Tag Archives: literature

The first Nobel

(First in Literature, that is)


At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Nobel Prize Committee decided to look beyond the sciences, and start awarding annual Nobel Prizes in Literature. The first prize was to be awarded in 1901. There wasn’t much question who deserved it. Leo Tolstoy was still alive. He was not only the greatest novelist ever, probably, but also an imposing moral figure, a champion of passive resistance. (He would eventually inspire Gandhi and Martin Luther King.) So the first Nobel Prize in Literature went to …

Sully Prudhomme

No, I haven’t read anything of his. I doubt I ever will.

Next year they could still have awarded the prize to Tolstoy, although it would have been pretty embarrassing to have him getting it only after Prudhomme. So instead the prize went to the historian Theodore Mommsen. Thus began a century-plus long tradition of hit-and-miss awards. In some years, the awardees were acknowledged great writers. In other years, the winners were less well-known, but arguably merited the wider recognition that came with the prize. But many of the choices – and omissions – were just plain weird.

In response to all these wasted opportunities, Ted Gioia, musician, music historian, and author, offered his own list of authors who should have gotten the prize, year by year, with a generous representation of popular writers as well as more literary ones (and one of each in 1966). Looking over his choices, I might disagree with this one or that one, but I certainly couldn’t have done any better. Here’s a link to The Nobel Prize in Literature from an Alternative Universe.





Charles Lyell’s great work, Principles of Geology, came out between 1831 and 1833. Lyell advocated an uncompromising uniformitarianism: the same geological forces at work today, causing small changes over the course of lifetimes, were at work in the past, causing massive changes over the course of geological ages. We’ve seen over the course of this blog that uniformitarianism is not a completely reliable guide either to geology or to human history, which have been punctuated often enough by catastrophes – asteroid strikescontinent-scale floodsvolcanic eruptions, and devastating wars and plagues. But the theory is nonetheless at least part of the story of history, and Lyell’s work was deservedly influential.

In 1837 Charles Darwin, a careful reader of Lyell, published a short article entitled On the Formation of Mould. This would eventually led to his last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. Darwin’s work on soil formation was Lyellianism in miniature. He demonstrated, through a combination of careful reasoning and experiment, that the surface layer of pasture soil is formed by earthworms. “Although the conclusion may appear at first startling, it will be difficult to deny the probability that every particle of earth forming the bed from which the turf in old pasturelands springs, has passed through the intestines of worms.” Reading Darwin on worms you get the feeling he identifies with his humble subjects, gradually remaking the world through their patient industry.

The doctrine of progress through gradual change was appealing not just for scientific reasons. In the 1830s, English liberals (of whom Darwin was one) were attempting to reform their society gradually, without the violence of the French Revolution, and without turning over politics to a Great Man in the style of Napoleon. (Darwin was also a gradualist with regard to his own work: he came up with the theory of natural selection in 1838, but England at the time wasn’t ready for anything so radical, and he didn’t publish On The Origin of Species for another twenty years.)

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), a friend of Darwin’s, set her greatest novel, Middlemarch, around the time of the Reform Act of 1832, which moved England one big step closer to a genuinely representative government. The novel’s heroine, Dorothea Brooke, might in another age have been a famous saint, another Theresa of Avila. In the England of her time she has another fate. Here is the famous conclusion of the novel, a paean to gradualism and the cumulative force of small deeds:

Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

After Blenheim

With the death of Charles II the throne of Spain was up for grabs, and the French attempt to install a Bourbon (Louis XIV’s grandson) led to the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). The “famous victory” of the English and Bavarians over the French at the Battle of Blenheim (1704) would later (1796) be the subject of a famous anti-war poem by Robert Southey

It was a summer evening,
Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door
Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round,
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.

Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
And, with a natural sigh,
”Tis some poor fellow’s skull,’ said he,
‘Who fell in the great victory.

‘I find them in the garden,
For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men,’ said he,
‘Were slain in that great victory.’

‘Now tell us what ’twas all about,’
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
‘Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.’

‘It was the English,’ Kaspar cried,
‘Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for,
I could not well make out;
But everybody said,’ quoth he,
‘That ’twas a famous victory.

‘My father lived at Blenheim then,
Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.

‘With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

‘They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.

‘Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
And our good Prince Eugene.’
‘Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!’
Said little Wilhelmine.
‘Nay… nay… my little girl,’ quoth he,
‘It was a famous victory.

‘And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.’
‘But what good came of it at last?’
Quoth little Peterkin.
‘Why that I cannot tell,’ said he,
‘But ’twas a famous victory.’


Contact between the Old World and the New was a disaster for the latter. Conquest, mass killing, and enslavement were part of the story, but even more important was the introduction of a whole slew of epidemic diseases – measles, tetanus, typhus, typhoid, diphtheria, influenza, pneumonia, whooping cough, dysentery, and smallpox.

