Alt History of the World Fairs
Almost every day that I allow myself online (a.k.a. daily), I end up in an argument about my credibility as a historian. As Owen’s alter ego Ira might put it (with appropriate snark), “How dare you claim to be a historian when you believe [fill in the blank some detail about whatever topic is under discussion]?”*
Well, quite possibly because as a historian, I am used to having to revise my understand of “what actually happened” based on re-evaluation of what we accept as historical sources.
For example, Bede’s history of the English church. You have all heard of Bede, right? “The Venemous Bede” as 1066 and All That put it. Bede is one of our most important historians for the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, intimately interested (you might say) in the mission of Augustine to Canterbury and the subsequent conversion of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes to Christ. Bede had at his disposal a great library (for the early eighth century) which the founding abbot of his monastery had assembled over multiple journeys to Rome. Bede was Rome’s man, and he was damned (figuratively speaking) if he was going to let the Irish or the Britons (a.k.a. Welsh) have the limelight for converting the English. So when he wrote his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum he naturally downplayed the contributions of previous missionaries to the island—leaving later generations with the image of Pope Gregory the Great inspired by the beauty of the young Angles for sale in the Roman slave markets as the proximate cause of the English Church: “Non Angli, sed angeli,” you might say.
History is full of such myths. The easiest test for them is whether challenging them makes people mad at you.
My Unauthorized Bearfriend Owen Benjamin has been theorizing a lot of late about history, taking off from Howdie Mickoski’s argument about role of the World Fairs in erasing the history of the civilization that was actually in North America before Columbus arrived (if Columbus even existed). Yes, you heard that correctly. According to Mickoski (and, latterly, Owen) the World Fairs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were purposeful exercises of “programming” a new historical narrative in which the United States and Europe were touted as the Enlightened heirs of Imperial Rome while at the same time wiping out the evidence for the actual Empire that had existed around the world prior to ... well, when?
One of my friends shared a video in my Telegram chat of Mickoski talking with alchemist Jay Weidner just a few days before Owen picked up on the theme, so happily Owen’s discussion didn’t come at me completely out of the blue. Let’s just say, I was skeptical—and spent a tea time discussion with my Dragon Common Room wondering how Mickoski could claim to have studied the photographs of the fairs so carefully and still argue (calmly, with no hint of nuttiness) that there is no evidence that the buildings were built in the way we have come to believe: to wit, out of wood in a matter of months, only to be dismantled once the fairs were over.
Another of my friends easily found a whole series of photos showing the construction of the buildings for the Omaha World Fair of 1898 (alias the Trans-Mississippi Exposition). What looks like stone in the photographs (as Owen and Mickoski read them) was wood covered in staff or plaster of Paris, while the buildings themselves were wood frames, raised like so many barns in a matter of months:
UPLIFT a thousand voices full and sweet,In this wide hall with earth’s inventions stored,And praise th’ invisible universal Lord,Who lets once more in peace the nations meet,Where Science, Art, and Labor have outpour’dTheir myriad horns of plenty at our feet.II.O silent father of our Kings to beMourn’d in this golden hour of jubilee,For this, for all, we weep our thanks to thee!III.The world-compelling plan was thine,—And, lo! the long laborious milesOf Palace; lo! the giant aisles,Rich in model and design;Harvest-tool and husbandry,Loom and wheel and engin’ry,Secrets of the sullen mine,Steel and gold, and corn and wine,Fabric rough, or Fairy fine,Sunny tokens of the Line,Polar marvels, and a feastOf wonder, out of West and East,And shapes and hues of Part divine!All of beauty, all of use,That one fair planet can produce.Brought from under every star,Blown from over every main,And mixt, as life is mixt with pain,The works of peace with works of war.IV.Is the goal so far away?Far, how far no tongue can say,Let us dream our dream to-day.V.O ye, the wise who think, the wise who reign,From growing commerce loose her latest chain,And let the fair white-winged peacemaker flyTo happy havens under all the sky,And mix the seasons and the golden hours,Till each man finds his own in all men’s good,And all men work in noble brotherhood,Breaking their mailed fleets and armed towers,And ruling by obeying Nature’s powers,And gathering all the fruits of peace and crown’d with all her flowers.
Aha! Could it be we have found the ancient Empire that built the great palaces in the American Midwest? Owen talks about the ancient builders as the Tartarians (I think I found the source of this theory; book on order, will report later), but I will lay my bets as a medievalist on King Arthur. Did not Geoffrey of Monmouth describe Arthur’s empire as covering the known world? Did not Geoffrey describe the glories of Arthur’s court at Camelot, to this day eluding firm identification? I am ready to believe that Arthur founded Camelot in what we now call Chicago—just look at the architecture of my university! Pure medieval Gothic, built to a scale never achieved at those lesser schools in Oxford and Cambridge. We even have a tower modeled (allegedly) on one of the colleges at Oxford. Could it be that the one at Magdalen is, in fact, modeled on ours?
