Myths of the Month Playlist

These are deep dive installments into the largest misnomers that make up western history, from the myth of Anglo-Saxsonism, to misconception of secularization, to perception of the modern state, and during each discussion Sam chips away at these constructs to reveal the subtle ebb and flow of myth making which under pins how we think about our “modern world”. This series also demystifies several larger-then-life characters, examining the difficulties of Shakespeare actually turning out to be Shakespeare, the subversiveness of Robin Hood with that legend’s real life censorship, plus the nation-building work of the King Arthur stories, and so much more.

This series alternates between free installments and episodes available to patrons only for the first year after they’ve been recorded – Become a patron (at any amount you want to contribute) to unlock all the most recent series content.


Myths of the Month Episodes

Myth of the Month 20: Conspiracy Theories

Myth of the Month 20: Conspiracy Theories
Currently available to Patrons only, on the Patreon App and website:
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Where do conspiracy theories come from? Why do people believe them? What do they mean? Did the CIA drug people with LSD against their will? Is Queen Elizabeth a reptilian? We consider the merits and pitfalls of conspiracy theories, trace the history and evolution of the conspiratorial tradition from rumors about lepers in the 1300s to Alex Jones and Q-Anon, and examine the biases and double standards built into the very concept of "conspiracy theories." This is it: the most thorough, fair, and impartial examination of conspiracy theories that you will ever find anywhere.

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Myth of the Month 19: The Holy Grail - pt. 2

How did the Holy Grail transform from the object of a purifying spiritual quest to a Faustian symbol of the corruptions of power? We consider the evolution of the Grail myth from the later medieval romances through Le Morte D'Arthur, the works of Tennyson, Wagner, and T.S. Eliot, and the portrayals of the Grail by Monty Python, Dan Brown, and Jay-z, and finally we consider the modern quests to uncover the hidden truth of the Grail -- whether as a pagan fertility symbol, a Christian spiritual allegory, or a code identifying the secret bloodline of Jesus Christ.

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Also see Myth of the Month 19: The Holy Grail - pt. 1

Myth of the Month 19: The Holy Grail - pt. 1

Why did an enigmatic relic discussed in a series of medieval romances of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table leap out of the Arthurian myths and rise to become the most famous object in the history of literature? What does the vessel represent spiritually, morally, and sexually? And what the heck is a "grail" anyway? We begin by examining the medieval legends and what they say about the origin, nature, and miraculous powers of the sought-after holy relic.

Also see Historiansplaining's The Arthur Cycle - Three Episodes

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Also see Myth of the Month 19: The Holy Grail - pt. 2

Myth of the Month 16: "The Founding Fathers"

Unlocked for the public after 1 year on Patreon for patrons only:

The "Founding Fathers" -- the most rarefied club in American history -- stand in for everything we love or hate about this country, from its civic an religious freedom to its white supremacism. As if carved in stone (which they oftentimes are), they loom over every political debate, even though most of us know next to nothing about them, or even who counts as one of the group. Coined by that immortal wordsmith, President Warren Harding, the phrase "Founding Fathers" serves as an empty vessel for civic emotion, conveniently covering over the actual history of struggle, conflict, and contention that shaped the American republic. Suggested Further Reading: Woody Holton, "Forced Founders" and "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the US Consitution"; Gordon Wood, "The Radicalism of the American Revolution"; Gerald Horne, "The Counter-Revolution of 1776"; Charles Beard, "An Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution"; Joseph Eliis, "Founding Brothers"

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Unlocked: Myth of the Month 14: Astrology

Why do we divide history into epochs separated by "revolutions"? Astrology. How did Magellan chart his course around the globe? Astrology. How did Ronald Reagan schedule his acts of state? Astrology. We trace how the highest of the occult arts evolved from interpreting omens in ancient Babylonia, to containing medieval epidemics, to providing fodder for middle-brow magazines. Whether you are a believer or not, astrology is the secret rhythm of our lives. Suggested Further reading: Benson Bobrick, "The Fated Sky"; Nicholas Campion, "The Great Year," Julie Beck, "The New Age of Astrology," The Atlantic magazine; Elijah Wolfson, "Your Zodiac Sign, Your Health," The Atlantic magazine; Sonia Saraiya, "Seeing Stars," Vanity Fair magazine. Image: Horoscope (birth chart) cast for Iskandar Sultan, grandson of Tamerlane, born 1384.

