Historical Jeopardy: The Emperor’s Club

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Bryn Coates-Davies

The Emperor’s Club (2002, directed by Michael Hoffman) stars Kevin Kline as a History teacher who works at a prestigious boys’ boarding school in the 1970s. Kline’s character, William Hundert, is a strict teacher of the history of the Roman Empire. He teaches a very structured class until Sedgewick Bell, a senator’s son, certified bad boy, and potential Communist joins the class. Despite a rocky beginning to their relationship, Hundert is able to inspire young Sedgewick in the run up to the prestigious “Mr. Julius Caesar Contest”. However, in the final, Hundert discovers Sedgewick is cheating and is able to eliminate him without this being discovered. Twenty-five years after this, Sedgewick, now a very wealthy businessman, organizes a rematch just to cheat again and be eliminated again in the same manner. Following this, Hundert concludes that he failed Sedgewick, as the latter uses this event to announce his candidacy for the senate and shows no remorse for cheating. Hundert then concludes that while he failed Sedgewick, he succeeded with the rest of his students.

Film poster for The Emperor's Club

Film poster for The Emperor’s Club

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Francophone Alberta: Deeply Engaged in the First World War

By Rebecca Lazarenko

As news of impending conflict travelled across Canada on August 4, 1914, a monstrous manifestation in favour of the declaration of war was held in downtown Edmonton. Thousands of French and English residents marched up and down the streets of the city, proudly waving the French, British and Canadian flags, shouting “hourah!” in favour of the declaration, and loudly singing “Rule Britannia” and “La Marseillaise.” Around 8:00pm, multiple patriotic speeches were made by prominent English-Canadian and French-Canadian political figures in Alberta.

Despite cultural and linguistic differences, both the English and the French residents of Alberta declared their patriotic support for the Canadian war effort. Although French-Canadian nationalists in Québec quickly began questioning Canada’s involvement in the war, the francophone community of Alberta’s support never wavered. Its members continually demonstrated their belief in a moral “devoir” (duty) to actively support the Canadian war effort, as a means of honouring the dignity of the French “race”[1] and culture, but also to fight against injustice.

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Reading Religious History in Parisian Guidebooks and Architecture

Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois. Wikimedia Commons

Erin Isaac

In 2006 Leonard Pitt observed in his guidebook Walks Through Lost Paris that “one would have no idea that this was the spot where Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre was launched.”[1] The spot to which he referred, pictured above, is Paris’s l’Eglise Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, a gothic cathedral that has become a well known “dark tourist” destination for its role in the 1572 massacre. While “dark tourism” is a fairly recent term (coined in 1996 by Malcolm Foley and J. John Lennon), it is not a new concept.[2] The Catacombs of Paris, for instance, have been open to the public since 1809, and Pompeii has attracted European visitors since the mid-18th century.[3] However, guidebooks only began mentioning the darker side of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois’s history in the mid-19th century. By considering how guidebooks from different eras describe this church, I explore how historical memory of the site was tied to Paris’s changing urban landscape and suggest that references to the 1572 massacre in tourist literature only emerged as religious tensions in France diminished.

Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois is situated in the heart of Paris. Taking a left off the Pont Neuf onto the right bank, the church is just a few blocks away. Turn right onto Place de l’École, then left onto Rue des Prêtres Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, and right again onto Place du Louvre. A few steps forward will bring you face to face with one of Paris’s most interesting historic sites (for historians of religion, at least). Looking between the buildings on either side of the ornate bell tower that is now situated between the Mairie for the 1er Arrondissement and the church, subtle signs indicate that the building to the right is much older. To truly appreciate the differences between the structures, pass through the gates into the courtyard where you can see that the church is adorned with gargoyles and flying buttresses—testaments to the building’s age.

From this vantage point, the original bell tower is visible. Most of the tower’s visitors these days are the staff who park their cars here, or the workers going about their tasks at the Mairie’s loading dock. A full view of the old bell tower is obscured by tree branches, and the tight quarters force you to tilt your head backwards to see the top. However, for this historian, this quiet spot in the courtyard is the most important part of the building.

Photo courtesy of the author, May 2017.

