Yale’s Free Course on Modern European History and Emile Zola’s “Germinal”


Germinal, probably Zola’s seminal work

I have just finished reading Zola’s “Germinal”. It’s not a book I would wake up and decide to read, but is a part of a reading list from Professor John Merriman’s online course on European Civilisation, 1648 – 1945.

Professor Merriman is a delightfully intelligent and witty chap who reminds me of one of those uncles one always wished one had  who knows something about everything and has more than a few tales to tell. He teaches French and Modern European History at Yale (it makes sense right, otherwise he would be teaching at Harvard like Niall “Educated-ish Charlatan” Ferguson).

I came across Prof Merriman’s free online course a while ago and as a lover of modern history I thought I would give it a go. The reading list is exactly that which is given to students on the course so I felt that I would at least be as well read as a Yale undergraduate, without the paperwork to prove it of course.

Getting back to “Germinal”, I found it dry and boring at first, but that is often the case when one is reading literature from a century and a half ago. It is the sad tale of the lives of coal miners in France in the 1860s and it initially didn’t inspire me.

I admit that the language was good, the style typically French and literate, the descriptions of the vast landscapes on Northern France blackened by the vast carbuncles (coal pits and quarries) and the pervading atmosphere of despair and darkness. A little depressing at first – though that is exactly the point of the novel and one should read it in the same light (or lack thereof).

Not much of a review right? But wait…

I actually did something that I usually don’t do, I persevered with it, after all it was Zola that I was reading. Upon reaching page 80 or thereabouts, I began to understand the lives of these coal miners as described by Zola. I found myself amazed at the spirit of the human soul and its ability to bear the injustices mentioned in the book; amazed at the sheer wretchedness of their lives in comparison to the bourgeoisie and their feigned charity.

It was a bit of an eye opener… and I started enjoying it. How the protagonist progresses through the chain of events that goes through enlightenment, anger, despair and onwards to hope. The book takes one through the whole gamut of feelings, and delves into what makes us tick.

So much so that I actually started enjoying it and couldnt wait to see where the wretchedness would lead and how things could get worse for these poor people, before they got better.

It was an eye-opener and I must give credit where credit is due, Prof. Merriman please take a bow, you’ve earned it.

Moving swiftly on to the course itself. Merriman’s gargantuan memory is plain to see. He goes through the course with anecdotes and historical data that astounded me. In one lecture, he mentioned a figure to me that got me really thinking. He said that in the first three days of the Battle of Amiens in World War I (the Great War as we refer to it in Britain), more British soldiers died than American soldiers have died in World War I, World War II, Vietnam and Korea. I was gobsmacked. Completely bowled over.

The course itself details the progress of Western Civilisation to the middle of the last century. From the Hanseatic League to the onset of the Third Reich and the re-shaping of the modern world. And at all times, Merriman’s professorial intellect is brought to bear on questions that we must ask ourselves even today. He makes the whole process of learning an enjoyable task and I recommend that you take a look at the course if you are even vaguely interested in Modern History.

To conclude, as I tell my students, read read read, but don’t, for God’s sake, read rubbish. I know this is easier said than done and any reading should be considered good reading, however, try reading something that is a classic and you would never read normally. It can, in my view, be an enlightening experience.

I would wholeheartedly recommend both the course (link here) and the book itself (here) to anyone who wants to read something more meaningful than Fifty Shades of Grey!

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