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Myth of the Month 18: Robin Hood -- pt. 2: Capturing the Fugitive

Myth of the Month 18: Robin Hood -- pt. 2: Capturing the Fugitive
Currently available to Patrons only, on the Patreon App and website:

What is the signifcance of Robin Hood as an outlaw -- a person declared legally dead -- who lives in the greenwood, where life is constantly renewed? Why does Shakespeare heavily allude to Robin in his Henry IV plays? And most significantly, was there a real Robin Hood, or is he a pure creation of myth and folklore? We consider the possibilities and scrutinize the evidence.

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Myth of the Month 18: Robin Hood -- pt. 1: The Master of the Forest

In the first installment on the Robin Hood mythos, we consider how the legend of Robin Hood has evolved from a series of brutal tales of a medieval outlaw bandit in the fifteenth century to that of the swashbuckling champion of the poor of modern pop culture, and how he picked up sidekicks like Friar Tuck and Maid Marion along the way; we consider the literary significance of the early stories as as an expression of the frustrations and aspirations of the yeoman class. Suggested Further reading: Maurice Keen, "The Outlaws of Medieval Legend"; J. C. Holt, "Robin Hood"; A. J. Pollard, "Imagining Robin Hood."

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Also see Myth of the Month 18: Robin Hood -- pt. 2: Capturing the Fugitive

UNLOCKED: Myth of the Month 12, Finale: The Historical King Arthur

Released to the public after one year for patrons only: Archaeology, geography, linguistics, textual analysis -- all of these fields of knowledge must be brought to bear on a centuries-old question: Was there a "real" King Arthur? Answer: It's complicated. We discuss the likelihood that some "historical" personage underlies the layers of legend. Suggested further reading: Higham, "King Arthur: The Making of the Legend."

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Full Episode DetailsAlso see All Three Episodes: The Arthur Cycle

Myth of the Month 17: Anglo-Saxonism

Who the heck are the "Anglo-Saxons," and why are Americans getting all lathered up about "Anglo-Saxon institutions"? Find out where the Anglo-Saxon myth came from and how over the past three hundred years it's been used to justify Parliamentary supremacy, the Rhodes Scholarship, the American entry into World War I, immigration restrictions, and college admission quotas. You never knew you were suffering under the Norman yoke, but now you do. Image: Statue of King Alfred, Winchester

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Myth of the Month 15: "The State"

What did Shakespeare mean when he wrote that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark"? Why do we call independent countries "states" endowed with "sovereignty"? Why do historians and philosophers speak of "state formation" and clashes between "church and state"? How did these concepts come about, and what do they mean in international law and political theory? The answer runs from absolutist royal courts through the French Revolution and the Weimar republic of Germany; after centuries of struggle and democratization, the concept of "the state" has formed to fill the vacuum left behind by the Crown. Image: Christiansborg, the parliamentary palace of Denmark.

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Unlocked: Myth of the Month 10, pt. 4: the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy

Unlocked for the public, after one year for patrons only, the final lecture of the series on Shakespeare: Could it be that "Shakespeare" wasn't Shakespeare? -- That someone else, perhaps a highly-educated aristocrat, actually wrote the works attributed to the actor from Stratford? Am I a crackpot for even entertaining such a ridiculous idea? We consider the evidence. I know this is an absurdly long one, but forgive me, it was so much fun to research and record. Suggested Further Reading: S. Shoenbaum, "Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life"; Diana Price, "Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biopgraphy"; James Shapiro, "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?"

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Full Episode DetailsAlso see All four episodes: Who was Shakespeare?

Myth of the Month 13: Feudalism

Feudalism - it's what they did in the Middle Ages! Nobles controlled the land and extracted labor from the serfs, and everyone from peasants to great lords was arranged in a big hierarchical pyramid leading up to the king. Or were they? We examine the ambiguities inherent in the idea of "feudalism," and the reasons why it simply cannot hold up to examination against the historical record. Finally, we consider why the myth of feudalism developed and has persisted as a way of justifying the inequalities of our own era. Suggested Further reading: Carl Stephenson, "Mediaeval Feudalism"; Susan Reynolds, "Fiefs and Vassals"; Elizabeth Brown, "Tyranny of a Construct." Music: "A Gut Yor," written by David Meyerowitz and performed by Joseph Feldman, 1915, courtesy of Yiddish Penny Songs, http://www.yiddishpennysongs.com/2017/09/a-gut-yor-git-yuhr-zu-alle-leite-gut.html My recent conversation on the queer Talmud podcast, "Xai, How Are You?" - https://soundcloud.com/xaihowareyou/32-why-god

