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Course Information

Instructor Info:James Wald
Office Extension x5592
Term: 2014S
Meeting Info: Monday Wednesday
01:00 PM - 02:20 PM Franklin Patterson Hall (FPH) ELH
01:00 PM - 02:20 PM Franklin Patterson Hall (FPH) ELH

Many people have learned and are accustomed to thinking of history as an authoritative account of the past, based on indisputable facts. Scholars of history, by contrast, understand history as a matter of contested and evolving interpretation: debate. And they argue not just over the interpretation of facts, but even over what constitutes a relevant fact. This course will use some representative debates to show how dynamic the historical field is. Topics may include: Did women have a Renaissance? How did people in early modern France understand identity? Why did eighteenth-century French artisans find the torture and slaughter of cats to be hilarious rather than cruel? Were Nazi killers who committed genocide motivated by hatred or peer pressure? Are European Jews descended from medieval Turks rather than biblical Hebrews? Students will come to understand how historians reason and work. In so doing, they themselves will learn to think historically.





Course Objectives:

Basically: to teach you how historians work, and thereby, how to think historically for yourselves.

In the process, you'll get a selective but useful overview of European history of the past 500 years (+/-)

You'll also get practice in developing your skills in reading and writing (what else are you going to do in college courses? this is really important).

The course in essence moves from some introductory and general considerations of historical method (never fear: not too difficult or theoretical) to two broad groups of case studies: the first drawn from the early modern era, the second, mainly from the world of the twentieth century. There are two reasons for this: These are areas with which I am very familiar. These are areas in which some of the best scholarship has been done or the most interesting debates have arisen.

Evaluation Criteria:

Students are expected to:

Attend class regularly (you know that line about 90 percent of life consisting in showing up), keep up with the readings (=be prepared to discuss them in the class session for which they are assigned); complete writing assignments on time.

* * *


On attendance and class content, see Tom Wayman, "Did I Miss Anything?".



That entails not just skimming or reading passively, and instead, reading actively and critically: come to class prepared to discuss it.  That's what this class is all about: not a lecture, but a collective conversation about the texts.

Perhaps I should introduce you to our old friend: taking notes.

Reading assignments are to be completed by the class session under which they are listed.  Obviously, much of the material is unfamiliar, and some (not much) may even be difficult or confusing. That's fine: If you knew everything already, you wouldn't be taking this class. The assumption here is not that you come to class having understood everything perfectly, and rather, that you have made your best effort to get through and make sense of the material.  Bring your questions, and we'll work toward the answers together. That is all we ask.

• How much time will this take?

That depends on you and the individual reading assignment, but here's a rule of thumb. You can do the math: College is a full-time job. In the real world, a full-time job is (or was) considered to take up about 40 hours per week. Hampshire College considers a full-time course load to consist of four courses per semester. That's ten hours per course per week. Each course typically meets for approximately 3 hours per week. That leaves 7 hours per course outside of class. (Divide by the two class sessions, and you get 3 and a half hours preparation for class.) So, basically, you should set aside three to four hours per class meeting for thorough preparation. Take this as your starting point, and then adjust as necessary.



• Complete all writing assignments--on time. As Anthony Grafton a President of the American Historical Association, whose work we read early in the term, once told me: "Something worth doing is worth doing badly." Translation: Get it done. If you do it, it can be evaluated. If you don't do it, it does not exist.  Message: Keep up, keep moving ahead.

The basic plan is:  I anticipate assigning 6 papers of short or modest length (typically, about 5-7 pages; some may be a bit shorter or longer), more or less corresponding to the sections of the syllabus, and periodic short responses or exercises in between (which help by serving as preparation for the papers. This is my best estimate. I will give you ample notice if there are any major changes.

  1. The Vinland Map
  2. Giovanni & Lusanna and The Return of Martin Guerre
  3. Munich & historical analogies
  4. The Great Cat Massacre + Ordinary Men
  5. Genetics, History, Identity

All such writing assignments will be based on the required readings; no outside research projects. There will be plenty for you to do, and I would rather have you devote your energies to understanding it thoroughly.  In that way, one builds the essential skills required for independent work later.

Note: in the case of short reading responses, it really is essential for you to do them by the deadline, that is: the night before class. They are intended to help you to prepare for class, and reading your responses helps me to prepare for class. Doing at the last minute serves no one. So, bottom line: if you insist on doing the assigned reading at the last minute, do that in another class, and not this one. Students who fail to post the response on time will make up the work by writing a 1- to 2-page paper later in the week.

Note: All written work should conform to the Hampshire College ethics of scholarship and be documented in accordance with those ethics and standard scholarly procedure. (Don't worry: it's simple, and the assignments will provide all the guidance you need.)

Additional Info:

The following books are available for purchase at


Amherst Books

8 Main St., Amherst
tel. 413-256-1547

You are of course free to obtain the books wherever it is convenient, but I do think it important to support independent bookstores (not least because the owner is a Hampshire alumnus who has also taught here).

Amherst Books prices are competitive, and above all, the service is top-notch. You will find there people who actually know books. They can also order additional copies very quickly.

You basically just need to purchase the books. I will put available Hampshire books on reserve, but, with one copy available for a three-hour loan and a class of this size--well, you can do the math--you cannot rely on reserve as your sole source of texts throughout the semester. That simply will not work with a class of any size)

I am all too aware of the cost of college books, though I should note that the kinds of books we use in our history courses are relatively cheap. If you were taking the Modern Europe survey course at many a college or university, the single traditional "textbook" (an updated edition of the one that I used and the generation before me used) would cost you well over $ 100. That's just for one title. The situation is, if anything, worse in the natural and social sciences.

Bottom line: It is a course requirement that you do the reading, but it makes no difference to me how you do it.  You are free to purchase the books, borrow the books from a library--whatever. For that matter, I encourage you to consider sharing, if that works. If, for example you have a friend or neighbor in the class and can share the same copy, that's fine with me.


Required Books (in order of use):


Cover Image


Gene Brucker, Giovanni and Lusanna:  Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence (Berkeley, LA, and London:  University of California Press, 2005)


Cover: The Return of Martin Guerre in PAPERBACK

 Natalie Z. Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1983)



Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre And Other Episodes in French Cultural History (NY: Basic Books, 1984)


Hitler, Chamberlain and Appeasement


Frank McDonough, ed., Hitler, Chamberlain and Appeasement, Cambridge Perspectives in History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002) (excerpt)


Ordinary Men By Christopher R. Browning

Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men:  Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (NY:  Harper Perennial, 1998)


David B. Goldstein, Jacob's Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008)


Note on which editions to purchase:  Several of these books--Brucker, Darnton, and Browning--are now out in updated editions (which, among other things, is a testimony to their importance and influence, and the reason that I chose them). However, the change consists in the addition of a new preface or afterword, and the content of the book, as such, has not changed. It is therefore fine to use an earlier edition if that is more convenient (as far as I know, the pagination of the body of the text also remains the same). I can try to put the brief new preface or afterword online, if that will help.

Other assigned texts: All other readings (scholarly articles, book chapters, etc.) will be available on this website.

Note: I will periodically post to the website short articles and news stories, etc. pertinent to the course and its themes. These are simply resources, not required reading.