This is the title of my first full-length studio album, officially released on 10 December 2022. I would like to take this opportunity to provide information about it, especially to those who might download a digital version of it, and not have the benefit of the package that surrounds it. Much of the text below appears in the CD package.

The album is available from CD Baby on Amazon (both as physical CD and as digital download, as well as in digital files on other music sites, such as Amazon Music, You Tube, Spotify, and others. It will also be available directly from me at any performance I might do. You might also request a copy from me at the email address on this site.

The album features:

WS Monroe (voice and guitar), Rebecca Leuchak (harmony voice), and Chris Turner (harmonicas).

Produced by WS Monroe and Steve Rizzo. Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Steve Rizzo at Stable Sound Studio, Portsmouth, RI.

Artwork and package design by Amy Webb, mockingbirddesign.biz

Cover photo by Denise Bass Photography.

Thanks to all those people named above, along with Rachel Maloney, Steve Jobe, Matteo Casini, Billy Walsh, Al Koren, Sharon Davidheiser, The Quahog Quire, The Providence Wholebellies, The Quahog Qafé, The Parlour, Stone Soup Coffeehouse, The Coffee Depot, Winnie Lambrecht, the Vox Hunters (Ben and Armand), David Brown, John Fuzek, Chris Monti, Flannery Brown, Lynz Morahn, Phil Edmonds, Gary Fish, Joanne Lurgio, Patty and Buster,  and all the others who have played music with me, and for me, and given me a place to play. 

The songs:

  1. Providence (WS Monroe, ©2006). A song I wrote for the city in which I live, and for the good fortune I’ve had elsewhere.

  2. When Fortune Turns the Wheel (Traditional). Louisa Jo Killen collected this song from a singer who lived near the English/Scottish border. When I first heard it, I was in college and happened to be writing a paper on the goddess Fortuna in the Middle Ages, so it stuck with me.

  3. Shady Grove (Traditional). A classic old-timey song that I’ve only begun playing in recent years.

  4. Hickory Wind (Gram Parsons, Bob Buchanan). My favorite song from the Byrds’ important Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, and one of my all-time favorite songs.

  5. The Outlandish Knight (Traditional). I first heard this great ballad (Child no. 4) sung by Michael Cooney at the Philadelphia Folk Festival (PFF) in the early ’70s. The twist on the stock murder ballad goes back a long way. It first appears in a Middle Dutch poem from the Middle Ages (Heer Halewijn).

  6. Dark-Eyed Sailor (Traditional). Another great song that I learned from Louisa Jo Killen. The motif of “the broken token” is common in many of these songs.

  7. By the Water’s Edge (WS Monroe, ©2011). This is my anthem for Rhode Island. Many of the details refer to Pawtuxet Village, at the mouth of the river of the same name.

  8. Tam Lin (Traditional). A very old ballad (Child no. 39) that I learned from the singing of the great Frankie Armstrong, whom I heard at the PFF in the early ’70s. The version I sing is very much hers, except that I have modified some of the lyrics as I describe in a blog post “Tam Lin and #MeToo: On the Modification of Traditional Songs.”

9. River of Song (WS Monroe, ©2011). I wrote this song in honor of all the people who have written and/or passed down songs through the ages, and especially those who have influenced me greatly: Pete Seeger, Utah Phillips, Jerry Jeff Walker, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Frankie Armstrong, Louisa Jo Killen, and my namesake, Bill Monroe. “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” (Psalm 46)

10. Going to the West (Traditional). A song collected in Alabama in the 1940s, but was probably written in the 1880s when many people left Alabama for Texas. I first heard it played by the great band Uncle Earl, who have since gone their separate ways.

11. Little Bird (WS Monroe, ©2017). For Kristina Belyakova (1997-2017), and others who have left us all too soon. 

12. Wabash Cannonball (Traditional). A song about the last train the hobo rides, which takes him to the other side. I have modified the final verse to honor the late great Utah Phillips, the “Golden Voice of the Great Southwest,” who told stories and wrote songs about those left behind by our society.

13. If I Could Be the Rain (Utah Phillips). Probably my favorite song, and the best country song ever written.

Providence, By the Water’s Edge, River of Song, and Little Bird are written and copyright by William S. Monroe. All rights reserved. Hickory Wind and If I Could be the Rain are used by permission (http://www.idblm.org/347655).

All other songs are in the public domain.  (P) 2021

I would like to note that there is a mistake in the original jacket copy, where I identified Louisa Jo Killen as Louise Killen, due to my faulty memory. I should have checked. Thanks to Patrick Hutchinson for catching that mistake.

I would also like to thank Disc Makers and CD Baby for making the production and distribution of the album very easy.

Painting Of Trial Of Pope Formosus
Jean-Paul Laurens, Pope Formosus on trial (1870, Musée des Beaux-arts, Nantes)

I wrote a couple of posts back in 2014 about my research on Pope Formosus and the infamous Cadaver Synod. At the time, I noted that I was working on a doctoral dissertation on the subject, and that I hoped to finish it by the end of that year! Well, here we are in July of 2021 (almost exactly seven years later), and I finished and defended the dissertation in March, The Trials of Pope Formosus, for which I was awarded the PhD in history from Columbia University. So I felt that I should update some of the information that I had presented in those older posts: Notes on Pope Formosus (part 1), and (part 2).

The abstract to the dissertation:

           In 896 Pope Stephen VI put the corpse of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, on trial in a Church synod in Rome, known since as the Cadaver Synod. The pontificate and the ordinations of Formosus were annulled and he was reburied in a pilgrims’ cemetery from which his body was quickly removed and thrown into the Tiber. It still is generally assumed that Formosus was tried as revenge for his having betrayed Lambert of Spoleto by inviting Arnulf of Carinthia to become emperor, and that Pope Stephen VI was carrying out the wishes of Lambert and his mother. This dissertation, by examining the entire career of Formosus as well as the manuscript evidence for the Cadaver Synod and the 898 Synod of Ravenna, which overturned it, will present a new view of what happened in this neglected period of European history. In so doing, it has reached very different conclusions about the trial and its purpose.

The six main conclusions of my research are the following:

1. The earlier career of Formosus cannot be separated from the Cadaver Synod. It forms a major part of the context. The experiences he had (such as the mission to Bulgaria) and the relations that he established (as with the Spoletans) had important effects on his time as pope and his relations with the Roman nobility.

2. There is no reason to think that Formosus leaned toward the East Frankish rulers, as most previous publications have asserted. He went into exile in West Francia. The Spoletans had connections with West Francia. Except for his correspondence with the East Frankish bishops over the Hamburg/Bremen dispute, we have no record of any other interaction with East Frankish rulers or with Berengar of Friuli (except for the alleged letters to Arnulf). 