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Updates, Thank You, and Teaser: The Historical King Arthur

I give updates on my ridiculous pursuits, and thanks to my 75+ patrons, as well as a juicy teaser for my patron-only lecture on the "real" or "historical" King Arthur. The Twitter poll on what I should address next: https://twitter.com/Historiansplain/status/1290134698690088962

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Myth of the Month 12: The Arthur Cycle -- pt. 2: The Rise and Fall of Camelot

When Jackie Kennedy told reporters that she and the late President used to listen to the soundtrack of the musical "Camelot," the word immediately caught on as the name for the Kennedy White House -- portrayed as a brief, golden period of wise rule, ended by tragedy. More than a thousand years' worth of romantic associations could be evoked with three simple syllables. In this second segment, we consider how the chivalric legend of the Round Table and the Court of Camelot was conceived and elaborated, from French courtly romances, through the first English Arthurian epic of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to the popular novels, plays, and movies of the modern times. Find the new Lyceum platform and app -- http://www.lyceum.fm/ Suggested Further reading: Nicholas J. Higham, "King Arthur: The Making of the Legend"

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Full Episode DetailsAlso see All Three Episodes: The Arthur Cycle

Myth of the Month 12: The Arthur Cycle -- pt. 1: Creating "King Arthur"

Why does the earliest known picture of King Arthur show him riding on a goat and charging towards a deadly cat-monster? How has the tale of King Arthur and his knights evolved since it first emerged from Celtic folklore? We consider the shaping of the Arthur story from the songs of mysterious Welsh and Breton bards to the high medieval romances of French courtier-poets. Find the new Lyceum platform and app -- http://www.lyceum.fm/ Suggested Further reading: Nicholas J. Higham, "King Arthur: The Making of the Legend"

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Full Episode DetailsAlso see All Three Episodes: The Arthur Cycle

Unlocked: Myth of the Month 8: "The West"

After one year on Patreon for patrons only, Myth of the Month #8 becomes open to the public:

The notion that there is a coherent society that can be called "the West" or "Western Civilization" -- running from Greco-Roman antiquity to modern North America -- originated during the upheaval of World War I, thanks to an eccentric German history teacher named Oswald Spengler. We consider whether any common thread or trait can be said to unite "the West," and why different nations like Egypt or Poland get tossed in or out of the basket of "the West" at different times. Finally, we consider why the idea of "the West" is often linked to conspiracy theories involving Jews, Marxists, post-modernists, or Jewish-Marxist-banker-Freemason-postmodernists. (Yes, I make an oblique reference here to Jordan Peterson.)

The recent debate involving Douglas Murray, "What Is Killing Western Civilization?": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJZqKKFn3Hk

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Myth of the Month 11: The "1619 Project" and the place of slavery in American history

The 1619 Project -- an essay collection published in last August's New York Times magazine -- has ignited intense debate about American history, raging outside the walls of academia. Commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first African captives landing in Virginia, the various authors the case for the central importance of slavery and African-Americans to the meaning of America. We examine how the project reinforces the traditional myths of American exceptionalism and continual progress, while casting African-Americans in the starring role of Whig history, as the embattled tribe leading the quest towards liberty. Image: Aftermath of the Tulsa race riot, 1921Suggested further reading: Edmund Morgan, "Slavery and Freedom: the American Paradox"; Michael Guasco, "Slaves and Englishmen"; Albert Raboteau, "Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South" CORRECTION: Edmund Morgan taught for 31 years at Yale, not Harvard.

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Unlocked: Myth of the Month 6: Political Left and Right

Unlocked after one year for patrons only, a discussion of our fixation with organizing political views into an axis "left" against "right":

As new political parties -- left-populists, neo-fascists, and secessionists -- rapidly rise and fall across Europe and other Western countries, and spontaneous protests blur partisan boundaries in the streets of Paris, the old left-to-right scale of political ideology is just not working. What value does this one-dimensional model of politics have, and where did it come from? In fact, it has to do with where you sit at a formal dinner party.

