I simply have to get this out there now considering we have only got four copies of the book; Charlie Byrnes bookshop have “A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmuid McCulloch in hardback for €15. The fact that I am giving away my paperback copy is completely unrelated I might add, but this is a great chance to get the best one-volume history of Christianity for less than half-price, and an opportunity to enjoy the work of one of the best contemporary historians at the very peak of his powers. Give the shop a call or e-mail and we will sort you out!
“War,” Thomas Hardy once wrote, “makes rattling good history.” If you would like an example of exactly what Hardy meant, I commend Russia Against Napoleon by Dominic Lieven.
Never in history, perhaps, did a man of such extraordinary military genius suffer so extraordinary a military disaster. On June 24, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, the master of continental Europe, led nearly half a million men into the depths of Russia to enforce his will upon Czar Alexander I. With greatly inferior forces, Russia could not afford to confront Napoleon head on. Instead, the Russian commander, Mikhail Kutuzov, of necessity adopted Fabian tactics, harassing the invaders but avoiding pitched battle when possible.
The one really big battle, Borodino, was more or less a draw, after Napoleon gave up personal command for reasons never satisfactorily explained. On Sept. 14 Moscow fell to Napoleon, and he sent peace overtures to Alexander, thinking the czar had no option but to negotiate.
The Russians stalled and hinted but never gave a firm answer, seeking to keep Napoleon in Moscow as long as possible. On Oct. 19, with the czar still dawdling, French food supplies dwindling rapidly, and the Russian winter closing in, Napoleon had no choice but to begin withdrawal. The weather, disease and constant Russian harassment then destroyed his Grande Armee. He started the invasion with 450,000 men; 6,000 returned home.
The myth of 1812 was, he maintains, largely of Tolstoy’s creation in War and Peace — the idea being that it was essentially Bonaparte’s vaunting ambition and Generals Janvier and Fevrier which did for the French. On the contrary, says Lieven: ‘One key reason why Russia defeated Napoleon was that its leaders out-thought him’. Bonaparte failed to understand Russian society, whereas Alexander knew perfectly the strengths and weaknesses of his enemy. The Tsar and his war minister, Field-Marshal Barclay de Tolly, fully expecting that Bonaparte would at some stage march on Moscow, planned all along what Lieven calls a ‘people’s war’, which is perhaps more evocative than ‘guerrilla war’, but which was conducted nevertheless on the lines of that against Bonaparte’s armies in Spain. Indeed, Alexander seems to have drawn comfort, perhaps inspiration, from the Peninsular campaign, and Wellington’s bold strategic retreats, in his own plans for ‘deep retreat’ in Russia. Lieven is always generous to Wellington: of the duke’s great victory at Salamanca, he writes that not only did it ensure that even more French troops would be tied down in Spain in 1812 and beyond, but that it ‘boosted the morale of all Napoleon’s enemies’.
What he is keen to demonstrate is that because the campaigns of 1813-14 are generally buried, so to speak, beneath the snows of 1812, the real quality of the Russian army remains unseen. For here was an army that followed up its success by fighting through Prussia all the way to Paris, a considerable feat of logistics, command and control as well as of arms — and without the depredations of the Red Army the following century. Indeed, when they marched home again, Alexander’s troops were feted in many a German town.
Then why — besides the Tolstoy factor — has the extent of the Russian contribution been concealed until now? The author suggests that the Prussians ‘elbowed Russia aside’ when it came to interpreting the campaign of 1813, just as ‘the British grabbed Waterloo for themselves’; and that Soviet-era history has been keener to emphasise the ‘people’s war’ side of 1812 than Tsarist military prowess in 1813-14.
This leads to the central message of Lieven’s work. For him, the Russian army of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was clearly a force of great strength and versatility that was more than capable of meeting the challenges posed by the French Revolution and Napoleon without having to engage in fundamental change. And, as with the Russian army, so with the whole of the Russian state. Far from being some ramshackle eastern despotism, this was in many ways a vibrant and forward-looking organism that possessed extraordinary resources and even offered a number of the advantages that are normally associated only with the French Revolution: a regime that could place such a figure as Mikhail Speransky at the head of its affairs was hardly one in which careers could not be said to be open to talent. In writing about the Russia of Alexander I, Dominic Lieven has also made a major contribution to wider debates on the Napoleonic epoch, and for this, as for so much else, he is to be congratulated.