3. It is still too early to define the factions in Rome. They were certainly fluid, as Annette Grabowsky [“La papauté autour de 900,” in Compétition et sacré au haut Moyen Âge (Brepols, 2015)] indicates. Conrad Leyser [“The Memory of Gregory the Great and the Making of Latin Europe, 700-1000,” University of Oxford History Working Paper, no. VII (October 2013)] makes a compelling argument for the circle around John VIII having a special reverence for the memory of Gregory the Great. With that may also go a certain bias against the Beneventans and Spoletans, whom they may have seen as a continuation of the Lombards. Simon MacLean’s idea of the split in the northern Italians between east and west also makes some sense [“‘After his death a great tribulation came to Italy …’: Dynastic Politics and Aristocratic Factions After the Death of Louis II, c. 870-890,” Millennium Jahrbuch 4 (2007): 239-260]. There were people who favored the West Franks and the East Franks, but these were not defining interests, and we should not read the 19th and 20th century biases into them. As Veronica West-Harling [“The Roman Past in the Consciousness of the Roman Elites in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries,” in Early Medieval Roman Identities (De Gruyter, 2017)] writes, the Roman factions may be more aligned by interests in matters internal and external to Rome. Without a thorough prosopography, we cannot see how these relationships and alignments overlapped and shifted over time.

4. Formosus did not invite Arnulf to invade Rome and become Emperor. If Arnulf did receive an invitation, it came from some of the Roman nobility through Berengar, and it may have been in the form of forged letters from the pope, or perhaps the invitation was a fantasy constructed by people around Arnulf who wished to justify his invasion. The Synod of Ravenna declared that Arnulf’s coronation was extorted through force. At least in Italy, people believed that, and Arnulf is not listed among the emperors in Italian sources, as Otto of Freising pointed out long ago.

5. Both the Cadaver Synod and the Synod of Ravenna carefully avoided, in different ways, any charge that they were judging a pope. The Synod of Ravenna, moreover, was very intent upon ending this embarrassing conflict, and tried as much as possible to deflect any criticism from the Church. It granted mercy to those who took part in the Cadaver Synod, saying that they were forced to do so by unnamed lay people. It also implied that the disposal of the body in the Tiber was also done by lay people “seeking treasure.”

6. The real reason for the Cadaver Synod was not to punish Formosus for having abandoned Lambert in favor of Arnulf. It was, instead, instigated by people who were aligned with Arnulf, and who also held a hatred of Formosus for reasons we do not fully know. But the desecration and disposal of the body in the Tiber was done most likely because there were people who had a great veneration for Formosus and had created a cult around his tomb. This is something that his enemies could not tolerate, and it is for this reason that the trial happened so many months after his death, and not because Lambert and Ageltrude had not yet arrived in Rome. In fact, it probably occurred in haste before they were expected to arrive.

The Cadaver Synod has long been portrayed as a sign of the degeneracy of the papacy leading into the saeculum obscurum and the pornocracy. It is certainly a sign of the rapid change and shifting alliances that came with the end of the Carolingian era, but it also serves to illuminate those changes and help us to understand this period, the end of the ninth century and beginning of the tenth, that has been so neglected until recently. I hope to publish the dissertation as a book in the coming year or so. Meanwhile, the dissertation itself is embargoed.

Since I have never been able to devote all my energies to this work, it has taken a very long time to finish. The research and writing were often done in small parts and presented at conferences over a couple of decades. Here is an updated list of these papers:

“A New Look at the Cadaver Synod.” Proceedings of the XV International Congress of Medieval Canon Law, Paris, July 2016  (Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, forthcoming)

“A Synod of Ravenna Confirming the Cadaver Synod?” Proceedings of the XIV International Congress of Medieval Canon Law, Toronto, 5-11 August 2012.  (Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, 2016), pp. 313-325.   

“The Cadaver Synod and the Unmaking of Saints,” A paper presented at the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, May, 2011.

“The Synod of Ravenna of 898 as a Witness to the Cadaver Synod,” A paper presented at the 45th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 2010.

“Renovatio redux: A New Look at the Libellus de imperatoria potestate in urbe Roma,” A paper delivered at the 12th Annual Mediterranean Studies Congress, Università di Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy May, 2009.

“Pope Formosus and Hamburg-Bremen,” A paper delivered at the 11th Annual Mediterranean Studies Congress, Lüneburg, Germany, May 29, 2008.

“A Failed Crusade? Pope John VIII and the Arabs Reconsidered,” A paper presented at the 41st International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, May, 2007.

“The Role of the Latin Missionaries in Ninth-Century Bulgaria,” a paper presented at the 40th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 2006.

“Who was Auxilius? Ethnic Identity in Carolingian Italy,” a paper presented at the 38th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 2004.

Available at:


and at:


“Invitation or Imitation: The Justification of Arnulf’s Invasion of Italy in 895/896,” a paper presented at the 5th Annual Congress of the Mediterranean Studies Association, Granada (Spain), May 29-June 1, 2002.

“The 898 Synod of Ravenna, and the Rehabilitation of Pope Formosus,” a paper presented at the 37th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 2002.

I would also like to publicly thank my committee: my long-time advisor, Robert E. Somerville, who supported me over the decades, though it seemed that I would never finish; my other Columbia readers: Adam J. Kosto, Carmela Vircillo Franklin, and Euen Cameron; and my outside reader, Thomas F. X. Noble. I should also thank the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at Columbia for allowing me to defend this dissertation, even though I had not been an active student for at least fifteen years! Many more people are named in the acknowledgments, and will be mentioned in the book.

One of my favorite songs on the classic album from the Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, has always been “Blue Canadian Rockies,” credited there to C. Walker.  Unlike my other favorite, Gram Parsons’ Hickory Wind, I never learned it for performance, partly because there were some oddities with the words that seemed not quite right.  Until today, it had not occurred to me to look them up online.  (I should note that this does not always help; many sites that have lyrics and chords often get the lyrics (and chords) wrong, and also neglect to credit the writer of the song, and only credit some performer, as though they wrote the song themselves.)  So I was pleased this time with the results.  There were lyrics and chords, as well as links to some performances, by the Byrds of course, but also by a Canadian, Wilf Carter (known as Montana Slim in the US), Jim Reeves, Gene Autry, who sang it as the title song to a film he starred in (1952), and finally, Cindy Walker, who wrote the song in 1950. 

So you might guess that Cindy Walker was Canadian, but that is not so. She was born in Mart, Texas, in 1918 (and died in 2006). She was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997. She wrote many songs that were hit records by well known artists, besides those already linked above: Bing Crosby, Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Roy Orbison, Dean Martin, Pat Boone, Eddy Arnold, K.D. Lang, Ray Charles, and others.  There is a fun story in Wikipedia about how Bing Crosby came to record her song. Willie Nelson recorded a tribute album to her: “You Don’t Know Me:” The Songs of Cindy Walker, which was released just nine days before she died.  

