Pride and Prejudice

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
-Jane Austin Pride and Prejudice

There are some books out there which never seemed imaginable for my reading list; one of which was always Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin – my 6th classic. Jane Austin always seemed like the ultimate kryptonite to male ego. No man could dive into a Jane Austin book and come out with any remaining masculinity. It’s like accidentally using Vagisil Body Wash when taking a shower and then going through the day questioning the existence of your gender; requiring a impromptu Civil War reenactment to reverse any damage. I actually bought Pride and Prejudice at Barnes and Noble which was a big mistake. Buying this book was kinda like buying a dirty magazine – eye contact at checkout being a nonnegotiable. What made matters worse was the fact that I had to ask this little old lady to find a copy for me. Like a scene in some twisted comedy, she had to announce over the intercom, “I need help finding Pride and Prejudice for this nice young man.” We ended up spending the next 30 minutes navigating the store to find a copy that didn’t have a cover designed specifically for hipster feminists. I finally settled on a bright blue copy which was the closest thing to a “manly” version – the old lady quickly ruined this triumph with the words, “oh how cute, my daughter has the same one.” The shame I felt climaxed at the counter when the clerk asked me why I was reading it – my answer was that it was for an “all-female book club.”

Pride and Prejudice was written in 1813 and was a critique of the “Sentimental” novels of the mid-18th century. The Sentimental novels usually focused on the power of emotions over reason – many times in relation to marriage. Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, questions the advantages of marriage and questions the “pride” and “prejudice” between different classes of people. Early 19th century England was all about social distinction, manners, and status. The main characters of the novel continually are judging themselves in relation to others and questioning the proper ways to interact. Marriages are based not on love but rather upward mobility – women with small dowries seeking rich men and poor handsome men seeking wealthy-spinster women. The novel starts out like an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians but actually ends up being pretty captivating by the end; the journey to becoming married is not straightforward and not always a sure thing. Many times, I found myself rooting for a couple but then being surprised by plot twists which totally changed my outlook – highlighting my own prejudices. This novel is not just about romance but rather our human nature to judge others. It also speaks to our stubbornness to accept wrong doing and the barriers that pride presents in our daily interactions. It was actually a great novel that dissolved my long standing pride and prejudice towards Jane Austin. We always need to be reminded to not judge a book by its cover – maybe I’ll go back to Barnes and Noble for the more feminine cover.

 

Vikings Changed the World

At some point in the 9th century, a Viking was accused of being a “child-lover” because he didn’t want to impale babies with his spear. Vikings are known as gruesome-raiders which struck fear into the heart of villagers throughout medieval Europe. They were pagans who worshiped Odin and Thor – believing that an eternal feast awaited them in Valhalla. Today, Viking culture inundates our everyday life. Early morning TV has commercials for Viking River Cruises. “Bluetooth,” which connects electronics, is named after a Vtumblr_npgzguhvtp1un9i1ko1_1280iking king. Four days out of each week are named after Norse Gods: Tuesday (Tyr), Wednesday (Wodan which was Anglo-Saxon for Odin), Thursday (Thor), and Friday (Frigg). Dublin, York, and Kiev were a few major cities founded by Vikings for trade. The Normandy region of France was named after Viking inhabitants. The modern states of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine were first centralized by Vikings. Iceland, Greenland, and North America were first discovered by Vikings. The nautical terms of starboard, port, and keel were created by the Vikings. Most importantly, the Mad Max series was inspired by the Vikings. I was able to learn more about Vikings in this month’s edition of National Geographic and the book – The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings by Lars Brownworth.

The Vikings homeba3c6b3f59deb9c86cf5d8950c8c38d06dse was in Scandinavia between 800 and 1100 AD. There were the Norse (modern day Norway) to the west, the Swedes (modern day Sweden to the east), and the Danes (modern day Denmark) to the south. The actual word “viking” is believed to derive from the Vic region near the Oslo Fjord where iron was plentiful for sword production – eventually all raiders were referred to as “Vic-ings.” There were two types of Vikings: homesteaders and raiders. The Vikings had permanent communities which tried to live off the land and coast. There were also men who sought out fame and fortune on the sea – these were the “sea wolves” that changed the world. These Sea Wolves mastered the construction of the longboat and were able to sail quickly to any location. These men were motivated by treasure, women, and power. The more a raiding party could collect, the more respected they were on their return to Scandinavia. The first raids occurred at monasteries in Ireland, England, and France. Monasteries at the time stored many valuable relics, manuscripts, and currency. osebergskipet1A raid would usually consist of a few longboats (picture to right) quickly docking with 10-50 Vikings, subsequent killing of inhabitants, collection of plunder, and a quick getaway. Vikings were fierce warriors and their strengths were stealth, quickness, and cunning. Eventually, the raids started to dry up and the Vikings were forced to travel further from their homes; they would eventually reach as far as Italy.

