Age of Genius by A.C. Grayling

The 17th century contained great political disruption throughout Europe, but also the Scientific Revolution and the beginnings of a recognizably modern world.  In this book, the philosopher A.C. Grayling briefly sets out his view on the century.

First he runs through the Thirty Years War and Anglo Dutch Wars, with stops along the way for a few bits and pieces about what was going on elsewhere – flicking between Wallenstein and Robert Harvey, or from Gustavus Adolphus to scientific publications.  The narrative is short and told with confidence, but simplified (a necessary evil to cram the whole century into 300 pages, but it does lead to some irritating mistakes or assertions).

After this Grayling gets stuck into the various attempted paths to knowledge of the time – from the network of letters between natural philosophers to less rational sorts like alchemists, hermeticists, occultists like Dr John Dee, and the Rosicrucians.  There was often crossover between the developing modern way of thinking and the old irrational ways, but Grayling explains well how religious men like Mersenne or Descartes or occultists like Isaac Newton could still lead the way to a more rational methodology.

There is a brief section on language, society and politics that mashs up the likes of Locke, Hobbes and the Diggers.  There are lots of interesting facts throughout, and very enjoyable to read as Grayling jumps from one topic to another.  It does tend towards the same conclusion though, that the political situation of a post-reformation Europe left space for new ways of thinking to flourish.

The book isn’t really long enough to provide a solid argument for such a big thesis, and at times it feels like Grayling hasn’t really bothered.  The aforementioned sloppy mistakes are rife – at one point he wonders what it would be like if Britain still had control of land on continental Europe, somehow forgetting Gibraltar.  He perhaps overstates the role of the Catholic Church and understates the role of Medieval philosophers (it reminded me that I’ll have to post on God’s Philosophers by James Hannam at some point).  In its bold assertions and Whig history story of relentless progress, this book on the Modern Mind often feels rather old fashioned.

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Alfred The Great by David Horspool

The quote on the front of the book says “If you only have time to read one book on the great man, you should make it this one”.  I wouldn’t entirely agree with that.  David Horspool’s book is largely a critical review of the myths and legends about King Alfred.  It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of Alfred’s life; there’s none of the the colour and myths and grandeur with which he often appears – but it is none the worse for it.

Book CoverThe real historical evidence and the growth of the legend are covered, and with some wit.  There’s a memorable phrase where Horspool describes the Victorian ideal of Alfred as a “Anglo Saxon head boy king”.  There is great detail on contemporary sources like Bishop Asser; on Matthew Parker, the Tudor archbishop who used the myth to boost the newly independent Church of England; and on later romantic portrayals in painting and theatre, all the way up to Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom and the 1969 epic film starring David Hemmings, Michael York and Ian McKellan.

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Edward IV and the Wars of the Roses by David Santiuste

Book coverFirst off, “and the Wars of the Roses” isn’t a subtitle used lightly. This 2010 release from Pen & Sword focuses very much on the military history side of things. It doesn’t function as a complete biography – his later reign is only skimmed through, and the details of his often extravagant lifestyle don’t really feature. It does however make a case for Edward being the most successful general of any English monarch.

His record is blotted by the fact that most of his campaigns were fought against his compatriots in civil wars and rebellions, rather than the French like Henry V (they were, of course, a much more acceptable target), but the achievements do stand up. He never lost a battle, and was equally willing and able to delegate command, negotiate, or retreat if necessary. When he did finally invade France it was a bit of a wash out, with the promised support from Burgandy disappearing – but his eventual peace treaty was a respectable end, and showed a level headed response to these problems.

After a brief introduction to the setting and the upbringing of noble children, the author gives a run through of the Wars of the Roses, with all its characters and machinations. Better tellings of the full story could be found elsewhere; here it is just average (but also necessary to understand Edward’s role). For the battles however, it is much more successful. Aspects of the preparation, tactics, and the aftermath are covered and paint a lively picture of the 15th century campaigns. Edward’s personality too does feel rounded, it may not elaborate but we get enough to understand his more playful or personal side. Despite the focus on the military and on Edward, other characters like Warwick “the Kingmaker” (his role much downplayed here) or Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, do come across well.

In all, it’s worth a read. The military side is very well written and there is enough insight to the politics, personalities and everyday life to keep the rest interesting – I just wish it had been a bit more complete in places.

The Severans by Michael Grant

Book coverA short post here on a short book.  Michael Grant was a classicist with a reputation for writing short and popular, but comprehensive, books on Rome and this volume from 1996 is no exception.  He condenses the fifty event filled years of the Severan dynasty (and the brief reign of Macrinus) into under ninety pages.  The structure of the book is thematic rather than narrative, and chapters on finance, literature and art give perspectives often forgotten in more story-driven popular history.

