Tag: history

Review – Vikings

Posted 19 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Vikings by Neil OliverVikings: A History, Neil Oliver

It’s a rather odd experience, reading this soon after reading Francis Pryor’s work. Where Pryor minimises the impact of folk migration, Oliver highlights at least half a dozen occasions where the Norsemen did, in fact, invade or colonise. From apparently the same sources, they argue completely different things. Now, Oliver’s work is a bit more accessible than Pryor’s, I think; for a start, this ties in with a BBC series (though Pryor’s Britain AD had a tv series as well, I think) and is generally pitched at that level, avoiding tedious levels of detail like the exact sequence of archaeology — interesting stuff, as far as I’m concerned, but not always the most riveting reading.

It also features a lot of attempts at imagining the past and bringing to life the past: Neil Oliver’s poignant imaginings about Birka Girl, for example. For me, that has varying success — for example, it’s all very well to note that someone had a lavish burial in a highly visible place, but does that necessarily mean they were loved by the people around them? Maybe it’s guilt, or ritual sacrifice, or political show.

Still, generally Oliver manages to be both informative and entertaining. For myself, I wished he’d spent more time on Icelandic concerns, since he mentioned Iceland few enough times it has a one line entry in the index. One line! And yet Iceland is the place I know the most about in terms of preservation of contemporary evidence, the sagas, etc. And on that note, I could’ve wished for a bit more engagement with the sagas, especially since any lit student knows that they were preserved with high fidelity and not written centuries later — they were written down centuries later, but the stories themselves were far older and were communicated orally well before they were written down.

(Well, unless new research has found otherwise in the four years since my MA, but I haven’t heard or read anything to that effect.)

Enjoyable read, and an antidote to the idea that Vikings were nothing but bloodthirsty raiders.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Britain AD

Posted 9 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Britain AD by Francis PryorBritain AD, Francis Pryor

From my perspective, speaking as an English Lit postgrad who concentrated heavily on Arthurian and medieval literature, Britain AD has two main weaknesses. The first is the fact that Pryor doesn’t understand or attempt to engage with the shift in language to form English. He suggests there is no reason to suspect mass migration of Angles and Saxons into the UK, regardless of accepted work by people like Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza into the way population genetics tends to show that language, identity and genetics move together.

Secondly, he doesn’t know the subjects he’s talking about nearly well enough. I’d be happy to defer to him on the archaeology of King Arthur, but when it comes to the textual history, I know my stuff — and Pryor has enormous gaps. For example, he speaks of Sir Thomas Malory introducing the ‘Holy Blood’ aspect of the Grail legends… heedless of the fact that Robert de Boron pre-empted Malory by two centuries. (And possibly the Vulgate cycle did too — I don’t have my copies handy to check and I don’t trust online sources to steer me right!) He also utterly ignores the existence of the Saint’s Lives that mention Arthur and the Welsh folk tales.

These might not be important to the way Pryor views Arthur, but I think it’s always been clear that the Arthurian legends are more fiction than fact — so if you’re going to talk about them, you really need to understand the fictional aspects and how the legends developed. Pryor simply does not, and that puts all the rest of the book on shaky footing for me.

The same applies when it comes to understanding whether or not there was an Anglo-Saxon invasion or settlement or anything of the kind. He never manages to account for the rise of the Anglo-Saxon language. He talks about the spread of ideas instead, yet if that were the case, we’d expect to see much more influence from the Celtic languages on English in names for basic, everyday things. Why do we say “bread”, then, from Germanic brood, instead of bara? Why is it a “church”, from cirice, and not eglwys?

I’m not an expert on linguistics, but Pryor’s theories don’t accommodate the way languages work at all — and to be convincing, they must.

Then there’s the fact that he picks which genetic study he proves because, and I quote, “It also supports my own theories — which is an enormous point in its favour.” This may be intended as flippant, but still, that is not the way to critique studies, especially ones which are outside your area of expertise. You can’t pick which theories you like based on which one agrees with your own theory, or it becomes horrifyingly circular.

Where he speaks about archaeology, I don’t have the tools to criticise — and he is well known and well thought of, so I’m sure he’s at least along the right lines. But where it crosses things I do understand — genetics, linguistics, and most of all literature — I find Pryor’s grounding very shaky. I enjoy his writing, but can’t give him more stars than this because his thesis is just too questionable. And it really makes me question whether Britain BC was all that, although it was more deeply grounded in archaeology.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Britain BC

Posted 3 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Britain BC by Francis PryorBritain BC, Francis Pryor

Having read Francis Pryor’s Seahenge, and of course knowing his work on Channel 4’s Time Team, I was very interested to read this. The prehistory of Britain is mostly not my main period, at least where it applies to the Stone Age, but it is the focus of about half of this book — and of much of Pryor’s interest. That’s fine with me, because though it might not be a period of literature and known culture, it is the period of henges and causewayed enclosures, burial mounds and early humans. It helps that Pryor’s enthusiasm is obvious throughout, and his writing is approachable.

