Revising history (example 1): how and why


In my last post, I revised a passage from a high school history book using techniques that Catherine and I teach in our exercises for Europe in the Modern World. I also promised to discuss the specific techniques I used and why I used them.

One of my goals was to get things flowing more smoothly and clearly by improving the passage’s cohesion. Cohesion can be improved through a variety of devices, including what Catherine and I call “anaphoric devices.” Anaphoric devices are words or phrases whose meanings derive from preceding words or phrases–as with the word “there” in “the German princes who ruled there.” In this particular linguistic context, “there” refers back to three phrases in the preceding sentences: “his land,” “this region,” and “patchwork of feudal territories.” So adding “there” helps connect the third sentence with the two previous sentences. But this “there” doesn’t just connect sentences; it also connects content, clarifying Frederick’s political relationships with the German princes. They aren’t just random German princes; they’re princes who rule within Frederick’s territory.

Another cohesive device I’m using is something we’re often told to avoid, namely repetition. Sometimes repetition is tedious, but sometimes it adds clarity. To this end, I’ve replaced the “His” that opens the third sentence (“His forceful personality”) with a repetition of “Frederick” (“Frederick’s…”); I’ve repeated the word “territories” (more on that below), and I’ve repeated the phrase “left” (“whenever he left…”) by adding “Frederick left the country frequently.” This last repetition also bridges a  paragraph break I’ve added: that first paragraph, which opens as an introduction to the Holy Roman Empire and closes as an account of Frederick’s exploits outside this territory, is begging to be split in two.

Yet another cohesive device is combining sentences, as I’ve done with the last two sentences of the original first paragraph.

Improving cohesion–and, therefore, flow–improves readability. The reader’s mind is less likely to wander away, as mine did when I first read the original, and she is more likely to appreciate the underlying connections.

Besides highlighting connections, however, I also wanted to highlight what’s most interesting–in particular, the dramatic contrasts. I had two contrasts in mind. First, there’s the contrast between how much control Frederik had over his empire when he was around vs. when he was away. Later on there’s the contrast between mounted knights and foot soldiers.

One way to bring out these contrasts is make them more explicit. That’s why I spelled out a conditional circumstance that in the original is merely implied: “So long as Frederick remained in these territories…”  Spelling this out heightens the contrasting condition: “whenever he left…” To further heighten that contrasting condition, I moved it out of what’s now a rather long sentence into a shorter, punchier one: “whenever he left, disorder returned.” Another way to bring out contrasts is to rearrange a sentence so that the contrasts are closer together and expressed with similar phrasing, as I’ve done with “Frederick’s army of mounted knights faced the Lombard League’s foot soldiers” and “crossbow-wielding foot soldiers defeated knights on horseback.”

Yet another way to highlight what’s exciting is to move what’s not exciting into the shadows. To that end, I’ve bracketed it off with parentheses the not-so-titilliating fact that the alliance against Frederick was called the Lombard League.

But what about Frederick’s death by drowning? Why have I also demoted that to a parenthetical? Yes, drowning an usual way for an emperor to die, but bringing it up potentially distracts from the final–and more historically significant–point, which is that the emperor’s death (whatever its cause) contributed to the disintegration of his empire.

2 thoughts on “Revising history (example 1): how and why

  1. I had to read carefully to realize that the original text was actually from a published history book and not a student piece written by a bright 6th grader. It was poorly written, of course, but the history that it recounted was a mix of irrelevant details, misleading political history, and complete ignorance of the important aspects or Friedrich Rotbart’s* reign.

    So, let’s take a look at the things I think most historians would consider to be important about Barbarossa’s reign:

    ° He spent much of his reign in conflict with the Norman Sicilian kingdom in the south of Italy, with the pope playing the two rulers off against each other.
    ° Lombardy had been within the Empire since the reign on Charlemagne, but had gained quite a lot of independence during the reign of previous Kings of the Romans. His many campaigns into Italy were an attempt to restore effective sovereignty there, and they were largely successful, in spite of the setback at Legnano. The HRE would continue to control more or less of northern Italy until the end of the empire in 1806 (after more than 1000 years under Frankish/German rule).
    ° When he came to power, Germany was fractured and no significant player on the international stage. He reunited the country and it would remain a major political force for centuries.
    ° He led the German contingent in the Third Crusade (the one with Richard the Lionheart), and his death by drowning while crossing a river in what is now Turkey resulted in the dissolution of the contingent and quite possibly the failure of the Crusade.

    And, since we’re writing for a young audience, let’s also consider adding interesting if less important bits of history to gain their attention. Perhaps one or more from this list:

    ° The pope refused to crown Barbarossa King of the Romans for a time because he did not help the pope down from his horse.
    ° There is a legend that Frederick is buried beneath a mountain and will arise to restore the German empire. (The King Under the Mountain legend is popular in many cultures.)
    ° And we can probably put Legnano here as well, but if so it should also be mentioned that the crossbowmen who held off the German army for long enough for reinforcements to arrive were defending a sacred war wagon called a carroccio.

    * As the ruler of a multi-cultural realm, Friedrich was known by many names, the most common were Rotbart and Barbarossa (German and Italian versions of Redbeard). “Frederick Barbarossa” is perhaps the most commonly used version in English. “Frederick I” runs the huge risk of being lost among the many other numbered rulers of Europe, Frederick Barbarossa not so much.

    I’ve long been incensed that history teachers can manage to make history boring. If this typical of the material that they’re working from, I’ll be sure to transfer my ire from the teachers to the writers.

    Final note: I thought about responding to your original post on this material for some time, but in the end, decided that any response addressing the actual history rather than just the text you were working with would be a distraction from your basic point. FWIW, I much prefer the writing in your rewrite to that in the original, but unfortunately it was still based on the history (or perhaps “history”) of that text.


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