Alternate Histories

I don’t really like to engage in “what if” history with my students or read alternative histories, but I like the visual images associated with the genre, ostensibly very current but actually quite historical itself.  Renaissance artists inserted anachronistic imagery in their works all the time, partly because they were so immersed in the classical era and could not help drawing comparisons to that time and their own. For example, the northern Renaissance painting The Martyrdom of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins depicts contemporary Turkish soldiers slaying the virgins rather than the legendary Huns.  The Turks had conquered Constantinople in 1453 and were now poised to expand into Europe, whereas the Huns occupied a similar position a millennium before.

The Martyrdom of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, Master of the St. Ursula Legend, Cologne c. 1492. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Invasion seems to be the most popular premise for alternate histories:  the Turks in the Early Modern Era, Napoleon in the nineteenth century, Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler in the twentieth.  Widely acknowledged to be the first book in an emerging genre of alternate history, Louis Geoffroy’s Histoire de la Monarchie universelle: Napoleon et la conquête du Monde (1836) envisioned a world pacified and modernized under the benevolent dictator Napoleon.  Between the reimagined Napoleonic worlds of the nineteenth century and the reimagined Germanic worlds of the twentieth century is a peculiar little story by Salem’s own Nathaniel Hawthorne, “P’s Correspondence” from Mosses from an Old Manse Volume II, in which the author’s deranged friend P recounts his encounters with Romantic poets of an earlier era in 1845 London.  Hawthorne’s version of Midnight in Paris!  Somehow Napoleon appears here too, completely feeble but still under guard, along with an even more incapacitated Sir Walter Scott.

A beautiful first edition of Geoffroy’s Histoire, a Currier & Ives print of the iconic Napoleon Crossing the Alps by JacquesLouis David (Library of Congress) , and a modern mash-up on a tee-shirt.

The twentieth century, with its succession of invasions and conquests and technology, created a natural environment for alternative histories, increasingly recognized as a genre with a special name:  uchronia (which seems to accommodate both “what if” speculations and constructed worlds).  The classic example is J.C. Squire’s If it Had Happened Otherwise:  Lapses into Imaginary History (1931; also published under a variant title:  If:  Or History Rewritten).  The quality of Squire’s contributors (including Winston Churchill) must have gone some way towards legitimizing the relatively new genre.

The late twentieth-century invention of photoshop brought about a whole new realm of visual alternative histories, and the most charming examples I could find were, of course, on Etsy, in the alternatehistories shop. So here, in sort-of chronological order, are slightly altered images of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Chicago during the Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the Green Monster in Boston, just in time for opening day at Fenway next week.

2 responses to “Alternate Histories

  • bradaustin

    I also dislike reading alternate histories. That’s why I haven’t started grading those essays on my desk yet.

    I do, however, like reading your blog posts. Keep up the good work, Donna.

  • juan

    11,000 virgins slain. what were they thinking?

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