(I can actually understand the people who find it dry — when you’re not that interested in the subject, anything can drag, and Pryor does spend a fair amount of words on flints and the evolution of their form and use. But for me, that enthusiasm carries it.)

His theories and interpretation of the evidence more or less goes along with the other work I’ve read, for example from Mike Parker Pearson, who wrote an excellent book on the conclusions of the Stonehenge Riverside Project. Beyond that, I’m not really qualified to comment, though I do find myself wondering somewhat about his opposition to the idea of any mass migration happening from Europe. The thing is, mass migration must have happened sometime, or there’d be nobody in Britain even now. It’s true that we’re pretty sure now that invasion is the wrong term, and that often the spread of ideas was more important than the spread of people. But there are genetic differences between the Welsh and the English, language doesn’t change as completely as from the Celtic languages to the Anglo-Saxon language without some kind of impetus… I mean, the people in Britain today are not going to adopt French unless there’s suddenly a big need for us to communicate with people speaking French — and that isn’t likely to be talking among ourselves unless there’s a significant presence and intermarriage with French speakers. There’s also the influx of Anglo-Saxon mythology and attitudes; Beowulf is not a native British poem by any means, and there are plenty of parallels between English and Scandinavian languages and culture which don’t exist between the Welsh (for example) and Scandinavia.

So I’m somewhat sceptical about the suggestions in this book that the British have more or less been the same people for such a long period of time. There are definitely things which have survived which point to a closer and less adversarial relationship between the incomers and the residents of Britain, but incomers there must have been.

When it discusses archaeology, it’s probably on safe ground. I’d be less sure when you also need to consider non-physical culture and language.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Death of Caesar

Posted 31 March, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Death of Caesar by Barry StraussThe Death of Caesar, Barry Strauss

I was interested to read The Death of Caesarsince I’d read Barry Strauss’ work before — his book on Spartacus, for one, and the one on the Trojan War. I was less impressed with this one — it’s still informative and interesting, and it even pulled out things I didn’t know about the Ides of March and Caesar’s life in general. For example, if I’m thinking about the Ides of March, I’m thinking about Brutus and Cassius, and not about a guy called Decimus who didn’t even make it into Shakespeare’s version properly. And yet Strauss brings Decimus back into the foreground, pointing out how close he was to Caesar. If Caesar’s last words were “et tu, Brute?”, then he was referring to this Brutus: Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus.

But. The book didn’t have quite the energy I remembered from the book on Spartacus, and things seemed to drag on. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t only cover the death of Julius Caesar, but also somewhat of the rise of Mark Anthony and Octavian (Augustus). It seems to wander a little from the point — but then, how would you write a whole book about the Ides of March? And doesn’t it make sense to cover the political fallout and the fate of the assassins?

So possibly I’m just being picky, but this didn’t feel as riveting as Strauss’ other books. Interesting, though, definitely.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Mesopotamia

Posted 18 March, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Mesopotamia by Gwendolyn LeickMesopotamia: The Invention of the City, Gwendolyn Leick

After reading David Damrosch’s The Buried Book, I was eager to read more about Mesopotamia — a place and culture which has influenced so much of humanity’s subsequent history, but about which we often know all too little. This book looked like the perfect way to get more information: it discussed the building of early cities, which includes so much of what’s relevant to humanity. Interaction, education, religion, etc, etc.

Unfortunately, it’s badly written. Or rather, it’s overwritten: sentences meander along to conclusions which don’t always make sense, or which could have been put much more cogently. Suppositions go unsupported, instead phrased in a kind of hopeful, artistic way.

For example, Leick mentions the lagoon beneath the first city, Eridu. She links this to vessels found in presumed temples throughout Mesopotamia, containing water. Okay, I can go with that; I’ll trust your link there. And then:

Perhaps the fountains and pools in Middle Eastern buildings of much later centuries retain a faint memry of the old lagoon in the very south of Mesopotamia.

What Middle Eastern buildings? What centuries? What are the links that would cause that memory to be retained? What’s the evidence? Why are you saying this, is it important? Or is all of this speculative, more poetry than history? Without being able to judge that, the whole thing falls apart somewhat. Combined with the overly abstruse sentences, and I found myself unconvinced it’d be worth my time. I didn’t finish the book.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – The Celtic Revolution

Posted 14 February, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Celtic Revolution by Simon YoungThe Celtic Revolution, Simon Young

A mostly readable and entertaining book which has nonetheless mostly slipped my mind since I read it. The main thesis was that the Celtic tradition — which it has to work to define, given the arguments about such a thing existing at all — drove a surprising amount of the development of modern society. I seem to recall there was something that annoyed me, and I think it was in the section on King Arthur. Just… that whole condescending attitude about the Welsh hope for and belief in the return of Arthur.

