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Funky History and Von Daniken-itis

Gavin Menzies says that Leonardo Da Vinci copied all his coolest ideas from the Chinese, who brought all their knowledge with them when they sent a fleet to Italy in the early 1400s.  This is the same guy who says that the Chinese discovered America in 1421 – and it was even the same fleet.  It’s all in his new book, “1434: The Year A Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed To Italy and Ignited The Renaissance.”  The stuff about them scooping Columbus was in his other book, “1421: The Year China Discovered the New World.”

Unfortunately, while Menzies is good at generating headlines, his approach to history has been very widely criticized by mainstream historians.  Everybody loves a good story, and it’s been fashionable in recent years to rewrite many of the long-accepted stories of discovery and so-called ‘manifest destiny,’ but Menzies goes a little far into the speculative, basing his whole thesis on one, probably mistranslated, sentence.  It seems that there is a letter, written in Latin, with a line that Menzies translates as “In the days of Pope Eugenius there came a Chinese ambassador to him.”  Unfortunately, no other historian has ever translated it that way, and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto of Tufts University was straightforward when he told Reuters, “It’s Drivel.  No reputable scholar would think that there is any reason to suppose that the person referred to [in the letter] was Chinese.”  Menzies compares drawings made by Da Vinci with drawings in earlier Chinese works, but it’s easy to see similarities where none exist – and then again, by the late 1400s, Chinese influence really was making its way to Europe along the silk road, but a fleet seems a bit farfetched.

Menzies seems to have a touch of Von Daniken-itis.  You may remember Erich “Chariots of the Gods” Von Daniken, who wrote loads of books about how the indiginious peoples of the southern hemisphere – you know, the brown folks – could not possibly have built things like the pyramids and the Nazca lines without help, and in this case, the help must have come from Aliens.  Gavin Menzies seems to feel the same way about Europeans (how sweet the irony), and his “Aliens” are the Chinese.

Speculative history is a fascinating subject all by itself, and nobody does it better than Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of books like “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail,” which argues that the descendants of Jesus Christ are alive today.  Based on a bad French pun, Baigent and Leigh’s book argues that the Holy Grail is not the San Grail, a cup that Jesus drank from at the last supper and then was used to catch his blood while he relaxed on the cross – no, it was Sang Real, the royal blood – the actual blood of Jesus, as passed down to his descendants.  This is not a new idea – the Merovingian Kings in France were making this claim in the 5th century CE.  And of course, they were the descendants.

From this came the backstories of such wonderful works as the unreadable (and unwatchable in movie form) “The Da Vinci Code” and the sometimes-funny-in-parts Kevin Smith film “Dogma” featuring the always amusing Jay and Silent Bob.  Baigent and Leigh actually sued Dan Brown, author of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ for stealing their ideas – the character Sir Leigh Teabing is in fact Brown’s nod to them – but they lost.  You can’t blame them for trying, I mean look at that pile of dough.  But as usual, I digress.

I read one of Baigent and Leigh’s books, “The Temple and the Lodge,” about the Knights Templar and the Freemasons.  Most of the book is a straightforward history, showing how the Knights Templar elaborately forged (in the fake sense) their links with the builders of the Temple of Solomon, and how most of the Masonic lodges of the world make equally false claims to be descended from the Templars.  But even here, Baigent and Leigh spin off into the wildly speculative, claiming – with just about no evidence – that the Scots won the famous battle of Bannockburn in 1314 with the aid of a few hundred of the Knights Templar, who in this story escaped the destruction of their order by the French King Philip ‘the Fair’ in 1307.  Von Daniken-itis again, it would seem.  Those wacky Scots with their man-skirts could never have beaten the English without some outside magic – and the Knights Templar fit the bill perfectly.

History is like a detective story, but even Columbo and Monk sometimes don’t make their cases as airtight as they should – and Gavin Menzies (and Baigent and Leigh) need to do more of the hard work of proving their cases, and less of the easy task of spinning wild tales.  And stop giving Dan Brown ideas for books, okay?

