April in Podcasts: History of England (also John Julius Norwich’s Four Princes)

A long time ago, I posted on David Crowther’s History of England podcast.  Since then Crowther has went from strength to strength, with at least another hundred episodes and two more centuries.  He has also explored ways of expanding the podcast – with a patreon platform and additional members podcasts – though I think he does still record in his shed.  I faded out of listening to it a year ago, as he reached the Tudors (a topic that has never really been close to my heart).

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I’ve picked it up again in the last month or two and actually quite enjoyed the topic.  Although Crowther still loved to quote from the Ladybird Book of kings and queens, Sellar and Yeatman, and Winston Churchill (though the latter mostly just to wheel out an impression), he really seems to have dug into the historiography on the Tudors.  His coverage of Henry VII finds a surprisingly light and positive tone, different to many popular histories, and his coverage of Henry VIII finds him exploring academic opinion over time.  It’s detailed without getting bogged down – very well done.

Tacking a different tack on the subject, I recently re-read John Julius Norwich’s Four Princes.  A quadruple biography of Henry VIII, Charles V, Francis I and Suleiman the Magnificent.  Norwich is as opinionated as ever – writing offhand comments on topics that Crowther agonised over for episodes – but he is still a very entertaining writer.  There may not really be much new material there, even the focus on the relationships between the princes and their effect on foreign policy, but the inclusion of Suleiman is a good touch.  Norwich does show how the Ottomans could drive the politics of Europe that the other three fought to rule, and it feels good to have them in their proper place in a history of Europe.

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Holy Bones, Holy Dust by Charles Freeman

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.

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 40: Exhibiting Germany

PlacardI’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.