This bell tower was ground zero for one of history’s most infamous massacres, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 24 August 1572—an historic “red wedding” that would become a defining moment in the then raging French Wars of Religion (1562-1598). Continue reading

Eating History: Canada War Cake

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Wartime food poster

We are saving you, YOU save FOOD, ca. 1918, Canada Food Board

By Sophie Hicks

This is the fourth post in a summer series exploring societal, community, and familial connections to food and food history. See the series introduction post here. An earlier version of this post appeared on The Canadian Cooking Chronicles, as part of a final project for an Archives Practicum class.

As an unapologetic fan of Ian Mosby’s work in food history, this post was inspired by Ian’s Active History piece on teaching the sensory experience of history. I made use of the same recipe for Canada War Cake.

In my previous posts on making Pemmican and Yorkshire puddings, I began to discuss the cultural and familial connections that can be drawn to recipes, but there is another element that I have yet to examine: era.  A recipe and its source are nearly inseparable from their era. There is a sort of symbiotic relationship between the two wherein each provides the necessary condition for the other to reveal a historical narrative. Like any primary source, context matters.  

Even if era were disconnected from our recipe, this one’s name is a dead giveaway.  This recipe for Canada War Cake comes from an archived copy of the Windsor Daily Star, dated March 19, 1942. The date tells us that this recipe was published during the Second World War, but the text under the title indicates that it was “also from last war”. This recipe was found in a column titled, “This Week’s Best War-Time Recipes” with two other dessert suggestions that would optimally conserve money and food as part of the war effort. In accordance with the gender norms of the time, this section of the paper would have been targeted towards women, with food conservation viewed as a way that women could contribute to the war effort. Continue reading

Hussar: My Grandpapa and the Polish Experience Under British Command in the Second World War

This is the ninth post in a series marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the end of the Second World War as part of a partnership between Active History and the Juno Beach Centre. If you would like to contribute, contact series coordinator Alex Fitzgerald-Black at alex@junobeach.org.

By Sean Campbell

An officer on my staff, a former student at Gdansk Polytechnic, translated every sentence into German. When the words ‘Polish Division’ were uttered by the translator, and as if by inattentiveness repeated, it seemed the Germans whitened and unease flashed in their eyes. I enquired if they understood — ‘Jawohl’ — they replied. I gave a sign that they might leave. But, a thought passed through my mind,

‘This is for September 1939’

  • Col. Antoni Grudzinski, Second-in-Command, Polish 10th Armoured Brigade, May 6th, 1945.[1]

My grandpapa’s story of the Second World War remains only in sparse pieces of kit, the memories of his children and friends, and a photo album. An avid photographer, he took a quarter album’s worth of photographs documenting his wartime experiences. A treasure to my family, it is also an interesting historic document. My grandfather’s album manages to match up with a unique story. One that saw a long and hopeful saga for the redemption of himself and his Polish countrymen.

Frank Pindor in pilot’s uniform, 1938 (Author’s Photo)

Franciszek “Frank” Pindor, born outside of Krakow in Cieszyn, Poland lied about his age to join the Polish Air Force in 1938. Frank was born into poverty at a time when a military career in Poland meant a respectable future. However, his mother forbade his lofty ambition of becoming a pilot due to the dangers of flying. Instead, Frank trained as a meteorologist before the Germans invaded the following September. Ordered to cross into the then neutral country with 10,000 other airmen, he became a refugee in Romania. Arriving by way of Morocco, Frank once again became a member of the Polish Air Force under French command, operating out of Bron near Lyon, France. They did not stay for long.

Frank (rear left) with his comrades in Morocco, 1940 (Author’s Photo)

Following the Battle of France, Frank fled to Great Britain to continue his fight from British soil. The Polish army-in-exile wasted no time to prepare. Posted to Scotland, available soldiers were to build up a new I Polish Corps and erect anti-invasion defences on the eastern coast at Fife.[2] Polish General Stanis?aw Maczek arrived in September 1940 to rebuild his motorized brigade. Maczek’s plan was to build up a new armoured regiment to participate in the Allied invasion of the continent. Over the next two years, bolstered by international volunteers and a large release of Polish prisoners from the Soviet Union in 1941, Maczek realized his armoured ambitions with the 1st Polish Armoured Division in 1942.[3]  My grandpapa transferred to the division, where he received training as a wireless operator in the 2nd Motorized Artillery (Towed) Regiment.

