Covering the entire history of philosophy in one go is a tough challenge. Even covering an (so far) unfinished podcast series on the history of philosophy is pretty daunting. Peter Adamson in his series History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps) makes it as easy as possible though, with an approachable and accessible style and structure. Each podcast episode is twenty to thirty minutes in length and covers a single philosopher or a single topic; generally following on in chronological fashion. The website is rather handily divided into broad eras (so far Classical, Later Antiquity and Islamic) which are then subdivided into smaller sections – this makes things easily navigable, but it is a continuous podcast and episodes do link neatly from one to the next (with the occasional interview episode). Unlike many podcasts, which are run by enthusiastic amateurs, this is run by an enthusiastic professor (based at King’s College London and LMU in Munich) with support from the Leverhulme Trust. Don’t be intimidated though, it works like the rest but perhaps with more confidence and an impression series of knowledgeable guests.
Again with the poor timing: I’ve just finished reading Agincourt by Juliet Barker and was considering whether I can be bothered holding on until Saint Crispin’s Day (25th October) before I post this – obviously not. And so this post is coming out exactly 599 years after some point in the middle of the Siege of Harfleur. This book covers that as well but it’s not quite as dramatic, is it? Anyway … I thought I’d write up a bit of a review of this book, and its follow up Conquest. These books come well recommended, with Bernard Cornwell quotes on the cover and much praise from other reviewers and historians.
I feel somewhat out of place to then say that I found these books disappointing. There’s so many positives in them – they are tightly written, cover the story with an expert eye from the grand scheme to the small details, contain some wonderful anecdotes*, characters and events, and are placed at a level that should be perfect with me (not too scholarly but assuming a certain level of background knowledge for their off hand references to Lollards or Richard II’s usurpation). However, I find these positives backfire and much of this detail is delivered flatly in a tone and pace that remains unswerving whether it is covering the peak of the battle of Agincourt or the production of cloth in the pre-war preparations. I know this is unfair, it’s a very well researched book and it never strays in irrelevancy, but it just doesn’t spark into life for me when it should.
Sometimes I don’t think this blog through well enough. I read this book months ago and reviewing it would have obviously sat perfectly with the world cup final that helped to mark the current dominance of German football, but alas – here it is, a few months later, just as attentions are focused on the new Premier League season.
Anyway … this sporting history written by the German journalist Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger is aimed at a non-German audience. People who won’t necessarily know the ins and outs of football in that country. It does not however act as a cultural, social or political history of Germany and would be next to useless as a tourist guide. There are many other books which do this for other countries, Morbo by Phil Ball, Brilliant Orange by David Winner – and it generally works rather well; but Ulrich H-L sets his stall out bluntly and immediately, he’s here to talk about football and you should look elsewhere for a tour guide.
Once that’s out of the way, the fascinating story of German football begins. It has sometimes had the image of an efficient and professional machine that lumbers along steamrolling the opposition in a dour way (largely because of the 80’s, which we’ll come to later). The truth couldn’t be further from that for the early days of German football; it was very much a regional and amateur sport. The Bundesliga didn’t come about until 1963 and even the 1954 World Cup winning team was made up of amateurs. Other nations had also been resistant to professionalism at the start of the twentieth century, but it is pretty shocking to find Germany still in that state fifty years later. Of course, that wasn’t the only problem – it’s hard to ignore the wars and dramatic political changes that Germany took part in during the first half of the twentieth century.
There have been many, many books on the end of the western Roman empire; do we really need another? According to Bryan Ward-Perkins we do. He asserts that many recent historians, in their quest to re-examine the so called “barbarian” cultures of the Germanic invaders, have went too far and lost sight of the idea that the fall of Rome was a bad thing that severely impacted the lives of the (former) Roman citizens. He quotes various academics in articles portraying the invasions as a peaceful restructuring of the empire or a gentle transition period.
Personally, having stuck mostly to popular history, it seems like BWP is overstated the prevalence of this and that this may be a little bit of a straw man for him to argue against (any scholars out there in WordPress-land willing to share their own views on this?) but, despite these disagreements, he remains complementary and respectful of these historians so I’m willing to go along with him. I’ll come back to this overview and his conclusions at the end of my post, but for now I will cover his attempts to briefly explain and his idea of the empire declining and ending primarily due to violent invasion.
Just a quick note here. I had previous written a post on the History of Alchemy podcast by Travis Dow and Pete Collman, two americans based in the Czech Republic who had also worked on a show on Bohemian life. I loved aspects of the show – it was relaxed, informal, and threw up great anecdotes – but at times it could be a bit piecemeal with lots of one off biographical episodes on esoteric characters. I’m therefore pleased to find out that Travis Dow is looking to start a series on the history of Germany!
The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire
In this book, one of my favourites of recent years, Anthony Everitt covers the early days of Rome, both fact and fiction, in a light conversational style. The title suggests a certain symmetry with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall but this work is nowhere near as weighty (or radical). There is a bit of symmetry however in the timeline; it goes from Rome’s earliest days to the end of the Republic – not quite to the start of Gibbon but perhaps close enough to show the authors intentions. It is the early Republic however that gets the most focus. For me this is a highlight as I’ve read plenty on the likes of Pompey and Caesar, but the earlier days with mythical figures like Coriolanus or Cincinnatius often seem to be neglected. His previous books had typically been biographies – Cicero, Augustus, Hadrian – and this one does keep an enjoyable focus on characters even if there’s very little to go on. It’s not that the wider social factors are neglected, but Everitt seems to understand that a focus on individual personalities and anecdotes can help draw the reader deeper into history. This love of characters and myths is tempered by plenty of caveats and disclaimers about the reliability of these early Roman myths but, being from a literary background, Everitt is happy to run through these stories nonetheless.
Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire
I’d been looking forward to this book for a while, drawn to it by an attractive cover and by the chance to fill in some gaps in my knowledge between the end of the western Roman Empire and the middle ages proper. Written in 2010 by Hywel Williams, and published by Quercus, this book covers this period in detail and tackles issues in the development of culture, nationality and religion. There’s less said about Charlemagne the man than one might expect from the title. I’ve covered a few books about a single character on this blog and there have been a number of different styles: Alcibiades got a very straight biography, while John Hawkwood was used as a tool to tell a broader history, and Mark Antony received some sort of revisionist argument. Charlemagne doesn’t really get anything – the focus is instead on the big themes of his reign and those of his dynasty; the book would probably have been more accurately titled Empire of the West. It is centred on his reign and we do get a vague chronological order through his life but the nine chapters are separated by these topics.