If you know the rendition by the Byrds (or listen to the versions above), you will see that I was correct about the words — the Byrds got them wrong, and so did others. I don’t know where the Byrds got the lyrics, but I read that it was Chris Hillman who brought the song to them. He had heard it in his teen years when playing a tour in Alberta, and always remembered it. (Before playing bass with the Byrds, he had played mandolin with his brothers as the Hillmen.) He thought it would fit well into Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  

I’m glad I got the chance to learn about Cindy Walker, a good singer as well as a songwriter, and the first woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as a songwriter. I’ll be singing her song, with the correct lyrics.  

I have not generally written here about my personal religious beliefs, but I recently had the occasion to discuss these with fellow Quakers in our meeting, and thought I would post the notes I made about this. As so many of us are currently social-distancing, not working, or working from home (as well as some of us on the front lines, caring for other members of our communities) in this COVID19 pandemic, I think it’s good for us to share our stories.  

I have been a seeker for most of my life. Although there was a time in my teens I would have called myself an agnostic (never an atheist), I have most always believed that there is much more to this world than we can see or know directly. 

Born into a family that was mostly non-denominational Protestant, but rarely set foot in a church, I was given little religious upbringing — merely absorbing a typically American form of simple Christianity. In fact, I remember being baptized, because it happened only when my youngest brother was born, when I was four years old. I think it must have been only then that my parents realized that none of us earlier children had been baptized (my sister would have been almost seven, my younger brother was two). My sister and I were the children of my mother’s first husband, who had abandoned us. The two-year-old and newborn were my half-brothers, the children of the stepfather who raised us all. 

I remember the minister coming to our house — from what church, I do not know, but guessing from the fact that the first church I remember visiting was Grace Lutheran Church, it was probably the one.  We stood in a line and he had a bowl of water in his hand with which he went down the line baptizing us. 

When we were a bit older (perhaps I was about eight), we were riding in the car one day, and complained to our father (i.e., my stepfather) that our mother wanted us to go to church with her, which we did not want to do. “You should go to church with your mother. It would be good for you,” he said. When we argued back that he did not go to church, he responded, “I don’t go because I don’t believe in that shit.” (My stepfather was completely unguarded, and did not generally get irony.)  

When I was in high school, I sometimes attended worship services with friends, including Jewish, and Roman Catholic, and I read about other religions. Had there been a Buddhist group in my town, I probably would have gone there. Oddly enough, though I grew up in a Pennsylvania town that was founded by Quakers, and learned about Quakers in school, there was no longer a Quaker Meeting in my town, and it never occurred to me to attend one (I did not know any Quakers). In my young adulthood I was generally open to people who invited me to their places of worship, even if I did not identify with their theology. That applied most often to evangelicals. I could never really accept that a “loving God” would insist on everyone believing in any particular creed or dogma in order to be “saved”.  

In college, I majored in history, and also took some courses in the Religion Department. One important history course for me was “Historical Background of the Bible: the Old Testament,” in which I learned a great deal about how the Hebrew Bible was written — including the “Documentary hypothesis,” and also about how the Hebrew Bible is received by modern Jews (at least of the more liberal variety). One thing I took from this, long before I even knew about Benedict Spinoza, is what he established about the Bible way back in 1670: That the Bible records the religious experience of the people who lived in the Levant in about 600 BCE, and as such it has much to offer us, but it is not necessarily God’s word for us today, and it certainly is not God’s law. I have gone on to read scriptural texts of many other religions, and take them the same way. To those fundamentalists who say that one cannot pick and choose which parts of the Bible we believe, I say we must do that. It is a requirement in any reading that we read critically

Most of all, I gradually came to the realization that it is our own religious experience that is most important — our own relationship with God, however we define that concept — although it is also very good, for the soul, that we share in this relationship, in some way, with others. I don’t know when I was first exposed to the famous quotation from Margaret Fell about hearing George Fox preach in 1652: 

And then he went on, and opened the Scriptures, and said, ‘The Scriptures were the prophets’ words and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what as they spoke they enjoyed and possessed and had it from the Lord’. And said, ‘Then what had any to do with the Scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth. You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?’

This opened me so that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat me down in my pew again, and cried bitterly. And I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves’… I saw it was the truth, and I could not deny it; and I did as the apostle saith, I ‘received the truth in the love of it’. (See this text with commentary at: https://postmodernquaker.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/what-canst-thou-say-paraphrase-with-commentary/ )

We mostly don’t understand the true meaning of prophecy, which has been confused with predicting the future. (That is due to the huge influence of Messianic Judaism and Christianity reading the coming of a Messiah into even non-prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible.)  But a prophet, in the true meaning of the word, is someone who speaks on behalf of someone else — in most common parlance, for God. I’ve come to see that some people have a knack for speaking “Truth” — what I see as “God’s Truth”, and these are not necessarily the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and not necessarily even religious teachers at all. I’ve been reading Montaigne’s Essais, and found one (“On Pedantry”) in which he almost quotes George Fox, except that he is writing about sixty years earlier. (His Essais were first published in 1580. Did Fox read Montaigne?):

“We know how to say: ‘Cicero says thus; such are the morals of Plato; these are the very words of Aristotle.’ But what do we say ourselves? What do we judge? What do we do? A parrot could well say as much.”  (p. 121)  [Nous sçavons dire, Cicero dit ainsi, voilà les meurs de Platon, ce sont les mots mesmes d’Aristote: mais nous que disons nous nous mesmes? Que faison nous? Que jugeons nous? Autant en diroit bien un perroquet,. (p. 142)  And: “We take the opinions and the knowledge of others into our keeping, and that is all. We must make them our own.” (p. 122) [Nous prenons en garde les opinions et le sçavoir d’autruy, et puis c’est tout: il les faut faire nostres. (p. 142)]   

Jesus was a prophet, as was Fox, as was Benedict Spinoza, as were Dorothy Day and  James Baldwin. Read what they had to say, and you cannot help but feel they speak a truth that resonates in its verity. But we can all have that connection, if we cultivate it. Sometimes we hear or read a small bit of that Truth in the most unlikely places. There is prophecy all around us, sometimes coming from small children in our midst. 

Before I reached the ripe old age of 30, I had found Quakerism, first attending a Quaker meeting in, of all places, Brussels, Belgium. I have felt right at home in a group that honors ongoing revelation. Having read Henry Cadbury’s lecture, “Quakerism and Early Christianity” while I was in college, I realized that I could be a Quaker without being a Christian. While I have a high regard for Christianity and the teachings of Jesus, I do not buy the essential theology, which is implied by the name. Christ is the Greek translation of the Messiah, “the anointed one”, i.e., God’s anointed. It comes out of Jewish messianism, the expectation of a savior that would come to Israel in the form of a new king, who would drive out the foreign rulers and restore the Kingdom of Israel. The early Christians believed that Jesus was that Messiah, but with a different mission, to save all of humanity. But even that is not a theology that resonates with me. It was still a major part of the theology of the early Quakers, as Cadbury points out, but just as the later Christians realized that one does not need to be a Jew to be a Christian, Quakers have come to know that one need not be a Christian to be a Quaker. Cadbury was a historian, as am I, and we learn from history. He writes, “Religion looked at historically is an example of change. It is dynamic not static, it grows and moves.  … Religion becomes the accumulation of much of its past, and what it is today is often best understood from knowing its past.” 

