A history of Christian relics seems like a niche thing, and in truth it probably is, but if there is ever to be an accessible introduction for a popular audience it is this book by Charles Freeman. Working chronologically from early Christians in the Roman empire to the resurgence in the counter reformation, Freeman places relics at the centre of medieval life – motivating travel, boosting economic development and influencing the design of art and architecture.
There are tonnes of anecdotes crammed into the 270 pages. Some of these are on the light end of things – like Saint Hugh of Lincoln, a popular English bishop who (to French outrage) attempted to steal part of the “arm of Mary Magdalene” at the Abbey of Fecamp. He eventually managing to chew off a finger to take home to Lincoln, where he was much praised for his initiative. Other stories are darker – the veneration of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (no relation) or William or Norwich, a boys allegedly murdered by the Jewish community and used as an excuse for persecution.
Attention is given to how relics played into wider themes including the rise of anti-semitism, popular religion versus that of the central church organization, the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, and finally the rise of the reformation and scepticism.
Freeman keeps away from giving too much modern judgement on these relics and miracles, instead describing the processes and changes in medieval thinking over time. I liked that, it would be too easy to become heavy handed or condescending when presented with some of these far fetched icons; by avoiding that trap the book has a light, neutral tone that allows the material to speak for itself.
I 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]
I’m been reading more and more about Germany recently – between the History of Germany Podcast and learning German, it seems like the thing to do. Therefore I’m quite pleased to pass on the news that The British Museum is soon to start a new exhibition on the story of Germany. I went to their big Viking one earlier in the year and heard good things about their recent Ming dynasty one, so I’m sure this will be of a very high standard.
2014 coincides with a number of big anniversaries for German history and German-British relations – 100 years since World War One, 300 since the Hanoverians came to the UK and 25 since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There’s a lot to cover so the curators have limited themselves to the 15th century onwards, but there’s still more than enough fascinating stories and history to tell. There is more information on the British Museum blog (which is well worth following btw) at http://blog.britishmuseum.org/2014/09/11/exhibiting-germany/.
Tickets can be booked online at http://www.britishmuseum.org/germany
And, as if that wasn’t enough, there will be an accompanying radio show by the director of the museum on BBC Radio. It should be worth checking out come the start of October.