OHR Editors’ Picks Part Two: from Asante to America

Welcome to part two of our OHR editors’ picks – these recommendations take you (almost) round the world, without having to leave your room!

We begin with a titan of global history, Peter Frankopan’s 521 page book (not including notes) The Silk Roads. This book was published in 2015 to widespread critical acclaim, and it does not take long to see why. Frankopan covers a huge time scale and vast historical themes in an accessible and engaging way, bringing global history to the reader rather than limiting it to the academic.

One of the figures Frankopan highlights in this book is Ashoka, the emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from roughly 268-232 BCE. Ashoka was a hugely important historical figure, expanding the empire and spreading Buddhism across Southeast Asia. If you want to learn more about Ashoka, but don’t feel like reading an academic book, you could always try the 2001 Bollywood film Asoka, a partly fictionalised account of the ruler’s rise to power and turn from warmongering. Who cares about historical inaccuracies when you’ve got dance numbers, a love story and battles on an epic scale?

Shibden Hall, the residence of Anne Lister from the BBC series Gentleman Jack - one of the OHR editors' picks.
Shibden Hall was the historical residence of Anne Lister, used in the BBC series.
Alexander P Kapp / Shibden Hall, Halifax / CC BY-SA 2.0

Another historical love story that we’ve fallen for this summer was the 2019 BBC series Gentleman Jack. Based on the true story of the 19th century Yorkshire landowner, businesswomen and lesbian Anne Lister, this series draws heavily from her lengthy diaries in which she recorded her life and sexual encounters, often in code. Her story has captured people’s imaginations, many of whom had previously never heard of her, and serves as an important reminder to amplify the voices of those individuals who history has all-too-often overlooked.

If you, like me, are fascinated by the relationship between gender and power, then I highly recommend Akyeampong and Obeng’s article ‘Spirituality, Gender and Power in Asante History’. This insightful article centres on the Asante Empire, a West African polity in the 18th and 19th centuries. The authors prompt us to rethink our conceptions of power, demonstrating it to be rooted not in the state but in roles and relationships, with which gender is inherently intertwined. To pick out some fascinating examples of the nature of female power in empire, early Asante society was organised through a matrilineal clan system, as it was believed that only women could transfer blood through a dynasty, but childbearing women were generally sidelined in political decision-making because of perceived fears around the spiritual danger of menstrual blood. The authors do a brilliant job of exploring these complex relationships to bring out a much more nuanced understanding of the interplay of power and gender.

A sketch of the Asante chiefs by Jules Gros  - illustrating the OHR editors' pick of 'Akyeampong and Obeng's article on the Asante Empire.
Grands chefs des Ashanti by Jules Gros, via Wikimedia Commons

And now to the Americas – we recommend the fascinating article Mexico City’s Aztec Past Reaches Out to Present, written in 2012 in the New York Times. This article explores the complicated relationship and often tensions between Mexico City as a busy modern city and as a fascinating archeological site. Whilst modern infrastructure often means that potential discoveries cannot be unearthed, the article explores the surprising ways in which these sites have been reached. For example, Aztec ruins under the city are causing the modern-day buildings on top of them to settle unevenly, leading to the need for repair and restoration, allowing archeologists access at long last. These Aztec structures, many destroyed, damaged or built over by Spanish colonisation in the early modern period, are now able to enact a ‘strange sort of payback’, the authors write. This article gives an insight into history in action, and the importance of material culture in understanding where our societies come from.

Last but not least, we have Mrs America, a new BBC miniseries about the ‘second wave’ feminist movement in the US. Particularly fascinating was its exploration of the concurrent development of a conservative women’s movement of ‘homemakers’ fiercely opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment, focussing on the infamous Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett). This was a particular favourite of Luke Bateman’s, who wrote that ‘the series shows how issues surrounding gender, race, sexuality, discrimination and so-called “family values” came together to inform a debate that radically rewrote American womanhood, cutting across party-political lines and with powerful consequences for all women involved – the TV series of 2020 so far!’.

We hope you find something amongst these recommendations to ignite your historical curiosity and perhaps inspire you to explore new topics and themes. As always, if you have anything you’re particularly passionate about and would like to write about in Oxford History Review then please do get in touch!

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