Become a patron to hear my upcoming discussion of the Shakespeare authorship controversy (the notion that somebody else wrote the works of Shakespeare) http://www.patreon.com/user?u=5530632

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Myth of the Month 10: Who Was Shakespeare? -- pt. 3: "The Maiden's Organ"

How could Shakespeare have possibly allowed his sonnets -- personal, sexual, and often scandalous -- to be published? I advance my own theory to account for the printing of the most shocking book of poetry in the history of literature, and discuss the possibilities as to the identities of the alluring Young Man and Dark Lady. Finally, we consider the light that the Sonnets shed upon Shakespeare's plays, particularly his obsession with gender ambiguity and androgyny.Poems analyzed in this lecture: 17, 20, 135, 136 Full text of Shakespeare's sonnets, searchable: http://www.shakespeares-sonnets.com/Archive/allsonn.htm Suggested further reading: Katherine Duncan-Jones, ed., "Shakespeare's Sonnets"; Joseph Pequigney, "Such Is My Love"; Lynn Magnusson, "A Modern Perspective" in Folger Shakespeare Library's edition of Shakespeare's Poems; Don Paterson, "Shakespeare's Sonnets," (www.theguardian.com/books/2010/oct/…ts-don-paterson); Saul Frampton, "In Search of Shakespeare's Dark Lady" (www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/…ark-lady-florio); Macd. P. Jackson, "The Authorship of 'A Lover's Complaint,'" The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Sep. 2008

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Full Episode DetailsAlso see All four episodes: Who was Shakespeare?

Myth of the Month 10: Who Was Shakespeare? -- pt. 2: "Comfort and Despair"

What do Shakespeare's sonnets actually say? What can they tell us about the life or character of the man who penned them? Not only romantic and philosophical, the sonnets are erotic, desperate, and often angry, laced with shocking sexual imagery and emotional confession; as a group, they break all conventions of Elizabethan poetry, and trace the ghostly outline of two passionate affairs -- one a brief, tawdry fling with a mature voluptuous woman, and one a long, fraught relationship with an androgynous young man. This will be followed by a discussion of the publication of the sonnets, the possible identities of the "Dark Lady" and "Fair Youth," and their relation to the plays; and then by a discussion of the "authorship controversy." Suggested further reading: Katherine Duncan-Jones, ed., "Shakespeare's Sonnets"; Joseph Pequigney, "Such Is My Love"; Lynn Magnusson, "A Modern Perspective" in Folger Shakespeare Library's edition of Shakespeare's Poems.

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Full Episode DetailsAlso see All four episodes: Who was Shakespeare?

Myth of the Month 10: Who Was Shakespeare? -- pt. 1: The Monument and the Man

Who was William Shakespeare? He is far more elusive, and his life more obscure, than his fans and biographers will admit. We consider the massive, bloated mythology that has built up around the great Bard over the centuries, and then examine the remarkably scant surviving documentary records from the writer's own lifetime, which tend to paint a both bizarre and unflattering picture. The first of three installments examining the reality of Shakespeare. Suggested further reading: S. Schoenbaum, "William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life"; James Shapiro, "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?"; Diana Price, "Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography."

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Full Episode DetailsAlso see All four episodes: Who was Shakespeare?

Myth of the Month 9: The US Constitution and the Origins of the Senate and Electoral College

Why does our government work the way it does? Is it supposed to represents citizens, or states? We consider the origins of the U. S. Constitution, particularly the creation of the controversial bodies (Senate and Electoral College) that represent the public in skewed and disproportionate ways. We dispel the false notion that these bodies were created in order to protect small states, tracing instead the Framers' quest to tamp down the "excess of democracy" of the 1780s, wrest control over monetary policy away from the poor majority, and strike a careful balance between slave and non-slave states. Suggested further reading: Woody Holton, "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution"; Charles Beard, "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States"; Michael Klarman, "The Framers' Coup"; Max Edling, "A Revolution in Favor of Government," Robert Brown, "Charles Beard and the Constitution"; Irwin Polishook, "Rhode Island and the Union,"; Hillman Metcalf Bishop, "Why Rhode Island Opposed the Federal Constitution"; Gordon Wood, "Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" and "Creation of the American Republic"

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Myth of the Month 4: Secularization -- or, Send in the Nones!