In the future further changes will occur … but not from the same exact causes as in the past. We need not dread them for they are signs of life. We cannot control them, least of all by an attempted superficial imitation of the past. We should realize that variety is part of our inheritance, and a precious part.  (p. 39-40)

More recently, I have encountered Spinoza, who lived at the same time as George Fox, and even met with Quakers as part of his discussion circle. I believe that he was influenced by Quakerism as Quakerism was influenced by him. He believed that God is everything — the universe — and that everything in the universe is just a little part of God. So every person not only has “that of God” within them (as the Quakers put it), but is part of God. There are many elements of his philosophy that follow from this precept, and I do not buy all of these, but I think he saw very clearly, though he did not trust his own intuition, and felt that he had to prove it all mathematically (which does not work).  He was a man of his era, who believed in the power of logic — he was not a mystic. But so much of his philosophy fits very well with Quakerism and leads to the same ethical conclusions. 

Spinoza also sought to prove the existence of God, but mostly used the same existential proof of God that was developed in the twelfth century by Anselm of Canterbury. If we define God as the most perfect being that could possibly exist, then God must exist, for a being that existed would be better than a being that does not exist. Specious reasoning, to be sure. The problem here, for Spinoza, is that he believed, like Leibniz, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Since God is the universe, both are perfect. But we now know that the universe is not perfect, for perfect means finished. The universe is ever expanding, ever growing, ever changing. Thus, so is God. God is not perfect. Neither God nor the universe follows human logic. So Cadbury’s idea that religion is always changing, and should change, is even more reasonable, as even God is always changing. 

Jesus boiled the old Jewish commandments down to two: Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. George Fox expresses those precepts more in the way that Spinoza might have, as in this quotation, which comes from a letter that Fox  wrote to ministers while he was imprisoned in Launceton (Cornwall) in 1656, and has been mentioned several times, recently, in our Meeting: 

And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

If we could all follow that commandment, this world would be a better place — and what more could we hope for?

The connection between the three subjects in the title will become apparent. The post was originally meant to be about the last item, but they are all connected in my memory.

I am a librarian, and a member of the American Library Association (ALA). As such, I have attended many of the regular conferences of that organization. ALA has two major conferences each year, the Annual Conference (in the summer), and the Midwinter Conference. The first of these is quite large, drawing about 17,000 people, including academic, public, school, and other librarians as well as vendors of all kinds of products we depend on. This conference can be held in only about a half-dozen cities in the US and Canada because of the need for spaces: not only hotel rooms and large exhibit spaces, but also meeting rooms. It needs to be scheduled about ten years in advance to be sure the accommodations can be met. One of the cities in which we have met often is New Orleans, and we were scheduled to meet there in June of 2006. So you might imagine what happened at the end of August in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

Emails were flying around among the leaders and the committees of ALA. How could New Orleans possibly be ready to host a conference of 17,000 people less than a year after being completely swamped by a major hurricane, which killed almost 2,000 people?[1]  But, how could we possibly move such a huge conference to another city with less than a year’s preparation? After much debate, it was decided that we should bank on New Orleans, not only because it would be difficult to relocate, but because New Orleans would need this conference. As planning continued, there was also a decision to mount teams of volunteers to help with cleanup and restoration. Some of these teams would arrive before the conference and some stay after. They would do demolition in damaged homes, and help to rebuild, putting up new walls and floors, etc. I had recently had major surgery, and so volunteered for less physical activities. In the end, I staffed a book sale at a public library branch that had been damaged, to raise money to fix broken windows and other problems.

It was a moving experience to be there. The city still had huge problems – only half of the convention center was open, while the major hotels were in pretty good shape. But the spirit of the city was amazing! Everywhere were flags and pennants sporting the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of New Orleans, and now the symbol of its rebirth. The people were especially warm and welcoming. If I stopped in a store to buy something, they would ask, “Are you with the librarians? Thank you so much for coming!” We were the first major conference hosted there since Katrina, and, if I remember correctly, we had far higher attendance at the conference than usual – about 19,000! I had been to New Orleans twice before, for this same conference, and this was by far the best experience ever.

And now to the down side of the entry. As I sat in the hotel lobby, waiting for my shuttle to the airport, I was reading the Times-Picayune, and came across this story: Christopher, 25. (from Texas), working as a security guard in a hotel here in New Orleans, got into an argument with Erik, 30, a former Marine, who was visiting someone in the hotel. The subject of the argument was whether the Army (Christopher’s group) or the Marines (Erik’s group) was tougher. They ended up fighting and then Christopher shot Erik with a shotgun.

I wrote in my journal at the time: “There are probably numerous people who have been important influences in the lives of these two men who should be taken to task for this – including the leadership of these two service groups.” Why would these two men, both veterans of our armed forces, end up fighting, and finally harming, each other over such a stupid issue!? At the time, I was reminded of a song by Chris Smither, entitled “Every Mother’s Son”, which addresses this very issue – toxic masculinity – and calls out those who instill it or abet it in their children. I decided at that point to learn the song, and perform it from time to time, because I think others should hear it. I also remembered that Chris Smither grew up in New Orleans, though he now lives elsewhere. Years later, I did sound for a concert by him at Stone Soup, a folk music venue in Rhode Island, and took that opportunity to ask him if that song had been inspired by a particular incident or experience. He said that it was not – just something that came to him.

Given the many incidents of gun violence, and especially mass shootings in this country (and elsewhere), I feel inspired to share that song with others, and I intend to sing it at some future performances. I hope that Chris Smither does not mind if I share it here. So I have made a recording of it, and put it on my Bandcamp site, to which I link below. Anyone can listen to it once or twice there, but beyond that, they must pay for a download. In the unlikely event that someone does download it, I will gladly offer the proceeds to Chris or to a charity of his choosing.

Every Mother’s Son (by Chris Smither), played and sung by WS Monroe

And it’s only fair that I direct you to a version done by the writer himself:

Every Mother’s Son (by Chris Smither), played and sung by Chris Smither.

And here is an article from Sing Out! (the folksong magazine) about the song, and the theme.  Ken Bigger, “Every Mother’s Son,” Sing Out! (January 21, 2013).

[1] “Hurricane Katrina,” in Wikipedia, September 9, 2019.