15 comments to Funky History and Von Daniken-itis

  • irishjazz

    The Menzies/Van Daniken connection is so apt- although the latter’s works don’t appear so prominently in the Barnes and Noble history section.
    I am interested in the anti-European bias that seems to be at work in a certain area of popular culture. “1421” shares more than a passing similarity (if worse research) with “1491” – a provocative if one-sided contrast of Native American culture with that of the white arrivals, and with the much more highly regarded but also Jared Diamond’s equally anti-West “Gods, Germs and Steel.” (Which opens with an astonishing suggestion that forest hunter gatherers are not just the equal of the civilized- which seems reasonable- but that they are superior in intellect and capabilities.) The same case is more racially proposed in the “Black Athena” Afro-Centric writings. (By the way, some of these authors give Africa credit for the Chinese as well as the Greeks.)

    These books have a subtext that is anti-rational. The rise of the west is not based on the control of nature through the scientific method, but by the opportunistic looting of wiser cultures by a group just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

    Of course the cultural looting did go on and the West applied genocidal practices to its intellectual equals who had inferior material cultures. But science made it possible.

    Or at least, to pay homage to another theory on the shelves, that and Genghis Khan.

  • balksbox

    I really don’t think it is fair to lump Diamond’s “GUNS, Germs, and Steel” in with these pseudo-historical works, if for no other reason than he does not stand so nearly to the fringe as the other authors, and is far more accepted by mainstream historians (if evidenced only by the Pulitzer and Aventis Prizes he won for the book in question).

    I’ve never felt there was an anti-west bias in his work, though I must have missed his hypothesis that non-Western Eurasians had “superior” intellect and capabilities; could you direct me to that point?

    To me, Diamond simply crafts an interesting view of history: Eurasians were not smarter than the rest of the world, as a whole, they were simply well placed (and, as you pointed out, took advantage of that placement with methods both scientific and looting-based).

    No one group is better than another in this hypothesis, and I don’t think science is ignored – it is just argued that there was a reason certain groups were able to come up with the scientific method and put into practise, and that reason is not that Eurasians are more culturally or genetically scientifically inclined.

  • Steve Page

    You’re wrong, Jon; Menzies is a fantastic, reputable scholar. I also recommend the works of David Irving for an accurate assessment of the holocaust, the works of David Icke for a flawless investigation into the secret lizard people who rule the world, and a regular supply of Chlorpromazine to keep the voices in one’s head quiet. Wibble.

  • slausvonhagen

    I have to agree with balksbox on “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. I didn’t see anything anti-west in it at all. Seemed to be a pretty straightforward description of what was around and who was there to take advantage of it. And it seemed pretty heavily researched.
    On a another note, the Menzies book (1421) intrigued me. I read it about a year ago and was interested to hear it discussed on the SGU but I’m techno-challenged and couldn’t figure out how to contact the Rogues. I poked around on the internet some to see if I could find any info to back up/refute his claims but between 20hrs of class, 2 jobs, reading SGU and SGU-related blogs, Scientific American, vaccine/autism crap and a little exercise every now and then, I haven’t been able to find much. 1421 sounded plausible. This is the first I’ve heard about 1434 and the idea of Da Vinci stealing all his ideas sounds damn stupid so now I’m back-pedaling. What do you think SGU? Can you take a break from psychics, aliens, bigfoot, ID/creation, perpetual motion, and vaccine-autism to talk about some history?

  • irishjazz

    The anti-Western bit in Guns, Germs and Steel is in the forward. I think Diamond makes some interesting points, but that his material determinism is simplistic. I didn’t have a problem with his research, but the uses he made of it. My sense was that he started with a conclusion and then build his case from it.

    He is more than a few clicks above the others, no question, smarter in any case. But I think he downplays the critical development in the West of science, tending to make it seem like the dominant culture was born rich. It doesn’t make Westerners any smarter… and Diamond knows how smart aboriginal people can be from his work in Borneo.

    If I still had the book I would give the reference.

  • irishjazz

    The reference to the people of Papua, New Guinea being “smarter” than Westerners is in both the Prologue and the Epilogue. I remember it because it struck me as jarring in an essentially culturally relativist book.

    I can’t site the passage, but found other references to it online.

  • rrichard

    My reading of the indigenous peoples being “smarter” than Westerners portions of the book, was more to say that merely because they can’t cite Plato doesn’t mean that they’re ignorant.

    I think it boiled down to saying that people in the West barely know how their toasters work, but certain aboriginal peoples can name all the plants and animals around them, they can identify the good food and the bad food from thousands of varieties.

    I wasn’t very swayed, so I guess I’m a little more apologetic about it.