While I like that it acknowledges a Celtic identity and influence, I’m not sure I’d recommend this book. There have been some really fascinating books about the Celtic culture, even Nora Chadwick’s outdated The Celts, which I’d recommend more.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt

Posted 17 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Cleopatra by Joyce TyldesleyCleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, Joyce Tyldesley

This book is a solid biography of Cleopatra, appreciating her cleverness and ability as a politician, and examining how the world at the time reacted to her. It’s perhaps a little drier than people would hope — how could you make Cleopatra so academic, when she’s such a colourful figure? Well, I don’t mind that at all, and I enjoyed the way it contextualised her achievements and dissected the myths surrounding her. It delves into the background of her rule and her city, as well, giving a picture of Egypt under the Ptolemies.

I’ve enjoyed other books by Tyldesley before, and though it’s not one of my areas of expertise, I have found her books well-written, referenced and clear. That’s more than I can say for some other Egyptologists who write for the pop-history crowd. Other than that, I don’t have much basis to make a judgement, but I found this one enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Celts

Posted 15 November, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Celts by Nora ChadwickThe Celts, Nora Chadwick

Although this book is undoubtedly out of date, published in 1971, it’s a fascinating survey of what was known and believed about the Celts at the time. Some of the theories are less in vogue now (with more credit given to the spread of ideas than the spread of people for the changes in agriculture, art, etc), but descriptions of the archaeology, art and literature are solid and worth reading. I found Chadwick’s style very pleasant and easy to read: this is serious and somewhat academic in depth, but not boring.

Pretty much my only quibbles, when you lay aside the outdated theories, were the way the literature was described at length. I don’t need a description of Táin Bó Cúailnge — I’ve read it! And my other quibble would be the intense focus on Ireland. It does make sense within the frame Chadwick gives us, where Ireland was more conservative in culture and thus retained purer Celtic culture for longer, but I would still love to have read as detailed a discussion of the Welsh texts surviving, particularly stuff like the Triads.

If you read it knowing that, of course, other theories are in vogue now and some of it has been disproved, it’s a pretty sober and admiring look at Celtic culture. Maybe a touch too much judgement re: civilisation vs barbarism, with the Celts decidedly on the latter end, but there’s still admiration, and no prurient focus on the idea of ritual human sacrifice (which, judging from this, was not considered common then either).

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England

Posted 28 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian MortimerA Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer

Flashback Friday review from 1st April, 2013 (but unfortunately it wasn’t a joke)

As a history book, this is an interesting format and it’s reasonably engaging, though by the end I was starting to get worn down by the sheer level of detail. But what bothered me was that apparently, if you want to time travel, you’d better be male: there’s some lip service paid to actually discussing women’s role in society, with some references to the kind of work women did (mostly: make ale, I gather), and quite a lot of reference to the kind of clothes women wore, and how likely women were to be assaulted and raped, but. We hear about monks and not about nuns, about merchants and not about their wives, about farmers and not their daughters.

And don’t give me the excuse about that not being interesting to read about: nor is intricate detail about what a monk can eat on which days, for most people.

In summary: to time travel, apparently you have to be male. And only men are interesting. Slightly disappointed I paid for this book right now.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – A History of Ancient Egypt

Posted 24 September, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A History of Ancient Egypt by John RomerA History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid, John Romer

I don’t know much about modern Egyptology; it’s been a long time since I read exhaustively about the subject, and the books I referred to then were either for children or very out of date, albeit fascinating in their own way. (Christine Desroches-Noblecourt’s description of the treasures and items found in King Tutakhamen’s tomb held me spellbound for days at a time, and I frequently returned to it, fascinated by what we could glean of the boy king, and of Ankhasamen, his sister-bride.) This book kept some of the fascination of those books for me, though it deals with early Egypt, the very first pharaohs. That does mean it covers up to the construction of Khufu’s Great Pyramid, so it does include some of the very classic Egyptian things people think of, though not the gold-encrusted tombs of later pharaohs.

Because I don’t know much about modern archaeology in Egypt, I can’t really speak to the accuracy of Romer’s interpretations. There is an extensive bibliography, of course, and he steers away from some of the romanticised, imperialist assumptions of earlier theories. Still, at times I had no idea how solid a base his theories stood on: he seemed to spend a lot of time telling the reader what can’t be gleaned from the remains, and then building up some kind of story — a court organised around early pharaohs, controlling the flow of goods along the Nile — anyway.

On a purely stylistic level, it has some of the grandeur and wonder of the books I used to read, and finds wonder in the simplest carvings and burials as well as the feats of engineering, but the sentence structure… needs work. I don’t usually nitpick grammar, but there were far too many long sentences where the subject wasn’t clear, or which lost focus halfway through, or were fragments. Quite offputting.

I’m definitely interested in reading the follow-up volume, once it’s out!

Rating: 4/5

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