Tales from the guilt pile: what I should have been reading ...

Malcolm Redfellow

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It's that time of the year.

All the periodicals fill pages with 'Books of the Year'. Next up: Private Eye will reveal how many of the recommendations were 'log-rolling' for the nominee's literary mates.

Since this is a History forum, I'm sticking to history books. Starting with the irritating Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. Why 'irritating'? Why not? The man walked out of Sheffield University history school, mid-year, for a better-paid job in journalism and reviewing. Fair enough: except that left high-and-dry a batch of students who had committed time and substantial finance to his post-graduate courses. And, of course, because so much of his output seems partially and irredeemably (small-c) conservative in tone.

OK: got that grief out in the open. To business ...

Sandbrook's list of ten-plus-one includes just one book I have read, and two that I intend to read.

The one I have here on the shelf behind me is Simon Winder's Lotharingia. As Winder himself says, this is the completion of a trilogy, to complete Germania and Danubia. None is 'straight' history: they are a loose narrative, with a historical sweep, of places and events. The best is the first, original_400_600.jpgGermania, which is an outright hoot. Danubia, by the nature and extent of its subject (the extraordinary, inchoate, and ultimately doomed Habsburg empire of Austro-Hungary) is less cohesive.

iu.jpegIn passing, I am intrigued how the covers of the American editions of these books offer very different treatments to the UK originals. Above, right, is the rather jokey Brit effort. Here, left, is the US variant — still retaining the 'disconnects', but more staid.

Intriguing, too, is wondering why Winder's is one of the very few books, hard-backed, newly-published, for which I have put out real money — rather than wait the year or so for the cheaper paperback edition. A glance over the shoulder reminds me the only other 'new' history book added this year might be Tim Bouverie's Appeasing Hitler.

On Sandbrook's list — all worthy — are just two other texts I'm probably going to acquire, at least in paperback: Dan Jackson's The Northumbrians and (Sandbrook's 'History Book of the Year') Tom Holland's Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind.

Take those in order:
  • The Jackson is subtitled, North-East England and Its People: A New History. Here I am living in the City of York, more specifically 'Bootham', one of the names which may perpetuate the city's Scandinavian past:
Bootham provides an example of the difficulties of interpreting the placename evidence. The termination -um found in all its early medieval occurrences has led the whole word to be tentatively connected with O.W.Scand. búdum, the dative plural of búd. It has been suggested that it derives from some such expression as farmanna búdum—'merchants' booths'—and thus has its origin after 1089 when St. Mary's Abbey was founded and the abbey's weekly market developed there. But a more ancient market may well have developed in this suburb, as markets certainly did in the eastern suburbs. Moreover búd is a term of wide application and may refer to almost any kind of dwelling or building and has no necessary connexion with merchants' booths. Similar caution has to be observed in other cases, but in general it is clear that York's place- and street-names are more pronouncedly Scandinavian than those of any other major town in Britain.
That's from the scholarly Victoria History, but the circumspection there doesn't deter the general assumption, made by a wall-plaque, that the area was the market street in ancient times. Jackson, then, will go alongside Thomas Williams, Max Adams and the like.​

  • Holland takes 'generalist' history to ever-wider dimensions. After late-classical stuff in Rubicon, there was In the Shadow of the Sword, on the origins of Islam. I have a bit of a problem with Holland: he is thoroughly readable, who butters his toast with fiction, but seems to spread his stuff once over, lightly.
Again I'm looking at how marketing of books works. The 'native' market is being sold Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. For the Americans that becomes: How the Christian Revolution remade the World:

Holland.jpeg
While I'm reasonably adjacent ...

