Decline and Fall of Roman Britain by Neil Faulkner

As I often do, I skipped the preface to this book and went straight into the main text.  Because of that, it was only about half way through that I realised Neil Faulkner was a Marxist – all the references to class war finally started to make sense.

In this book, actually charting the whole history of the Romans in Britain, this approach has advantages and disadvantages.  Roman society was undeniably full of inequality and, in an otherwise dry book, Faulkner does succeed in bringing that to life.  His descriptions of the settlements, showing the disparity in wealth, are bolstered by plenty of archaeological evidence.  His explanation of the effects of Diocletian’s economic reforms is much more vivid that I’d thought the history of taxation could be.

On the downside, his conclusion, that the end of Roman Britain would let a peasant revolt kick out the landlords and live a brief but ideal agrarian society before the Saxon warlords moved in, comes across as far fetched and lacking any real basis to back it up.  His descriptions of the Roman empire outside of Britain are short and one-sided, mostly existing to show either Britain’s role in the empire or the inequality in the system.

I’m not as well read on Roman Britain as I should be, but this stands as an interesting if occasionally uneven take on that particular fringe of the Empire.  Worth reading, but perhaps best balanced with an alternative point of view.

Iron Kingdom by Christopher Clark

I picked this up from my local library recently for a holiday to Berlin.  As it turns out, there’s maybe not a whole lot of relevancy for such a city break – Berlin has been so rebuilt from the time of old Prussia in both physical form and outlook; and, in any case, the history of Prussia was always dominated by the fringes.  The eastern Dukedom that provided the name and the old military Junker families is now back in Polish hands, and the rest of German has found an easier, less Prussian, form of German unification.  It was however a fascinating book.

With the reputation that Prussian has, I was expecting fairly blunt military history but Clark delicately covers the social, religious and economic aspects of history too.  We don’t just get the monarchs (inevitably called either William or Frederick, sometimes both) and the aristocrats, but also the working people – both native Prussians and minorities, often Polish or Jewish.  Packing all this in, the book is a big one.  It is not, however, heavy going – Clark writes accessibly, even on the more difficult topics.

As Prussia forms and leads a unified Germany, the book could become more of a standard history of the World Wars.  Thankfully, Clark finds his own angle on this.  Alongside the main narrative of the rise of the Nazi Party, for instance, we see the Prussian state dominated by the Social Democrats.  Throughout the book, there were a lit of similar bits, previously unknown to me, that came together to help explain the path that Prussia took through history.  It may not have quite been the perfect holiday book, but I really enjoyed this.

Athelstan by Tom Holland

I’m a big fan of Tom Holland.  His book Rubicon (following after Robert Harris’ Cicero series) was a large part of what got me back into reading about history.  I was a bit surprised then to find this book in the library, having managed to completely miss it.  Part of the Penguin Monarchs series, it’s a beautifully presented hard-back book of only 90 or so pages.

The book is largely a discussion of the work that Athelstan (king 924 to 939) did to unify the Anglo-Saxon and Viking kingdoms into a single English kingdom.  As such it starts from the roots of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, and it is surprisingly far through the book before Athelstan rears his head.  As the book concludes this pacing makes sense; although the existence of a single English kingdom seems simple now, it is something that was never inevitable and often a struggle.  This wasn’t concluded in one generation, it was the culmination of work by Athelstan’s predecessors – Edward the Elder and Alfred the Great.  All three of these kings struggled with succession, other brothers and cousins laid strong claims to the Kingdom or parts thereof.  The single English kingdom could have easily fragmented before it was even born.

Also facing this was the idea of Britain as a whole: the Scots had the kingdom of Alba, a gaelic term referring to the whole island; while the Welsh had prophecies about their reclaiming their old lands across the island.  After wars in Scotland, Athelstan was proclaimed “rex totius Britanniae”, King of all Britain, in addition to his title “Rex Anglorum”, King of England.  One of these would stick and one would not.  As England formed as a single entity, so would Scotland and Wales.

Athelstan is often left as a postscript to the story of King Alfred.  It’s good to see him and his achievements presented and discussed in this way, as a crucial period in shaping Britain.

Shakespeare’s Local by Pete Brown

I’ve been to The George Inn on Borough High Street several times.  It’s a lovely looking building, all lop sided balconies and dark old-fashioned windows, with a layout of rooms that don’t seem to go where you expect.  Typically it’s packed with tourists and the beer (from Greene King) is average (though it is slightly less obnoxious than nearby the Anchor Bankside).  There is an atmosphere however.  Even on a busy summer’s day, it’s possible to find a space somewhere and soak in the history.  And there is quite a lot of history.

shakespeares-local-the-george-inn-borough-high-street

The title of this book suggests that Shakespeare frequented the pub – Brown admits that this isn’t backed up by evidence.  Like many stories around the pub though, it’s a reasonable guess.  The inn next door, The Tabard, was used as the starting point for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  The George was one of many inns known for theatre and entertainment during the Tudor period.  It later became one of the big coaching inns for travellers to and from London, before popping up in Dickens in the early Victorian era.  It wasn’t the biggest or most famous of pubs in the are, but it is the one that survived.  By telling the story of Southwark and its pubs in general, Brown manages to focus in on the George as it somehow survived through changing and often turbulent times.