Frank during training in Scotland, c.1940-1944 (Author’s Photo)

On 1 August 1944, the same day as the Warsaw Uprising in Poland, the 1st Polish Armoured Division arrived on French shores at Mulberry Harbour ‘B’ in Arromanches.[4] The division went into battle as “The Black Devils,” a reference to the black epaulette on their left shoulder but also their pre-war uniform of black leather tank jackets. The division immediately moved into combat attached to Lieutenant-General Harry Crerar’s First Canadian Army.

The 1st Polish Armoured Division saw its baptism of fire in Normandy. Following closely on the left flank of the Canadians, the Poles advanced from 8-22 August. At the climax of the pursuit, the Poles stood on a strategic mound that General Stanislaw Maczek designated Maczuga (The Mace). There, an unrelenting onslaught of crack German troops bloodied, but did not break the Poles. As sappers from the Royal Canadian Engineers began clearing the hillside battlefield, they erected a tribute to the defenders on a temporary signpost that simply stated that the ground was “A Polish Battlefield.”[5] After 1,441 casualties, the men of the 1st Polish Armoured Division helped to close the gap that ended the Normandy campaign and started the long drive back to Germany.

Only two photographs of Frank exist from Normandy. Continue reading

Bruce W. Hodgins (1931- 2019) Historian and Master Canoeist

An appreciation by James Cullingham

I first met Bruce W. Hodgins in a tipi at Camp Wanapitei on Lake Temagami some 400 kilometres north of Toronto. It was 1973.

Photo by Ben Wolfe

I was an undergraduate student at Trent University attending the first autumnal Canadian Studies gathering of students and professors at that camp located at Sandy Inlet. The Trent Temagami Weekend continues to this day. Many of us attending next month will have Bruce in our hearts and minds.

That evening I listened intently as Bruce, the weekend’s convenor John Wadland, now Trent University professor emeritus of Canadian Studies, and others talked about the history of Temagami, Indigenous rights and environmental issues.

That began my own dialogue and relationship with Bruce that continued until his death on Thursday August 8 in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough). Bruce W. Hodgins was my professor, my employer, my mentor and, for several decades, my dear friend. Continue reading

Hochelaga, Terre des âmes

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Hochelaga: Not a Real Thesis Defence

Scott Berthelette

A Ph.D. thesis defence is at the centre of the narrative in Hochelaga, terre des âmes (Hochelaga, Land of Souls), a Canadian historical drama film released in 2017. The film’s portrayal of the process hardly meets my expectations for how a defence normally unfolds. The story of Hochelaga is told through a series of four vignettes structured around an Archaeology thesis defence at the Université de Montréal. The doctoral candidate in question is Baptiste Asigny, a Mohawk from Kahnawake. Asigny is a Ph.D. candidate in Archeology (rather than in History). His findings tell the story of the Island of Montreal and events that took place at the site of the ancient St. Lawrence Iroquoian village of Hochelaga.

Thesis defence in Hochelaga

Assigny, presenting his dissertation at his thesis defence.

As we find out, for the last decade or so, Asigny has excavated the field of the Percival Molson Memorial Stadium at McGill University after a rainstorm opened a massive sinkhole during a football game, killing one McGill player. When the sinkhole appears, Asigny’s supervisor, Dr. Antoine Morin obtains an order from Québec’s Ministry of Culture to be allowed to dig, and he hires Asigny to lead an archaeological excavation of the field. Asigny’s findings are truly remarkable – well, they would be if this were a true story and not a movie.

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Yuval Harari: A commentary on the world’s bestselling historian

Alvin Finkel

Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind is a publishing miracle. Published initially in Hebrew in 2011, it was translated into English in 2014 and has since been translated into about 50 other languages. By the end of 2018, it reportedly had sold over 11.5 million copies and today in Amazon Canada’s listing for all books, its paperback edition remains the country’s third best-selling book. That is amazing for a serious work of history, a discipline that rarely provides works that sell in large numbers and virtually never offers tomes that reach the sales numbers of books by or about celebrities, books of easily digested pop philosophy, or the top fiction books.

