Peter S. Wells' book is a look at the Dark Ages in the 'cultural continuity' tradition that started in the 1970s. It is mostly aimed at dispelling the...morePeter S. Wells' book is a look at the Dark Ages in the 'cultural continuity' tradition that started in the 1970s. It is mostly aimed at dispelling the extremely bleak view of post-Roman history taken by the early Humanists to Gibbon and through most of the twentieth century.
And it's a certainty that things weren't as bad as the traditional view represented them. However, the arguments presented that the post-Roman world continued without major disruptions are often nebulous, ill-supported, and lacking any degree of detail.
The strongest assertions are with the continuance with cities. The older view generally asserts that post-Roman cities were abandoned, or greatly reduced in size. Wells talks about what archaeology has found in several cities throughout Europe that show these cities did not show disruption in the post-Roman era, as well as several sites outside the Roman world that developed in this time frame. However, one city did indeed shrink massively in this period (Rome itself), and there's no discussion of if there are any cities from that period where there has been a conspicuous absence of any meaningful finds. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but the comparison would provide a useful baseline for better theorizing.
Still, archaeology is the best parts of the book, and I wish he had gone into more detail about what has been found. New finds are made all the time, and this book does touch on several more recent ones. I think a more systematic examination would have helped develop his argument much better. As it is, he shows that there were new sites, outside the Roman world (in the Baltics) that were developing, and trading. And while that does support his refrain that Europe did not turn into a howling wilderness, it does speak to the potential of large economic shifts, which would disrupt ordinary life.
Moreover, Wells asserts at one point that the finds of exotic luxury goods in graves and the like disproves that trade declined in the post-Roman period. No, it only shows that luxury goods continued to be traded; it says nothing about bulk non-luxury goods, the part that only sees trade when there is a well-established infrastructure in place.
In the end, I suppose I was expecting a more scholarly work, while this is really a very introductory text. It is also aimed at traditional rut of learning about the period, which is not where I am. It's not a bad book, but not what I'm looking for.(less)
This is another Lecturable book for Kindle that I had bought (for $2) before actually starting A History of the Babylonians and Assyrians, and findin...moreThis is another Lecturable book for Kindle that I had bought (for $2) before actually starting A History of the Babylonians and Assyrians, and finding out how abysmal the editing was on that volume. Thankfully, it is much better here. There's still lots of OCR-derived problems, but not nearly as frequently. If most of their books are of this quality, I'd say they're generally worth what I paid for this one, though no more.
This was intended as a guide to French history for American servicemen going over to France in WWI. However, the book was not actually completed until 1919, making it too late for that purpose. In general, it is a good survey of French history, though as it gets closer to the current (1919) day, it suffers from more and more bias, culminating with an entirely off-balance view of WWI (which given the original intended audience, is somewhat understandable...).
This is quite at odds with the generally even-handed tone of earlier parts of the book. Davis is not a Francophile it would seem, but a raving Third Republic-phile. Indeed, the creation of the Third Republic is the trigger that brings about this shift in tone, as can be seen the following quote: "The 'Military Law of 1872' was the foundation for that magnificent fighting engine which, under Joffre, Pétain, and Foch, was to stand between world-civilization and barbarism on so many desperate occasions from 1914 to 1918."
It is a shame that the book becomes victimized by rhetoric for the last chapters, for it actually succeeds at its primary job until that point.(less)
I picked up this book for free in the Kindle edition some time ago. Published in 1902, it is long out of copyright, and offered by Lecturable, who see...moreI picked up this book for free in the Kindle edition some time ago. Published in 1902, it is long out of copyright, and offered by Lecturable, who seems to specialize in Kindle editions of older historical works.
It is one of the first overview histories of ancient Mesopotamia written after archaeology efforts started in the region in the 19th century. This makes the scholarship well out of date, but accounting for that problem, it is a well done, and readable introduction to the subject, and certainly well worth the $2 it normally costs if you want to get at the root of scholarship on the subject.
Or, it would be if the text was in better shape. It is, of course, an OCR scan of the book, but it seems to have gotten minimal, if any, editing. Words breaking with a space in the middle (artifact of a word broken between lines, with a space inserted in place of the hyphen?) are an endemic problem, and garbled words (caused by the OCR picking the wrong letter) are not uncommon. In fact, I’d say the book as a whole averaged better than one error per page, except for one section 75% of the way through which was much worse. Any sort of minimal editing with a human pair of eyes would have found the bulk of the problems I saw.
I can’t really complain for free, and the vast majority of the errors were such that the book was quite readable (there was only one case where I was truly uncertain what a word was supposed to be). But, it has made me quite leery of Lecturable’s products, if this is going to be the usual quality.(less)
After reading Norwich's A History of Venice Venice, I looked at his other books, and saw one on the Mediterranean that looked interesting. However, mo...moreAfter reading Norwich's A History of Venice Venice, I looked at his other books, and saw one on the Mediterranean that looked interesting. However, most of the reviews for it said it was okay, but Abulafia's The Great Sea was much better, so I put that on my wishlist instead, and got it for Christmas.
It's a large, expansive, book, covering from prehistory to the current day (2010). Abulafia purposefully tries to limit the scope of his book by sticking to subjects that impinge directly on the Mediterranean as a whole; the communities on it's shores, the trade that crosses its surface, the rivalries and the piracy. It is a general history, and doesn't really have any defining thesis, other than perhaps the one his book is organized around. The book is split into five parts (titled 'The First Mediterranean', 'The Second Mediterranean', and so on), with each part being about a single economic complex in the Mediterranean.
Many parts are familiar to those familiar with history, but along the way there are plenty of new things to see. I had not known of the ancient ruins on Malta, nor the entire nature of Allied frustrations dealing with French North Africa. The third and second-to-last chapters are depressing, as they cover the destruction of several multicultural communities in the lead up to WWI through the aftermath of WWII. The final chapter takes a quick look at how mid-20th century emigration spread southern Italian cuisine to the rest of the world, and then talks of the impact of tourism on the Mediterranean.
In all, it is a broad book that manages a surprising amount of depth, and an enjoyable read.(less)
When I was growing up, my dad had a small business in the wargaming industry, acting as a wholesaler for other companies, selling games retail by mail...moreWhen I was growing up, my dad had a small business in the wargaming industry, acting as a wholesaler for other companies, selling games retail by mail, and publishing a magazine. So, I grew up amidst a collection disparate products from Avalon Hill, SPI, and an insane number of tiny publishers in the wargaming and burgeoning RPG market.
Much of Jon Peterson's Playing at the World therefore is familiar ground. Familiar, but not extensively known, since I was never all that directly plugged into the events he talks about. However, I have contemplated trying to produce such a book myself. While this isn't the book I'd write, it is close, and it shows just how insane an undertaking it would be to do my half-formed thoughts right. Jon is obviously a fellow fan, and his viewpoint is shown on the cover, which features a hand-drawn dungeon map on graph paper, a couple of hand-made wargame counters, and a well-worn old-style d10, and on the title page, which is done to look like a copy of an old fanzine cover, complete with staple in the corner, and a rust mark from an old paperclip. In his acknowledgements, he mentions "In keeping with the tradition of self-publishing exemplified by gaming fandom, this work was written, edited, typeset, illustrated and published by the author with the help of some friends." The lack of professional editing shows on occasion, but given the nature of the project, it's very well done. It also points up a criminal lack of academic interest in subjects that have had a profound influence on popular culture, and therefore modern culture as a whole; one of the author's assertions is that early RPGs pioneered systems that can be seen in the vast bulk of current video games, and he later points out that the only histories of the SF&F genre are similarly self-generated without any real scholarly interest.
The bibliography of this massive work is twenty-five pages long, most of it dedicated to various tiny-run fanzines of the period. Jon Peterson went to an amazing amount of effort scouring eBay, and getting access to private collections to be able to reference 'zines that often had a run of less than a hundred copies per issue. All of this is in pursuit tracking down what people said at the time, rather than relying on what they said about it later. The scope and breadth of his research shows both in the main text, and in copious footnotes that give asides, point out connections, develop an argument further, etc.
There's two themes in this book. The first, and heavily dominant one, is the history of the birth of Dungeons & Dragons. The first chapter (of five, they're all massive chapters) covers from the birth of commercial wargaming in the late fifties to the publication of the original box set at the beginning of 1974. The next three chapters are massive essays on just what history and concepts fed into that, before the last chapter picks up the main story again, and covers the next few years, effectively leaving off with the publication of the AD&D Player's Handbook, by which time the concept of the 'role-playing game' had taken root, and other competing systems were coming out at an increasingly furious pace. So furious, in fact, that even Playing at the World's normally exhaustive coverage starts breaking down, such as when the company Wee Warriors gets mentioned in a footnote with no explanation of who they were, or what they had been doing, other than picking up the publishing of the product that was the subject of the footnote.
The middle three chapters are deep dives into what Jon Peterson feels are related subjects. The second chapter looks at the origin and history of the fantasy genre, to show how the genre was understood at the time of D&D. He also points out the recurring theme of the 'visitation story', where a person from the real world is transported to a fantastic land, and then returns to the real world at the end, which he posits played a part in why the first RPG was a fantasy RPG. The third chapter takes a look at the history trying to simulate events in games, effectively a history of wargaming from early chess variants into dedicated kriegspiel systems, then through more civilian efforts, the rise of miniatures wargamers inside of toy soldier collectors, and thence into commercial wargaming explored at the beginning. This part comes with extra warnings from the author that it really is for the more dedicated reader, though I found it all fascinating. The fourth chapter looks at the idea of 'role playing', and notes several powerful instances of shared collaboration in a fictional world. This one is rougher, and doesn't flow as well, but there's some interesting groping towards the shape of an instinctual type of 'group think' that can have a very powerful impact on people.
The second theme of the book is just how far the concepts pioneered in D&D have carried outside of traditional RPGs. It doesn't get a lot of space in the book, being mostly confined to the introduction and epilogue, but again, he has some interesting things to say.
It's a truly massive book (no, really, I was very surprised by the weight of my Christmas present when it showed up), and the result of an undertaking no less massive. But it reads very well, I had problems putting it down every time I picked it up. I can quibble about a few facts, but they'd be at most clarifications of points he raises, can doubt some of his assertions, but they are massively snowed under by the amount of other arguments that are rock-solid. It's a great, enjoyable book, about a small, critical happening, and why it happened when and how it did, and anyone with an interest in gaming really needs to pick this up.(less)
Roger Collins is a name I've known for many years through his Early Medieval Europe 300–1000, so when I realized that a book I was considering getting...moreRoger Collins is a name I've known for many years through his Early Medieval Europe 300–1000, so when I realized that a book I was considering getting was by him, it became an instant first choice.
Covering nearly 2000 years of history in about 500 pages, even if restricted to a single institution (the papacy), is no mean feat, but Collins does it quite well here. There are places where names and titles go by at a dizzying pace, but mostly he picks an issue or a pope, and does a subchapter on it. This breaks the narrative into a large number of discrete chunks that mostly read very cleanly.
He actually starts in 1942, with an excavation under St. Peter's which eventually turned up what was later announced as the bones of St. Peter himself. Collins points out a number of unresolvable uncertainties about the claim, and moves on to how this this claim ties into the Papacy's view of itself. The book is well done and informative, for me especially in the period from 1790 to 1850, where the papacy went through it's toughest struggle, loosing all of its temporal power, only to gain new respect in the spiritual field.
Collins maintains a good even tone throughout, treating the subject evenhandedly, and sceptically (when needed), showing how various policies were (and weren't) reactions to the times. His final thoughts on the papacy are, "The papacy in the twentieth century was more defensive on its impregnable rock than at almost any other time in its past, and more disturbed by changes in human society and in thought than at any previous period, at least since the Reformation. The latter remains the great turning point in its history. Recent decades have, on the other hand, put the person of the pope at the forefront of the Catholic sense of identity to an unparalleled degree, and focused popular piety upon it. At the same time there have been losses, both of vocations and of faith, more in some parts of the world than others, as expectations of change, reform and leadership have been disappointed. The papacy may need to adapt to the changing circumstances and demands of the new millennium, but if its history suggests anything, this will be done slowly, reluctantly and with a firm denial that anything of the kind is happening."(less)
Part two of Osprey's survey of Medieval tactics is much like the first volume. Unfortunately, while I felt the first volume started strong and finishe...morePart two of Osprey's survey of Medieval tactics is much like the first volume. Unfortunately, while I felt the first volume started strong and finished somewhat weaker, all of this volume is at the level of the later portions of the first.
The main problem is that the first one started with a fairly solid thesis, and then lost its way in the later part of the period. This volume is still useful as a general introduction to a subject that gets too little attention, but it just wanders from place to place, and time to time, without any central ideas stated.
There are another thirteen small battle diagrams (compared to seven in the first volume), which seem to be more crowded and harder to follow than before. This may indicate the battles are getting more complicated. I don't know this period as well, so fewer of the battles discussed there or in the eight color plates are familiar to me, though there were still a few I knew.(less)
It's not a great book. Though I'd say for the period it is a necessary way-point to better.
Well, better from the view point of the less-dedicated read...moreIt's not a great book. Though I'd say for the period it is a necessary way-point to better.
Well, better from the view point of the less-dedicated reader. Ian Wood does an excellent job of detective work, comparing various sources and teasing out bias, coming up with ways to re-align sources to explain inconsistencies, and, with the insights thus gained, expose the likely motivations that moved the all too nebulous figures of the Merovingian Dynasty.
I've had an interest in the period for some years, and it is one that is very hard to study. There's not a great deal known, and even less written in English. Wood's book helps out a great deal, as he takes a look at several subjects (such as Roman literary continuity) and shows how they tie together across a period of time. This fragments his presentation in other ways, and I don't think I have any sort of grasp of how any one point in time worked, but the tools are there to reconstruct it from his different chapters.(less)
A pretty good discussion of how the Roman Army worked in battle from the Marian reforms through most of the Empire. It's about as solid as anything on...moreA pretty good discussion of how the Roman Army worked in battle from the Marian reforms through most of the Empire. It's about as solid as anything on such a detailed subject can be at this distance. It mostly takes the normal scholarship (guesses) and lays it all out quite well. Sadly, even though the Romans wrote a lot, details of this sort were almost never mentioned, possibly because the authors assumed everyone would know exactly was being talked about.
The problem is that this has all been said before. Previous Osprey books on the Roman military have had all the same basic discussion. This volume does enhance the discussion by giving example after example of Roman battles, and showing how the understanding of Roman tactics applies to them. A nice touch is an all-too-short mention of how the aggressive tactics of this period gave way to defensive tactics in the late Empire.(less)
This is the second book I've read from the Library of World Civilization series, which seems to be pretty good in all. The books come with a large num...moreThis is the second book I've read from the Library of World Civilization series, which seems to be pretty good in all. The books come with a large number of illustrations well placed with the text they're illustrating. However, these are older books and the layout can be cramped.
The thesis of this one is that at the beginning of the 15th Century, western culture can be seen as "Christendom", but by the end of the century, there is a move towards a European (instead of religious) community.
After talking about it in the first chapter, there's no more direct discussion in the rest of the book, but it does go on to tackle a variety of subjects in considerable length, ranging from changing views of knowledge, how the past was different from the present (and the creation of the idea that historical figures should not be presented in contemporary dress and scenery), to the changing relationship of the church and the layman.
In all, it is a very informative read, and a great starting point on the period.(less)
Pretty much just what it says on the tin. It's a good reference the general pattern and changing use of banners and standards in Japan from the Genpei...morePretty much just what it says on the tin. It's a good reference the general pattern and changing use of banners and standards in Japan from the Genpei War to the early Tokugawa Shogunate. But, it is by no means a complete one (impossible in an Osprey-sized book, of course). Still, a useful, easy to find reference.(less)
A quick guide to early Middle Ages tactics; as such, there are pieces I knew already, and pieces that echo other books I've read. However, it's all pu...moreA quick guide to early Middle Ages tactics; as such, there are pieces I knew already, and pieces that echo other books I've read. However, it's all put together here very well. David Nicolle is one of my favorite Osprey authors, and he does not disappoint here.
