Friday, January 29, 2010

An Intellectual Friendship, I'm Sure

As has been mentioned before, the Enlightenment was a bizarre time, full of experimentation of all sorts. The Amateur Historian offers up the example of the Hellenistist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, an essayist and archeologist whose work on Greek art inspired the Classical rival. Though homosexuality was literally a crime, courts (legal and noble) tended to forgive him his "Greek friendships" with beautiful young men as he pointed out that they were simply a way of exploring the Hellensitic mindset. The Amateur Historian personally finds this a hilarious method of circumventing somewhat irrational social mores, particularly when Winckelmann put it into practice.

Casanova noted some of Winckelmann's intellectual fervor in his memoirs, though Casanova's memoirs ought not to be taken at face value, considering that Casanova claimed that, at the age of twelve, he was a breathtakingly handsome charmer who could outwit trained scholars when puzzling out the complexities of Latin grammar. However, early one morning in Rome, he found Wincelmann, sans trousers, lying on top of a beautiful young boy. Casanova quite understandably asked for an explanation.

Winckelmann, pulling on his trousers, explained quite cheerfully that he was trying to "enter the minds" of his ancient heroes, as the glories of classical art could never be understood by "those who are observant of beauty only in women, and are moved little or not at all by the beauty of men".

Considering how the rest of Casanova's memoirs seems mostly to consist of Casanova a. meeting famous people, b. propositioning people and c. being propositioned by famous people, the Amateur Historian is quite shocked that Casanova did not add a note saying that Winckelmann then asked Casanova to join in this Classicist, intellectual endeavor. Presumably Casanova had heard Volatire's bon mot when he turned down a second round of experimentation at the very "gay" court of Frederick the Great: "Once, a philosopher; twice, a sodomite."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Really brilliant plan, there.

Shortly after Napoleon arrived in Elba, he decided that he did not like exile and would much prefer to be Emperor of the French again. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Napoleon took advantage of the total incompetence of Louis XVIII, the new Bourbon monarch, and marched on France. Louis XVIII, who had decided to keep fiercely Napoleonic military units together, to stew in their rage and to declare undying oaths to their emperor and who had further decided to completely disband half the military without giving them adequate compensation.

It was no wonder that someone of Louis XVIII's genius had an equally brilliant plan for dealing with Napoleon's return, and the defection of all the armies from Louis XVIII to Napoleon. Led by several advisers, including Chateaubriand, the Romantic of the time, Louis XVIII actually decided that his best plan was to stay in Paris and, with the Chambers of Peers and deputies on back-up, shame Napoleon into withdrawing.

Needless to say, Louis XVIII abandoned this plan in favor of running off to Switzerland instead.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

After all, it's impossible to govern a nation with 246 kinds of cheese....

August 4, 1789 was a very busy day for the National Assembly. After several months of increasingly vitriolic debate, the assembly very abruptly decided well, hell, debate isn't working at all, let's just dismantle the government the way we dismantled the Bastille! (Though, to their credit, they did not dismantle the monarchy because they thought there were gunpowder hidden inside, like some sort of very explosive pinata, the way the Parisian mob stormed the Bastille.) The Assembly went into extraordinary session to formally abolish all remaining traces of feudalism. Deputies "weeping tears of joy" renounced all offending rights and aristocratic or ecclesiastic privilege, from the payment of church tithes, to the difference in levels of taxation that had provoked a good deal of class hatred to the local landlord's right to have his peasants spending their nights in near-by swamps, hitting frogs with sticks so that their lord's slumbers would not be disturbed.

Abbé Sieyès, author of 'What is the Third Estate?' (answer: about to have its representatives take over the government), and the comte de Mirabeau, pretty much the driving force of the early revolutionary movement, were not in tears of joy. In fact, hey took a walk together the next morning, mostly to complain that the Assembly had not followed their advice or obeyed their wishes. Mirabeau complained, "This is just the character of our Frenchmen, they are three months disputing about syllables, and in a single night they overturn the whole venerable edifice of the monarchy."

Saturday, January 9, 2010

So sayeth one observer: "Far surpasses a cockfight!"

The 18th century is often remembered as a time of propriety and manners, but one should not apply that to 18th century legislative branches. Though the British Parlement was probably the worst when it came to political debates that degenerated into vicious personal attacks (cane fights from the 1776 Continental Congress aside) but the French National Assembly had some doozies.

During one particular debate over the influence of Paris in the National Assembly, Robespierre, a representative of Paris, attempted to take the tribune and defend his constitutants. The Girodins, who were very tired of the undue influence of one city on the governing body of an entire country, drowned out his speech with cries of "Censure him! Lynch him!" At this point, the Jacobins and the other representatives of Paris leapt to their feet and the debate dissolved into factional squabbling, personal remarks, the president ringing the bell for order until the bell literally broke in his hand, and, best of all, Marat outdoing himself with what the offical minutes euphamistically refer to as, "unacademic phrases."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Even Simon Schama has budget cuts this year....

One of the more amusing parts of history is, in fact, how it is presented. After nearly a year of blog posts, it has probably come to your attention, Gentle Reader, that the Amateur Historian has a certain sympathy for the French Revolution, and thus, a certain amusement with British historiography on said Revolution.

One of the chief offenders, in the Amateur Historian's POV, is Simon Schama, a conservative historian who likes to make slightly bizarre programs on history for the BBC, where he demonstrates his inability to keep still or speak in anything but a monotone more than any actual grasp of history. The Amateur Historian thus would like to present this parody of Simon Schama, just to start off the New Year with a few laughs at historiography, and not just history itself: