Description of the World - Part 21
Ferdinand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2 volumes (I knew a grad student back in the 60s who began her dissertation with the declaration “I love Lake Erie,” an allusion to the celebrated first line of Braudel’s book—it’s actually in the Preface to the First Edition—“I have loved the Mediterranean with passion…” What impressed me about this work from the beginning wasn’t its passion, which is evident enough, but the author’s ability to write an enthralling a book when so much of the content is about quotidian affairs. Writing about what an era was like, how people made a living, what was happening with nothing decisive was happening is vastly more difficult than telling a tale of princes and battles. My sister used to bitterly complain about how dull her history courses were at Pomona College, especially one in particular whose textbooks were by the Medievalist Coulton and featured hundreds of pages on the organization of the feudal manor. The prof in the course, whose name I think I will conveniently forget, though I knew him myself—was one of the world’s leading experts on Justices-of-the-Peace in 14th Century and, in person, was everything you’d expect from somebody obsessed with a topic like that. Braudel, however, isn’t boring. Years ago Val asked me why I was reading the Mediterranean book—she’d never heard of it. I opened it at random and read out loud a couple of paragraph on merchants in Spain or some other equally unpromising topic. We were both surprised how entertaining it somehow was, but she especially. I expect a great many people would actually enjoy the book if they ever read it. When it was first published in English, some editor at Harper & Row vastly overestimated the potential market and ordered a huge printing. Which is why the title turned up on remainder tables for years afterwards. It is really, really hard to persuade educated Americans to buy grown up books and even harder to get ‘em to read them.)
The Oxford Book of Oxford, ed. Jan Morris (Speaking about books bought, but not read. By the looks of it, a candidate for the world’s classiest bathroom book. I think I will relocate it to the loo for that purpose.)
Paul Veyne, Writing History (Writes Veyne: “…Nothing is more disappointing than to read historians, especially the greatest—they have no ideas.” That’s probably a young man’s conclusion; Veyne was only forty or so when he wrote it. Anybody who cares about history should be challenged by Veyne’s perspective on history, however. I certainly include myself in that number since I give history more credit than Veyne does—he denies what I assert, the essentially rhetorical character of history. It’s not that I disagree with the way he proposes to practice history and in fact has practiced history, which I think of as essentially philological. I’m also very much in favor of expanding the reach of the subject into any sort of investigation of what happened—for him, for example, historical sociology is just history, though it hardly matters what we call it. Thing is, it strikes me that opting to care about the interstitial and left behind—the vast bulk of what people have done over the centuries—is just as much a choice as the traditional focus on big events and political leaders. In any case, practicing historians would be well advised to read this book if only in order to apply a sort of spiritual mustard plaster to their complacencies. You could teach an entire seminar around one of Veyne’s many provocative statements such as ‘the deep-rooted causes determine what happens, if it happens; and the superficial causes determine whether it will happen.” Discuss.
E.R. Chamberlin, The Sack of Rome (I suppose the Gothic sack of Rome in 410 is better known—Niall Ferguson made a fool of himself (again) the other day, likening the shootings in Paris to that event. The sack of Rome in 1527 by the forces of the putatively Catholic Charles V was certainly a big deal at the time and an ironic one, to boot, since many of the German soldiers that plundered the city were actually Lutherans who probably took a lot of pleasure in bottling Pope Clement VII up in the Castello Sain’ Angelo and occupying the capital city of the Great Whore for ten months. It was only ten years since Luther nailed the Theses up on the door of the cathedral of Wittenburg so it is a little anachronistic to talk about the struggle of the Protestants and Catholics. The sides hadn’t sorted themselves as clearly as they would later. On the other hand, even after the terms of controversy became starker, it was never a simple case of Catholics + Pope vs Protestants. Cardinal Richelieu famously sided with the Protestants during the Thirty Years War; and when James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution 1688, many English Catholics actually supported William and Mary because the ultra-montane version of Catholicism promoted by James didn’t suit them. In fact, it wasn’t even popular with the Pope, who had to deal with the same variety of Catholicism in the France of Louis XIV. There’s always more than one struggle in progress. Rome got sacked as part of the match between Habsburgs and Valois—it took place not long after the Battle of Pavia, where King Francois was taken prisoner—“all is lost save honor,” etc. There’s nothing special about Chamberlin’s account of all these events, but the book at least serves to illustrate the home truth that princes (or presidents) never get to deal with one thing at a time.)
Horst de la Croix, Military Considerations in City Planning: Fortifications (I’m not quite as bad as Tristram Shandy’s uncle Toby, but I used to like to look at the plans of fortifications. Maybe my interest reflected a life-long quest for solitude. One more demilune or ravelin and you can keep the rabble out, an obsession which would make more sense if there were any evidence the rabble wanted in.)
Ferdinand Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800 (Seems like an abridged version of Civilization and Capitalism. At least, it covers much of the same ground.)
Anne Denieul-Cormier, Wise and Foolish Kings: The First House of Valois 1328-1498. (Right down to Napoleon the Third, the French couldn’t resist intervening in Italy. Truth told, the temptation predated the invasion by Charles VII; but that unnecessary adventure really was the beginning of an epoch—a catastrophe that little profited the French and marked the end of the political independence of the Italians who would become thereafter a political football kicked around by the great territorial powers of Europe. Obviously the Valois kings accomplished a great deal before Charles VII. They were the monarchs that finally won the Hundred Years War, for example. Nevertheless, what I remember from this and other books about this stretch of time is the stupidity of the invasion and the aptness of Charles’ demise: “…on April 8, 1498, at Ambois, on his way with the Queen to a tennis game, he banged his head violently against the lintel of a door and died on the spot.”Giovanni Levi, Inheriting Power: the Story of an Exorcist (I don’t remember much about this book which explains the trouble a 17th Century priest got into conducting exorcisms over and beyond having read it. I think I’ll leave it at that.)