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Modern History

This category contains 14 posts

The Fame Game

Every Friday morning, postmasters in the United States send out over a million copies of ‘US Weekly’ to subscribers. ‘US Weekly’ is only one of many periodicals that report, and sometimes fabricate, events in the lives of the rich and famous. Where does this cult of celebrity come from? Fred Inglis, in his ‘Short History of Celebrity’, traces the historical origins of celebrity in the modern sense to eighteenth-century London — according to Inglis, ‘the first city to construct itself as a city in a form that would prove recognizable to modernity’. Inglis’s narrative quickly moves from London’s aristocracy and the arcades of Paris to the money- and gossip-obsessed New York of the Gilded Age. Somewhat problematically, according to reviewer Alex Prescott-Couch, he extends his analysis of ‘supreme celebrities’ to the quintessential 20th-century dictators Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. While he may have overshot the mark in this respect and while some attempts at conceptual disaggregation might have been in order, Inglis manages to draw the reader into tales of the rich and fabulous, while at the same providing much elegantly written material for a closer analysis of the phenomenon of celebrity.

Tracing the Origins of Islamophobia

Recent polls conducted by a number of polling institutes indicate that, in the minds of Germans and Europeans, Islam – more than any other religion – is associated with negative feelings. A recent edited volume, ‘Islamfeindlichkeit – Wenn die Grenzen der Kritik verschwimmen’ (roughly: ‘Islamophobia: When the Limits of Criticism become Blurred’), traces the origins of these negative connotations, along with more recent expressions of resentment towards a visible presence of Muslims in Western societies. But, argues reviewer Mohammed Khallouk, the book may also be read as a manifesto for cultural dialogue, with the goal of finding a consensus on values.

What Can Be Learnt From Piracy

What drives the recent resurgence of piracy, especially in the Gulf of Aden and along other major trade routes? In a recent book, Peter T. Leeson argues that by examining the piracy that reached its peak between the end of the seventeenth and the early eighteenth century, and preyed on the major trade routes, one may hope to get a clearer understanding of modern piracy. Leeson, writes reviewer Daniele Archibugi, adopts a thoroughgoingly economic perspective, according to which pirates have historically aimed at obtaining the maximum result with the least effort and above all minimum risk. The prospect of high profits, together with strict rules for social organisation and a striking commitment to principles of equality, made piracy a lucrative and attractive profession in the arly 18th century – with one important downside: when captured, pirates would almost always be hanged.

God’s Executioner

A sixteenth-century journal kept by Frantz Schmidt, a Nuremberg executioner, affords a rare insight into the gruesome world of early modern retribution. But, says author and historian Joel Harrington, beyond the facticity of all the deaths caused by “Meister Frantz”, the journal also throws light on early modern concepts of identity, social status, and the human body as well as on the development of both the picaresque and autobiographical genres. As Meister Frantz grows in both professional and storytelling experience, his accounts of the various unfortunates he encounters become both more colourful and more revealing of his inner world. Consequently, the journal unveils not so much a detailed portrait as a vivid sketch of the moral cosmology of a sixteenth-century executioner.