This is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Russian campaign; it re-evaluates the balance of responsibility for the course of events, and presents a new interpretation of the strategy used by the Russian command. A very enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
I bought this book mainly because I loved the cover. Sad, I know, but it is the only way to judge a book without reading it in its entirety, so why not?
Germania is an apt title for Winder’s project, not because the province of the Roman empire bears much of a resemblance to the place we know nowadays, but because Roman senator Tacitus’s book of the same name has managed to fire up the German historical imagination like few others. A polemic rather than straightforward reportage, Tacitus’s Germania contrasted the decadence of the imperial capital with the simplicity of the savages from the provinces, conjuring up a people who were more geographically and ethnically unified than they had ever been in real life. Ever since, German nationalists have scrambled back to Tacitus’s text whenever the fever of nationalism has seized the country.
For all his adult life, Winder has been traversing and re-traversing the towns and castlescapes of the German lands. He has visited dungeons, cabinets of curiosities, beer halls, and model-train museums. He has clambered up towers and down into crypts. He has scrutinised suits of armour, paintings, garden gnomes, cathedrals and museums of marzipan. And all the while he has been reading his way deeper and deeper into German history. Out of all this he has spun an enthralling weave of travelogue, anecdote and historical mock-epic.
The anecdotes are often hilarious, beginning with a disastrous family canal holiday in Alsace-Lorraine, and including such gems as his account of being rather trumped by a German contemporary when discussing what they got up to on their sixteenth birthdays (Winder played his new Simon and Garfunkel record; the German rode his new motorbike and slept with his friend’s mother – ““I remember feeling out of my depth on hearing this.”)
A helpless fan of small-town museums, bad civic paintings, and similar oddities, Winder can’t stop sharing his finds with us. These include some real marvels, like the poorly preserved horse of Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus on display in Ingolstadt almost 400 years after it was shot out from under him at the battle of Lutzen. Just as characteristically, Winder’s evocation of the Thirty Years’ War — during which Gustavus’s invasion of Germany saved the Protestant side from disaster — appealingly blends historical knowledge and imaginative empathy for the traumatized lives people led in the war’s “terrible theater of helplessness.” He isn’t all laughs and curios by any means.
Many a theme is introduced with a regretful nod to the Third Reich, or bid farewell with a wave heavy with premonitions of Nazism. From the very beginning (both of the book and German history) poor old Tacitus’s use of the phrase ‘pure blood’ is described as ‘catastrophic’ (despite it taking more than a millennium and a half for it to seem so). The Nazis appear fairly regularly, very distractingly and seemingly inevitably – rather like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition.
However, the rise of Nazism is constantly avoided and militarism is never treated with anything more than a nod; Winder is no apologist, but by his very avoidance of such issues, the silence becomes even more deafening. Why try to present a more balanced view of the sweep of greater German history if you roundly ignore a key element? Why stop at 1933?The answer appears to be that Winder wishes to remove the ‘mental quarantining’ of German history caused by the deeds of Hitler and the Nazis. In that case, his approach is somewhat justified. I still feel he has missed an opportunity by choosing this path.
By turns Germania reads like detailed narrative history, a series of impressionistic essays on cultural and historical themes, and personal travelogue. Some may find this pleasingly eclectic; others might find it combines to produce a book that’s a little too long, a bit uneven and with a tendency to ramble. In any event, it’s an entertaining read, full of interesting facts and insights – even if one feels an opportunity has been missed.
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
G.K. Chesterton’s famous poem about the Battle of Lepanto (1571) serves as worthy introduction to Barnaby Rogerson’s study of struggle between Christendom and the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. Chesterton portrays the glory and pageantry of this clash between civilisations, albeit from a profoundly occidental viewpoint. Chesterton’s bias is understandable; his desire to highlight the courage and swagger of the Christian princes at the expense of the Turk is part of a long and ingrained historiographical tradition. Rogerson is cut from a different cloth – his analysis of both west and east is more subtle and even-handed, however the sense of wonder and awe remains.
Rogerson shows how, to this day, the disputed borders of the Crusades era stand as defining frontiers and dividing lines between languages, nations, and religions. From Constantinople to Fez, from Rhodes to Granada, The Last Crusaders is narrative history at its richest and most compelling.
It is about the titanic struggle between Hapsburg-led Christendom and the Ottoman empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Though it focuses on the great naval campaigns and the ferocious struggle to dominate the North African shore it was also, in its way, the first world war. The conflict spread out along trade routes into the Atlantic, Red Sea, Persian Gulf and across the Sahara. There was even a plan hatched for taking the war into the Caribbean. It consumed nations and cultures, destroyed dynasties, flattened cities and depopulated provinces. Yet the borders they fought for stand to this day as defining frontiers – the dividing lines between languages, nations and religions.