However, the brevity of the book can be an issue.  Chapters on the law, the army and the infamous Severan women could perhaps do with more elaboration and often seem to be expecting the reader to be working from an already advanced position. Grant clearly has some interesting things to say, but he doesn’t do himself justice at this breakneck pace.  Some of the climactic events of the period are also brushed past in a somewhat underwhelming way, making the narrative chapters seem a bit uneven.

It’s certainly meant to be read as part of a wider reading list and used as a launching off point for further exploration – and in that it does a decent job.  On its own, however, it does nothing but whet the appetite and occasionally make me wish I’d be a little more prepared before jumping in.

Post 68: City Tavern – Philadelphia

I recently went on holiday to New York and Philadelphia, spending a lot of time looking at art, visiting historical/tourist sites and drinking in bars. At one point I combined two of these by visiting the City Tavern in the old part of Philadelphia. This is an recreation of an old 18th century tavern frequented by many of the US’s founding fathers. Living in England where actual pubs from that time and earlier are commonplace, I was dubious.

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Marcus Aurelius by Frank McLynn

Book CoverMarcus Aurelius has a reputation as a great emperor, if not one of the best. He studied philosophy, ruled temperately and was fairly successful in his wars (mostly fought in self defence). He was the last of the “five good emperors”, with the Roman Empire at its greatest extent. However things were not that simple, and both Marcus and the Empire were not without flaws (some of them pretty major). This 2009 biography by Frank McLynn attempts to paint a more complete portrait of Marcus and his legacy.

This is a therefore a book with a lot of side tracks and dead ends.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to really weigh up a man like Marcus Aurelius we need that background.  He was a “good” emperor just as the Empire started to collapse; he was a philosopher whose meditations can read like an inconsistent self-help book; he was a wise leader or a terrible judge of character. The detail goes towards building a better picture of who Marcus Aurelius was (or at least who Frank McLynn thinks he was).

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Post 65: Peter Ackroyd’s The Tudors [History of England Volume 2]

The TudorsI have an odd relationship with Peter Ackroyd’s books.  I have read a few of his novels and like his use of history, he clearly has knowledge about and passion for the periods he chooses.  I generally enjoy his style of writing (though parts of Hawksmoor were trying).  Unfortunately I find the books a bit light on anything actually happening, any particularly compelling characters or occasionally any point.  That sounds harsh, he’s not far off but it generally just doesn’t click for me.

However, that intimate knowledge of history – particularly in England and particularly in London – makes him a very good writer for popular history.  He builds scenes and atmospheres well.  He brings the world to life.  He throws in odd little facts and stories that add colour and depth to the narrative.  He is currently in the middle of writing a history of England, with the first book Foundation taking things up to Henry VII and the third covering the Civil War.

Continue reading Post 65: Peter Ackroyd’s The Tudors [History of England Volume 2]

Post 64: Science & Islam: Medicine

There has been a bit of a gap in posts, but I had been doing a series of post inspired by Ethan Masood‘s book Science & Islam. I’m coming towards the final topics now, but certainly not to the least of them. Medicine could perhaps be picked out as one of the greatest achievements of Islamic science. While some parts of science could come into conflict with religion, the treatment of the sick had a pretty easy start in the Islamic world – Muhammad himself said to make use of the best methods out there. This was seized on with some enthusiasm and, while it was far from the first culture to have hospitals and charitable institutions, advanced hospitals were common.

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Post 60: Emperors of Rome podcast

LogoAfter Mike Duncan’s superb History of Rome, do we really need another podcast about Romans?  Obviously more than a few people think so, by the way that this series, by La Trobe University in Australia has rocketed up the iTunes charts. In fairness, the show itself has a different format and tone – it’s much more biographical in focus and is presented as an interview between the host, Matt Smith, and a lecturer at the university, Dr Rhiannon Evans. Pieces of the interviews are then put together to tell the story and discuss any interesting points that crop up.

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Post 59: Rome, Parthia and India (part 2)

In my last post, I discuss the first part of John B Grainger’s book ‘Rome, Parthia & India‘. The scene is set in the mid second century B.C, with the Roman Republic on a high following its victory over Carthage, and the old successor states of Alexander the Greats empire falling into chaos as usurpers and internal strife leaves them in a weakened state.

The rest of the story

By 130, Greek Bactria was more or less gone. The nomadic Saka and Yuezhi had invaded, pillaged the cities and forced the remaining Greeks out to the east. One of the big archeological sites here is Ai Khanoum or Alexandra-on-the-Oxus – judging by the coins present, this may not have even lasted beyond the end of the reign of Eucratides I in 145 B.C. The Indo-Greek state that survived would become locally influential on culture, but its connections with the rest of the Greek world would be largely myth and rumour and by 10 A.D it too would conquered by nomadic scythians.

Continue reading Post 59: Rome, Parthia and India (part 2)