Harari is an Israeli academic historian whose work before Sapiens was largely restricted to medieval military history. He was unknown even to historians outside his field. But the appeal of his work on global history turned Harari away from his narrow earlier research to the writing of broad, philosophical works that make use of his historical knowledge but increasingly are more focused on the present and future than on history per se. The two books that he has published since Sapiens, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century distinguish Harari as one of the primary public intellectuals of our time. Their combined sales of 7.5 million by the end of 2018 emphasize that Harari is neither a one-hit wonder nor simply a popular writer of historical works. But both books have at their roots his understanding of the evolution of our species that forms the basis for Sapiens.

Sapiens is an intelligent, condensed history of humans. It provides well-grounded observations of the origins of religions, warfare, empires, science, capitalism, and much else. Although Harari’s influences are broad and he is no ideologue, he can be broadly categorized as an historian who judges past events and developments from within a progressive framework that is evidenced in his own life. He is a vegan, a spiritual man who is serious about meditative practices, a secular Israeli, and a gay man who married his husband in Toronto in a civil ceremony. Sapiens was endorsed as a must-read book by Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. But he almost certainly has qualms about the achievements of all three men, since, while he is fascinated by the impact of technology and economic growth on humans, he is mostly skeptical about how positive a role it has played in our evolution.

Indeed Harari is clear in his view that our best days as a species are behind us even though he hopes that we can regain something of what once made us admirable. He makes a strong case that human societies of the pre-agricultural period were largely marked by reciprocity, compassion, community, and a careful  balance of work and play. Harari regards the transition to agriculture as the worst mistake that humans ever made and the transition to industry as the second worst mistake. In these transitions he finds the creation of warlike nations and individuals, oppressive hierarchies, and a decisive move from communities where the collective good was the chief value to communities governed by greed, alienation of the led from leaders, and significant manipulation of the masses by elites. Of course, it is not hard for him to find plentiful examples to support his thesis.

But I think that his pessimistic conclusions, despite that evidence, are overstated and can cause people to feel wrongly that efforts to fight for social justice and climate justice today are a waste of time. Continue reading

Decline of the American Empire

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The Decline of the American Empire (1986), or how historians are depressed, hedonistic and abusive scholars who lead meaningless lives and don’t write any history. 

Serge Miville

There are three important things in history: First, the numbers, second, the numbers and third, the numbers. That’s why South African blacks will eventually win, and North American blacks are likely to never pull through.” – “Rémy,” opening lines of Le déclin de l’Empire américain (author’s translation)

Rémy in the classroom

Rémy dropping “historical” truth bombs in the opening scene – South Africans blacks will eventually vanquish apartheid while African-Americans may never “pull through”. Might consider a career in futurology.

Popular Québec cinema has a talent for posing highly reflective and existential questions about its own society. Denys Arcand, a graduate in History from the Université de Montréal, as well as Québec’s (and arguably Canada’s) most successful and celebrated filmmaker, was propelled into international stardom with his post-referendum, Reagan-era Le Déclin de l’Empire Américain / The Decline of the American Empire (1986), a film that epitomizes this tendency.

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Ten Keyboard Shortcuts Every Historian Should Know

Image by GuHyeok Jeong from Pixabay

By Sean Kheraj

You’re sitting uncomfortably in the audience at a conference waiting for the presenter to begin. They’ve finally loaded up their PowerPoint file from an old USB flash drive and all that’s left is to set it into presentation mode. They click around aimlessly on the screen trying button after button to no avail. Inside your head you’re shouting, “F5! F5! For the love of god, F5!”

This blog post is for you.*

10. CTRL+shift+e: Toggle Track Changes in Microsoft Word

Whether you’re editing the work of students, colleagues, or your own writing, Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature is a long-time function used by many historians. Did you know you can easily turn it on and off with this simple keyboard shortcut?

9. CTRL+f: Find on page

Handy for nearly any application with text, this keyboard shortcut can help you find that passage you were looking for and even assist in catching plagiarism! Continue reading