The geopolitical sweep is impressive, and reminds us how much of what we now take for granted about the political, religious, and cultural landscape of the modern era was not a foregone conclusion. It was not inevitable, for example, that the Ottomans would remain bottled up in the Mediterranean and not compete with Christians’ powers in the process of Atlantic exploration, just as it was not inevitable that Portuguese and Spanish toeholds in northern Africa would not turn into some more durable and extensive presence.
Whether dealing with the traditional plot lines or alerting us to less familiar sideshows, Rogerson knits his whole story together into a coherent and compelling whole. The book tells its tale with aplomb and dash, and, as befits an author with a travel background, the evocation of place and of the culturally exotic is well handled. This is all good swashbuckling stuff, its vision of the past as a place of excitement, brutality, excess, larger-than-life characters and strange twists of fate.
Rogerson errs when he applies the term “Crusaders” willy-nilly to all Westerners coming into contact with the Muslim world, for this massively over-simplifies the range of interactions between Christianity and Islam and reduces the complexities of Crusade thought and practice to a form of holy war posturing. Something of the sophistication and cleverness of his leading characters, Muslim as well as Christian, is lost in the process.
The book is furnished with excellent maps, a useful chronological chart, numerous illustrations, and a full bibliography. The writing is engaging and vivid, never pedantic. Any history buff will find this book a pleasure.
In his own words, he looks “like a murderer”, and many consider that to be the least of his crimes. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is an enigmatic figure even to those who claim to know him. Cromwell appreciates the power of silence: “It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires”. He is a reticent man by times, but eloquent when required. It is this use of half-light, half-truths, and silence that fascinates his contemporaries, that creates mystery and fear, and a sense of omnipotence and omnicompetence. Cromwell operates in a new a strange world of shadows, figures, theology and administration, which his fellow courtiers are unable to comprehend and compete.
In Wolf Hall, Mantel persuasively depicts this beefy pen-pusher and backstairs manoeuvrer as one of the most appealing – and, in his own way, enlightened – characters of the period. Taking off from the scant evidence concerning his early life, she imagines a miserable childhood for him as the son of a violent, drunken blacksmith in Putney. Already displaying toughness, intelligence and a gift for languages, he runs away to the continent as a boy of 15 or so (his date of birth isn’t known, and in the novel he doesn’t know it himself). He goes to France because: “France is where they have wars”. He learns banking in Florence, trade in Antwerp. He develops a prodigious memory, and possesses the skill to read people, and manage them. He serves Cardinal Wolsey loyally until his fall and then steps into the power vacuum. He emerges from his picaresque youth as an intimidating, witty, and resourceful man:
“Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt – ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything”.
Wolsey uses these skills as the vehicle for the dissolution of England’s great monastic orders; their houses are overdue reform and the money garnered shall pay for his new college at Oxford. Cromwell is no lover of Rome and despises the waste and sloth that he encounters. He proves an irresistible force, impermeable to the insults and jibes of his social betters and possessing the legal knowledge and intellectual flexibility to stump all objections. He is also introspective and deeply human. His heartbreak at the death of his wife and daughters in plague epidemics is movingly portrayed by Mantel.
Indeed, it is this capacity to transmit the complexity of emotion that Cromwell contains sparingly and with subtlety that makes him such a superb and arresting narrator. Cromwell’s flashbacks are a key narrative device in the book; delivered in present-tense with a vivid, humorous retrospection, they penetrate to the core of the man in a profound fashion. Cromwell appears to be a man of stone, a particularly intangible and flexible stone granted, but certainly his face is unreadable to those who encounter him. Mantel manages to depict that ‘stonefacedness’ alongside the subterranean quicksilver of flowing thought, words, and deeds that comprise the real man.
There is something incredibly poignant about the journey of Cromwell and his fellow characters. We know that many will not survive the crises to come. The references to Wolf Hall itself throughout the book, with its’ Seymour connotations, bode ill for our hero. For a hero in fact Cromwell is. He is more a man for all seasons than the intractable martyr Thomas More, and the intellectual equal of both More and Henry VII. He is a man with sensibilities closer to our time, in a way, than to that of most of his contemporaries. Taking five years to complete, Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2010, and although a sequel is in the works we may have a while to wait to be enthralled again. I have not enjoyed any book as much in quite some time, and having inflicted it upon a great number of people with success, I am as impatient as anyone! I can only recommend it most highly to lovers of history, excellent literary fiction, and to those who wish to be transported into a different world; a world of high drama, low intrigue, and essentially human figures reborn under a supremely gifted hand.