We examine the long-debated "secularization thesis" -- ie, the notion that as societies modernize they become less religious. From Max Weber's belief that science and rationality disenchant the world, to Charles Taylor's and other current scholars' argument that religious views have become relative and debatable where in the past they were taken for granted, the secularization thesis has evolved and adapted with the times. We carefully examine Pew Research data showing that education does not particularly correlate with loss of religious commitment, especially among Christians, and observe that instead, a new, younger generation of "nones" has given up on traditional institutions even as they remain interested in religious ideas and practices. We also uncover some of the long history of skeptical and even atheistic ideas in the West running back to the 1600s and earlier, which suggest that our own day is not necessarily any more "secular" than what came before. Suggested Further Reading: Charles Taylor, "A Secular Age"; Max Weber, "Science as a Vocation"; Pew Research Center, "In America, Does More Education Equal Less Religion?"Image of abandoned church courtesy of Emma (https://www.flickr.com/people/27505473@N02) via Flickr.

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Full Episode DetailsRelated content: 8 episodes On the History of Christianity

Myth of the Month 2: The Exodus

We examine the origins and the political and theological meanings of the myth of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt. We consider the possible real historical events that might underly the exodus story, including the argument put forward in Richard Elliot Friedman's new book, The Exodus. Finally, we trace some of the many ways that peoples around the world, from the early Christians to Rastafaris, have adopted the exodus myth and cast themselves as the new Israelites.

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Also see all 7 episodes On Judaism and Jewish History

Myth of The Month 7: Game of Thrones

We examine George R. R. Martin's new mythology for the middle class: the TV series Game of Thrones and the series of books upon which it is based. Martin and his collaborators draw on the 15th-century Wars of the Roses and later dynastic struggles in Britain to present an amoral world, lacking in honor, bereft of cosmic justice, and eerily reminiscent of the contemporary West. We examine historical precedents for the "Red Wedding," and the symbolic resonance of characters such as the Starks and Littlefinger. Finally we consider the possible historical meaning of the show's final-season premier date of April 14th. Image: Early Flemish depiction of the Battle of Barnet, from the Ghent Manuscript. Intro music: Domenico Scarlatti, Sonata in D minor, played on harpsichord by Wanda Landowska.

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Myth of the Month 5: Capitalism

There is no such thing as capitalism. With debates over the relative meanings and merits of socialism and capitalism currently flaring up in the United States, we examine why "capitalism" is an undefinable and meaningless concept, and how it came nevertheless to hold a mythic and almost magical power over the minds of academics and ordinary citizens alike. Suggested further reading: Marx and Engels, "The Communist Manifesto"; Ellen Meiksins Wood, "Agrarian Capitalism"; Howard Brick, "Transcending Capitalism."

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Myth of the Month 3: Race

We examine the origins of racism, or the notion that the human species can be subdivided into distinct and observable biological categories. The notion of human "races" began as a strategy for dividing and controlling workers in European colonies, particularly 17th-century Virginia. We consider the basic logical incoherence of belief in race, and compare it against the new information that we are gaining from genetics, which shows a fairly closely interrelated human species, with all people living today sharing the same set of ancestors as of about 3,400 years ago. Finally we consider the recent flare-up of controversy over the difference in average IQ between "racial" groups in the US, which neuroscientist Sam Harris helped to spark on his podcast earlier this year. Suggested Further Reading: Barbara Fields, "Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America"; Edmund Morgan, "American Slavery, American Freedom"; Nicholas Wade, "A Troublesome Inheritance."

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Myth of the Month 1: "The Enlightenment"

There was no Enlightenment. Steven Pinker’s new book, “Enlightenment Now,” is a classic re-statement of the myth of the Enlightenment which holds that in the 1600s and 1700s, Europeans threw off the tired dogmas of the Middle Ages and embraced a new philosophy of Reason, Progress, Science, and Humanism. In fact, the 1700s were a period of confusion, with no clear unifying ideas or trends: occultism, mysticism, and absolute monarchy flourished alongside experiments in democracy and chemistry. “The Enlightenment” forms one of the central pillars of Whig history, serving to re-affirm the notion that our present-day beliefs and values are rational and coherent. Suggested Further reading: Peter Gay, “The Enlightenment: An Interpretation”; Charley Coleman, “The Virtues of Abandon”; Margaret Jacob, “The Radical Enlightenment”; Paul Monod, “Solomon’s Secret Arts”Small correction: Immanuel Kant was professor at the University of Konigsberg, not the University of Jena.

