Saturday, November 28, 2015

Description of the World - Part 13 

Paul Murray Kendall, Louis XI: the Universal Spider (At a distance, French history looks like an unending series of guys named Louis—I know the kings of England, at least the ones on this side of William the Conqueror, but for a long time it was all I could do to remember that Louis XII preceded Louis XIV. Number 9 stands out, not only because he was so ably memorialized by his aide Philip de Commynes and had the good fortune to have colorful enemies like Charles, Duke of Burgundy, but because his reign marked an inflection point in the development of modern nations. Mel Brooks’ Louis XVI asserted that it was good to be the king, but the life of the actual Louis XI demonstrated that it was damned hard work. So many hours in the saddle, so much intrigue and dissimulation. No wonder so many of these figures were utterly worn out in the their 50s.)

Philippe de Communes, Memoirs (And this is the eyewitness version of these events written by a participant who worked first for the Burgundians and then for Louis. Phillipe had few illusions: “We must realize, therefore, considering the wickedness of men, especially the powerful who do not acknowledge or believe there is a God, that it is necessary or each lord or prince to have his opposite to keep him fearful and humble, otherwise no one would be able to live under their rule or anywhere near them.”)

Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (The Thirteenth Warrior is movie based on the Michael Creighton novel of the same name. It’s essentially a demystified version of Beowulf, but Creighton also drew a lot on a book written by an Arab named ibn Fadian, who went on an embassy to the Bulgars of the middle Volga river in 921. Ibn Fadian, who probably never guessed that he would be played by Antonio Banderas in the movie, definitely didn’t go galloping off to Denmark with a passel of Vikings to fight monsters. The Viking ship burial in the film is based on ibn Fadian’s account, though Hollywood left out the part where the deceased’s friends had sex with the Irish slave girl before they strangled her. I mention all this detail because it’s dollars to donuts that Creighton got the ibn Fadian character from an appendix to Jones’ book that reproduces his account of the ship burial.)

Bede,  A History of the English Church and People (What matters changes over time. Livy carefully records monstrous births and other prodigies. The Title of Chapter 12 of Book 3 of this book is “A Little Boy is Cured of Ague at St. Oswald’s Tomb.’)

Eric Christiansen, The Northern Crusades (I read this book while holed up in a sweltering motel room in Baton Rouge. The Northern regions seemed exotic to me at the time so it was easy to identify with the Danes and Germans who pioneered the mysterious pagan East, though the Vikings plied these waters before the crusaders, and the area was never as benighted as I probably imagined because of the status of the Baltic in Monopoly and vague memories of Lower Slabbovia from Al Capp cartoons. This book’s picture of the Teutonic Knights doesn’t improve the impression of ‘em you get from the Eisenstein movie. These guys were formidable in many ways: “The terrible Johann von Gelberstedt of Halle had been so vigorous in secular life that even after receiving the last rites he had been moved to rape his nurse.”)

Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined (This book usually gets featured as an attempt to understand the medieval understanding of society via Dumezil’s notion of the Indoeuropean tripartite ideology: “Here below, some pray, others fight, others work” orare, pugnare, laborare. As in music, the virtuosity is demonstrated more by the variations than the theme. On the other hand, one thought Duby presumably picked up from Dumezil that is more than schematic is the way that the criticism of the second order, the knights, seems rather more an expression of priestly disdain. The need to humble the warriors is built in to some very old stories. In the Mahabharata, for example, the deep cause of the great war is not just the jealousy between clans or a king’s gambling problem. The Kshtriyas must be made to destroy one another in order to save the Earth from their pride and violence. The Trojan war had a similar function in Greek thinking about human history. Duby’s book was translated by Arthur Goldhammer, the prince of translators—he most recently got credit for the great clarity of his translation of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century. The Three Orders was his second translation.

Jacques Le Goff, The Medieval Imagination (Le Goff is well known for his attempts to write a history of the imagination. I had forgotten how much the attempt owed to Levi-Strauss. You end up calling a chapter Vestimentary and Alimentary Codes in Erec et Enide because of his example. That sort of thing is catching. Back in the day, I tried to come up with a Levi-Straussian taxonomy of the shapes of women’s legs. By the way, Goldhammer did this translation, too.)

Sir John Froisssart, The Chronicles of England, France, and Spain (Another book it would be fun to read out loud to the right kid though you might not want to do so in the spirit of the author who wrote “to encourage all valorous hearts, and to show them honorable examples.” Fans of Game of Thrones might also enjoy the book which manages to be enthusiastic about an era of unrelenting violence, albeit without dragons. Its interesting to compare Froissart’s enthusiasm for what could be accomplished with edged weapons with the melancholy retrospection of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror that covers the same time period.

M.A. Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (This is one of those books that’s fascinating to read even though you are aware that the author’s theory is essentially a crank. Believing that witchcraft was real—not that old women went flying around on broomsticks, for course, but that the covens and ceremonies reflected the survival and perhaps revival of ancient traditions—is apparently irresistible to judge by the number of times it has been floated. That folkloric vestiges lay behind the elaborated accounts of the witch hunters is likely enough, just as actual floods featuring real water did occur before the Mesopotamians cooked up Utnapishtim, but interpretation, i.e., what happens in transmission, is more important than the initiating facts, which are generally rather insignificant even when they can be determined. If you want to know how the old folkways were submerged by modernity read Keith Thomas Religion and the Decline of Magic. Murray’s a better guilty pleasure, right up there with Jane Ellen Harrison.)

Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives (The longer you work at remembering a dream the more coherent it becomes. The dream as experienced is hardly recoverable at all. It’s a virtual object we have to postulate even to make the point that the overt dream is a fiction. Davis studied how 16th Century people in England created stories to go along with their requests for pardons. It’s not so much that their accounts of various, sometimes hair raising events were all lies, though many of them were surely that, but that they all evince a process analogous to dream work. Ought to give historians pause. What actually happened is as unrecoverable as what the dream was before we woke up and explained it to ourselves.)

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