The second phase, which began in France, was scientific. Was man naturally carnivorous or herbivorous? The penitent Dr George Cheyne, whose weight rose to 34 stone due to indulgence, transformed his life by eating only vegetables and milk. He become an assiduous evangelist of such a diet among the metropolitan classes in London.
The final phase is revolutionary and climaxes with the French Revolution. Meat signified social inequality – only the rich could afford it – as more and more land was enclosed for pasture so the privileged could indulge themselves. Seditious circles in Paris and London were crammed with vegetarians. Underlying it all, philosophers and scientists, savants and rabble-rousers searched for the perfect religion, health and society.
Stuart has the capacity to be informative and passionate, without being preachy, and coupled with an engaging narrative style achieves a fine debut with this book.His fundamental thesis is to demonstrate that the study of attitudes towards food is the gateway to appreciating how people understood their place in society, their relationship to their environment and the significance of being human. Whether you are a carnivore or a herbivore, get your teeth stuck into this soon!
Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop €10
For those amateur cartographers and map-lovers amongst you, Map of a Nation is a welcome addition to the minimal attention the Ordinance Survey has been given to date. In this 438 page study, Hewitt describes the heroic effort of the eighteenth century map-makers to extend their knowledge of mountains, lakes, rivers and plains, and to provide a practical visual aid to travellers, government and the military of the day.
As a consequence of the English army’s need to control the untamed wilderness of the Scottish Highlands in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden in 1746, William Roy was employed by the Board of Ordnance to provide a military survey, and, armed with a circumferantor and a few companions, he succeeded by 1755. The connection between military planning and the furtherance of the Survey continued when the French Revolutionary Wars necessitated the mapping of the English and Welsh coastline to assess invasion risk. This new surge in mapping from 1791 onwards, resulted in the completion of the Kent/Essex section in 1801. Popular enthusiasm for the vision and efficacy of the Survey increased with this initial publication, and further squares on the grid were filled in over the next decades.
However, the course of the Survey did not always run smoothly. The decision to extend the Survey to Ireland in 1825 provoked the suspicion of the nation; it was seen as an imperialistic and intimidatory act, and was unwelcome to say the least. Portrayed immortally by Brian Friel in Translations, the desire to control and circumscribe the land ( and therein the people) was misunderstood and mistrusted, and not just by the peasantry. Romantic poets were disturbed by the cold functionality of the Survey; surely something was being lost by this rationalistic drive to map, enlist, and mercilessly describe. It was not art.
The Ordnance Survey was primarily a military exercise, and it was not until the late nineteenth century that the focus shifted to civil servants, economists, industrialists, and walkers.The Survey has entered the popular consciousness and has shown the versatility to survive the onslaught of computer technology. However justified the fears of the Romantics have been, and although the world has lost much of its mystery through exploration, cartography, and television, the old Ordnance Survey maps are a window into the past, and have engendered a mystery of their own. Perhaps the maps are art of a different kind, a beauty born of accuracy, detail and utility. Their creators deserve to be celebrated, and Hewitt has done so.
Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop
Charles II was thirty when he crossed the Channel in fine May weather in 1660. His Restoration was greeted with maypoles and bonfires, like spring after long years of Cromwell’s rule. But there was no going back, no way he could ‘restore’ the old. Certainty had vanished. The divinity of kingship fled with his father’s beheading. ‘Honour’ was now a word tossed around in duels. ‘Providence’ could no longer be trusted. As the country was rocked by plague, fire and war, people searched for new ideas by which to live. Exactly ten years later Charles would stand again on the shore at Dover, laying the greatest bet of his life in a secret deal with his cousin, Louis XIV. The Restoration decade was one of experiment: from the science of the Royal Society to the startling role of credit and risk, from the shocking licence of the court to the failed attempts at toleration of different beliefs. Negotiating all these, Charles, the ‘slippery sovereign’, played odds and took chances, dissembling and manipulating his followers. The theatres were restored, but the king was the supreme actor. Yet while his grandeur, his court and his colourful sex life were on display, his true intentions lay hidden. A Gambling Man is a portrait of Charles II, exploring his elusive nature through the lens of these ten vital years – and a portrait of a vibrant, violent, pulsing world, in which the risks the king took forged the fate of the nation, on the brink of the modern world.
