Life in a Medieval Castle, Frances Gies, Joseph Gies
This book is pretty much what it says on the tin: an exploration of what life was like in a medieval castle, mostly drawing from the case of Chepstow Castle, but mentioning other castles when variations and other points needed to be made. It covers the life inside the castle — what the Lord and Lady of the castle would do, how they would entertain themselves — but also how the castle was supported by the lord’s people. There’s some space given to warfare and surviving siege conditions, as you’d expect, and the exact social circumstances that promoted the building and use of castles.
It’s an easy enough read, though there wasn’t much that surprised me in terms of being new information. For a more engaging read, I’d probably turn to Marc Morris’ book: Castles, which covers some similar ground. Probably makes a good reference read (no surprises there — the cover mentions that George R.R. Martin used it as such, which is probably why it and the other related books are having a nice little lease of life in bookshops)!
This book is about the impact humans have had on the world, and perhaps more accurately, it’s about how we pinpoint when that impact really began and whether we should consider the human impact to have started a new geological age for the Earth. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here about exactly how humans have changed the world: the Columbian exchange which is leading to the homogenisation of ecosystems, and climate change, of course, but also the deeper impacts to the carbon and nitrogen cycles.
There’s also a lot of rather tedious discussion of how exactly the committees to define geological time are set up, and that I could have done without. I don’t mind some information about that, but I don’t need to hear about the endless infighting and bureaucracy created in such detail! I’m actually interested in how humans have impacted the planet, not the process by which we decide whether to commemorate that by naming a geological era the Anthropocene.
There’s several instances of really bad editing in this volume, too — typos, sentences which don’t quite make sense, etc — which gives it quite a careless overall effect. Some useful information and theories, and some stuff I didn’t know from elsewhere, though!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, very little of this was actually unexpected to me. There is some interesting and entertaining stuff — including the penguin facts — but some of it was fairly well-worn. Possibly that’s because I have read a fair number of pop-science books, possibly it’s because my parents raised me on a solid diet of David Attenborough, but… meh. Cooke’s writing isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have much of a spark, and I didn’t find it particularly entertaining. Actually, I kept feeling rather bored, and switching books to stay awake longer (to maximise the precious hour or two I spend reading in bed — and completely offline — at the moment!).
So… it wasn’t bad, but neither did it strike me as anything special.
Spirals in Time discusses shells — all kinds of shells and shelled creatures — with all kinds of weird and wonderful facts… and others I feel like I really should have known. (An octopus is a mollusc!) If you’re interested in shells already, I’m sure it’s fascinating, but I ended up a bit lost and a bit, well… lacking in giving a shit. Scales’ enthusiasm is palpable, but I’m just not interested enough.
Besides which, I totally agree that anthropogenic climate change is real, but somehow being preached at about it in every book I read is beginning to get on my nerves. Yes, thanks, I know all this! I know there’s value in it being there and it’s all true and important, but… arggh! Somehow it’s becoming, unfairly, a pet hate.
This isn’t actually a bad book, just not my thing.
Patrick Nunn’s premise is that oral traditions may preserve details about events from a long time ago — not just decades, but centuries, and even millennia. He goes about trying to prove this by taking inundation stories as an example, linking them to post-glacial sea rise events, and trying to prove that the stories accurately depict the experiences of the tellers’ ancestors. I think his basic point is proven anyway: we know that oral traditions can preserve an amazing amount of detail over astonishing lengths of time. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were written down long after the events they describe, with clear features showing they were actually performed aloud and passed from person to person in a feat of memory. We know that this survival wasn’t just a matter of a generation or two, because the stories contain clear details that were no longer relevant to the time when the stories were actually written down: weaponry, customs and geopolitics were different, but are preserved in the epics with a surprising degree of fidelity.
However, I think Nunn tries to go too far, and is generally pretty unsound. For one example that made me question his research, he mentions his theory that people originally created rock art as a sort of aide-memoire, on the grounds that they wouldn’t have done anything that didn’t aid in survival — that it must be so, because they wouldn’t have had time for anything other than survival. However, the 40 hour work week is actually a purely post-Industrial construct: modern hunter-gatherers — even living in a world circumscribed by land ownership and industry, i.e. with nowhere near the range they would have had prehistorically — need to spend far less time on subsistence. Anything from 2 hours a day to 8 hours is suggested, most of it on the lower end of that scale; if nothing else, hunter-gatherers had the same amount of free time as modern humans, likely more.
That’s a comparatively minor point, but it definitely made me sceptical. Add to that Nunn’s tendency to use phrases like “it is plausible to assume” and “it seems likely”, and his rather circular attempts to use sea levels to date the stories and stories to date the sea levels, and I’m extra-sceptical. These are mythic stories — things like a kangaroo digging a hole that causes the sea to flood in — and his interpretations are faltering. Does it mean X? Does it mean Y? At one point he says the presence of a particular feature in a story proved it referred to a permanent inundation and then later, though I suspect this was bad editing, seems to say the opposite of another story (it didn’t contain the same feature, and therefore still referred to a permanent inundation — what?!).
I think Nunn attempts to use two things that are necessarily imprecise to date each other, and gets tangled up in the relationship between those. I’d much rather see some underwater archaeology to show that people were living in these locations at the right time, as a kind of independent third corroboration. I think he’s particularly shaky when he discusses stories where drowned buildings are clearly visible beneath the water: it’s obvious that those stories cannot be purely handed down from the time of the inundation, but will have been reinforced, changed, or possibly even invented by new tellers, when the drowned buildings were observed in later times.
