Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin

2166088In her introduction, Judith Herrin sets out the aim of this book: to convey the idea of Byzantium (what it was and why it is worth paying attention to) to the general public (or more specifically, more builders who were working near her office).  I don’t think it’s true to say that there’s isn’t a popular account of Byzantium.  John Julius Norwich wrote a very good one – a chronological narrative that races along at pace (especially if you get the condensed version).  Herrin takes a different approach, setting things into thematic (no pun intended) chapters which loosely follow the timeline.

This actually makes it a lot easier to get your head round this society, how it differed from classical Rome or the western medieval world, and how it changed over time.  The chapters are filled with anecdotes and odd bits of information that really helped to provide colour alongside the broader streams.  The jumble of facts can occasionally be a little awkward, leaping from one idea to another and shifting back and forth in time.  It is all in there though.  That makes this a nice introduction to the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire – one where you can pick up the political organization, the religious life, the well developed education system – all in a brief three hundred pages.

Compared to John Julius Norwich, there’s a lack of drama.  He plays well with the military campaigns, the plotting, and the politics.  This buries it among the rest of the information.  His chronology keeps track of the broader story better.  Both have their place however, and right now I probably prefer Herrin’s book as an introduction.


Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale

Subtitled The Secret Heart of Russia’s History

916qf300rjlCatherine Merridale tells the history of Russia through the story of the iconic Moscow citadel, The Kremlin.  Or she tells the history of the fortress itself, and those who inhabited it.  It kind of swings between the two – a grand wide-ranging history, and something smaller and more focused.  I suspect the intention is the later, but it’s not really possible to do that without it becoming something a little more specialist.  I don’t think the general reader (myself included) has the background knowledge of Russia required to stick too closely to the location.  The problem with looking for a more general Russian history here is that at some of the most interesting times (much of Peter The Great’s career, Catherine The Great, today(!)) the action doesn’t really take place there.  But this is really just a problem of expectations – there is still plenty of interest here.

The author doesn’t delve too far into the buildings themselves, we get when they were built and why – but this isn’t a book on art and architecture.  The centre here is the stories and the people of the complex.  The highlight for me is really Napoleon.  The tactical surrender of the city to the French, the devastating fire and the subsequent recovery.  Despite its reasonable length of 400ish pages, it can actually be quite a dense book in places – this may be a cut down version of Russian history but Merridale has done some detailed research.

Most of the Russian histories that I have read have some sort of idea or theme projected through out the book.  In Martin Sixsmith’s volume, for example, it was democracy vs autocracy.  In Red Fortress, it is secrecy and plotting.  The Kremlin makes a beautiful and eerie setting for it.  Even her own experiences of writing and researching seem to be layered in a certain degree – forbidden areas and material abound.

Amber, Gold & Black by Martyn Cornell

515r29ewvql-_sx317_bo1204203200_I’m not used to reading things on a Kindle, but I had to go there for this one.  Over £60 for a second hand copy on Amazon!  Under a fiver on Kindle.  Meh.  Anyway … Martyn Cornell is a beer writer and blogger of high repute; he’s won multiple awards from The Guild Of British Beer Writers and his blog Zythophile is always a good read.  This book is from 2008, so may not be up to date with all the craft trends, but that works well enough as Cornell can use distance to get a long term view of the rise and fall British beer styles and their history.

For much of the book, Cornell dredges through brewing history.  Or British brewing history anyway.  The back story of bitter/pale ale/india pale ale is murkier than it is often made out to be (everything seemed so much simpler in Pete Brown’s Hops And Glory): Cornell isn’t happy to go along with the myths (though he isn’t against a good story when the opportunity presents, so the book doesn’t get too dry).  He delves through newspapers, advertisements, popular literature and (of course) brewery records and finds plenty of gold.