  • Carolyn

    balksbox wrote: “I really don’t think it is fair to lump Diamond’s “GUNS, Germs, and Steel” in with these pseudo-historical works, if for no other reason than he does not stand so nearly to the fringe as the other authors, and is far more accepted by mainstream historians (if evidenced only by the Pulitzer and Aventis Prizes he won for the book in question).”

    While I don’t have an opinion on your basic point, I think it is a mistake to infer acceptance by mainstream historians from the Pulitzer (given by journalists, not historians) and the Aventis Prize (given for science not history). In neither case are historians involved. I’m not sure what kind of logical fallacy it is to appeal to authority and then get the authority wrong.

    I’ve avoided the book because my husband (a history professor) says that it is simplistic and reductionist without enough supporting evidence and that he doesn’t recommend it. This doesn’t mean that it is pseudo-history or that it is wrong or that other historians don’t think it’s a grand book, but it does indicate that Diamond’s conclusions and historical information are not supported by at least one historian I trust.

  • irishjazz

    My belief is that he started with his personal view of the intelligence of the people of Papua New Guinea and built a theory around it to account for their combination of cleverness and lack of material achievement.

    His is an interesting idea, but culture counts as well. The isolation of the indigenous peoples may be as much a factor as their lack of natural resources.

    The comic Demitri Martin has an interesting bit about states with irregular coastlines being more interesting places to live than quadrilaterals… culture loves squiggles. The reason coastal areas are more interesting is that they are interfaces with the rest of the world. As much as anything else, trade made the West, rewarded innovation, provided for the exchange of concepts and ideas. Culture and materials are all necessary (intelligence is too, but it is not a variable, all people are roughly equal.) Leaving one out is like arguing whether a car engine runs on gas or air.

  • philistereo

    Out of curiosity, what exactly is the Latin sentence about the Chinese man that was mis-translated?

    Also, if you want some fun pseudo history, look up Frederick Rolfe’s Chronicle of the Borgias. First rate crazy.

  • dcardani

    I didn’t get the feeling from “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that Diamond had any conclusion in mind when he wrote it, or that he built a theory around that conclusion. I got the impression that he was very afraid of his book being lumped in with the likes of “The Bell Curve,” so he wanted to make it very clear that he was not saying that the various indigenous people he discussed were inferior to Europeans. But maybe I misunderstood.

  • irishjazz

    dcardani: I agree with you that GG&S is the anti-“Bell Curve,” which was a deeply flawed and probably racist book. But Diamond didn’t say “not inferior” but “smarter.” And he said it more than once.

    The book may have had an overall beneficial effect, but I think it was a distorted view of history. Again, throwing the cultural baby out with the racial bathwater, reducting everything to the characteristics of the washtub. (Hopeless metaphor, but at least not mixed.)

    Of course non of this has anything to do with Jon’s quite good blog entry.

  • Jon Blumenfeld

    I think you guys have pegged “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” A great book about how civilization formed and why historic contingency made Europe and Asia technologically superior. BUT – I also found the idea about the Papua/New Guineans being so smart was just silly.

  • I for one, loved both “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “1421”.

    What Diamond argues in “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is very logical. If you look at page 87 of the book he lays out in chart forum the most important factors to Eurasia’s natural advantage. These include above all others “East/West axis”. This is key. While Europeans were in a terrible dark age from around 450CE to 1050CE they still advanced technologically because they received ideas and innovations from the Middle East, China, and India. Their country parts in America did not have this advantage. When the Mayans in modern day Mexico went into a dark age they did not receive technology from the Incas to the south or the Mississippi valley tribes to the north. Another big factor that no one brought up is Eurasia paired with North Africa is by far the largest continent.

    1421 needs to bee taken a lot less true to word than GGS. I accept that the Chinese probably did discover the Americas, Africa, and most defiantly Australia. Do I think they did so like he says, no. He does have a definite anti western view which gets in the way. As the fleets go further to places like North America Greenland, and Antarctica it becomes less and less evidence based. However, in places like Australia he has far to much evidence to be discredited.

    I have not read 1934 yet but I do plane on it.

  • Jon Blumenfeld


    I haven’t read 1421, but I have read some of the criticism. Most of his Australian evidence is definitely called into question. I think you need more than his word for it to believe that the Chinese discovered the Americas, Africa, and Australia. (Africa there may actually be good evidence for, but then nobody – even Menzies – says they got there before Europeans).

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