This is technically part of the Elite line, and follows the general format. However, instead of the usual eight full-color plates of various soldiers of the period, they are all bird's eye views of various battles in progress, that illustrate things very well indeed (part of one of these is on the front cover), accompanied with a decent 1/3rd page description of the action. Also, there are another seven battles given a traditional black-and-white schematic illustrative treatment. In part thanks to the period, while I'm already familiar with some of the battles, many I don't know, or don't even know as much as the little given in the book tells me.
In all, it really brings together its subject well (especially the earlier parts) and brings things into better focus. I will have to get more of the books in the Battle Tactics line that Osprey has been publishing lately.(less)
Like the first two, it's good but very much a specialist's book. If you're interested in lots of terminology (warning: thanks to the period, terminolo...moreLike the first two, it's good but very much a specialist's book. If you're interested in lots of terminology (warning: thanks to the period, terminology switches from Latin to Greek to Latin again very suddenly!), and a run down of just what evidence we have for the forms and colors of Roman military costume of the fifth through seventh centuries.
In short, it's effectively a scholarly journal paper, but much better illustrated. If you need the reference on the subject, it's very valuable (and will take some prying apart to get truly useful data from—I'd have to check, but I don't think this is quite as well done as the first two, which were by a different author), but if you just have an interest in things Roman, this isn't for you.(less)
It's good, and it's thorough, but I found it a bit disappointing. However, I spent most of the book wondering why. Partly, I think, it is because ther...moreIt's good, and it's thorough, but I found it a bit disappointing. However, I spent most of the book wondering why. Partly, I think, it is because there are very few personalities in the book. Norwich himself actually complains of this on two occasions—there's just very few places in Venetian history where you can say anything about the personality of someone.
However, I think the main problem is I was hoping for a history of the Venetian state, and the book is really a history of the city, though restricted to that period where it was a state. Which is to say that except for those occasions where outside action impinges directly on one of Venice's holdings, those holdings don't show in the book. It is a stage play with one set—Venice—and news from abroad is sung by the Greek Chorus. There's no sense of how the overseas empire really worked.
But, Norwich loves the city of Venice, and that love shows through on every page. One thing that is tracked lovingly through the pages are the buildings and monuments of Venice. When a new building goes up, there is a footnote telling what part of it is still visible today. When a Doge dies and is put in a tomb, there is a footnote giving where it was, and where it was moved to if anything happened to it. Visiting Venice with this book in hand would be a real treat.(less)
In 1507, new world maps were something of a booming business. The Portuguese had been discovering more about Africa for decades, the Spanish had recen...moreIn 1507, new world maps were something of a booming business. The Portuguese had been discovering more about Africa for decades, the Spanish had recently found a number of islands, and a larger landmass across the Atlantic, and the English had found a long shoreline to the west of Greenland.
Since Asia was mostly known to be a northerly continent, that last was still presumed to be part of Asia, but the Spanish mainland, in the tropics, was starting to look like something else again. In 1507 a new map was published, designed to put together all the pieces of the world, as they were becoming known. It was a large map, meant to be mounted and used as huge wall map, and it marked the southern landmass "America", after Amerigo Vespucci, who was known to have visited the landmass a year before Columbus did on his third voyage by a letter written by him that was being reprinted across Europe.
The map, made to be used, largely disappeared, and it was only in the nineteenth century that its existence as the first use of the word "America" for the New World was discovered. Toby Lester's book is about this map—and everything else that led to it. This begins with medieval mappaemundi, and works its way through Marco Polo, the Italian and German humanists, and the dawn of the Age of Exploration.
It's a very entertaining and informative book all the way, and gives a good overview of the careers of Columbus and Vespucchi, and explains the letter that has caused much gnashing of teeth over the centuries, and kept Columbus from being a major cartographical feature, even if it did not keep him out of the history books.
It is most likely not written by Vespucci at all. It takes pieces of two of his letters, some details from one of Columbus' reports, adds sex and cannibals, and did a brisk business for local printing presses across the continent. It's kind of a early-sixteenth century equivalent to the DaVinci Code.(less)
Late last year, I picked this book up, as it looked very interesting.