The restoration period is well documented; the diaries of Pepys and John Evelyn cover much of book’s span, and the nobility’s love of court gossip provides even more juicy information for the author. Charles Stuart is at the heart of everything, as it is his character and decisions that navigate the monarchy through the rocky shoals of a changing England. Though Cromwell’s time is past, his legacy truly remains intact in the aggressive and questioning nature of restoration society. considerable religion minority exists, who are unwilling to compromise with the flexible consciousness of their king. Uglow wants us to see Charles II as “a gambling man”, who played for very high stakes. This is a motif that runs through her book, which is divided into sections with playing-card titles, illustrated with examples of contemporary cards. His greatest gambles, she thinks, were that he could get away with keeping mistresses as well as maintaining a queen, and that he could survive his eventual disclosure of his Catholic conversion.
Charles lacked the vision and skills to avoid the religious intolerance that came to characterise his reign. Perhaps the fear and mistrust of the Anglican dominated parliament, coupled with the intransigence of the Dissenters, made any compromise impossible. The years of plague, fire and war proved to be very difficult, but he survived them, and in so doing ensured the survival of his line. Charles II learned how to be a king in a time of great extremes and change; the splendor and recklessness of court life contrasted sharply with the secular philosophy of the Royal Society, and the religious zeal of the Dissenter minority. Greater change was to follow, and soon, and Charles in his own flamboyant and inconsistent manner, facilitated that revolutionary change.
For those of you who enjoy historical biography, the restoration period, or just good writing; this is a book I would highly recommend. Pick up a copy in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop – only €6, and there are a few copies left!
One hundred years ago, in March 1909, Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition came home safely. When Scott heard the news, he immediately contacted Tom Crean with the intention of planning his own adventure. And thus the Terra Nova Expedition was born. The remarkable Tom Crean ran away to sea aged fifteen and spent more time in the unexplored Antarctic than Scott or Shackleton, and was one of the few to serve and outlive both. Michael Smith’s original biography of this enigmatic figure spawned a Guinness ad, a one-man play that is still touring today and a children’s version of the Ice Man which has been chosen as the ‘One Book’ for literacy groups in Cork and Limerick. Tom’s story continues to fascinate people because of his extraordinary feats of survival, his bravery and his dedication to his comrades. At the end of his expedition days, Tom came home to Ireland, married and built a pub, the South Pole Inn, in Annascaul, County Kerry. He was an ordinary man who did incredible things, a modest man who became a hero. An unforgettable story of triumph over unparalleled hardship and deprivation.
Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop for €7
Charting a century of Sino-foreign interaction, confrontation and confusion,” The Scramble For China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 by Robert Bickers (Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai) takes readers on a journey deep into China’s “century of humiliation,” a time when decadent Manchu officials, unscrupulous capitalists, globetrotting imperial powers, would-be messiahs and revolutionaries came together, clashed incessantly, and nearly tore China apart. Beginning with the British literally breaking down the doors to a closed China, as Hugh Hamilton Lindsay of the East India Company forces his way into the offices of Shanghai Daotai in 1832, Robert Bickers traces the tumultuous, contentious relationship between Qing China and its “unwelcome guests,” a path that ultimately led to two devastating Opium Wars, costly and bloody rebellions, millions of lives lost, and left the door to China open for invasion by the Russians and Japanese.
Bickers’ title owes much to Thomas Pakenham’s masterful history of European colonialism in Africa – The Scramble for Africa, however the extensive period of 82 years under analysis would suggest that there was less of a scramble than an infiltration. Certainly the extraordinary shift in land ownership that occurred in Africa was not replicated in China; here the western influence was less overt, but nonetheless pervasive. A fundamental mistrust and mutual contempt fueled successive conflicts between the weakening Manchu dynasty and western merchant adventurers. The ferocity of imperial invasion (the Japanese not least) has left an indelible mark upon the Chinese consciousness, and has engendered a burning desire never to be subject to any power again.
Bickers manages to weave these events with the reality of modern China, and the role that awaits it on the world stage. China’s past affects not only its own present, but also the grace with which it will stride upon that stage. As Bickers writes: “In fact we cannot understand the resurgence of China now, and its sometimes quiet, sometimes raucous and foul-mouthed anger at the world, unless we understand the traumatic century which followed the first opium war, however much it might seem mere history. For mere history matters in modern China, and the past is unfinished business… “(10).
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