There are some niche topics – long forgotten herbal beers, honey beers, and heather beer (that had been revived with Williams Brothers’ Fraoch).  Wood aged beers too had made a comeback with Innis & Gunn and an aborted (for tax reasons) Fuller’s aged Golden Pride getting a mention.  I especially liked the chapter on Barley Wines and Old Ales, fitting my personal taste in beer.  A chapter on British Wheat Beer goes in some odd directions, and a chapter on Lager that shines a light on big British brewing and technology.

I have seen a few good criticisms of this book: the lack of Scottish styles (although Scottish brewers do play a prominent role in the Lager chapter); a writing style that isn’t entirely clear – Cornell has plenty to say on the distinction between stout and porter, but I would be hard pushed to summarize it.  There is occasionally a technical focus that feels out of place, leaving the book hanging between something more specialist and something more popular.  Despite these faults, it’s well worth reading for anyone really interested in traditional English beer styles (both obscure and well known).

The Dutch Republic by Jonathan Israel

It’s Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806

51jdw9mkxzl-_sx331_bo1204203200_This is a heavy book – over eleven hundred pages, with narrative chapters; chapters on social history, architecture, art and the economy.  It’s not easy reading.  I only picked it up because in 1672 the dutch killed and ate their prime minister, and that seemed like an idea worth exploring.

Seriously, it’s a dry book, detailed enough to get lost in but fast enough to not burst into life at the more colourful events (of which dutch history has many).  Dutch history is the history of a rich and complex society about which most of Britain (including myself) now knows much less than it should.  I’ve previously struggled with Lisa Jardine’s book on the topic.  I thought I would focus on a few things that did come across strongly.

  • Being from Northern Ireland, I’d happily leave William of Orange alone – but he’s actually a fascinating character.  Manipulative, populist and authoritarian.  His rise feels like something from a much later period of history (Napoleon III?).
  • In fact the whole of dutch history feels like something from a much later period – with a necessary focus on party politics, economics and industry.  I’m not sure you can get away with a Great Man approach to history here.
  • Dutch history seems to be a constant series of division and factionalism: north/south, catholic/protestant, rural/urban, coastal/inland, republican/Orangist, the Reformed church vs Arminius, religious tolerance vs repression.
  • There’s an oddly familiar feel to the Dutch Republic.  Liberal, but only in part.  It manages to create and house free-thinkers like Spinoza and Descartes, and then force them out or keep them quiet when they go too far.
  • The strength of the Republic feels constantly precarious, and despite the book being loaded with information it can be difficult to really see how it became and remained so powerful for so long.
  • These ethereal connections that held it together seem to eventually collude in it’s downfall with the decline of the navy as William III let the British Navy take over.

I’m glad I struggled through it, but I’m still looking for a genuinely accessible introduction to the Netherlands.

The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey

I’m not usually up to date on my literary pursuits, but this one feels almost contemporary.  In September last year The Darkening Age came out to some discussion and argument.  Nixey, brought up as a strict Catholic, sees herself as balancing a wrong – that the image of early Christianity is all love, hope and charity; where the reality could be violent, perverse and oppressive.  To this end, the book obviously opens with the destruction by Christians of a pagan temple in Palmyra – playing it off against more recent religious extremists.  It’s not subtle, nor is it meant to be, but at times it comes across as rather slippery – it sometimes feels like a long succession of straw men, cherry picking and incomplete information.

35450727At it’s best, Nixey gives likely semi-fictionalized descriptions of Christian atrocities and madness, and these do cover interesting snippets of history.  The graphic descriptions of the destruction of the beautiful temple of Serapis (and its library), and the mob killing of the philosopher Hypatia are gruesome and vibrant.  The abbot Shenoute’s housebreaking is shocking.  And the story of St Anthony and his demons is just weird.  Unfortunately, when Nixey tries to generalize the book feels shallow.  Her chapter on the exaggeration of Christian martyrdom adds little beyond what Gibbon suggested in the 18th century.