And it is, I highly recommend it as an extremely well done history of a part of t...moreLate last year, I picked this book up, as it looked very interesting.
And it is, I highly recommend it as an extremely well done history of a part of the world that most people just don't know about from pre-history to the current date.
But—this book is not for the faint of heart. If you want some light informative reading, you will find the book overwhelming.
This especially holds true in the prologue and first two chapters of the book, where the footnotes and endnote references fly thick and furious. With all the flipping back and forth, and integrating the three different bits of text together, it can take over a quarter hour to get through two pages.
The reason for this is that for the early parts of the book, Beckwith is an expert holding forth on the more obscure parts of his field of expertise. He is well aware that almost everything he has to talk about hinges on specialized knowledge, and the footnotes and endnotes contain clarifications, and when he argues against the conventional interpretation, the general line of logic that leads to his conclusion.
That said, he does make some assumptions of knowledge. If you don't know about linguistic reconstruction (and I'm lucky that I've run across it before), you'll be wondering just what he's talking about at many points, and what all those stars in front of words mean (which is a symbol for deduced, but not attested form of a word). As it is, many of the notes, and all of Appendix B, go pretty heavily into the field, and there are pronunciation glyphs I've never seen before.
Speaking of Appendixes, there are two of them, to go with voluminous endnotes, a Prologue, and a Epilogue. Appendix B goes into the reconstruction of the names of various peoples from Chinese sources, working out likely earlier forms of the names, and where those names can be equated with names in non-Chinese sources. Appendix A goes into his reconstruction of the initial diaspora of the Indo-European people, and the initial branching off of Proto-Indo-European into daughter families. I recommend reading it before Chapter 1, and Appendix B before Chapter 2, as they are heavily referenced in those sections. The Prologue is concerned with the "First Story", which is a story cycle common to many Indo-European cultures (including the Romans) as a hero/foundation myth. The Epilogue is about the concept of 'barbarians' and how the modern conception of such is not only inappropriate to an understanding of the peoples of Central Eurasia (as he takes pains to point out during the book), but is inappropriate to an understanding of the original term, and some of original sources, but is especially inappropriate to use with Chinese sources, where several different terms for 'foreigner' that have little or no pejorative implications, are usually translated into English as 'a kind of barbarian'.
The main part of the book is a history of Central Eurasia, or, more properly, the "Central Eurasian Culture Complex". This history is delineated by broad cultural borders that change over time, not geographical ones.
I have to admit that there are large sections of the book where I am an unarmed man against some of his assertions. In general, I think his construction of pre- and early history are sound, but I don't know enough to raise many objections. My main problem is that he seems to be a bit too strong of a Diffusionist for my tastes, asserting that the chariot was only invented by the Indo-Europeans, and allowed them to impose themselves on the various peripheral cultures.
The bulk of his book spends some time pointing the importance of trade, and the fact it is generally the peripheral civilizations that try to restrict trade, and the Central Eurasian civilizations often attack with the stated demand of opening up trade again. The Age of Exploration is looked in the light of one trade system (the Silk Road) being replaced by another (the Littoral System), with the current backwardness of the area resulting from the collapse of trade in the area.
The last couple chapters turn into a screed against Modernism. Again, I'm largely mentally unarmed against his assertions, but I judge he paints with entirely too broad a brush. He sees Modernism not just as a new movement that overthrew previous traditions, but as a movement that relies on overthrowing the old, and therefore has led intellectual life down the blind alley of continual revolution without trying to move forward with the results of any of those revolutions. He then ties that into to efforts of "Modernist" regimes to destroy the cultural past (as examples, the Soviet efforts to destroy religious community and the Taliban's destruction of Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan).
Again, I do highly recommend the book. I have some potential problems with it, but it is far more important than those problems. I would certainly like to hear from people who can talk to my concerns better than I can, but in the end it's biases are fairly clear, and the value of a history that ties together the events of such a large area ranks very high, also the bulk of the most interesting points of the book have not been touched on by me here. Finally, the notes do a valuable service in pointing out places where further scholarly study are desperately needed, and I hope that some of these gaps are directly addressed in the future.(less)