The other night, I participated in the Providence Pub Sing, hosted by Armand Aromin and Benedict Gagliardi (The Vox Hunters) in Providence, RI. As Halloween was approaching, there was especial demand for songs of ghosts and other spooky matters, and since I always look for an opportunity to sing, at this time of the year, one of my favorite ballads, “Tam Lin,” I offered that (with the indulgence of the participants, since it does not offer much participation).  I learned this song from the singing of Frankie Armstrong, an extraordinary English singer of traditional songs whom I had the great fortune to hear several times at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the early 1970’s. The version I sing is hers, as is the way I sing it, as she was a great influence on my own singing. At the same time, I’ve been singing this song for decades now, and have not listened to her recording of it for at least 20 years, so I may have introduced some minor changes. With that caveat, here is the version that I’ve been singing, and which I sang the other night:

Tam Lin
(Traditional; Child no. 39)

Lady Margaret, Lady Margaret, a-sewing of her seam,
And she’s all dressed in black,
When a thought come to her head, she’d run into the wood,
And pick flowers to flower her hat, me boys,
And pick flowers to flower her hat.

So she’s hoisted up her petticoats a bit above her knee,
And so nimbly she’s run o’er the plain.
And when she’s come to the merry green wood,
She’s pulled the branches down, me boys,
She’s pulled the branches down.

Then suddenly she spied a fine young man,
Stood underneath a tree,
Saying, “How dare you pull these branches down,
Without the leave of me, Lady,
Without the leave of me?”

She said, “This little wood, it is me very own.
My father gave it me.
And I can pull these branches down,
Without the leave of thee young man,
Without the leave of thee!”

He’s taken her by the lily-white hand,
And by the grass-green sleeve.
And he’s laid her down at the foot of a bush,
And he’s never once asked her leave, no,
And he’s never once asked her leave.

And when it was done, she’s turned herself about,
To ask her true love’s name.
But she’s nothing heard, and nothing saw,
And all the wood grew dim me boys,
And all the wood grew dim.

Now there’s four and twenty maidens, all in the court,
Grown red as any rose.
Excepting fair young Margaret.
As green as glass she goes, she goes,
As green as glass she goes.

Then outen spoke the first serving girl.
She’s lifted her head and smiled.
Saying, “I think me lady’s loved too long,
And now she goes with child, she goes,
And now she goes with child.”

Then outen spoke the second serving girl.
“Oh, and alas,” said she.
“I think I know a herb in the merry green wood,
That’ll twine the babe from thee, Lady,
That’ll twine the babe from thee.

Then Margaret’s taken up her silver comb,
Made haste to comb her hair.
And away she’s run to the merry green wood,
As fast as she could tear, me boys,
As fast as she could tear.

But she hadn’t plucked a herb in that merry green wood,
A herb as any one,
When by her stood young Tam Lin
Saying, “Margaret, leave it alone, alone,
Oh, Margaret, leave it alone.”

“Oh how can you pluck that bitter little herb,
That herb that grows so gray,
To take away that sweet babe’s life,
That we got in our play, me love,
That we got in our play?”

“Oh, tell me the truth, young Tam Lin,” she said
“If an earthly man you be?”
“I’ll tell you no lies, Lady Margaret,” he said.
“I was christened the same as thee, Lady,
I was christened the same as thee.”

“But as I rode out one cold and bitter morn,
From off my horse I fell,
And the Queen of Elfland, she took me
In yon green hill to dwell, to dwell,
In yon green hill to dwell.”

“But tonight it is the Halloween,
When the elfen court must ride.
So if you would your true love win,
By the old mill bridge you must bide, me love,
By the old mill bridge you must bide.”

“And first will come the black horse, and then come by the brown,
And then come by the white.
And you’ll hold it fast, and fear it not,
And it will not you affright, me love,
And it will not you affright.

“And first they will change me, all in your arms,
Into many a beast so wild.
But you’ll hold me fast, and fear me not.
I’m the father of your child, you know,
I’m the father of your child.”

Then Margaret’s taken up her silver comb,
Made haste to comb her hair.
And away she’s run to the old mill bridge,
As fast as she could tear, me boys,
As fast as she could tear!

Then in the dead hour of the night,
She’s heard the harness ring,
And, oh, me boys, it chilled her heart
More than any mortal thing it did,
More than any mortal thing!

And first come by the black horse, and then come by the brown,
And then raced by the white,
And she’s held it fast and feared it not,
And it did not her affright me boys,
It did not her affright!

The thunder roared across the sky,
And the stars they blazed like day!
And the Queen of Elfland gave a thrilling cry,
“Oh young Tam Lin’s away, away,
Oh young Tam Lin’s away!”

And then they have changed him all in her arms,
To a lion that roared so wild!
But she’s held it fast and feared it not,
‘Twas the father of her child, she knew,
‘Twas the father of her child.

And then they have changed him all in her arms,
Into a loathsome snake.
But she’s held it fast, and feared it not.
It was one of God’s own make, she knew,
It was one of God’s own make.

And then they have changed him all in her arms,
To a red hot bar of iron!
But she’s held it fast, and feared it not,
And it did to her no harm, me boys,
And it did to her no harm.

And the last they have changed him, all in her arms,
Was to a naked man,
And she’s flung her mantle over him,
And cried, “Me love, I’ve won, I’ve won!”
And cried, “Me love, I’ve won!”

Then outen spoke the Queen of Elfenland,
From the bush wherein she stood,
Saying, “I should have torn out your eyes, Tam Lin,
And put in two eyes of wood, of wood,
And put in two eyes of wood!”

            After I had finished, Molly Bledsoe Ellis came over to the table where I was sitting, and asked why I sing that song — or, more specifically why do I sing it that way, as it includes an instance of rape (verse 5), followed by the implication that the victim takes the perpetrator to be her “true love” (verse 6).  I could only respond that I sing it that way because that is the way I learned it. I recognize that the depiction is problematic, but many of the old songs we sing have such problems. I do not condone all of the acts that take place in the songs that I sing. She suggested that lines could be changed to rid the song of the offending acts, and I responded that it is sometimes difficult to do that while still preserving the substance of the song, but I would take a close look at it. The issue provoked a long discussion, and we sang very few songs after that.  But it was a good discussion, with most people feeling that it is a very important issue, but also with some feeling that songs need to be preserved as they’ve come to us, warts and all.

I might also add that while I sing mostly traditional songs, I am not a traditional purist. I do sometimes make small changes to songs, to “improve” them (at least in my mind). I have also made changes that respond to just the issue raised. For example, I sometimes sing the song “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a song about an outlaw who complains that he would rather die than rot in some prison cell. Some versions of the song tell what some of his crimes were, but the one I sing does not. The version I learned, however does have a verse that goes: “Lulu, oh Lulu, open up that door, before I have to open it with my old 44.”  I take these lines to be very typically referring to domestic violence. She fears him, and does not want to let him in, while he threatens to break in, with a gun. I do not sing that verse, and I think the song is just fine without it. I might also note that the late Utah Phillips, a great songwriter, never performed one of his more famous songs, “Rock Salt & Nails”, because it was written in anger in his younger days, and implies violence against women.