The book also feels rather shallow when it comes to the Pagans that Nixey would defend.  Having recently read Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling The Gods, the classical world seems very one dimensional religiously and intellectually in The Darkening Age.  We switch between the first, third and sixth centuries at the drop of a hat; between Gaul, Egypt and Constantinople; between Stoics, Epicureans and Neo-Platonists.  The old fashioned moralist end of Rome is ignored in favour of the Libertine end (Catullus’ sex life rather than Juvenal’s homophobic rants).  Their rejection of some foreign cults (Manichees or the Druids) brushed aside for their incorporation of others (Isis or Mithras).  There is little on why Pagan polytheism really differed in behaviour from monotheistic Christianity (something that was a particular stand out in Whitmarsh’s book).

I understand it’s a different sort of book – but frankly, I’m not sure that it is that novel to suggest that early Christianity could be strict and fanatical.  That image is so ingrained within fiction (for example, Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods or many Bernard Cornwell books) and other history books that I don’t really need a lopsided polemic to open my mind to it.  In this polemic parts of the book start to feel a bit tone deaf – a step back to the “Dark Ages” that so many late antique scholars and early medievalists have worked to enlighten; a focus on the lurid literary sources of religious propaganda, with very little input from archaeology beyond a few shocking examples of statue defacement.

Despite many caveats (“Not all Christians …”) and some exciting story telling, it either doesn’t convince or feels trivial.  The main problem is not so much that she mis-represents Christianity, but that in doing so her version of Paganism feels so passive and one dimensional.  Robin Lane Fox’s book Pagans and Christians is getting on a bit now; but I found such a vibrant portrait of late paganism in that, and such a balanced view of the different relations between the religions, that I can only recommend wading through that instead!

Pax Romana by Adrian Goldsworthy

25930989I once read the criticism of Adrian Goldsworthy that he has a tendency to just report facts and evidence without adding much in the way of interpretation or conclusion.  And that is sort of true of this book, but like Philip Parker’s The Empire Stops Here it covers such an area and such a time period that it is hard to criticise the book for lacking a grand conclusion.

The two books actually cover some similar ground but Goldsworthy records some of the attitudes and experiences of the Roman empire (both as the Republic and fully fledged empire), while Parker seemed more concerned by the physical geography of the empire.  There’s nothing hugely new, but it’s a well written summary of how the Romans operated – economically, their laws, their taxes – and how parts of the empire were integrated in so successfully.  There’s not much narrative, and some material is a little dry, but the explanations are clear and well written.  His comparison of banditry to car crashes does linger in the mind – an ever present danger, but one that would easily be risked by most people.

The author largely suspends judgement on the morality or success of the empire, but does describe the brutality of Roman repression and that a push for security (as opposed to prosperity) was the main driving factor of the empire’s operation.  It’s not exactly a damning condemnation of the empire, but neither is it much of an endorsement.  It’s not state of the art academia, but Adrian Goldsworthy has written an interesting and relatively accessible book on a wide ranging and often complex topic.

Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom

0718153294As far as historical fiction authors go, Harry Sidebottom has good credentials – DPhil in ancient history at Oxford, where he has continued on in a teaching role.  This knowledge definitely shows in this novel from 2008 (the first of a series called Warrior of Rome).  It is set in the 3rd century AD, not one of the most fashionable eras but a lively one nonetheless.  The empire is being (just about) ruled by a series of short-lived military emperors as pressure is put on it from both external and internal sources.  This story has an officer of barbarian/Angle origin in the Roman army, Ballista, sent east to defend a city against a huge Persian force.

The setting is very good, there’s a host of characters from various backgrounds and a ton of suitable classical references (Satyricon by Petronius is mentioned a lot).  Unfortunately for me, something doesn’t quite click – there’s plenty of plot but none of it really draws me in.  The barbarian background of Ballista feels a little unecessary.  The characters feel like they have a history, but you get the nagging feeling that that backstory might be more interesting.

Would I read more of the series?  Probably.  It did pick up as I got further into the book.  The setting and the detail that Sidebottom provides would allow be enough for me to give it another go.  One to check out from the library.

