All posts filed under: Medieval History

The Saxon Savior: The Germanic Transformation of the Gospel in the Ninth-Century Heliand (G. Ronald Murphy)

Immediately before the Ascension, the last command of Christ to the Apostles was to “make disciples of all nations.” Ever since, at least until very recently, proselytizing has been a core goal of all Christians. This work has often not been easy. Christianity is always counter-cultural, opposed to the inherent dubious tendencies of mankind. Moreover, the history narrated in the Gospels is embedded in the world of first-century Palestine, and that world is starkly alien to most cultures that have been the target of conversion. Such challenges have been met in various ways by Christian missionaries, and by Christianizing conquerors. The Heliand, a ninth-century “gospel harmony” used to persuade the pagan Saxons defeated by Charlemagne to accept Christianity, was one such way.

The Apple and the Arrow (Mary and Conrad Buff)

Do any American children learn about William Tell today? Do any Swiss children learn about him? Very few, if any, I suspect. My children do, but only because last year I was reminded of William Tell by Ernst Jünger’s The Forest Passage, and so I went and bought what few children’s books are still in print about the Swiss hero. Among those was The Apple and the Arrow, winner of the Newberry Medal in 1952, which I have just finished reading to my children, to their great delight.

The Accursed Tower: The Fall of Acre and the End of the Crusades (Roger Crowley)

I often say that the Crusades were a high point of Western civilization. And they were, but they were also an example of flawed glory. Certainly, the goal of the Crusades was peerlessly laudable, and the virtues shown by Crusaders admirable. At the same time, the Holy Land Crusades illustrated key weaknesses of the West, and, after all, if nothing succeeds likes success, nothing fails like failure. In Roger Crowley’s The Accursed Tower all of this is on display, though Christian valor is probably the dominant theme, as it should be. In a sane society, the events of this book would be used for a blockbuster movie featuring the Christians as doomed heroes. Not in today’s society, to be sure, but maybe in tomorrow’s.

Frederick the Second: Wonder of the World 1194-1250 (Ernst Kantorowicz)

This book defies easy characterization. It is, to be sure, a biography of the last of the great German medieval emperors, Frederick II Hohenstaufen. But it vibrates with a subdued roar under the surface. By turns it is fierce, melodramatic, evocative, pitying, and electric. Maybe, in 1927, with Germany at its nadir, Ernst Kantorowicz was trying to channel the modern age of steel and thunder, translating it through the works of a long-dead megalomaniac king into a hoped-for new era. Or maybe he aimed to wake the ancient ghost of Frederick, stirring him from his long sleep in the Kyffhäuser Mountains. Either way, Kantorowicz did see reborn the German energies he thought should be reborn. But as with most summoned spirits, the rebirth did not advantage the summoner.

Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography (Robert Irwin)

I generally liked this book, by the erudite Orientalist Robert Irwin, but I am not sure why it exists. It is too academic to be popular, and too popular to be academic. I learned something about the famous medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, but I would have been lost if I did not already know much about Ibn Khaldun and medieval Islam generally. So this is not a reference work, or even a normal biography. Really, it’s a seminar in print, discussing a grab-bag of topics about Ibn Khaldun, valuable mostly as an add-on if you are particularly interested in medieval Islam or the history of North Africa.

Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings (Tom Shippey)

In these days where man is held to be homo economicus, we are told that all people are basically the same, and what they want, most of all, is ease and comfort. Real Vikings prove this false. Instead, they reflect back to us a strange combination of very bad behavior and until-the-last-dog-dies virtue. Tom Shippey wants to talk about those real Vikings, not the sanitized ones who were supposedly much like us, just colder. If you read this book, therefore, you’ll get the Vikings in all their bloody, malicious glory.

Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain (Brian A. Catlos)

I read this book, about the history of Spain under Muslim rule, hoping it would be less biased than Darío Fernández-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, which I found to be too polemical in its criticism of Islamic domination. This book was closer to neutral, on the other side of neutral, but the author, Brian Catlos, has taken a fascinating period of history and made it boring. It’s not that the writing is bad, it’s that he takes a kitchen sink approach that loses the reader in minutiae, with so many dramatis personae that there is no drama. Still, Kingdoms of Faith is useful as a reference work, and in addition, I think that the history recounted here has much to say about conversion of Muslims in lands reconquered by Christendom, past and future.

Life in a Medieval City (Frances Gies and Joseph Gies)

The modern mind is very susceptible to viewing the past as wholly different, and worse, from the present. We have all absorbed narratives of supposed progress that rely on painting the past in the grimmest light possible. But the daily lives of most people were not that different, and not less happy, at any given point in the human past, than they are now. Every person in every age faces challenges and burdens; some change as the ages pass, but challenges and burdens remain. This is not to deny that the material world has, for many, improved greatly, but as is well known, happiness is only very tangentially related to material benefits, and medieval man was, most likely, usually more happy and content than modern man, bound as he was in a sacramental world of meaning.

A History of Venice (John Julius Norwich)

This long but smoothly written book, by the very recently deceased John Julius Norwich, scion of English nobility, covers more than a thousand years of Venetian history. Nowadays Venice is mostly known as an overloaded tourist destination, or as a victim of environmental degradation, rather than as the world power it was for most of its history. Norwich, who loved the city and talks in detail not only about its past but also its architecture, often tying the two together, ably restores the place of Venice in history. And in so doing, he manages to both be interesting and to show us viable alternatives to the dead end into which “liberal democracy” has led us.

Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX (Andrew Willard Jones)

Like Diogenes searching for an honest man, I spend my days searching for a useful political program.  Necessarily rejecting all Left philosophies as anti-human and anti-reality, I go searching through the thickets on the Right, where of late various new approaches have arisen, to accompany various old ones that are getting fresh attention.  They do not get much older than the one espoused in this book, Catholic integralism—versions of the idea, in essence, that church and state should be cooperative joint actors in pursuit of a flourishing society, rather than separate spheres of action.  There is a lot to be said for this approach, but as always, its modern proponents spend too much time talking about the past, and too little on how elements of this approach could be used to build the future. Before Church and State is a very detailed examination of the relationship of church and state in the kingdom of Saint Louis IX (r. 1226–1270).  The focus is not so much on the king, although he appears often in the vehicle …