Some of the greatest Vikings wanted more than just plunder, they wanted land. Forces
would eventually conquer Irish, French, English, and Eastern European armies to control huge swathes of territory. They controlled key ports and became handsomely wealthy through trade, extortion, and sheer intimidation. To find more land, many Vikings traveled west and eventually founded Iceland and Greenland – getting as far as North America; they were never able to permanently settle the Western Hemisphere because of limited colonists. To the a3e4c310d1c9ca0d11ac277a991d9b40east they settled into modern day Ukraine and traded with the Byzantine Empire. Vikings in the east were called “Rus,” (picture to left) which is the origin of the word “Rus-sian.” Eventually, the Vikings in these land-grab areas would lose much of their raiding culture and eventually became established monarchies. Many Viking kings decided to adopt Christianity to unite their strongholds which many times consisted of several types of ethnic groups and cultures; Scandinavia also shifted to a monarch structure to have better relations with European kings. In the end, the Viking culture fizzled out with the creation of Christian domains which promoted domestic virtues over sea-faring vices. Overall, the Vikings altered the political and social landscape wherever they went and are in large part responsible for the unification of Scotland, France, Britain, The Holy Roman Empire, and the kingdom of Sicily. They were pagans, who more than any other medieval power, spread Christianity throughout the world. Their enduring reputation truly held up to the Viking belief that all men are mortal – only the noble name can live forever.

How Islam Shaped Shakespeare

Did you know there was a time when Protestant Christians partnered with Muslims to usurp the Catholic Empire? Did you know that Queen Elizabeth sent a carriage to the head of a harem as a political gift? Did you know Shakespeare included many Muslim characters in his most famous plays? If you knew all these things give your brain a break and go watch the remake of Gilmore Girls. For all of us still reading, let’s take a weird journey into 16th century England where the teeth were black from Moroccan sugar and the houses were ordained with Turkish rugs. As a guide to our journey, we will reference my most recent read – The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam by Jerry Brotton.

Our journey begins in 1558 when Queen Elizabeth took the throne and began ruling a island in a very fractured world. Elizabeth was a protestant while Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were obviously Catholic. The Holy Roman Empire was the beez neez back in those days and made the rules of the land. Well, Pope Pius V and King Phillip II of Spain hated Queen Elizabeth because of her religious views. They colluded against her for decades and finally in 1570 the Pope excommunicated Queen Elizabeth from the church and all of its domains. This put the Queen in a sticky situation – England could no longer trade openly with European countries but needed trade to survive on an island. Added to her woes, Elizabeth was also cut off from the Americas because of Spain and Portugal’s dominance. She had one option that could work but the chances of success were slim. Trade with Muslims in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.

Englishmen were sent to the Ottoman Empire and Morracan Sultanate in hopes of opening up economic partnerships. What is interesting is the fact that when the Englishman met with the Turkish Sultan, he didn’t know where England was and viewed it as politically insignificant. He was correct in this assessment because England and Europe as a whole during the 16th century were far less powerful than the Ottoman Empire (Constantinople had a population of 500,000 compared to 200,000 in London). The Sultan agreed to the trade because he needed valuable metals to make weapons and in exchange the English would receive all sorts of exotic goodies. Guess where a lot of the metal came from for the production of Turkish weapons? Catholic church bells. Protestant English were using Catholic metal to arm Muslims. The same Muslims that were targeted by the Crusades. By the late 1580’s, thousands of English merchants, sailors, and privateers were moving about the Muslim world exchanging goods, beliefs, and culture.

One unlikely cultural exchange occurred in the world of English theater. The theater, up until that point, had primarily consisted of moralistic plays which followed similar patterns of plot and structure. This all changed with the play Tamburlaine which enlisted Muslim characters with plots that included conflicts of religion, politics, and power. Guess who was inspired by Tamburlaine and came out with his own play 6 months later? William Shakespeare. Shakespeare would go on to include 150 references to Islam in 20 different plays – many of which included main characters who were Muslim.