So I promised that I would take a serious look at the song to see how some words might be changed to remove the problematic issues while still preserving the substance of the story. At first, I did not think it would be easy. The substance of the song, as I take it, is that Margaret meets Tam Lin while picking flowers in the wood. Tam Lin tells her that she needs his permission to pick the flowers, and she responds that the wood was given to her by her father, so she does not need his permission. With that, Tam Lin responds by raping her, but then promptly disappears when she turns “to ask her true love’s name.”  She then becomes pregnant, and one of her serving maids advises her of an herb that would cause an abortion, and she rushes to the wood again to find it. There, Tam Lin appears again, and tells her not to pick the herb, presenting another problematic line: how can she “take away that sweet babe’s life, that we got in our play?” She then asks who he is, and he tells her that he was a human, but was kidnapped by the elf queen, and made a changeling. But he also tells her that it is Halloween, and the elf court will make an appearance, presenting the opportunity for her to rescue him, if she can seize him when he passes (as a horse), and hold on to him through many trials. This she does, as he is changed from a horse to a lion, a snake, a red hot bar of iron, and finally to a naked man.

Now I have long seen this tale to be a metaphor for giving birth. She has been impregnated by a person she does not know, considers aborting the child, but eventually goes through with the birth — the trials she faces representing her difficult labor, finalized by her holding in her arms a naked man (the child), whom she covers with her mantle and cries “I’ve won!” Tam Lin is both the father and the child. That is simply my interpretation, but I do see some essentials here: she meets Tam Lin, has an argument with him, and then is impregnated by him. It is standard belief these days that rape is not so much a sexual act, as an expression of power and violence, and that follows from the argument, which is why I thought it might be difficult to turn the sex act into one of consent. Nor did I see how one could simply leave out the sex act altogether, as my own interpretation of the song depends on her being pregnant.

So I began by looking at the various versions of the song in Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Boston: Houghton & Mifflin, 1882-1889; reprinted by Dover Publications, 1965). “Tam Lin” is Child no. 39, and he presents 10 versions in volume 1, p. 335-358, with the 10th in the “Additions and Corrections,” p. 507-508. It was interesting to see that versions A and B both lack the offending verses, although their place is taken by a line of asterisks, which as far as I can see are unexplained. My assumption is that these verses were left out in the original publications that Child drew from because of their scandalous nature. Both versions have her become pregnant, but there is no explanation of how. Version C has no pregnancy at all. Version D has the song much as my version goes, with the verses:

He took her by the milk-white hand, And by the grass green sleeve,
And laid her low down on the flowers, At her he asked no leave.

The lady blushed, and sourly frowned, And she did think great shame;
Says, “If you were a gentleman, You will tell me your name.”

He tells her his former name as well as the present name he carries in the “fairy court”, and the verse about the herb follows immediately:

“So do not pluck that flower, lady, That has these pimples gray;
They would destroy the bonny babe That we got in our play.”

Version E has no sex act and no pregnancy. Version F has a thinly implied sex act and a resulting pregnancy.  Version G has the rape, much as in my version and Version D, along with the later verse that mentions the “bonny bairn That we got in our play.” Version H does not have the sex act, but like A and B, has a row of asterisks where the verses might be. Version I has an interesting take:

He’s taen her by the milk-white hand,
Among the leaves sae green,
And what they did I cannot tell,
The green leaves were between.

He’s taen her by the milk-white hand,
Among the roses red,
And what they did I cannot say,
She neer returnd a maid.

So, here there is no implication that the sex act was non-consensual, even though it follows the earlier argument between the two characters. Version J is a mere fragment, and has no relevance.

I did some looking about online to see what I might find, and came upon this fine website, all about the ballad. The site contains analysis of many different versions, and prints those versions, including all of the Child versions, as well as those sung by Frankie Armstrong, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Ewan MacColl, Ann Briggs, Anais Mitchell, and many others. So I will do no further analysis here.

What I will do is to suggest a change that would rid my own version (or Frankie Armstrong’s version) of the offending parts without harming the substance of the story. One might simply substitute the verses from version I, so we have:

She said, “This little wood, it is me very own.
My father gave it me.
And I can pull these branches down,
Without the leave of thee young man,Without the leave of thee!”

He’s taen her by the milk-white hand,
Among the leaves sae green,
And what they did I cannot tell,
The green leaves were between.

He’s taen her by the milk-white hand,
Among the roses red,
And what they did I cannot say,
She neer returnd a maid.

And when it was done,
she’s turned herself about,
To ask her true love’s name.
But she’s nothing heard, and nothing saw,
And all the wood grew dim me boys,
And all the wood grew dim.

But this makes one wonder how they got from the argument over who has power over the wood to having a consensual sexual act.  I would like to have some sort of transition there, and perhaps it can come from the fact that she explains that she owns the wood. That might make him realize who she is, when he had not recognized her until then.

Then you must be Lady Margaret,
If this your forest be,
And I have long been in your thrall.
Would you come and lie with me lady,
Would you come and lie with me?

He’s taken her by the lily-white hand,
And by the grass greensleeve,
And they’ve lain among the flowers bright,
Upon a bed of leaves, me boys,
Upon a bed of leaves.

I am currently in the process of recording some of my favorite songs, and have already recorded Tam Lin, but I will go back into the studio and redo this one, with the new verses. They may change slightly before that happens. Meanwhile, if you do not mind hearing the original version, there is an older recording on this very website, under the Music tab.

I find this an acceptable change to make to the version that I sing, especially given the variation in the other versions I’ve found. It does not solve the problem as it exists in many other songs. The problem is a historical one, and in fact it persists today. In some places, it is still common to force a rapist to marry his victim. It is a problem that stems from seeing women as property, and applying the rule that if you break it you own it. Another song that I have sung, “The Knight and the Shepherd’s Daughter,” is about just that. It tells the tale of a young woman out walking who is raped by a passing knight. She follows him to the king’s castle and tells the king what happened. The king responds that, if she can identify the culprit he will mete out the appropriate punishment. If he is married, he will be hanged, if he is single, he must marry her. She does identify him, and “wins” her case by forcing her rapist to marry her. I have not sung this song for a long time, and I don’t see how I could “fix” it. She is already the “victor” in the story, but it is a Pyrrhic victory. These songs come down to us from times that had very different ideas of morality, equality, and many other things. We preserve them for the sake of some of the qualities they have, and in spite of some of the others. On the other hand, I will continue to sing one of my favorites, “The Outlandish Knight,” which is a standard murder ballad turned inside out when the young woman tricks her would-be murderer and kills him instead. I do not condone killing but can approve of it in self-defense. Moreover, the irony is seductive, especially when he asks her to save him from drowning, and she responds:

Lie there, lie there, you false young man!
Lie there instead of me!
It’s six foolish maids have you drowned in here.
Go keep them good company!


Painting: Zazněná (Bemused), by Wilhelm Bernatzik, 1898. (Brno, Moravskie Galerie Brno)

I just posted this on the Brown University Library site.  I think it is worth posting here, as well.   The original is on the “Brown University Library News“.