The basic premise that oral culture can preserve some astonishing detail from very far in the past is undeniable, and I commend Nunn’s use and examination of Australian Aboriginal stories in particular — I think it was a sound choice given their isolation from other people’s and the strength of their oral culture. I just think Nunn tries to stand up a stool with only two legs (the stories and sea levels), and should definitely have thought about other ways to establish his theories.
Obviously this is not my field in any sense, though I have a background in scientific investigation, so take my opinion for what you think that’s worth. I found the book interesting and largely well-written, even if the arguments are weak. I did find the recounting of every single individual inundation story known to the author rather tedious. There’s something like 21 one of them: pick the best ones, dude. Make a table to compare them. Just… something!
Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, Donald Johanson, Maitland Edey
This book might be a little old by now, and somewhat superceded by discoveries of other Austrolopithecines and Homo naledi, but it’s excellent for getting a solid understanding of the issues surrounding how we understand human evolution. It’s also excellent as a way of understanding the kind of environment that kind of research and debate is going on within — things have changed now in several ways, no doubt, but the methods of study and research are still true, and an understanding of the existing fossils –and how they were categorised — from when Johanson wrote is still useful.
I have to admit, I wondered about the obvious sour grapes between Johanson and the Leakeys that came up several times in this book. They were such renowned scientists — and honestly, I’d still remember their names before Johanson’s, despite the fame of ‘Lucy’ — but they were so wrong and so unscientific, in this view. It makes me wonder. Obviously, personal bias is likely to have coloured things here!
My favourite part was probably the final section, in which Johanson discussed theories about why humans are bipedal. It’s clearly argued, and while I agree with the critique mentioned in the book itself (I love the line “I’ve never seen an estrus fossil” as a retort), it mostly hangs pretty well together. (Basically: humans are bipedal to effectively look after children, increasing the number of offspring one woman can have; an advantage over most apes, who keep to one child at a time.)
The Mummies of Ürümchi, Elizabeth Wayland Barber
The Mummies of Ürümchi discusses the rather Caucasian looking bodies found, naturally mummified by sand and salt, in the Tarim Basin, northwest China. These bodies were found with amazingly well-preserved textile grave goods, and that is the main focus of this book. Barber tries to discover where these people came from, linking their technology, customs and textiles to what we know of other related people’s.
I wasn’t expecting to read another book so strongly focused on textiles right after I read The Golden Thread, but I guess I came well-equipped. And I love that there’s colour plates with good photos of some of the discussed items — they haven’t fallen prey to the urge to just show the mummies, although several of the plates do.
A little out of date by now, yes, but fascinating.
This was exactly my kind of pop-history: a narrow focus on a particular subject in various different time periods and geographical locations. In this case, Kassia St Clair looks at the development and importance of fabric throughout history, from the earliest fabrics known to modern stretch fabrics used in the Olympics and high tech designs used on the Moon. The obvious fabrics like linen and silk and wool obviously get plenty of play here, with peeks at their influence on history (and the influence of history on them). I found it very absorbing, and enjoyed the way she gave a glimpse of the importance of fabrics in a lot of different contexts.
If you enjoy the Great British Sewing Bee, some of this will be familiar already, but there’s also plenty more to learn…
In this book, Walter Alvarez discusses the problem, process and solution in figuring out how the KT boundary extinction happened (yep, that’s the death of the dinosaurs). Despite the rather sensational sounding title, it’s a thoughtful book: aimed at the layperson, undoubtedly, but still discussing the process of obtaining evidence, and what that evidence means, in some detail. I found his writing incredibly clear, and though I’m not exactly the right person to judge, I think any intelligent and interested person should be able to follow his arguments.
It’s also oddly charming that instead of talking about Luis Alvarez (Nobel prizewinning scientist) by name, or even as “my father”, he’s called “Dad” throughout. “Dad thought up this idea… I spoke to Dad…” etc.
Obviously, Alvarez doesn’t present many downsides to his own theory, and I imagine there have been more refinements and adjustments since this was published in 1997, but it’s still a surprisingly compulsive read. The opening is surprisingly literary, revealing a love of Tolkien.
This is part of a series on “Lost Civilisations”, but Shipley pushes back on that idea from the start — Angkor Wat, for example, was never “lost” to local people; it was “discovered” by non-local people who acted as though locals had no connection to it, and this is a pattern that keeps repeating: Westerners find something monumental and assume that it has been “lost” and the civilisation that created it is dead, etc, etc. I don’t want to get into the truths and lies about that or debate it too much, but I found it interesting and refreshing to view history and archaeology this way.
The Etruscans are pretty enigmatic, and frequently portrayed as such, partly because we don’t have much insight into their language. The amount of Etruscan we have to work with is steadily growing as finds are made, though, and maybe someday soon we’ll know more. Shipley takes the reader on a tour of the finds we have got, focusing each chapter on a single find or site to tease out what it says about the Etruscans on various topics, including the position of women in their society (often portrayed as rather egalitarian). I enjoyed it very much: Shipley writes well and makes her points very clearly. It helps that the book has a lot of colour photographs as well, and the finds are well-chosen: I love the “Sarcophagus of the Spouses”, in particular.
Definitely what I was looking for. I wonder how good the other books in this series are…