This weird time in history, thanks to inter-Christian quarrels, led to major cultural changes that we still experience today. Every year thousands of students read about Islam through Shakespeare. Everyday millions of people use words that were introduced to the English language from this period of trade: candy, turquoise, and tulip to name a few. Maybe most of all, the Moroccan sugar that blackened Queen Elizabeth’s teeth, led many to search for new sources in the New World. Unfortunately, Christianity and Islam’s 16th century partnership soon ended after Elizabeth’s death. Fast forward today, what can we learn from these previous partnerships? Would we have Shakespeare? Would a England, who decided not to trade with Muslims, have the resources to settle the New World? Interesting questions that all root to the fact that intermingled cultures are powerfully synergistic.

A Skyscraper of Hair, Debt, and Sex

I always here the phrase, “we should go back to the old times because today’s culture (youth, government, economy, etc.) is so screwed up!” Well, I think people who say stuff like that are firstly pessimistic, secondly are not well versed in history, and thirdly get most of their information from the news or Facebook. If you really look back in time we have come a very long way in terms of moral reform and improvements in our society: women’s suffrage, civil rights, handicap parking spots, freedom of religion, sexual harassment policies, decreased teenage pregnancy rates, etc. I was reminded of the occurrences of debauchery in the past with my most recent book Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman. Lady Georgiana Spencer was alive during the tumultuous times of late 18th century England; think American Revolution, French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, King George III going crazy, and the London newspapers obsessing over the aristocrats of the time. Georgiana married the Duke of Devonshire at the age of 17 in 1774 and was thrown into the weird intricacies of noble life: making sure your curtsy was low enough, you could host daily social events, and you could be up on the newest fashion. Well, Georgiana was able to fit right into her new role and soon became the leader of the “Ton”-the who’s who of England society at the time. Everything that she did in terms of fashion was mimicked including skyscraper hair that would make 80’s styles look like bowl haircuts. She was the queen bee and spent nearly every night of her youth drinking and gambling to the point of ridiculousness. Think spring break in Cancun but with fancier dresses, pompous language, and no means of contraception. She acquired over 6,000,000 million dollars in gambling debt (probably much more then this but this was the “official” number) and was constantly trying to hide this information from her husband. To make matters worse, because of her crazy lifestyle she kept having miscarriages and was constantly pressured to conceive an heir for the Duke. She did eventually have three girls and one boy-fulfilling her primary “duty” in life.

In regards to sex, the Duchess had a steamy affair with at least one known person, Charles Grey, and was exiled for a time to give birth to the illegitimate child. She also had several unverifiable affairs and one possible lesbian relationship with Lady Elizabeth Foster also known as Bess. Bess was Georgiana’s best friend but ended up sleeping with her husband and fathering two children with him. This weird triad relationship can best be explained by the fact that everyone was cheating on each other and infidelity was the norm among the “Ton.” Georgiana would spend most of her life in a constant whirlwind of gossip, drama, fear, and overall stress because of inauspicious behaviors and quickness to withhold truths. She did have redeeming qualities in the arena of political involvement. At the time, women did not have a right to vote and were very much in the background in terms of political views. Georgiana campaigned for the Whigs and was at the front and center of the party for most of her life. This is quite commendable because she was almost always scorned in the press and satirized for her efforts. In her late 30’s and early 40’s she set out to extinguish the vice of gambling and she took up learning mineralogy, literature, poetry, and a whole host of edifying endeavors. Sadly, she died at the young age of 48 because of a liver ailment (most likely caused from her excess drinking). Georgiana’s life was full of ups and downs and it is sad that she was so susceptible to peer pressure in her early life. The vices of this day and age were in full force three hundred years ago and I think it shows that history truly does repeat itself. The Duchess never found fulfillment through status, power, money, gambling, or drugs; she finally found contentment when she spent more time with her children and enriching her mind. I honestly would not recommend this book unless you really love drama and politics but I would recommend watching the movie they made out of the book-The Duchess with Keira Knightley. Don’t fall to the pressures of our modern day society and remember that knowledge is one of the most rewarding pursuits in this life.