Monday, November 30, 2015

Description of the World - Part 15

Fourth Shelf

Carlo M. Cipolla, Faith, Reason, and the Plague (I would have loved this little book back in Junior High School when I was writing an epic poem about the great plague—imagine what the Decameron would have been like if the young people had stayed in Florence. Cipolla writes about an outbreak of plague that occurred in 1630 and how the church responded to the threat. Whatever else you can say about the Counter-Reformation, the church got things a lot better organized.)

Hiram Haydn, the Counter-Renaissance (I have a lot of patience for books like this that attempt to provide a synthesis of an age, especially if they contain long quotations from the writers of the times they study. The downside is that so many books quote the same few lines. I think reading Haydn was the first time I encountered Donne’s poem that features the bit about “’Tis all in peeces, all cohaerence gone/All just supply and all Relation” or, just as likely, reading these lines in Haydn was the first time I recognized how exceedingly familiar the lines had become—sometimes the second or nth time is a first time in its own way. In any case, these verses have pursued me across the years like Mormon missionaries. Alright already. Looking at this book provokes a historiographical reflection. It’s becoming commonplace to end an account of some event with a history of how it has been remembered in literature and history—there are long books about the posthumous careers of Cleopatra and Sappho. Where does this sort of thing end? There can be and in fact are accounts of how old interpretations of the past have been interpreted in turn. “So naturalists observe/a flea….”)

Philippe Contamine, War in the Middle Ages (I opened the book at random and found a map of the Battle of Morat, which was the beginning of the end for Charles the Rash, Duke of Burgundy, the great enemy of Louis XI, whose biography is a shelf up. Charles is the guy who called Louis the universal spider. I don’t know what Contamine’s relationship is with the Annales school but he talks about the war in ways reminiscent of how they talk about mentalities, serfs, or amateur female saints. He talks about the art of war, which for a lot of readers is a dance of rectangles over a contour map, but also discusses the price of cannon stones in 1415 and the proportions of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal in gun powder from Roger Bacon to the mid 16th Century—lots more saltpeter as the years went on, which explains why royal governments had to spend so much effort and money to collected it—it was commonly made from horse manure and urine. Lazarre Carnot, organizer of victory during the wars of the French revolutionary, famously had the stuff scraped off the walls of latrines and stables. I do not believe there is a stanza of the Marseilles that refers to this activity.)

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (It’s fascinating that a book so relevant to contemporary political economics has collected adoring blurbs from Niall Ferguson and Robert Solow, Kenneth Arrow and Francis Fukuyama. Apparently it’s easy to endorse the author’s message about how the extraction of rents by powerful minorities retards prosperity while the rule of law and inclusive political institutions whether you are spokesman for neoliberal orthodoxy or one of its critics. From where I’m sitting the reason things go to hell is generally because of the unintelligent selfishness of elites. It’s always possible for the few to oppress the many, but it is wiser and certainly nobler to forgo the opportunity. The rabbis used to say that the creation of the world was an act of voluntary limitation on God’s part. He drew back so there could be room for something else in the universe. I don’t know if this piece of theology was originally a political allegory—the guys who start out in a position to lord it over the others are hardly Gods—but I do note that the founding act in the birth of democratic states is commonly one of forbearance. When the artist Benjamin West told King George III that Washington was going to resign command of the new nation’s armies, he said “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”)

Heinrich Fichtenau, Living in the Tenth Century: Mentalities and Social Orders (It’s rather a shame that I’ve lost the ability to write legibly. My old marginalia, though less amusing than monastic droodles, are sometimes pleasant to read. Commenting on the author’s mention that the medievals referred to clerics as men who held the stilus, I wrote “Unfortunately, among those who hold the stilus/Are numbered all the vilest,” which is a pretty good book end to another piece of marginalia of mine "Those who crave the Logos/Don't care if it is bogos." My annotations weren’t all nonsense. I underlined this passage, which conveys a great deal about a vanished world: “…even at the end of the eleventh century a shod horse was worth about twice an unshod one. In an age of mass-produced iron and iron products we can no longer understand why finding a horseshoe was once considered good luck.”)

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