This is a book on the social history of decapitation, which is rather more widespread than you might imagine. Starting with a rundown of the indignitiThis is a book on the social history of decapitation, which is rather more widespread than you might imagine. Starting with a rundown of the indignities heaped on the (severed) head of Oliver Cromwell after his death - kept on a spike for years, stolen, traded and passed around - Larson then goes on to cover various aspects of the way Western society has viewed the act of decollation and the resultant cranium.
And this is about how the Western (largely European and American) culture has both informed the view of the practices and, indeed, affected it. We start with a chapter on the vogue for early anthropologists and collectors to seek out those 'savage' tribesmen who took severed heads as part of their culture, in South America and New Guinea among other places, and how the act of seeking out and collecting these 'cultural artefacts' completely changes the behaviour of the people concerned, almost entirely for the more murderous; the Shuar tribe of Peru, who collected a small number of heads and shrunk them as part of rituals to obtain the glory of that individual massively increased production when offered valuable trade goods by European anthropologists, as did the Maori in New Zealand and others in New Guinea - although many more also referred to these strange white men as 'headhunters' due to their habit of going around asking the locals if they could procure severed heads. Subsequently, a good proportion of those shrunken and tattooed heads in various museum collections, rather than being those of 'native warriors' are those of innocent people, creations made purely for the procurement of incredibly valuable trade goods. Larson continues the chapter tracing the changing attitude toward these collections.
Each subsequent chapter follows a similar pattern, taking a specific aspect of the topic from its inception through its history to the most up-to-date perspective - the guillotine, trophy heads (largely in the Pacific Theatre in WWII), art and medicine - often referring back to previous entries (often done subtly but occasionally with clumsy repetition), the author weaves together stories that are interesting in themselves on a theme that opens up some thought-provoking avenues. I guarantee that some of the ideas - as well as some of the images - will stay with me long after the final page....more
I had the urge to learn more about Carthage and its enmity with rome and, as a couple of people had recommended Adrian Goldsworthy to me, thought thisI had the urge to learn more about Carthage and its enmity with rome and, as a couple of people had recommended Adrian Goldsworthy to me, thought this would be a good place to start. I have to say that I was disappointed.
Goldsworthy says in the preface that he is a military historian, and it is largely this focus that failed for me; the author focuses on the battles themselves and, within them, on the minutiae of tactics and technologies that made the opposing sides feel like miniatures on a gameboard. I got no real sense of the generals involved - although he does mention them and their supposed attributes this is not done in a way that brings them to life at all. I read thoroughly through the introduction and the first section about the combatants, and then on into the chapters on the First Punic War, hoping that this was leading to more analysis and depth, but soon I found that my eyes were glazing and I was skim-reading, forcing myself to remain interested.
It is not that the history of a conflict cannot be written interestingly, giving a thorough idea of the way the battles themselves were fought whilst bringing to life the cultures, and even the characters, involved - take, for instance, Persian Fire, about the attempted invasion of the Greek peninsula by mighty Persia, including the battles of Thermopylae and Marathon. And, perhaps, this is the main difference; I didn’t think Goldsworthy a very good writer. Aside from being peppered with dry academicisms (“In this chapter we shall see…”) the writing itself is often clumsy (the word “began” used three times in two consecutive sentences) and, I’m afraid, just not engaging. The big disappointment, though, is that I was left feeling I learnt little about the cultures fighting this conflict which would set one up to be amongst the greatest powers the world has ever seen and utterly destroy the other. ...more
Cornwell's retelling of the Arthur tales is, if the other two volumes match up to this, set to become one of my favourites. while he includes4.5 stars
Cornwell's retelling of the Arthur tales is, if the other two volumes match up to this, set to become one of my favourites. while he includes characters that are undoubtedly mythical and, as he admits in his afterword, continues to put together characters from different mythical or semi-historical heritages (such as Arthur and Merlin, only put together by Mallory but now indivisible), I would still class this work as a historical fiction, even a realistic historical fiction.
The author paints an incredibly vivid picture of Britain in the 6th century. A hundred years and more after the Romans have left, the island is awash with battle and intrigue as the ancient tribes seek to defend and expand their territory. The Eastern part of the land is under the control of the invading Saxons, the Irish raid from across the sea, and the efforts to reinstate worship of the Celtic gods clash with those religions brought by the Romans, especially the increasingly prominent and powerful Christianity.
These conflicts form the backbone of the novel. We see the names familiar from our centuries-long love affair with the Arthurian tales - Arthur himself, Guinevere and Merlin, Lancelot, Galahad, Nimue, Mordred, Morgan, and mad king Pellinore - each recognisable from their mythic image and yet quite different. Partly it is the gritty, realistic brutality of the Dark Ages Britain they inhabit, a million miles away from the shining armour and courtly manners of so many classic representations. By the standards of the medieval romances, and the Roman world which they envy as a golden age at the same time as they despise it, the lives of these people are barbarous. And some of them know it, doing their best to live in the crumbling Roman ruins they no longer have the expertise to maintain. But Cornwell also plays with our expectations of the characters. Arthur, as in the original stories before Chretien de Troyes, is neither a king nor a Christian but a Briton warlord, a noble, charismatic leader with the mission of uniting the native tribes against the invading Saxons. Lancelot is a spoilt, foppish, arrogant coward who employs poets to write about his non-existent feats of valour, which soon outlive the reality.
In these events - narrated by Derfel, a Saxon-born captain of Arthur who is recounting events years later after he has converted and become a monk - we see a possible germ of the Arthurian mythology in the warring and politics of this time. As Derfel writes the tale for Queen Igraine (who is too young to have known the people and events first hand) she tries to push him to embellish the facts away from grime and reality toward chivalry and magic, giving an idea of how legends grow in the telling.
The myths we know are medieval tales, and have become heavy with the imagery of Christianity, although Merlin and Nimue of the Lake and the Green Knight usually remain as a connection with the pagan past. I have read version which over-emphasise the Christian aspects or try to reclaim the tales for their pagan origins. In Cornwell's version belief and superstition permeates every page as belief in the 'native' gods of the Celtic Britons vies for dominance with more recent arrivals brought by the Saxons and, especially, the Romans; the cults of Isis, Mithras and of course Christ. This world is uncertain and brutal and so much is dark and unknowable. It is all but impossible to imagine not sharing the faith in supernatural beings having a direct and often malicious effect on every day life in such a condition. Omens and curses threaten to bring down the wrath of the gods, and to deny their existence is unthinkable. Cornwell does not gloss over the brutality of the slavery, human sacrifices and rapes that are prevalent amongst many holding pagan beliefs at the time, but neither does he avoid the hypocrisy and dishonesty in some of those of the early Christian church. Galahad, a Christian, is perhaps the most honest and noble character in the book, yet the self-sainted Bishop Sansum is utterly without merit. The pagan Arthur is heroic, though flawed, yet some of the other pagans are vicious in the extreme. Derfel often writes such things as "I know there is no greater joy than to serve Christ, but sometimes when I think of the times shoulder to shoulder before a battle, I miss my shield brothers", suggesting both an old man's regret at his passed youth and also a religious conversion that is perhaps more judicious than heartfelt.
The Winter King is brutal, noble, thrilling and thoughtful. The vividness of the scene setting is superb and the characters fully fleshed. I would highly recommend this to anyone with the slightest interest in Arthur, or the Dark Ages, or good books in general....more