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The Myths We Make: Using the past as an ideological tool

All of history is, to one degree or another, mythology -- the weaving of a coherent, usable narrative out of the chaos of people's lives. We consider how societies all over the world, since before the beginning of civilization, have developed myths to explain the world that they experience. We also trace some of the major schools of academic history, which have tried to fashion overarching storylines to give meaning to human struggles -- from Biblical providential history to Marxism to postmodernism. We begin by examining the most central myth of the origins of American society: the "first Thanksgiving." Suggested Further reading: Giambattista Vico, "The New Science"; Marc Bloch, "The Historian's Craft"; Hayden White, "Metahistory"

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Dissecting the "Dawn of Everything" - A Conversation with Geoff Shullenberger

I join with Geoff Shullenberger of "Outsider Theory" to discuss the sweeping and challenging new book, "The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity" by David Graeber and David Wengrow. We consider the book's marshalling of new archaeological evidence to debunk mechanistic and deterministic assumptions about the rise of civilization, its deep rejection of Marxism, and its insistence on the human ability to imagine and create an infinite range of social and political futures. We examine the weaknesses and limitations of the book, including its over-emphasis on personal freedom, its gross inaccuracy with regard to the eighteenth century, and its blindspot regarding the profound powers of myth, ritual, and the natural environment, all of which deeply guide and shape societies in ways that Graeber & Wengrow ignore or casually discount.

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Uncovering the Medieval Slave Trade -- A Conversation with Hannah Barker

Before Columbus had even set foot in America, medieval Europe and the Islamic Middle East already had a long history in trading and exploiting slaves. An important branch of the slave trade involved buying captives from the shores of the Black Sea and trafficking them through the Mediterranean to the commercial cities of Italy or to Egypt, where many of them became slave soldiers or even rulers (called "Mamluks"). We discuss the history of the trade, who these thousands of slaves were and what became of them with Hannah Barker of Arizona State University, author of "That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves, 1260-1500." Image: Pillar capital with sculpted faces of foreign peoples, including Turk and Tatar, Doge's Palace, Venice.

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Chasidic Judaism: What is it and where did it come from?

Michael of "Xai How Are You" and I discuss the history of the Chasidic / Hasidic movement, a Jewish lay mystical and pietistic movement, which originated among Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe in the 1700s, flourished in the 1800s, survived the pogroms and world wars, and in recent years has been reborn as both a pillar of Orthodox Judaism and a bridge to the Reform and secular worlds. Suggested Further reading: "Hasidism: A New History," by Biale, Assaf, Brown, Gellman, Heilman, Rosman, Sagiv, and Wodzinski.

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Also see all 7 episodes On Judaism and Jewish History

Doorposts and Gates: How Jews Have Subdivided Themselves Through History

Michael of "Xai How Are You" and I discuss the different ways that Jews have distinguished themselves into groups and sub-groups, from the Biblical tribes to the Sephardic and Ashkenazi ethnic groups to the modern Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative movements. We lay the groundwork for an upcoming discussion of the origins and character of Chasidic Judaism.

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Also see all 7 episodes On Judaism and Jewish History

Before Jamestown: When England Colonized the Amazon -- A Conversation with Melissa Morris

How did the early colonists in Virginia know that they could profitably grow a species of tobacco from South America? They learned about it from the series of mostly short-lived English, French, and Dutch colonies and outposts in tropical South America, between the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, in the area called "Guiana." We discuss with historian Melissa Morris of U. of Wyoming how these early colonies, despite being almost totally forgotten by historians, left a lasting imprint on the Americas, and reveal the haphazard and unpredictable nature of early global empires.

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The Sabbatai Zevi Messianic Movement

I discuss, with Michael of "Xai, how are you?", the life and times of Sabbatai Zvi, the purported messiah of the 1660s, and the massive messianic awakening that he sparked and that swept across the entire Jewish diaspora in 1666, drawing in men and women, wealthy and poor, clergy and laity, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, and even Jews and gentiles. We consider the development of messianic theology and kabbalah that paved the way for the Sabbatian movement, as well as the lasting imprint that it left on Judaism in the modern era.

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Also see all 7 episodes On Judaism and Jewish History

The Trials of Bolivia: A Conversation with Oliver Rhoads Murphey

Why did the US government support and supply substantial aid to a left-wing revolutionary government in Bolivia in the 1950s, at the same time that it was undermining or overthrowing similar regimes in other nations? What does this striking but forgotten incident reveal about American ambitions in Latin America? And what light does it shed on the strife engulfing Bolivia today, after yet another elected leader has been forced out of power? We discuss and find context with Oliver Rhodes Murphey, whose dissertation seeks to solve the puzzle of American involvement in the heart of Andean South America.

