Tag: history (page 1 of 15)

Sycamore Stump

There is, or rather was, a tree that symbolised the North East of England. Standing at a dip in the ground along Hadrian’s Wall called ‘Sycamore Gap’, it’s a tree I’ve visited many times with friends and family. Last year, when I walked the wall in 72 hours, it was a familiar touchstone.

Now the iconic 200 year-old tree, which featured in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, is gone. Felled by a 16 year-old in an act of wanton vandalism. On a World Heritage Site. Some people just want to watch the world burn.

It didn’t take long for someone to rename the place on Google Maps where the tree used to stand to ‘Sycamore Stump’. Hopefully they will build some kind of memorial to it. I do think it’s difficult for someone not from the region to understand just how important things like this are to one’s identity.

A 16-year-old boy has been arrested in northern England in connection with what authorities described as the “deliberate” felling of a famous tree that had stood for nearly 200 years next to the Roman landmark Hadrian’s Wall.


Photographs from the scene on Thursday showed the tree was cut down near the base of its trunk, with the rest of it lying on its side.

Northumbria Police said the teen was arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage. He was in police custody and assisting officers with their inquiries.


“This is an incredibly sad day,” police Superintendent Kevin Waring said. “The tree was iconic to the North East and enjoyed by so many who live in or who have visited this region.”

Source: ‘Incredibly sad day’: Teen arrested in England after felling ancient tree | Al Jazeera

Image: Oli Scarff / Agence France-Presse (taken from NYT article)

Bad historical maps

Like the author of this article, I love a good map. Whether it’s trekking across hills and mountains with an OS map, or looking through historical maps, there’s something enchanting about understanding territories.

The thing is, though, that maps are literally projections. They leave things out and therefore have to be interpreted. If the maps are out of date, or are being used in a way that’s anachronistic, that leads to a huge problem.

As a History teacher, I used to teach WWI but didn’t know that General von Schlieffen, the Chief of the German General Staff, was obsessed with Hannibal and the Battle of Cannae. Apparently he used stories and maps of how it played out to inform his strategy. The problem was that, not only did it happen a couple of millennia beforehand, but it probably didn’t even play out that way.

Maps like this are a big part of why I became a historian. I probably spent more time looking through the volumes of Colin McEvedy’s Penguin Atlas of History series than any other book when I was a kid…. There’s something beguiling about the thought that a simple arrangement of lines might explain the world — like seeing human history as an enormous game of Civilization 6. But of course, that’s also the problem with using maps as a way of understanding history. If you’re not careful, they go from being helpful tools to misleading simplifications.


In her book The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman argues that the memory of Cannae, which was passed down through a succession of military histories until it became a virtual obsession of strategists in the 19th century, helped push the world into an unimaginable catastrophe.

It did so by offering up a model of a “battle of annihilation” that Germany’s war planners believed they could unleash on France. At the head of these planers was General von Schlieffen, the Chief of the German General Staff. The map of Cannae haunted Schlieffen’s dreams.


Cannae was no vague inspiration. It was a direct model for Germany’s invasion of Belgium and France.


As the historian Martin Samuels pointed out in his article “the Reality of Cannae,” there is no archaeological evidence for the battle. Nor are there first-hand sources of any kind. Everything we know derives from accounts written sixty years or more after Cannae itself. Suffice to say, when Samuels dug into these sources, he found as many questions as answers. The detailed maps of movements at Cannae that decorated military strategy manuals for hundreds of years, in other words, were largely fanciful. Samuels calls Cannae “the most quoted and least understood battle” in history.

The simplicity of a historical map — the clear labels, the sharp edges, and above all the reduction of thousands or millions of people into abstract symbols — is a big part of why they’re so beguiling. But it’s also why they lead us astray.


It is sometimes said that the map is not the territory. The map is not the historical argument, either.

Instead, maps are a great way to pose questions about history. They are best approached as a way in: an entry-point rather than an ending. They offer one path toward confronting the enormous complexity of “real” history — the kind made by individual people, on the decidedly imperfect and unmap-like terrain of the world.

Source: Historical maps probably helped cause World War I | Res Obscura

Death, wrecks, and harsh weather

There was a time, about a decade ago, where although I was based from home, I’d be travelling pretty much every week for work. I was abroad once a month at least.

These days, perhaps with the pandemic as a catalyst, I’m slightly more wary of travelling. It’s probably also a function of age and awareness of how routines affect my body. As an historian, though, I’ve always been amazed by those people who journeyed long distances.

This post by an academic historian of medicine and the body outlines some of the dangers such travellers faced. Pretty amazing, when you think about it.

Unlike today, when it’s entirely possible to have breakfast in London, lunch in Milan and be back at home in time for supper, travel in the early modern period was no easy undertaking. More than this, it was widely acknowledged to be inherently dangerous. What, then, were the perceived risks? Even a brief survey tells us a lot about how travel was regarded in health terms.

First was the risk of accident or death on the journey. In the seventeenth century even relatively short distances on horseback or in a carriage carried dangers. Falls from horses were common, causing injury or even death.


Travel by sea, even around local coasts, carried its own obvious risks of storm and wreck. So common and widely acknowledged were the vagaries of sea travel that a common reason for making a will in the early modern period was just before embarking on a voyage.


Once abroad, too travellers were at the mercy of a bevy of dangers, from unfamiliar territories and extreme landscapes to harsh weather and climate, their safety contingent on the quality of their transport and the reliability of their guides.


Even ‘foreign’ food and drink could be risky. Thomas Tryon’s Miscellania (1696) noted the dangers of ‘intemperance’ and of misjudging the effects of climate upon the body in regard to drinking alchohol [sic]

Source: The Health Risks of Travel in Early-Modern Britain | Dr Alun Withey