The First Crusade by Peter Frankopan

The first question that this book should pose is “Why?”.  Why do we need another history of the crusades?  What does this one add?  I had previously enjoyed Peter Frankopan’s Silk Road, he clearly has a head for both the details of politics and the big picture.  In this book he applies that talent to the role of Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos in the crusade.

This allows him to pick up on a couple of loose threads from the traditional story of the first crusade: why did Alexios send to the west for help?  Why and when did the Byzantine cut ties with the crusaders?  The obvious historical source for Alexios is the Alexiad, but this is written by his daughter Anna and has an pretty definite bias to it.

The answer to the first question is perhaps the more interesting: why did the Byzantines request help at that point in time?  Alexios had been in power for over a decade, and the Alexiad presents him as leading a recovery for earlier military setbacks.  The chronology is not as simple as it appears however – Alexios’ reign had military failures too and he was becoming increasingly under threat domestically.

Later in the book Alexios feels more peripheral, but Frankopan presents a case that this distance from the crusaders was in good faith.  He was unwilling to leave the capital and risk revolt there, he provided supplies readily in most cases, and where he didn’t it would have appeared futile to do so.

I don’t think this book succeeds at significantly changing the narrative of the first crusade, but it does provide a new slant and point of view.  The coverage of the campaigns in Asia Minor is particularly good.  Worth reading for anyone who thinks they are already familiar with the story of the crusades.

War On Heresy by R.I Moore

Catharism is probably the best known Medieval heresy.  It has popped up in Dan Brown and Bernard Cornwell books, and in Iron Maiden songs.  People may be familiar with the crusades against it, famous quotes like “Kill them alllet God sort them out”, and even with the general idea of dualism with a split between good and evil, spiritual and physical.  In another sense it isn’t well known at all, much of what we know comes from anti-Cathar propaganda or rebuttals.

In this book Moore looks again at the response to heresy in the medieval church and particularly the Cathars.  He finds little to hold on to where they are concerned; it seems that the idea of the heretics being an organised group with a church structure and doctrine was a construction of writers within the catholic church.  The local heretics may have had reformist motives, complaints against clerical corruption, a desire to follow the bible more literally, or a desire for greater local independence – but aspects of their behaviour was taken and fit into a stock idea of a dualist heretic but churchmen who had been reading a bit too much classical literature!

In the earlier part of the book, Moore seems very comfortable with the sources, and convincing that there was no true heretical organization.  We see reformers of various types, some integrated within the church, some not.  Later on, as the book hits the 13th century, there seems to be a bit of extrapolation, that we should continue to interpret these later events in a similar manner to the former.  This may be reasonable – it is a very subtle book, possibly too subtle for me and I will have to leave judgement to those with a greater familiarity with the era.

Aimed at a general audience, but with some scholarship behind it, this is an interesting if difficult read and probably not one for beginners.  The conclusion of the book leaves the traditional narrative disrupted and muddied, but that’s the way history often is.  It’s worth reading for those familiar with the topic, but look elsewhere for an introduction (The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea perhaps?).

The City In Late Antiquity

I picked up this collection from my local library.  It’s a series of short essays, edited by John Rich, from archaeologists and historians on cities in late antiquity (as the name would suggest).  As one would expect, this essentially tracks changes in cities as the Roman empire declined.  This is a mixed bag of behaviours depending on region and time period – the essays are thus divided by regions.

Generalizing is difficult, but we read about the continued prosperity of cities in Africa; the decline of the Curiales (a sort of oligarchic council) than ran the settlements, replaced by the church in Gaul and the later Byzantine governors in the Danube; the discontinuity or continuity of towns in Britain*; the use of classical art styles by the Lombards in Northern Italy.

There’s a lot of detail in here, but it still feels like its only scratching the surface.  It’s not the most up to date volume (from 1992) or the most readable (more down to the number of authors across the chapters rather than a lack of quality) but it does show the variety of interesting threads that come out of this period of history.

*Something that came up in books by Francis Pryor and Neil Faulkner.