I had to admire the concision of Marc Morris summing up how France happened, in little more than a page (bottom of p.44 to top of 46) of The Norman Conquest:
Strictly speaking, though, ‘France’ did not exist in the eleventh century: the earliest reference to the ‘kingdom of France’ does not occur until over a hundred years later, and the kings of France did not style themselves as such until the thirteenth century. Prior to that point, the title they used was Rex Francorum — king of the Franks.
The Franks, originally, were one of the barbarian tribes who had dwelt beyond the fringes of the Roman Empire. After that empire crumbled in the middle of the first millennium, it was the Franks who eventually made themselves Europe’s new masters. Under the leadership of a succession of warrior rulers, they expanded from their homelands in what is now north-eastern France and conquered more or less everything in their path, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean and from the Atlantic to the Elbe. This expansion reached its zenith during the reign of the celebrated Frankish king Charles the Great, or Charlemagne as he is better known. Charlemagne’s power was such that in AD 800 the then pope crowned him as a new emperor, and by the time of his death fourteen years later, his empire stretched 1,500 miles from north to south and a similar distance from east to west. Historians call it the Carolingian Empire, from Carolus, the Latin for Charles.
But very soon after Charlemagne’s death his empire began to collapse. For all its imperial pretensions, it was a dominion founded on predatory warfare: plunder, booty and tribute. While the treasure and the slaves kept pouring in, the Franks willingly turned out to swell their emperor’s armies. Once there was nothing left to conquer, and only a hostile frontier to defend, they tended to stay at home. Added to this was the problem of dynastic rivalry. Rather like we do today, the families of early medieval Europe expected inheritances to be shared, at least among the male descendants of the deceased. In 843, barely a quarter of a century after Charlemagne’s death, his feuding grandsons agreed to split the empire into three. A few decades later, having been briefly reunited (by Charles the Fat), it was divided again, this time into two, and this time for good. The eastern part would eventually become Germany, the western half France.
But in the meantime West Francia (as historians call it) continued to disintegrate. Denied the ability to plunder their neighbours, the Franks took to fighting against each other. They also found themselves in the uncomfortable situation of being attacked, by Vikings from the north, Saracens from the south, and even Magyars (Hungarians) from the east. There was no sense in summoning great imperial armies against such fast-moving, hit-and-run raiders, so Frankish kings delegated the responsibility for defence to their great men in the localities— their counts and dukes. But, of course, such power and authority, once relinquished, is hard to claw back. The great counts and dukes of France still governed in the king’s name, but increasingly without reference to him.
As Mr Punch would say: "That the way to do it!"

So, chaps and chapesses, what ought I to have bought and read this year?
 


Lumpy Talbot

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Frankopan's New Silk Roads. Struggling to give it the time it deserves but the distinction there between the UK 'Dominion' and the 'US' version is quite telling. You don't want to piss off the yank jesus market by suggesting western civilisation is a mind-set and they do love to hear of how they built western civilisation (they didn't, but don't tell 'em).

The preface to Frankopan's New Silk Roads is very good on switching the traditional view of the west being civilisation's crossroads to a different view through a different lens. He makes some interesting points that our version of history is really a western hagiography and has traditionally lent very little credence to the output of other centres of civilisation. Babylon under the Persian Kings we're taught to hate because they attacked Europe, innit? The Spartans, Thermopylae and all that.

When you think that the Omphalos was probably a bit more central on the physical map for a long time, when you consider that the Japanese and Chinese cultures had their own functioning civil service and complex measurement systems long before we'd stopped playing with the dirt there is a case for a re-think of the angle of vision we've been using.
 

Catahualpa

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Just finishing up Life In Medieval Ireland: Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome by Finbar Dwyer

A light skip through the lives of the great and the ordinary in the Anglo Norman Colony

- and thus a bit too lopsided for my liking.

That being said it does emphasise the humanity good bad and the ugly in those times of the people of the Colony that usually gets overlooked in more formal histories.


Also A history of Ireland in 100 words

This book tells a history of Ireland through the examination of 100 key words from the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of the Irish Language, the most comprehensive dictionary of Irish in existence.

Fascinating stuff well told by linguistic experts. Brings to life the human angle behind the words and the history of Ancient & Medieval Ireland as experienced by the Gaels of Ireland.

