New Books: Comic Old Men, Rome, and the "Memory Boom"

Old Age, Masculinity, and Early Modern Drama: Comic Elders on the Italian and Shakespearean Stage by Anthony Ellis. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009.

Ellis is an English professor at Western Michigan University, where he teaches Shakespeare and other Renaissance literature. He also serves as the associate editor of the journal Comparative Drama.

The book jacket reads:

This first book-length study to trace the evolution of the comic old man in Italian and English Renaissance comedy shows how English dramatists adopted and reimagined an Italian model to reflect native concerns about and attitudes toward growing old.

Anthony Ellis provides an in-depth study of the comic old man in the erudite comedy of sixteenth-century Florence; the character's parallel development in early modern Venice, including the commedia dell'arte; and, along with a consideration of Anglo-Italian intertextuality, the character's subsequent flourishing on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. In outlining the character's development, Ellis identifies and describes the physical and behavioral characteristics of the comic old man and situates these traits within early modern society by considering prevailing medical theories, sexual myths, and intergenerational conflict over political and economic circumstances. The plays examined include Italian dramas by Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena, Niccol├▓ Machiavelli, Donato Giannotti, Lorenzino de' Medici, Andrea Calmo, and Flaminio Scala, and English works by William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Thomas Dekker, along with Middleton, Rowley, and Heywood's The Old Law. Besides providing insight into stage representations of aging, this book illuminates how early modern people conceived of and responded to the experience of growing old and its social, economic, and physical challenges.

The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000 by Chris Wickham. London: Penguin Group, 2009.

Chris Wickham is a professor of Medieval history at Oxford University. He is the author and translator of several books on Medieval Europe.

Christopher Kelly’s review in The Literary Review:

[Wickham’s] central tactic is to decouple the Middle Ages from both the Roman Empire and early modern Europe. It is to be treated as a period in its own right: not as a long and tedious intermission stretching between the high summer of the classical world and its supposed rediscovery in the Renaissance. Wickham's aim is to write a history that is neither overshadowed by the break-up of the Roman Empire, nor driven by a concern to find the origins of European liberalism, democracy or the nation state.

[...] The Inheritance of Rome begins in the West with the establishment of new, post-Roman states in France, Spain, Italy, Britain and Ireland. It then turns eastwards. Here the surviving half of the Roman Empire, with its capital at Byzantium, continued to defend its hold on the eastern Mediterranean, with less success from the eighth century when it faced an aggressive and dynamic Arab state. The history of the 'Abbasid Caliphate is hardly ever included in conventional histories of Europe. It is one of the most rewarding pay-offs of this comparative project that Wickham places cultural and political developments in the Islamic world from AD 750 against the better known histories of Charlemagne in Francia (768-814) and Alfred the Great in England (871-899).

[...] The Inheritance of Rome is made up of a series of beautifully drawn miniatures presented without jaunty modern parallels and without the currently fashionable self-indulgence of trying to imagine 'what it was like to be there'. Rather, it is the differences from our own experiences that animate much of Wickham's understanding of the medieval Christian and Islamic worlds: these are sophisticated societies without liberalism, secularism or toleration, and which regarded social hierarchy, servility to superiors and the inferiority of women as normal and morally defensible.

[...] The test of the historian is to capture the foreignness of the past without resorting to ridicule, disapproval or dislike. The challenge is to engage the interest of the reader without compromising the disorienting sense of the strangely unfamiliar. This is the outstanding achievement of The Inheritance of Rome. In a supremely humane and intelligent book Chris Wickham has presented medieval Europe in all its vivid richness and variety - without for a moment ever wanting to be there.”

Remembering War: The Great War between History and Memory in the 20th Century Jay Winter. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006.

Jay Winter is a history professor at Yale University. He is a World War I specialist, who is particularly interested in how the war impacted the 20th century.

Daniel Todman’s review in Biography:

“[...] [The book] focuses on the 'memory boom'—the recent exponential growth in interest in memory within and without the academy, which Winter argues is predicated on the need to remember war and its victims. The subtitle has a threefold meaning. The ‘Great War’ is the First World War, from which many trends in ‘modern memory’ emerged; the struggle between the need to remember and the historical inevitability of forgetting; and the battle between the way the past is interpreted by historians and by those who claim possession of it through personal experience or familial connection.

The first [section of the book] discusses the creation of a persistent theme in twentieth century culture. The First World War encouraged a fusion between war and memory: it was the decisive event that turned war into ‘everybody's business.’ Yet the breadth of traumatic experience also challenged assumptions about memory and identity: hence the popularity of ‘shell-shock’ as an interpretative metaphor. The second section focuses on how memory and remembrance worked at the level of individuals and communities and across nations. Winter examines specific examples of photographs, published letters, reportage and memoir, and war memorials themselves.

[...] The third section of the book examines the representation of war and history—on film, on the television screen, and in museums. It concludes by emphasizing the way in which ‘witnessing’ has become crucial not just to how individuals remember and societies construct remembrance, but to the creation of historical authority.”

-Hannah Jarrett '12

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