The Riddle of the Labyrinth
363 pages, including notes & index
published in 2013
Linear B is one of those ‘mysteries from history” I’d read about in the local library in the early eighties as a child, browsing through the stacks of occult, ancient astronaut and weird history books, listed along with better known examples like Schliemann’s quest for Troy. It’s one of those pieces of history I sort of, kind of knew about, of how tablets in an unknown language were found on Crete, providing evidence for the existence of a literate, “advanced” Bronze Age civilisation hundreds of years before the rise of the Classical Greek civilisations. But I never read much more about it because other subjects like Schliemann’s discovery of Troy looked much more interesting.
in The Riddle of the Labyrinth Margalit Fox sets out to prove me wrong by telling the real story of the decyphering of Linear B and Alice Kober, the largely forgotten woman at the heart of it, as well as of the archaeologist who found the tablets, Arthur J. Evans and the amateur linguist who finally decrypted them, Michael Ventris. In many ways this is a sad story: both Alice Kober and Michael Ventris died young, one dead of cancer, the other in a car accident, with Kober’s role in the decypherment for a long time remaining obscure because of her untimely death, while Ventris’ accident came at a time he was feeling depressed about what to do with the rest of his life… It’s also a detective story, as Fox tells the story of how the three of them each in turn helped the process of decyphering along.
A History of the Vandals
Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen
360 pages, including index
published in 2012
Of all the Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire, the Vandals have the worst reputation for reasons that have little to do with what they actually did. Mostly this is of course due to the simple fact that they lent their name to vandalism, coined in the wake of the French Revolution to describe the destruction of religious artworks by revolutionairies by equating it to the infamous sack of Rome in 455 CE, which in itself had already been exagerrated by pro-Roman historians for various political reasons. The Vandals then have never had an even break, always been the bogeyman to an Europe much more inclined to identify itself with the grandeur of Rome than with the ‘barbarians’ that ended its reign.
This attitude perhaps explains why books about the Vandals are rare in English, with A History of the Vandals being the first general history of them in English. Then again it could also be because unlike the Franks or Lombards or Goths, the Vandals had their largest impact outside of Europe, in the empire they created in North Africa and hence can’t be used as semi-mythical ancestor tribe for a modern European nation. This, as well as the fact that for a century they were the most successfull of the ‘barbarian’ successor states to the Roman Empire could also explain why they and not those Goths or Huns were used and abused as the villains in the Fall of the Roman Empire.
So yeah, today I would like to spotlight some of the female bloggers I started reading in the past of couple of weeks, partially thanks to the whole ongoing SFWA kerfuffle. Everytime we’ve had an outbreak of sexism in science fiction fandom it also has brought new female voices to the foreground and this time hasn’t been any different.
Natalie Luhrs has been one of the most sensible voices during the SFWA controversy, as well as with the more recent Loncon Jonathan Ross fiasco. Beyond that, she also has a great ability to find interesting and thoughtful links.
S. L. Huang like Luhrs has been a voice of reason during the recent sexism scandals, is a new writer whose first book will be published this year and who keeps writing great posts on the same subjects I would’ve written about, but she does it better.
Susan Abernethy writes about history and her blog is a treasure trove of posts about well known and not so well known parts of history, especially British history.
Loretta Chase & Isabella Bradford also write about history, both in their dayjobs as bestselling writers of historical romances and on their blog. They seem to have a real affinity for the Georgian era, but roam wide and far and have a knack of finding links to other interesting blogs — like Susan Abernethy’s above.
To call a woman a kenau in Dutch is to call her a harridan, a bitch, harsh, strident, aggressive, taking on masculine qualities. It’s a slur that’s rooted in an actually existing, historical woman, Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer, a Haarlem born widow, woodsmerchant and shipbuilder who became famous due to her role in the siege of her hometown by the Spanish in 1573.
As you of course know, the Netherlands fought the Eighty Years War to liberate themselves from Spanish and Catholic oppression, a large part of which consisted of the siege and countersiege of rebel or loyal cities. Haarlem in the 1570s was one of the richest, most important cities in the north of Holland and when it rebelled the Spanish were quick to put it down. The siege ended in a defeat for the rebels, but not before Kenau’s role in it had become legend.
As legend has it, Kenau Hasselaer was the leader of an army of women who fought together with the men on the walls of Haarlem, pouring boiling pitch and water over the Spanish troops attempting to climb the walls. How historical this is, has been disputed, but what’s undisputed was that she was involved in supporting the soldiers on the walls, organising repair works and the like.
But of course the idea of Kenau Hasselaer as the firebreathing leader of a monstrous regiment of women is much more interesting, something that was played up in Dutch propaganda after the siege and which ultimately led to her name becoming the synonym for an aggressive woman, with the connection to the historical figure forgotten. A new Dutch movie, which premiered only this week, seeks to restore that connection, to rehabilitate Kenau as a name of pride, not a slur.
Course, being a Dutch film it’s not likely to be much good, but the idea is interesting.