoying all of the entertainment options on offer in our business class “pods” because I couldn’t stop reading it), which I’d like to attribute to my good taste but is really the acumen of the store’s book buyer.


A [Museum] Walk Through Medicine’s Past

Let me tell you about a wonderful place.

I spent the month of May abroad, touring – much of it on foot – in Ireland, Wales, and England. One of my best mornings was spent in London at the free museum and library of the Wellcome Trust (my history dorky-ness reigns unimpeded through work AND vacation times). I first discovered it online while doing research for my next book on the history of 19th century alternative health. The center is an amazing resource for understanding the history of medicine and science, and the connections between medicine, life, and art. Intriguing, right?

Even better for my little Wisconsin history heart, the foundation for the library came from the collections of Wisconsin-born pharmaceutical salesman Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936). Wellcome ran a successful pharmaceutical business in London but devoted much of his time and resources to collecting books and objects related to medicine, health, alchemy, and even witchcraft from around the world.

Here’s three cool things I saw:

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1. Prosthetic limbs through time.

Prosthetic body parts have been used since at least the time of the Greeks and probably earlier (the Greeks left what is likely the first recorded use). None of these are quite that old but can you imagine wearing one of these? Near these limbs was a box of glass eyes.

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2. Phrenological Skull

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, phrenologists argued that the shape and size of various parts of the brain – these parts were known as organs – determined your personality. Your skull was supposedly a “faithful” cast of the brain encased within so rather than perform some risky operation to take a look at your brain, phrenologists could simply feel and measure the bumps on your head. Phrenology was very controversial in the medical community – and even among phrenologists themselves as this skull demonstrates. One half shows the organs as described by phrenology’s founder, Franz Joseph Gall, while the other half shows those of Gall’s disciple Johann Spurzheim.

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3. Charles Darwin’s Walking Stick

These are two of Darwin’s walking sticks, both intricately carved, one from ivory and one from whalebone. Darwin was a walker – he claimed to get many of his best ideas while walking. As a fervent walker myself, I loved to know that the clicking sound of Darwin’s walking stick hitting the ground became something of his calling card and signature sound.




New Book!

It’s still a ways off – pub date is January 7 – but seeing it in the Beacon catalog makes it more real!Erika Janik Marketplace of the Marvelous

Everything you wanted to know about what we now call alternative but what was known in the 19th century as “irregular” medicine. It’s not quite as irregular as you might think!