Read "A Bond that will Permanently Endure: The Eisenhower administration, the Bolivian revolution and Latin American leftist nationalism" -- academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D87D30RB

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Through a Glass Darkly: The 1980s in Current Television -- A Conversation with Sonia Saraiya

What's with the spate of 1980s themes on current "prestige" television? Is it Gen. X. nostalgia for their youthful days in suburban malls? Or something more? Television critic Sonia Saraiya discusses how our unresolved identity crises seem to have led us into a fascination with the last years of the Cold War, and with the secret mistakes and machinations that took place on both sides of the old Iron Curtain. (Also listen for contributions from Kali the cat.)
The pledges for this instalment will be split evenly between the two collaborators.
Television series discussed: "The Americans," "Stranger Things," "When They See Us," "Chernobyl," "Leaving Neverland"Correction: The famous quote that nuclear power is "a hell of a way to boil water" comes from journalist Karl Grossman's 1980 book, "Cover Up."

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Beyond Plymouth Rock: The Deep Beginnings of New England -- A Conversation with Michael J. Simpson

Anticipating the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Plymouth colony, Michael J. Simpson and I discuss the deep background of the creation of "New England" -- the long history of contact, exchange, violence, disease, and acculturation among indigenous and European peoples, both before and after 1620, that created a complex creolized world before any Puritans were even on the scene. Michael's instagram: @hiddenhistoryri (Payment for this installment will be split between the two collaborators)

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Dissecting the "Dawn of Everything" - A Conversation with Geoff Shullenberger

I join with Geoff Shullenberger of "Outsider Theory" to discuss the sweeping and challenging new book, "The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity" by David Graeber and David Wengrow. We consider the book's marshalling of new archaeological evidence to debunk mechanistic and deterministic assumptions about the rise of civilization, its deep rejection of Marxism, and its insistence on the human ability to imagine and create an infinite range of social and political futures. We examine the weaknesses and limitations of the book, including its over-emphasis on personal freedom, its gross inaccuracy with regard to the eighteenth century, and its blindspot regarding the profound powers of myth, ritual, and the natural environment, all of which deeply guide and shape societies in ways that Graeber & Wengrow ignore or casually discount.

Listen on YouTube

Uncovering the Medieval Slave Trade -- A Conversation with Hannah Barker

Before Columbus had even set foot in America, medieval Europe and the Islamic Middle East already had a long history in trading and exploiting slaves. An important branch of the slave trade involved buying captives from the shores of the Black Sea and trafficking them through the Mediterranean to the commercial cities of Italy or to Egypt, where many of them became slave soldiers or even rulers (called "Mamluks"). We discuss the history of the trade, who these thousands of slaves were and what became of them with Hannah Barker of Arizona State University, author of "That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves, 1260-1500." Image: Pillar capital with sculpted faces of foreign peoples, including Turk and Tatar, Doge's Palace, Venice.

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Chasidic Judaism: What is it and where did it come from?

Michael of "Xai How Are You" and I discuss the history of the Chasidic / Hasidic movement, a Jewish lay mystical and pietistic movement, which originated among Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe in the 1700s, flourished in the 1800s, survived the pogroms and world wars, and in recent years has been reborn as both a pillar of Orthodox Judaism and a bridge to the Reform and secular worlds. Suggested Further reading: "Hasidism: A New History," by Biale, Assaf, Brown, Gellman, Heilman, Rosman, Sagiv, and Wodzinski.

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Also see all 7 episodes On Judaism and Jewish History

Doorposts and Gates: How Jews Have Subdivided Themselves Through History

Michael of "Xai How Are You" and I discuss the different ways that Jews have distinguished themselves into groups and sub-groups, from the Biblical tribes to the Sephardic and Ashkenazi ethnic groups to the modern Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative movements. We lay the groundwork for an upcoming discussion of the origins and character of Chasidic Judaism.

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Also see all 7 episodes On Judaism and Jewish History

Before Jamestown: When England Colonized the Amazon -- A Conversation with Melissa Morris

How did the early colonists in Virginia know that they could profitably grow a species of tobacco from South America? They learned about it from the series of mostly short-lived English, French, and Dutch colonies and outposts in tropical South America, between the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, in the area called "Guiana." We discuss with historian Melissa Morris of U. of Wyoming how these early colonies, despite being almost totally forgotten by historians, left a lasting imprint on the Americas, and reveal the haphazard and unpredictable nature of early global empires.