Now, since it is evident that these facts are established with historical authenticity by the venerable Bede, it appears that whatever Geoffrey has written, subsequent to Vortigern, either of Arthur, or his successors, or predecessors, is a fiction, invented either by himself or by others, and promulgated either through an unchecked propensity to falsehood, or a desire to please the Britons, of whom vast numbers are said to be so stupid as to assert that Arthur is yet to come, and who cannot bear to hear of his death....Moreover, [Geoffrey] depicts Arthur himself as great and powerful beyond all men, and as celebrated in his exploits as he chose to feign him. First, he makes him triumph, at pleasure, over Angles, Picts, and Scots; then, he subdues Ireland, the Orkneys, Gothland, Norway, Denmark, partly by war, partly by the single terror of his name. To these he adds Iceland, which, by some, is called the remotest Thule, in order that what a noble poet flatteringly said to the Roman Augustus—“the distant Thule shall confess thy way”—might apply to the British Arthur. Next, [Geoffrey] makes [Arthur] attack, and speedily triumph over, Gaul—a nation which Julius Caesar, with infinite peril and labour, was scarcely able to subjugate in ten years—as though the little finger of the British was more powerful than the loins of the mighty Caesar.After this, with numberless triumphs, [Geoffrey] brings [Arthur] back to England, where he celebrates his conquests with a splendid banquet with his subject-kings and princes, in the presence of the three archbishops of the Britons, that is London, Carleon, and York—whereas, the Britons at that time never had an archbishop. Augustine, having received the pall from the Roman pontiff, was made the first archbishop in Britain [remember what I said above about Bede’s prejudice against the previous missionaries to the island? Right.]...Next this fabler, to carry his Arthur to the highest summit, makes him declare war against the Romans, having, however first vanquished a giant of surprising magnitude in single combat, though since the times of David we never read of giants. Then, with a wider license of fabrication, [Geoffrey] brings all the kings of the world in league with the Romans against [Arthur]; that is to say, the kings of Greece, Africa, Spain, Parthia, Media, Iturea, Libya, Egypt, Babylon, Bithynia, Phrygia, Syria, Boeotia, and Crete, and he relates that all of them were conquered by [Arthur] in a single battle... Indeed, [Geoffrey] makes the little finger of his Arthur more powerful than the loins of Alexander the Great; more especially when, previous to the victory over so many kings, he introduces him relating to his comrades the subjugation of thirty kingdoms by his and their united efforts; whereas, in fact, this romancer will not find in the world so many kingdoms, in addition to those mentioned, which he had not yet subdued.Does [Geoffrey] dream of another world possessing countless kingdoms, in which the circumstances he has related took place? Certainly, in our own orb no such events have happened. For how would the elder historians, who were ever anxious to omit nothing remarkable, and even recorded trivial circumstances, pass by unnoticed so incomparable a man, and such surpassing deeds? ... Since, therefore, the ancient historians make not the slightest mention of these matters, it is plain that whatever this man [Geoffrey] published of Arthur and Merlin are mendacious fictions, invented to gratify the curiosity of the undiscerning.
Moreover, it is to be noted that he subsequently relates that the same Arthur was mortally wounded in battle, and that, after having disposed of his kingdom, he retired to the island of Avallon, according to the British fables, to be cured of his wounds; not daring, through fear of the Britons, to assert that he was dead—he whom these truly silly Britons declare is still to come.**
Therefore, let Beda, of whose wisdom and integrity none can doubt, possess our unbounded confidence, and let this fabler, with his fictions, be instantly rejected by all.
*Yesterday’s discussion on Facebook ended with “how anyone can call themselves a historian and believe ‘Jesus’ said anything, is just mind blowing. Clearly, biblical history isn’t the specialty.” Acktually, it is, but not in the way he means! (NB: My claim was that Jesus insisted “my kingdom is not of this world.” YMMV.)
**The History of William of Newburgh, trans. by the Rev. Joseph Stephenson (London: Seeleys, 1856), Preface.
***It is, of course, somewhat more complicated. There are other sources, including Gildas and Orosius, but Bede used those, too, so the argument always comes back to Bede eventually, just as William insisted. For a good account of the proofs for and against the existence of Arthur, see Michael Wood, In Search of England: Journeys into the English Past (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000).
****See Walter Goffart, Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550-800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), for the lowdown on how Bede downplayed the role of the Irish.