A Printed Book Once Owned by Bernardo Bembo

AmB 230--271-inscription

Cecil Clough once noted that we can learn much about the life and travels of Bernardo Bembo from the books he owned, especially “because of his tendency … to make biographical jottings in his manuscripts.”[1] In another remark in the same article, he states that “interestingly enough there is no printed book that certainly can be associated with Bernardo’s library.”[2] Now, thanks to Bernardo’s well-known habit, we can say that the second statement is no longer true.

The Annmary Brown Collection at the Brown University Library holds a copy of Augustine’s De civitate dei printed in Venice by Johannes and Wendelin of Speyer in 1470.[3] The colophon to this edition notes that the printers come from Speyer. In the margin next to that colophon, is an inscription noting that two persons were passing by Speyer on the Rhine and decided to sign this book. The inscription reads: “D. Justus et B. Bemb. dum é regione Urbis Spire essemus internavigantes M.ccc.lxxi. xviiii. augusti . librum Signavimus.”[4]

The date was 19 August 1471, the year after this book was printed in Venice. B. Bemb. is an abbreviation often used by Bernardo Bembo, who left Venice on 16 July to be the city’s ambassador to the Court of Burgundy.[5] But who was “D. Justus”, and could the book have belonged to this person rather than Bembo? The second question is more easily answered. There are many more marginal notations in the book, mostly taking the form of indexing. These marginalia were made by at least two hands, and one is identical to that in other books (manuscripts) known to have belonged to Bernardo, as are many of the other marks, such as manicules.[6] Moreover, on fol. 59v are the words of Bembo’s motto: Virtue & Honor.

AmB 230--059v

As for D. Justus, I would suggest two possibilities. The most likely is Giusto de Baliis da Lendinara, to whom Bembo wrote some letters, and who was mentioned in others.[7] Another possibility, but less likely, is Justus of Ghent, a contemporary painter. Justus of Ghent (or Joos van Wassenhoven) painted for the Duke of Montefeltro, having left Ghent for Italy in 1469 or 1470, and known to have been in Urbino between 1472 and 1474 working on his masterpiece, the Communion of the Apostles.[8]

At any rate, the volume merits more study, and is available in the John Hay Library at Brown University. To make an appointment to view the book, email specialcollections@brown.edu.

[1] Cecil H. Clough, “The Library of Bernardo and of Pietro Bembo,” The Book Collector 33 (1984): 302-331. This remark is on p. 312.

[2] Clough, p. 313. Clough mentions, in a footnote, that he had earlier believed four printed books to be attributed to Bernardo’s library, but now rejects them. It should be noted, however, that a book published just a year later attributes two other printed books to Bernardo’s library. See Nella Giannetto, Bernardo Bembo, umanista e politico veneziano (Florence: Olschki, 1985), p. 356-357.

[3] Augustine, De civitate dei (Venice: Johannes and Vindelinus de Spira, 1470), John Hay Library, Annmary Brown 230. ISTC: ia01233000.

[4] This inscription was pointed out to me by my student assistant, Caroline Hughes (now Gruenbaum), while assisting me in recording interesting features of the collection.

[5] Giannetto, Bernardo Bembo, p. 27.

[6] For manicules, including the characteristic manicules of Bembo, see William H. Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), esp. pages 35-36.

[7] Giannetto, Bernardo Bembo, p. 29, 401-402, 408.

[8] Jacques Lavalleye, Juste de Gand: peintre de Frédéric de Montefeltre (Louvain: Bibliothèque de L’Université, 1936), p 40-50. Would Justus of Ghent have travelled back to the Low Countries in 1471? Little is known for certain of his travels, but he would have been known by humanists such as Bernardo, and they could have travelled together.

     I am the moderator (or “list-owner”) of a long standing online discussion list on medieval history (MEDIEV-L).   One prominent participant on that list is Bernard Bachrach, of the University of Minnesota, an authority on the early Middle Ages, particularly the Merovingian and Carolingian periods.   Almost any time that a discussion touches on the theory or philosophy of history, Professor Bachrach is known to advise people to read R. G. Collingwood.   After many years of this, I was finally compelled to do so.   R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943), like Benedetto Croce (who influenced him), was both a historian and a philosopher, and his works on the philosophy of history can be found in a reedition of his The Idea of History, revised edition, with Lectures 1926-1928, edited with an introduction by Jan Van der Dussen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).   The Idea of History was first published posthumously in 1946. Here are some quotations from his writings, and a few of my own observations in response.


Collingwood describes history as “a kind of research or inquiry … [into] res gestae, actions of human beings that have been done in the past.” (p. 9)   But his is no Rankean idea of history. He is not interested in history “as it actually happened”, for even if we could know that, it is not really very interesting. For Collingwood, history is not simply an account of what people did, which is mere chronicle. “For the historian there is no difference between discovering what happened and discovering why it happened.” (p. 177)   “What the historian is looking for is … processes of thought. All history is the history of thought.” (p. 215)


Collingwood takes this to an extreme, as for him, “all history is the re-enactment of past thought in the historian’s own mind.” (p. 215)   The historian is not interested in events in themselves, nor even in their causes but in the thought that lies behind the events. “The cause of the event, for him, means the thought in the mind of the person by whose agency the event came about: and this is not something other than the event, it is the inside of the event itself.” (p. 214-215)   History, for Collingwood, is quite a subjective endeavor. “What particular parts and aspects of the past we now recall by historical thought depends on our present interests and attitudes towards life…” (p. 203)


Much of the scholarship of history Collingwood rejects as what “Croce calls philological history. As thus misconceived, history consists in accepting and preserving testimony, and the writing of history consists in transcribing, translating, and compiling. Such work is useful, but it is not history; there is no criticism, no interpretation, no reliving of past experience in one’s own mind!” (p. 204)   Surely these actions that Collingwood describes as transcribing, translating, and compiling are more than useful – they are essential to the work of history, but I would agree that they are not the object of history. I would agree with Collingwood that we are trying not simply to know what happened in the past. History is more than a list of facts and events. We want to understand what happened, and for Collingwood that means getting inside the head of the actors. “Unlike the natural scientist, the historian is not concerned with events as such at all. he is only concerned with those events which are the outward expression of thoughts…” (p. 217)


It is interesting to see how Collingwood treats historical sources. In his Lectures, he makes a statement with which almost any historian would agree: “We depend in history, on sources, we do not depend on authorities: that is, we are not at the mercy of our informants’ knowledge and veracity.” (p. 392) But in The Idea, he goes much farther: “… far from relying on an authority other than himself, to whose statements his thought must conform, the historian is his own authority and his thought autonomous, self-authorizing, possessed of a criterion to which his so-called authorities must conform and by reference to which they are criticized.” (p. 236)   Now, I would certainly agree with him on the rethinking of authorities as sources, and on the need to be critical in our use of them. But it seems to me to go a little too far to say that the historian’s own mind must be the authority. Rather, we need to compare the sources against each other, and against our own critical thought, bringing to bear any other knowledge that we might have. Yet I would agree with his final result of his reasoning, which is that “ … every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historian, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise those questions themselves.” (p. 248)   The mere compilation of “authorities” he describes as “scissors and paste history”, and credits Vico with putting forward the notion that “the important question about any statement contained in a source is not whether is is true or false, but what it means.” (p. 260)