The flow of diseases wasn’t entirely one way. In Europe, syphilis is first recorded  in Naples, in 1495. It almost certainly came from the Americas, brought back with Columbus’s crew. Columbus himself may have been an early victim. In the Americas, syphilis may have been spread largely through skin contact, but the Old World version was mostly sexually transmitted. The disease initially showed itself in spectacular, gruesome boils and skin lesions, and killed quickly, but eventually evolved to a more slowly progressing version that left victims alive for decades while gradually destroying their circulatory and nervous systems, often ending in insanity.


What syphilis was called before it was called syphilis

Deborah Hayden’s book Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis is a popular overview of the subject. Part of the book is given over to identifying likely cases in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of course retrospective diagnosis is difficult, a matter of probabilities, not certainties, but Hayden argues that there is good evidence for syphilis for each of the following:

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Franz Schubert
  • Jane Austen*
  • Robert Schumann
  • Charles Baudelaire
  • Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln
  • Gustave Flaubert
  • Guy de Maupassant
  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen)
  • James Joyce
  • Adolf Hitler **

* Just kidding

** He reportedly tested negative for syphilis on the Wassermann test, but Hayden notes that the test isn’t very reliable for the later stages of the disease.



Toward the year 1000, the Scandinavians, under Leif Eriksson, reached the coast of America. No one bothered them, but one morning (as Erik the Red’s Saga tells it) many men disembarked from canoes made of leather and stared at them in a kind of stupor. “They were dark and very ill-looking, and the hair on their heads was ugly; they had large eyes and broad cheeks.” The Scandinavians gave them the name of skraelingar, inferior people. Neither the Scandinavians nor the Eskimos [sic; probably Beothuk Indians] knew that the moment was historic; America and Europe looked on each other in all innocence. A century later, disease and the inferior people had done away with the colonists. The annals of Iceland say: “In 1121, Erik, bishop of Greenland, departed in search of Vinland.” We know nothing of his fate; both the bishop and Vinland (America) were lost.

Viking epitaphs are scattered across the face of the earth on runic stones. … Conversely, Greek and Arab coins and gold chains and old jewels brought from the Orient are often discovered in Norway.

After a century, the Normans (men of the North) who, under Rolf, settled in the province of Normandy and gave it their name, had forgotten their language, and were speaking French.

[Before 1200] the Icelanders had written the first sagas, which are realism in its most perfect form. … William Paton Ker wrote: “The great achievement of the older world in its final days was in the prose histories of Iceland, which had virtue enough in them to change the whole world, if they had only been known and understood.”

These facts suffice, in my understanding, to define the strange and futile destiny of the Scandinavian people. In universal history, the wars and books of the Scandinavians are as if they had never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in the crystal balls where clairvoyants gaze. In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel – the art of Flaubert, the Norman – and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.

Jorge Luis Borges The Scandinavian Destiny 1953

More prosaically, Scandinavian adventurers traveled by ship. Their ships could cover great distances, but they were expensive, and not very large. They carried warriors and merchants, not large masses of peasant settlers. So the far-flung Scandinavian expansion would not leave the same footprint as, say, the earlier Slavic migrations to eastern and southeastern Europe. (See, again, Empires and Barbarians.)

Regarding language: Danish colonists in England introduced some vocabulary – skin and skill come from them; compare Anglo-Saxon hide and craft. But their main contribution to the language may have been negative. Anglo-Saxons and Danes learning each others’ languages dropped a lot of incompatible grammar (sort of like how my German vocabulary is OK, but I mess up genders and cases and so on). So English ended up with a simpler grammar than other Germanic languages. (At least that’s one theory.)

For more Vikingness, the traveling exhibition “Vikings: Beyond the Legend” is well worth checking out. It’s at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City until the end of the year.

And here’s the Hemingwayesque passage that Borges uses to illustrate the realism of the Icelandic sagas (from Grettir’s Saga)

Days before St. John’s Eve, Thorbjörn rode his horse to Bjarg. He had a helmet on his head, a sword in his belt, and a lance in his hand, with a very wide blade. At daybreak it rained. Among Atli’s serfs, some were reaping hay; others had gone fishing to the North, to Hornstrandir. Atli was in his house with a few other people. Thorbjörn arrived around midday. Alone, he rode to the door. It was closed and there was no one outside. Thorbjörn knocked and hid behind the house so as not to be seen from the door. The servants heard the knock and a woman went to open the door. Thorbjörn saw her but did not let himself be seen, because he had another purpose. The woman returned to the chamber. Atli asked who was outside. She said she had seen no one and as they were speaking of it, Thorbjörn pounded forcefully.

