Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Studying History

An article in the New York Times today summarized a debate surrounding Britain’s history curriculum. Eminent historians, the likes of David Cannadine, David Starkey, Simon Schama, Eric Hobsbawm, Niall Ferguson, are weighing in on how history should be taught to young Britons.  

This article evoked for me a moment to pause and consider why I study history. What I appreciate most about the study of such a finicky thing is that it is constantly changing. How so, you may ask, since historical events that occurred in the past cannot be changed?  What we can change is how we examine the past and what perspective or interpretation is used for that examination.

To quote Mr. Cannadine:

“History is supposed to teach people perspective and proportion polarized around a set of entrenched positions: those who stress the importance of historical knowledge — facts — over historical skills, those who want a narrative of national greatness versus a warts-and-all portrait of the past, and those who want to focus on the country you’re in rather than our relationship with the broader world.”

The study of history needs to include the facts, the recitation of the kings and queens of England or the dates of wars, but it can, and in my opinion should, strive beyond the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, and ‘where’ to the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. It is in delving into the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ that moves the study of history beyond just the dates of a monarch or a war to considering the deeper meaning of the subject. It is in that quest for meaning that we diverge in how to study history because it means something different for each person.

Each time I sit down to examine a subject, it will be a different experience than the time before. I am approaching the topic in a different time and space and therefore I bring a different perspective to examining the topic in that moment. There is no true way to uncover the mystery of the past. There is no singular truth but many truths to discover. 


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What Is In a Title?

I’m currently reading Maria McCann’s As Meat Loves Salt, and every time I speak about the book, I wonder what that title means. So to the Internets I ventured!  

The phrase ‘as meat loves salt’ seems to have originated in the English fairy tale “Cap O’ Rushes.” To summarize the story:


A wealthy man has three daughters and asks each one how much they love him. First two daughters respond accordingly with answers such as ‘as much as the world’ and ‘as much as life’ while the third states she loves her father ‘much as meat loves salt’. She is cast out, dresses in rushes, and becomes a scullery maid in a great estate. The plotline proceeds much like “Cinderella” with a ball, which the third daughter attends dressed up in finery and catches the attention of the estate owner’s son, who of course falls madly in love with her and marries her. At the wedding feast, the daughter, now bride, orders that the food be prepared without salt. All the dishes were tasteless and awful. Her father attends the wedding feast as a guest not knowing that his own daughter was the bride. He finally realizes what his daughter had meant when she declared her love to him ‘as meat loves salt’. The bride revels herself as his daughter and hurrah for happy ending.


The full “Cap O’ Rushes” can be read here. The story was published in 1890 by Joseph Jacobs in English Fairy Tales.

 Since discovering the provenance of ‘as meat loves salt’, I’ve become fascinated by the depth of devotion and complexity the phrase conveys and how it is portrayed in this novel. As Meat Loves Salt is as intriguing a book as the phrase it is named after. I found myself suddenly enthralled with the plot and characters and before I knew it, 300 pages into the complex passionate actions of the characters. Set in the 1640’s, the historical framework seamlessly supports the story that you forget you are reading a historical novel and settle in to enjoy the intimate scenery McCann has woven on the page.

I will not say much more because in this instance because the less you know before reading the better.