Collingwood’s notion of what history is has implications for the proper subject of history. The subject of history is “that which can be re-enacted in the historian’s mind.” (p. 302) It is not nature, not experience, not “even thought itself”.   Biography is not history, nor is autobiography. This might seem somewhat inconsistent with his philosophy, as he says “the record of immediate experience with its flow of sensation and feelings faithfully preserved in a diary or recalled in a memoir, is not history.” (p. 304)   He does not fully explain why not (perhaps because it is too subjective), but it would certainly seem to be an aid to getting into the thought of an actor. He is also somewhat inconsistent in saying that “even thought itself, in its immediacy as the unique act of thought with its unique context in the life of an individual thinker, is not the object of historical knowledge.” (p. 303) But later he writes: “Historical knowledge, then, has for its proper object thought: not things thought about, but the act of thought itself.” (p. 305)   He also concludes: “This amounts to asking whether there can be a history of memory or perception. And it is clear that there cannot.” (p. 305)   This would come as a surprise to many historians today who work on those very topics.


What does Collingwood have to say about some common issues in historical thought? Progress: “The idea of history as a progress from primitive times to the present day was, to those who believed in it, a simple consequence that their historical outlook was limited to the recent past.” (p. 328).   Human nature: “It is the task of the historian to discover what principles guided the persons whose action he is studying, and not to assume that these have always been the same.” (p. 475) (Compare to the idea of Ortega y Gasset, mentioned in my earlier post.) Judgment and history: Here again, he is inconsistent. In one place, he writes: “True history must be absolutely passionless, absolutely devoid of all judgments of value of whatever kind.” (p. 402) His rationale for this is that those events are past and gone and to pass judgment on them is futile. We cannot change them by judging them. Yet, elsewhere he writes: “All history is tendentious, and if it were not tendentious nobody would write it. At least nobody except bloodless pedants, who mistake the materials of history for history itself, and think they are historians when they are only scholars.” (p. 398)


Now it may not be fair to expect Collingwood to be completely consistent in his philosophy of history, since all of these writings were compiled over a period of time, and only published after his death. He did not have the opportunity to reconcile them.   Overall, I find these writings to be a very thoughtful encounter with the idea of historical knowledge, and well worth reading and thinking about for those of us who do historical research, and even for those who just like to read history. In the end, I think his greatest idea is that the object of history is not simply to discover what happened, but also why it happened, by getting into the thoughts of the actors. That is the true goal. And it is really for one purpose: to help us to understand the present. “The purpose of history is to enable us to know (and therefore to act relatively to) the present.” (p. 406)   For this reason, present concerns must drive our study of history. “All history is contemporary history.” (p. 202)

Yet, probably the most interesting idea he puts forth is that the historian must “reenact” history in his own mind. That is what brings true understanding.   This is an idea that merits more discussion.   My thanks to Professor Bachrach for inspiring me to read this.


Read this in December of 2013.   A short work, translation of De Commodis litterarum atque incommodis.  More accurate translation would be On the usefulness and uselessness of scholarship.

The short work, written sometime between 1428 and 1430 and dedicated to Alberti’s elder brother, Carlo, is a long diatribe complaining about the poor regard that society has for scholars.  Scholars, he says, should be the most revered people, but instead they are disdained.  Their work is considered useless, it does not pay, and it leads in the long run to penury and illness.  One must wonder what Carlo, who took over the family’s business thought of all this.
Overall, I find his arguments rather tedious, especially with all their classism and sexism, but there are a couple of passages that stand out for their resonance even today:
“Yet, at present the crowd is more pleased with malice than with righteousness, with deception, frivolity, and insolence than with humane and modest conduct, and it is the crowd without whose approval the man of learning can never escape poverty.  The crowd, unable itself to beat the cunning bent on conquest and pillage with which their masters enter into lawsuits, when they see schemer colliding with schemer, glorify the one who wins by more successful scheming.  This, if an unscrupulous learned legalist takes up an unjust case, they will call him a great master, the best of men, and a great friend.  They have come to think deception a virtue, they admire the art of creating a mask and a false image as a remarkable mobilization of knowledge, and they believe that malice and wickedness and deliberate misinformation are derived from recondite knowledge.  When a man is good and just and holy, when he argues cases for the merit they have in terms of justice and equity, when he stands for law and truth, not employing deceit and audacious lies, not shifting his allegiance at will, not hoping to win for the sake of money, but fighting for the sake of honor, they call him useless, ignorant, and a loser of cases.”  (p. 36)
“But let us return to our populace, who have always given the highest honors to gold and wealth.  Indeed, it is no mystery why the crowd is moved, not so much by virtue as by outward splendor.  For the ignorant are attracted by the things they can see with their eyes while those things that can and ought to enlighten them do not move them.  So the ignorant desire the riches they can see and disregard the wisdom they do not have, follow after property and despise virtue.”  (p. 47)
Leon Battista Alberti, The Use and Abuse of Books (De commodis litterarum atque incommodis), translation and introduction by Renee Neu Watkins (Project Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1999).    @RPB: PA8450.A5U84x 1999
Have things changed very much?
A couple of years ago I finally read Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism, and although I agreed with much of it, I disagreed with his use of the term itself.  I have described myself as a radical historicist, because I believe that all knowledge is based on history.  In this I agree very much with Jose Ortega y Gasset, in his History as a System, in which he says that the social sciences are dedicated to discovering the nature of man, but they are mistaken because man has no nature, he has history.   The key, for me, is that human beings have free will, and are able to make decisions that may be unintuitive.  So I agree with Popper that history cannot be used to make predictions about the future.  But all that we know about people is based on history, and it is what we have to go on.
Popper, however, uses the term historicism to mean the opposite:  historicists, for him, believe in formulating laws of history, and using them to predict future behavior.   What he means by historicism is really Marxian historical materialism, to which he is very much opposed.
I was pleased to read in Peter Skagestad’s Making Sense of History: the Philosophies of Popper and Collingwood (Oslo, 1975), that Popper uses the term historicism in his own way, and not in its conventional meaning.  So I am not alone in objecting to this usage.  In fact, Popper has little to say about the writing of history itself — he really is addressing the social sciences, particularly sociology and economics.  He has only a brief aside about the craft of history.  So, I remain a historcist, but not Popper’s type of historicist.
(I should note that I greatly admire Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, and would highly recommend it.)
More recently, I have read Collingwood’s The Idea of History, to see where he stands.  I had long wanted to read this, and will post some thoughts on it soon.