In tone, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Hops And Glory (where the author brews a traditional IPA and transports it to India).  Occasionally the humour doesn’t land and the stream of anecdotes can feel a little relentless.  In terms of the topic though, I really enjoyed it.  That humour does take the edge off topics that could otherwise be dry (a short history of road transport?).  It was interesting to note the changes that have happened in Southwark even in the short period between this book in 2011 and now in 2017.  Reading this just after the attack at London Bridge, when the area was very much in mind, it was a reminder of how things change in London and how they remain the same.

History of Modern France by Jonathan Fenby

51hzPxe5euL._SX323_BO1204203200_[1]I got this book in the lead up to the French presidential election, and although it sat on the “To Read” pile until after Macron’s victory, I was hoping to pick up a sense of the forces involved in that election.  The French presidential election seems increasingly like a free for all with a baffling number of candidates; hardy perennials that turn up each time, and spin offs from the main parties.  I have tried to get an understanding of France before, with Graham Robb, but was just even more lost in the number of regions, subcultures, personalities and quirks of history that make up the country.  To misquote De Gaulle: how can you understand a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?

This history starts with a quick review of Napoleon and the Revolution before taking the reader chronologically through French history.  Starting with the Restoration and July Monarchy (which I was vaguely familar with from histories of the 1848 revolutions), on to Napoleon III (similar), then the Third Republic between the Franco-Prussian and First World War (my prior knowledge began and ended with the Dreyfus Affair), then on to the Second World War and the Fourth Republic, before reaching the Fifth Republic that exists today.  The tone of the book is straight faced and to the point, but the pacing is quick and it is remarkably accessible.  Single page biographical asides are dotting throughout the book, adding some colour.

Some parts that were initially obscure to me before reading remain clouded (the presidents and prime ministers of the third republic for instance); but Fenby has helped me rationalise that.  Lack of stability has often been a feature of France, as politics becomes fragmented and discontent with the system grows.  Fenby finds this tension running throughout the history, not just between left and right, but between shades of the left or the right.  Under exceptional leaders like De Gaulle or Mitterrand, these can be unified, but eventually the same tensions rise again.

Many of the candidates for the recent election feature in the book, but Macron possibly the least of them – relegated to a footnote on the PS picking an investment banker as an economic minister.  The conclusion to the book does stress the need for some innovation in French politics, a move away from the entrenched party politics and old battles, but it is not clear that Macron is that move.  With the elections for the French parliament coming up and Macron’s new party polling well, it will be interesting to see where things go from here.

Pergamon Museum, Berlin

On a weekend away in Berlin a fortnight back (part of the reason there have been so few posts on here recently), we wandered onto Museum Island and took a walk around the Pergamon Museum.  In short, it is fantastic!  The early 20th century Germans seem to have just transplanted or reconstructed parts of ancient cities through the Mediterranean and Middle East.  Whatever the ethics of this may be, the sheer scale of these exhibits is astonishing (the photo below shows me being dwarfed by the Ishtar Gate of Babylon).

Ishtar

The Pergamon Altar that the museum is actually named after is currently closed for remodelling, but the Market Gate of Miletus, the Processional Way (also from Babylon), and a room from Ottoman Aleppo impress on an epic scale.  The so-called Aleppo Room has a particular poignancy, with a display outside showing the damage to the original district of the Syrian city.

Other exhibits are on a smaller scale, but displays from Assur, Sumer, and a dozen locations throughout the islamic world (in the Museum fuer Islamische Kunst in the same building) are engrossing.  With each culture or location house in their own separate display, it highlights these unique cultures a lot more than other museums – where one can seem to blend into another around time and space.

I am definitely looking forward to returning in a few years for the updated and reopened Pergamon exhibit.

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

This is a book with a reputation.  Bill Gates said it was one of the most important books he’d ever read, and it has been praised by academics and writers from all sorts of backgrounds.  It has also received its fair share of criticism.  Reading it, it is obvious why – Pinker has written an ambitious book, not just setting out to show that humanity has become a more peaceful and tolerant species over its history, but also trying to explain why this has happened.