Dabbling around today in

Ireland in the Medieval World AD 400-1000: Landscape, kingship and religion
by Edel Bhreathnach

Love this book! However its so packed with fascinating angles and information its a book to delve into and savour a few pages at a time.

And finally for some light relief now starting A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold
by JRR Martin

Medieval Fantasy at its best!🔥❄💥☄⚡ ⚔🗡⛓

But will I live long enough to finish them all.....................…?:unsure:
 

Barroso

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I'm not going to mention any of my book reading specifically (a lot of it is fiction, and much of that toward the lighter end) - but the advent of modern technology allows you to immediately look up any question that arises during your reading, and without rising from my seat, I can find out background to my reading; which even with fiction is a great boon.
 

Malcolm Redfellow

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I'm not going to mention any of my book reading specifically (a lot of it is fiction, and much of that toward the lighter end) - but the advent of modern technology allows you to immediately look up any question that arises during your reading, and without rising from my seat, I can find out background to my reading; which even with fiction is a great boon.
Never apologise for reading fiction. There are some, alleged, 'historians' who don't recognise the distinction.

If I admit to buying two 'just arrived' history books, that is dwarfed by an addiction to fiction. Without leaving my seat, I spot Ben Aaronovitch, Mary Costello, Alan Furst, Robert Harris, Mick Herron, John le Carré, Philip Kerr (dec'd, so Bernie Gunther is no more), Donna Leon, Ian McEwen, Ian Rankin (hold on: that's late 2018), Neil Stephenson, all in fresh hard-back and dust-covers. There are probably more lurking, but those are where they ought to be: roughly in alphabetical order on the fiction shelves. Half of those, at least, require some grasp of history. And those are outnumbered by the impulse-buy paperbacks.

I used to wonder how I would fill my time in retirement.

Now the grandson comes up with the Advanced-level text he has to study in the New Year: Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture. That's been around for a decade, so off-piste here, but I'd expect the evening meal to involve a crash course in Irish sectarianism, the Civil War, and much more.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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Novels as history... Sebastian Faulks' The Human Stain is a lovely riff on early psychoanalysis. There is just a wonderful middle section on the emergence of the human animal in the Rift Valley. It is like an essay on the origin of the current human mind in the middle of this novel that I think would be a contender for syllabus inclusion.

The Tavistock liked it so much they awarded Faulks an honorary degree.
 

parentheses

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Frankopan's New Silk Roads. Struggling to give it the time it deserves but the distinction there between the UK 'Dominion' and the 'US' version is quite telling. You don't want to piss off the yank jesus market by suggesting western civilisation is a mind-set and they do love to hear of how they built western civilisation (they didn't, but don't tell 'em).

The preface to Frankopan's New Silk Roads is very good on switching the traditional view of the west being civilisation's crossroads to a different view through a different lens. He makes some interesting points that our version of history is really a western hagiography and has traditionally lent very little credence to the output of other centres of civilisation. Babylon under the Persian Kings we're taught to hate because they attacked Europe, innit? The Spartans, Thermopylae and all that.

When you think that the Omphalos was probably a bit more central on the physical map for a long time, when you consider that the Japanese and Chinese cultures had their own functioning civil service and complex measurement systems long before we'd stopped playing with the dirt there is a case for a re-think of the angle of vision we've been using.
The Silk Roads is a very interesting book. Especially the chapter where he discusses the years before World War I. Reading that chapter, it seems plausible to state that it was the British who manipulated events and that they bear the most responsibility for that terrible war.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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Weird background, Frankopan. Technically he is a Prince of a Croatian house. So technically he is His Highness Prince Peter Doimi de Frankopan. Hefty academic credentials as a historian as well.

Loves cricket apparently and is most proud of having represented his country at cricket. Bet he is an interesting fellow to park one's arse next to in a sheltered establishment.
 

