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History at the Hay Festival

July 9, 2016

FrankopanSilkRoads (419x640)Post 5 in a series on the Hay Festival

The only history I learnt at school was of the countries coloured red on the map of the world. The rapidly disintegrating British Empire still determined the curriculum.

Historian Peter Frankopan complains that Western education is still limited to Europe, and we learn nothing about the vast area between Europe and the Pacific. Yet this is the area where, for thousands of years, humanity’s most important developments occurred. In that story the recent rise of Western Europe was an anomaly.

Eurocentric history begins with Greece and Rome, and we forget that Rome’s empire was mainly in the East. Frankopan shifts the ‘centre of the world’ to the areas where cities and laws first developed – Iran, Afhanistan, the other ‘stans, and Mongolia. Alexander the Great turned east, not west. The Mongols and other peoples of the east built large, sophisticated empires.

We don’t teach our kids about the millennium from 1 to 1000 AD, says Frankopan. Yet the early Islamic world was affluent, confident and excited by ideas, while Western Europe was a provincial, unimportant backwater with nothing to offer.

A Eurocentric history curriculum limits our understanding of others, he says. We know nothing about most of the world’s population. Few leaders or key people can speak Arabic or Russian. The world is changing fast and we have no skin in the game.

Frankopan seeks a better balance in his new book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.

CunliffeBookThe Birth of Eurasia

In another Hay session archaeologist Barry Cunliffe gave us a panoramic view of the networks developed over 10,000 years between the Atlantic and Pacific. His new book is By Steppe, Desert and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia. He studies the changes driven by humanity’s acquisitiveness and the differing environments in which they live. It’s a grand history of movements of people and the baton of innovation passing from one group to the next – sowing seed, domesticating goats.

Around 4000 BC at Botai on the Kazak Steppe, says Cunliffe, a young man jumped on the back of a horse and rode it. (How does he know that? Couldn’t it have been a young woman?)  Domestication of horses, the wheel, chariots and cavalry all developed on the Steppe. This led to predatory nomadism and the shunting of peoples along the steppe toward Europe, India and China.

GraylingGeniusThe Birth of the Modern Mind?

Another grand narrative was presented by A C Grayling, based on his book, The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind. He sees the 1600s as the time when the hold of religious dogma and superstition began to weaken and be overtaken by science and reason. Grayling is an entertaining and persuasive speaker and totally convinced me of his thesis, but later I wondered if I was too gullible due to my own ignorance of history – is he simplifying, skipping over evidence that the seventeenth century was one step in a long staircase, rather than a decisive break with the past?

Regardless of this, he is a great performer, and will move on to the Closing of the Modern Mind at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at Sydney Opera House in September.

stalinStalin and Mao

Simon Sebag Montefiore and Jung Chang did a joint gig at Hay on Stalin and Mao. They described how both loved reading and accumulating books, but denied it to others. Both studied history – Stalin was obsessed with the Tsars. Both used terror to create fear.

Putin sees himself as in the tradition of the great Russian leaders, both Tsars and Communist, says Montefiore. Putin  is super aware of Stalin and believes that Stalin achieved more than all the Tsars. He made Russia great.

The two authors agreed that Russia never had the Chinese seagoing and entrepreneurial traditions. Hence Chinese economy has boomed while Russia’s has stagnated.


changUSMontefiore is the author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, and Jung Chang and her husband, historian Jon Halliday, wrote Mao: The Unknown Story.

Yet More History …

History made an appearance at many other events at Hay. For example:

  • The history of drug prohibition
  • The four mutations of capitalism
  • The development of credit clubs in the nineteenth century
  • And the “historian of emotions”, Svetlana Alexievich

Some of these will be covered in later posts.

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