In this era of Brexit, Trump and ISIS, I was looking for something to cheer myself up.  Something to bring back some sense of optimism.  Some sense of progress.  Pinker’s 800 odd pages of statistics and anecdotes on war, murder, rape and bigotry somehow fit the bill.  It is indeed grim reading, but there’s plenty of interesting and positive bits here – the huge decline in rape and murder even in the last few decades for instance.

Sometimes though Pinker may be too ambitious.  His analysis of pre-historic violent deaths seems to draw particular ire.  The power law trends and Poisson statistics on warfare are interesting – and while I’m aware that one new piece of data won’t invalidate things, I would be interested to see these include the fighting in the middle east since 2011.  At times Pinker is a little too optimistic, a little too sweeping, and possibly indulges in cherry picking or dismissing inconvenient data.

The actual conclusions and psychology side of things didn’t appeal to me that much, but the statistics were fascinating.  Whether or not you find yourself entirely convinced by Pinker’s arguments, it’s definitely worth reading to find some sense of perspective on our often chaotic world.  Those 824 pages of graphs will just fly by.

14th Century Games

I came across this quote the other day:

“In village games, players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal’s claws.”

(originally from Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century).

Back in the days when you had to make your own entertainment!

Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cuncliffe

Subtitled ‘The man who discovered Britain‘.  This could be a great exercise in how to stretch out as little information as possible.  Pytheas, a Greek explorer from Marseille in the 4th Century BC, wrote about his exploration of north western Europe and it seems to have been well known among later Greek and Roman writers, but the problem is that only fragments and quotes have survived to us today.

With this in mind, Cuncliffe sets out to describe the Mediterranean culture that the explorer set out from in 325 BC and the lands that he may have discovered.  Each fragment or reference to Pytheas in Pliny or Strabo or Diodorus Sicilus is examined in depth, and the author speculates on locations based on archaelogical finds.  As speculation goes, it’s a better job than The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb.

Concerning Pytheas, or even the ancient Celtic culture, there’s not really much to get a grip on but the general information on ancient travel, agriculture and the tin trade is interesting enough.  Piecing together these from archaeological sites reminds me of Philip Parker’s descriptions of Vinlandia in The Northmen’s Fury, but with even less evidence to go on.  Other bits of information were even dismissed by ancient commentators as fanciful – the lurid tales of the cannibal Irish or Britons sharing wives between a dozen or more men.

Pytheas claimed to have circumnavigated Britain and visited the mysterious island of Thule to the far north.  Whether or not he did so, the debate over the location of Thule has trundled on ever since.  Pytheas was an educated man and was able to make measurements of latitude and give a rough description of his six day journey, ending in drift ice.  Iceland is one possibility, and Cuncliffe sticks squarely to it and sets out his arguments against the other options of Norway and Shetland.  As far as evidence goes, it’s like bald men fighting over a comb.  The whole thing could just be Pytheas passing on rumours and hearsay from further North.

The style is friendly enough, and the hand drawn maps are cute if not entirely useful!  It is a lot more grounded than Robb’s book and less poetic and rambling than In The Land Of Giants by Max Adams (another take on ancient Britain), but at times I found it hard going – jumping from archaeological finds to excerpts from classical texts, often leaves the main narrative.

We will probably never know how the full story of Pytheas’ journey, but what we do makes for interesting speculation.  It’s probably a bit too speculative for me, but it’s an interesting starting point for ancient exploration.

Going Dutch by Lisa Jardine

If you’ve ever (as an english speaker) listened to someone speaking dutch, you might be surprised to find much common links between the two countries.  In the 17th century however, there was a huge crossover of ideas and culture – eventually culminating in William of Orange taking the British throne.  Lisa Jardine argues in Going Dutch that William’s Glorious Revolution was more of a hostile military occupation than the standard portrayal.  William brought tens of thousands of men, his personal guard patrolled the streets of London.  He was easily assimilated however, because of a long recent history of shared culture between the two nations.

Jardine goes through each aspect of this shared culture in detail – letters and collaboration between scientists, taste in artwork, styles of landscaping gardening, and the roles of prominent families like the Huygens family.  The detail is fascinating, if often overwhelming, occasionally repetitive and sometimes over-reliant on the aforementioned Huygens family (and on Robert Hooke, who Jardine had also written a biography of).

I did  have a few other issues with the book, the tone suggests a groundbreaking change in how we should view the Glorious Revolution but the actual content is much more grounded.  While the extent of the  dutch connection might be forgotten, I’m not sure anyone really believes William’s propaganda as fact.  The subtitle “How England Plundered Holland’s Glory” is also over the top, and not really justified by the content of the book.

Ignoring this, it’s an enjoyable overview of cross-channel culture during the 17th century.  There’s plenty to enjoy and it does point towards art, architecture*, landscape and more for anyone wanting to explore their dutch heritage.

 

*It reminded me of this documentary by Jonathan Meades, which investigates the same topic with a slightly different tone.