Sync

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Dominion's good, but there is a bit of diminishing returns with Holland. Loved Rubicon and Shadow, but his take is effectively assuming the historical impact of still unfurling events. It kind of leads to assumptions before things concludes.
 

Sync

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Odd, how Hitler always gets a mention.
I keep seeing his name in places, but I'm not sure who he is. It's not as if he's one of the 5 most influential people of the 20th century.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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Is that the Shelbourne doorman or the little Australian corporal? Wouldn't want to mix them up or your room service would be legendarily shyte.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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The other side of it I suppose is that the Third Reich would have come with chocolates on one's pillow and there'd be no problem about getting a taxi, so there's always that.
 

Malcolm Redfellow

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OK: we're into fiction.

Best sideways view of the Obersalzberg retreat of 'a certain person' could be (fictionally) Philip Kerr's Prussian Blue — one of the best of the "Bernie Gunther' sequence.

Alternatively, go for the wham! bang! of Stephen Ambrose. Try chapter 17 of Band of Brothers. Notably the bit about testing the bullet-proofing of high-status vehicles.
 

Pyewacket

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Try Jean Plaidy.

I mean she is due for a revival and you sound like you are looking for an angle, OP.
 

Malcolm Redfellow

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Try Jean Plaidy.

I mean she is due for a revival and you sound like you are looking for an angle, OP.
Alas! Mrs Hibbert is deceased going on two decades. She did at least try to follow variants of the actuality.

Let's be honest: much of what we read as 'history' is one interpretation of what could have happened. So we read other writers' 'interpretations' in the hope that somehow a 'consensus' would emerge.

More to the point: if any adolescent comes to 'history', as a consequence of Mrs Hibbert's efforts, what's amiss?
 

Barroso

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Never apologise for reading fiction. There are some, alleged, 'historians' who don't recognise the distinction.

If I admit to buying two 'just arrived' history books, that is dwarfed by an addiction to fiction. Without leaving my seat, I spot Ben Aaronovitch, Mary Costello, Alan Furst, Robert Harris, Mick Herron, John le Carré, Philip Kerr (dec'd, so Bernie Gunther is no more), Donna Leon, Ian McEwen, Ian Rankin (hold on: that's late 2018), Neil Stephenson, all in fresh hard-back and dust-covers. There are probably more lurking, but those are where they ought to be: roughly in alphabetical order on the fiction shelves. Half of those, at least, require some grasp of history. And those are outnumbered by the impulse-buy paperbacks.

I used to wonder how I would fill my time in retirement.

Now the grandson comes up with the Advanced-level text he has to study in the New Year: Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture. That's been around for a decade, so off-piste here, but I'd expect the evening meal to involve a crash course in Irish sectarianism, the Civil War, and much more.
Novels as history... Sebastian Faulks' The Human Stain is a lovely riff on early psychoanalysis. There is just a wonderful middle section on the emergence of the human animal in the Rift Valley. It is like an essay on the origin of the current human mind in the middle of this novel that I think would be a contender for syllabus inclusion.

The Tavistock liked it so much they awarded Faulks an honorary degree.
Novels as history?
Even the trashiest novels I read paint a portrait of the society they are set in.
Some novels are of course wider-ranging. In Babylon by Marcel Möring, as well as giving a certain view of modern Holland, also gave insights into Jewish history in Europe, not to mention Sabbatai Zevi and jewish messianism in the 17th century and the part jewish physicists played in developing the atom bomb. In this case, we have history, religion, sociology and much more.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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I agree that there are novelists who are particularly good historical researchers- Hilary Mantel, Bernard Cornwell spring to mind. Although I suspect given Cornwell's prodigious output he'll be using a research company who specialise in providing such historical 'location' detail to authors.

That's not a bad area for an article for some newspaper. The researchers in the shadows... bit like ghost writers, they aren't supposed to be seen or heard by anyone other than their client but they certainly exist.
 


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