Review: The History Manifesto

Book cover of The History Manifesto

The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage, (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Historians, turn to the longue durée and focus your minds on the needs of our age. Your insights are needed to address intractable global issues such as climate change, inequality and governance. Dig deep into long time to assist policy makers to steer humanity into a better place.

This is the siren call of The History Manifesto. Written by historians, Jo Guldi of Brown University and David Armitage of Harvard, The History Manifesto seeks to change the direction of the discipline, to make it not only relevant to the world at large but an active contributor of solutions that speaks to the yearning of today.

In my previous post about the Annales school of historians I explained the term longue durée as it was conceived in the middle of the twentieth century. Guldi and Armitage explain how this approach to history fell out of favour in the latter decades of that century and was replaced by interest in micro-history. Micro-histories shone the light on histories that had been obscured in the old-style nationalist political histories, such as the lives of the working class and the subalterns who were marginalised by colonial powers.

Now historians need to embrace the ‘new longue durée’ in their work, say Guldi and Armitage. The new longue durée draws on its Annales heritage but it focusses on the future and its connection to the past as well as responding to the current intellectual environment and modern research tools.

Using the issues of climate change, inequality and governance, the authors explain the value that historians can give by plumbing long periods of the past to explore alternative ways of thinking about current problems. Guldi and Armitage explain that historians can do this by highlighting the evidence that humanity has free will to decide its future, the importance of ‘counter-factual thinking’ and the exploration of alternative ways of doing things that could bring about a better future. Continue reading

Maths, Accounting and the Environment

Cover of book, Double-Entry by Jane Gleeson-White

Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world – and how their invention could make or break the planet, by Jane Gleeson-White (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2012).

Businesses have acted as an artery of global life since time immemorial.  Our lives and culture today would be severely curtailed without the innovation and trade that have been fostered for centuries by businesses. If we are to have a good grasp of history we need to include in our reading those books which explore the history of commerce.  Jane Gleeson-White’s book, Double Entry, is a good book to help the general reader not only enhance their understanding of this history but also to gain better insight into financial issues that affect every person on this planet today.

This book is an enjoyable and provocative read.  It traces the history of double entry book-keeping which is at the core of financial reporting and record keeping of businesses the world over.  Author of Double Entry, Jane Gleeson-White initially focuses on the enormous contribution of Venetian merchants to the emergence of double entry book-keeping and in particular that of fifteenth century mathematician Luca Pacioli. The genius of Pacioli was his ability to communicate new mathematical concepts to a broad audience using three significant developments of the era – the introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals, writing in the vernacular instead of Latin (because it could be read by more people) and publishing his work using the printing press.  Pacioli had to explain Hindu-Arabic numerals in his book and how they could be used in basic arithmetic because many of his readers were unfamiliar with this new development.

In twenty-seven pages that reverberated throughout the European business world for centuries to come, Pacioli explained how the Venetian businessmen kept records of their business dealings using double entry book-keeping.  Gleeson-White has written Double Entry for a general audience.  To do this she draws extensively on Pacioli’s fifteenth-century treatise on book-keeping for he too was communicating to an audience who had no background in this form of account keeping. I thought that Gleeson-White’s use of Pacioli’s examples worked well.  She does not assume that the reader has any knowledge of double entry book-keeping.  The language she uses is engaging and where necessary she gives simple and clear explanations of how double entry book-keeping works. Continue reading