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.

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.

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.

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.

Shakespeare Week

Apparently it was Shakespeare Week this week. I saw a display in the local library just as it was ending – a little late to actually get involved. On closer inspection, it’s not actually aimed at me. It’s designed to get primary school age children. The aim is to give them early (and fun) exposure to Shakespeare.

It seems like a good idea. I only read the Bard in secondary school, and it may have been a different approach. After reading MacBeth we watching a couple of productions – including Trevor Nunn’s dark and minimalist version with Ian McKellan and Judy Dench (probably a bit arty for kids) and Roman Polanski’s Playboy version (definitely not for kids).

On a different note – I had actually made this recipe for honey flatbread from a Shakespeare heritage site. The honey was a really good touch, it gave the bread a sweet warming quality, and the salt contrasted with the sweetness in a nice way. Stayed tuned for more top literary insights (or not) next time!