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.

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.

Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain

During the last days of Republican Rome, the battles in Spain between the rebel general Sertorius and the Roman legions of Pompey, Metellus and others are often relegated to a bit of a sideshow.  This book by Philip Matyszak puts them centre stage.

I rather like these books by Pen & Sword, they can occasionally be a bit uneven but they often cover topics that others don’t.  This is definitely on the better end of the scale.  The writing is accessible,   The maps are useful – with ones showing relief, rivers, settlements and ethnic groups – all relevant for the campaigns that follow.

The book begins with Sertorius as the focus, covering his earlier days as a Marian general and giving a sense of his character – loyal, honest and level headed.  After the return of Sulla, we see Sertorius forced out to Spain where he allies with local tribes and drives off the forces sent to remove him.

Without really delving into the politics of Rome, Matyszak shows how Sertorius could initially hold hopes of a shift in domestic politics allowing him home.  This was an interest thread, he was a Roman and presented himself as a legitimate Roman governor, but he fought alongside Spanish tribes and was linked with potential alliances to Mithradates and other enemies of Rome.  It was a thin line to walk, made possible only by continued military success.

On the military side of things, the high point was a series of brilliant victories against the young general Pompey (later to be “the Great”).  Rome however was able to resupply and replenish its armies, and Sertorius’ subordinates did not always perform as well as their leader.  Decline inevitably set in.  Matyszak sets this against the rise of Pompey, with his style marked by the memory of those defeats and his sons to later fight against Caesar in the Iberian peninsula.

This is a very readable account of Sertorius’ wars.  This topic is often skimmed over in popular histories of the late Republic, but there are plenty of wonderful details and the easy, relaxed tone of the book reminds me of Tom Holland’s Rubicon.  It probably doesn’t work as a stand alone book – too much about the politics and characters of Rome is left unsaid – but it is well worth reading if you have already enjoyed a more general history of this period.

The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb

I have previously enjoyed but been disappointed by Graham Robb‘s Discovery of France and Parisians. Discovery of France was more about the geography and identity of France than I had expected – in hindsight, it was inevitable for a country with such strong regional identity. Parisians told the history of Paris through a series of short stories. It was an interesting approach, but many of the stories weren’t that compelling in themselves.

With The Ancient Paths, I looked before I leaped and was a bit worried by what I found. A startling theory about the wisdom of the druids, discovered by Robb taking a map and drawing straight lines between Celtic sites? He insists it’s not like Ley Lines? One for the library then!

His theory is that the Celts located their cities and built roads along lines of meridian and solstice, often at significant intervals.  He also looks at Celtic buildings and art and traces their shapes within solar inspired geometry.  These feats would required more scientific knowledge than they are usually credited with, and Robb is eager to give them that credit (possibly too eager!).  Robb shows his working throughout and has clearly put a lot of effort in, sometimes cycling long distances to visit sites of interest.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t sit well for me.  There are too many things that could easily be coincidence; too much complexity in drawing it together.  It’s all a bit psuedo-science.

In presenting his theory, however, he tells the history of the Celts and their defeat and assimilation by Rome.  There is a lot to like here, Robb is a good writer and the story of Caesar’s Gallic Wars and various Celtic migrations are told well.  He also gives compelling descriptions of visiting these sites in the modern day.  These do give a hint at a complex civilization that has perhaps been unfairly tarnished as “barbarians”, but perhaps Robb should have stopped there.

The Northmen’s Fury by Philip Parker

This is probably the first Viking history I’ve read since Horrible Histories, when I was a kid. I’m certainly wasn’t disappointed – Parker gives a narrative history of the Vikings through their early raids in Ireland, France and England, to the high points of the great Heathen Armies and the Danelaw, and finally the settlement into various Christian kingdoms. Alongside this he covers the sagas and writings that have preserved this Norse culture so we can read it today.

This book ties in with a few other things I’ve read recently – Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris and The Empire Stops Here. There is a little bit on mythology here, but by and large Parker is focused on fact (or at least the more possible sorts of legend). The myths of Loki, Odin and Thor are mentioned, but only to explain how the fit into the Viking world. Actually, Christianity plays as big a part in this history, and much of our story is on the conversion and settlement of the pagan raiders. By avoiding telling these myths for their own sake, Parker actually gives the book a greater sense of purpose. It allows an almost unbroken focus on the raiding and colonization of the Norsemen; one can get a sense of the connections and development throughout Scandinavian societies.

In comparison to The Empire Stops Here, I preferred Parker’s style here. Although he clearly has a solid take on the dry details, Parker’s writing is at his best when he has a colourful story to tell. The Viking world isn’t short of those! Harald Hardrada in particular stands out, for me, as a highlight. He was a man who seemed to collect good stories, even when they were blatantly stolen from elsewhere!

The chapters on Iceland, Greenland and (what we know of) Vinland are also good. They give a good picture of how the societies in these lands were built, and what may have went wrong (in the case of the latter two). Parker deals with the problem of evidence well; in many situations we just don’t have historical evidence to fill in a complete picture.

Parker keeps a pace and a vividness that makes the Viking age just as interesting to read about as the stories one reads a a child. Maybe a bit more factual, but also more varied – the Viking influence spanned such a geographical area (from North America to the Middle East) and time (Norn was being spoken in the Scottish islands as late as the 19th century!). It’s just a luxury to encounter them from such a distance.

Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris

61maar5m2bel-_sx327_bo1204203200_Just a quick post on this one:  It’s basically a fairly straight retelling of Norse myths, but with Loki as a cocky teenager.  The underlying myths are fun, so there is a certain amount of enjoyment in reading them again, but I can’t really get past Asgard as the “popular crowd” or Fenris as a stroppy teenage son.  It’s definitely a different take on it, and Harris does make the style just about fit, but it feels a bit half baked.

Compared to other modern takes on these myths and characters like AS Byatt’s Ragnarok or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the Gospel of Loki is very straightforward – it’s just the old narrative with a twist in perspective.  Seeing the various legends worked in is nice, but the characters around it are one dimensional and the style quickly grates.  It might work with more humour, but there isn’t much beyond Loki’s occasionally sarcasm.  For me, it isn’t really enough to make it work.