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The Sabbatai Zevi Messianic Movement

I discuss, with Michael of "Xai, how are you?", the life and times of Sabbatai Zvi, the purported messiah of the 1660s, and the massive messianic awakening that he sparked and that swept across the entire Jewish diaspora in 1666, drawing in men and women, wealthy and poor, clergy and laity, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, and even Jews and gentiles. We consider the development of messianic theology and kabbalah that paved the way for the Sabbatian movement, as well as the lasting imprint that it left on Judaism in the modern era.

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Also see all 7 episodes On Judaism and Jewish History

The Trials of Bolivia: A Conversation with Oliver Rhoads Murphey

Why did the US government support and supply substantial aid to a left-wing revolutionary government in Bolivia in the 1950s, at the same time that it was undermining or overthrowing similar regimes in other nations? What does this striking but forgotten incident reveal about American ambitions in Latin America? And what light does it shed on the strife engulfing Bolivia today, after yet another elected leader has been forced out of power? We discuss and find context with Oliver Rhodes Murphey, whose dissertation seeks to solve the puzzle of American involvement in the heart of Andean South America.

Read "A Bond that will Permanently Endure: The Eisenhower administration, the Bolivian revolution and Latin American leftist nationalism" -- academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D87D30RB

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Through a Glass Darkly: The 1980s in Current Television -- A Conversation with Sonia Saraiya

What's with the spate of 1980s themes on current "prestige" television? Is it Gen. X. nostalgia for their youthful days in suburban malls? Or something more? Television critic Sonia Saraiya discusses how our unresolved identity crises seem to have led us into a fascination with the last years of the Cold War, and with the secret mistakes and machinations that took place on both sides of the old Iron Curtain. (Also listen for contributions from Kali the cat.)
The pledges for this instalment will be split evenly between the two collaborators.
Television series discussed: "The Americans," "Stranger Things," "When They See Us," "Chernobyl," "Leaving Neverland"Correction: The famous quote that nuclear power is "a hell of a way to boil water" comes from journalist Karl Grossman's 1980 book, "Cover Up."

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Beyond Plymouth Rock: The Deep Beginnings of New England -- A Conversation with Michael J. Simpson

Anticipating the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Plymouth colony, Michael J. Simpson and I discuss the deep background of the creation of "New England" -- the long history of contact, exchange, violence, disease, and acculturation among indigenous and European peoples, both before and after 1620, that created a complex creolized world before any Puritans were even on the scene. Michael's instagram: @hiddenhistoryri (Payment for this installment will be split between the two collaborators)

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And Wait, There’s More

In addition to the 6 main playlists, Historiansplaining boasts a multitude of one-off episodes along with 3 playlists with guests, current events, or commentary on recent books, film & television – each with a Quick Sample of a featured episode:


Things You Don’t Know

Did Columbus really think that he was going to reach Asia?
What little do we actually know about Shakespeare, the person?
Why is it misleading to apply the word “religion” to Judaism and Hinduism?
Are people really becoming less religious than they used to be?
How did Tisquantum (popularly known as Squanto) already know how to speak English before the Pilgrims had ever arrived?
What did Netflix’s “The Dig” miss about the most dramatic part of the whole Sutton Hoo discovery?
What does the English Civil War of the 1640s tell us about the American Civil War, and about the present?
What can we know about enslaved Africans who were held in a specific New England house, even without written records?
Who were the Freemasons of the 1700s? How did they grow from a local Scottish fraternity to a global network?
Could all of British history have turned out differently if the winds on the English channel had shifted direction on just one day in 1066?
What did followers of the ancient and secretive branch of Christianity, Gnosticism, actually believe?
Why can no one agree on what “capitalism” actually is? And why does a lack of clear definition call into question so many other myths of the modern world?
How – and why – did universities begin in the Middle Ages, long before the scientific revolution and the “Enlightenment”?
Was there really an Exodus from Egypt like the one described in the Bible?
How did changes in the climate in the 1600s lead people to think they were living in the Apocalypse? How did this help spur the creation of institutions and forces that still shape the world today?
How did accusing people of witchcraft further several political agendas of the time?
Why did every Renaissance-era ruler in Europe have a court astrologer?
Does a single coin prove that Vikings came all the way to what’s now the United States?
Why is the dramatic 2019 fire at Paris’ Notre Dame actually a common occurrence for cathedrals around Europe?
Why don’t US citizens directly elect their President? Or have a more proportional Senate?

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