Then Atli said: “Someone is looking for me and bringing a message that must be very urgent.” He opened the door and looked out: there was no one. By now it was raining very hard, so Atli did not go out; with a hand on the doorframe, he looked all around. At that moment, Thorbjörn jumped out and with both hands thrust the lance into the middle of his body.

As he took the blow, Atli said: “The blades they use now are so wide.” Then he fell face down on the threshold. The women came out and found him dead. From his horse, Thorbjörn shouted that he was the killer and returned home.

The fall of Troy

1360-1176 BCE

Those who had dreamed that force, thanks to progress, belonged only to the past, have been able to see in the Iliad a historical document; those who know how to see force, today as yesterday, at the center of all human history, can find there the most beautiful, the purest of mirrors.

Simone Weil, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” 1940-1941

Some things we know (probably) about Late Bronze Age Trojans and Greeks.

  • Troy is represented by the archeological site of Hisarlik, in Turkey near the Dardanelles. It covered over fifty acres and probably had a population in the high thousands. The kingdom of Troy was a client state of the Hittites, known to them as Wilusa (Greek Ilion).
  • Troy was devastated around 1300 BCE, probably by an earthquake, and again, just after 1200 BCE, by fire. There are earlier episodes of destruction as well.
  • The Hittites knew a kingdom to their west called Ahhiyawa. The Ahhiyawans were the people known to Homer as the “Achaians,” i.e. the Greeks. The Egyptians knew a kingdom to their north, beyond Kefta (= Crete = Biblical Kaphthor), called Danaja, whose chief cities match those of Mycenaean Greece. The Danajans probably correspond to the “Danaans,” an alternative Homeric name for the Achaians. Ahhiyawa/Danaja may have been a single state, with vassals under the rule of a “King of Kings,” capitol Mycenae.
  • Homer probably composed the Iliad in the eighth century BCE (762 BCE, give or take 50 years, according to recent research applying evolutionary models to the text). But he relied on sources – presumably earlier oral poems – that went back centuries earlier. The names he gives for the Greeks were not current in his own time. Many lines of his epics only scan if he was drawing on poetic formulas from a Bronze Age dialect of Greek. The cities he lists among those who contributed to the war effort match the Bronze Age better than his own time. And he is familiar with Bronze Age helmets and shields that had long since gone out of use.

So the story of the Trojan war dates back to the Bronze Age, and incorporates real geography and material culture. Just how true the story itself is less certain. It has had an enormous influence of course. Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that England’s first king was a descendant of refugees from fallen Troy. Sultan Mehmet II claimed to be avenging the Trojans when he conquered Constantinople in 1453.

There a many books on the Trojan War (apart from the ones by Homer). Here are some good ones.

And a remark on war in the lives of ants and men.

I, blockhead

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

Samuel Johnson

Today marks the end of a second full year of the Logarithmic History blog and twitter account. I plan to continue blogging and tweeting into another year, 2017, beginning on New Year’s Day with the Big Bang. Next year, like this year, most of my material will be recycled. However I’ll continue to add new stuff (word on the street is that there will be news about the Bell Beaker folk), and revise old stuff. I’ll also post occasionally about my academic work, even when it falls outside the bounds of “logarithmic history” strictly speaking; expect future posts on kinship and cognition, kin selection, and ethnic nepotism. I may also try to dragoon friends and colleagues into doing some guest posts as well. So this is a merry-go-round: I expect to see some old followers dropping off, and new people jumping on.

“Logarithmic History,” like so much else the internet, is the work of a blockhead, at least according to Doctor Johnson. It is a labor of love, provided free of charge. But I do make this request:


If you’ve enjoyed the blog and/or twitter account, whether you decide to stay or to go, please tell other people about it, and suggest that they might sign up.

Thank you!


And for New Year’s Eve, with the universe about to start up again tomorrow, this quotation from science fiction writer Jack Vance, which I used back when beer was invented (seven thousand years ago, on September 15), is appropriate again:

The waiter departed to fill the orders. He presently returned with four tankards, deftly served them around the table, then withdrew.

Maloof took up his tankard. “For want of a better toast, I salute the ten thousand generations of brewmasters who, through their unflagging genius, have in effect made this moment possible!”

“A noble toast,” cried Wingo. “Allow me to add an epilogue. At the last moments of the universe, with eternal darkness converging from all sides, surely someone will arise and cry out: ‘Hold back the end for a final moment, while I pay tribute to the gallant brewmasters who have provided us a pathway of golden glory down the fading corridors of time!’ And then, is it not possible that a bright gap will appear in the dark, through which the brewmasters are allowed to proceed, to build a finer universe?”

“It is as reasonable as any other conjecture,” said Schwatzendale. “But now.” The four saluted each other, tilted their tankards, and drank deep draughts.

Jack Vance Lurulu p. 181

Happy New Year!