Michael Burns

Michael Burns teaches history at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. He is the author of Dreyfus: A Family Affair.


Michael Burns, 23 February 1995

Britain was once well known for its cruelty to animals. Bear-baiting, bull-baiting, dog-fighting and cock-fighting were enormously popular amusements; the draught horses of the poor and the race horses of the rich were pushed to limits unimaginable today; vivi-sectionists practised their trade on monkeys and dogs with impunity; and many hunters, ignoring the rules of sportsmanship, imagined no greater enjoyment, as one enthusiast put it, than ‘whole hecatombs of slaughter’.


Michael Burns, 18 November 1993

Nineteenth-century demographers tried to take the measure of death. Years before Emile Durkheim, they counted suicide rates as barometers of social dissolution, and their rage for mathematical precision extended into all corners of ‘mortal knowledge’. Reflecting contemporary anxieties over urban growth, urban squalor, industrial accidents, the persistence of cholera, and, later in the century, the declining birthrate and the spread of tuberculosis, the new ranks of social scientists calculated the consequences of a rapidly changing French society. Thomas Kselman, in this superb new book, notes the paradox: hard facts about deadly disorders both heightened fears and raised hopes that solutions would follow. Government officials tackled problems of public hygiene, doctors formed professional organisations and vied with midwives and priests as bedside ministers; and hospitals, long rejected as sink-holes of contagion where the poor went to die, improved their practices, polished their image, and increased their clientele. The change was gradual, but the trend was clear: the 19th century marked ‘the medicalisation of sickness and death’. We live – or we are kept alive – by its legacy.’

Kill a Pig, roast a Prussian

Michael Burns, 19 November 1992

In this very short book about a very long murder Alain Corbin returns, as he puts it, ‘to the peasants of my youth (or at any rate to their traces in the archives)’. And he returns with new sensibilities shaped by new methodological tools. Listening to his rural actors with ‘a fresh ear’, he identifies the ‘alchemy’ of a violent event which, in the history of modern France, represents the ‘last outburst of peasant rage to result in murder’. The Village of Cannibals, like Robert Darnton’s Great Cat Massacre, confirms the degree to which social historians, building on the Annales tradition, have embraced cultural anthropology and the study of popular political language over time. Darnton calls it ‘history in the ethnographic vein’, and whether applied to a cock-fight, a cat-skinning or, as in Corbin’s case, to the gruesome killing of a provincial aristocrat, it is a history of blurred genres and deep backgrounds. The bestial mobs – as inscrutable as they were instinctive – of Taine, Zola and Le Bon have given way to crowds of contentious Frenchmen whose diverse cultures and ‘psychological mechanisms’ can be understood by the multi-disciplined modern researcher. By unravelling the violent actions of 16 August 1870, Corbin aims to analyse the peasantry’s ‘collective psychosis’.’

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