I've read a bit of Chaucer and know a bit about 14th century history, but John Gardner does an excellent job of unifying various threads in this accou...moreI've read a bit of Chaucer and know a bit about 14th century history, but John Gardner does an excellent job of unifying various threads in this account of the poet's times.
The main events (from an English perspective) in the second half of the 1300's are the internal politics of the Plantagenets (the children and grandchildren of Edward II by Isabella of France), the 100 Years War (with France, in part to assert the right of the children of Isabella to the French throne), the adoption of English as the language of the court, the Peasant's Revolt, and the Plague. None of these events are independent of each other, yet are often studied separately.
By turning his story on the axle of Chaucer's life Gardner is able to bring them all into a single compact tale, since Chaucer--as a minor member of the court, a sometime soldier and diplomat, and a life-long civil servant (or as close as the medieval world could come to such a thing)--was touched by all of these and more.
As such the book is more times than life, as we know relatively little about Chaucer the man, other than what is revealed by his poetry. Gardner-the-novelist has a keen eye for incidental details that illustrate the timeless nature of human folly, which is fundamental focus Chaucer's humane and insightful poetic stories. My favourite is the claim the Edward II's youngest son, John of Gaunt (born to Isabella in Ghent, Belgium) was in fact a changling, swapped at birth for a Flemish imposter. Modern conspiracy theorists of the "birther" kind might be pleased to know their particular delusion has deep historical roots.
If we know less about Chaucer than we might like, this book puts his work in context and is an excellent reader's companion to the poems, adding texture and locality to their universal concerns and observations on the human condition.(less)
If the United States were a person, it would be suffering from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and this book explains why.
Allen Guel...more If the United States were a person, it would be suffering from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and this book explains why.
Allen Guelzo covers the history leading up to the American Civil War in considerable detail, placing the war in the context of evolving political, social and economic differences between the North and the South, and in particular the internal contradictions of Southern society that made it unable to live with the North, or even itself.
The national vision of the United States has been haunted by the horrendous visions of black slavery from the very beginning, and Guelzo argues that the uniquely racist slave society of the pseudo-aristocratic South was ultimately incompatible with the growing push toward a liberal, market-centric, democratic, industrial, "free-labor" republic in the North.
The war itself was, like all wars, not necessary to achieve anyone's goals. It was merely the worst of all possible solutions to the problems facing Americans in the mid-1800's, the one least likely to achieve its stated ends, and the most inefficient means available for the one single end it actually did achieve: the preservation of the United States as a single country. But for a nation that has always been led by men who hear the voice of God telling them to do terrible things, war was the easy option.
Guelzo does a good job of placing Emancipation in context, and emphasizes that most anti-slavery agitators were at best weakly supportive of civil and political rights for freedmen. His account of the war itself includes a nicely interwoven texture of social history along with the battles, and a lucid account of the political and personal gyrations that saw the numerically and financially superior North fight ineffectively and incoherently for the first several years of the conflict.
His account of Reconstruction is relatively short, as it practically must be. It is to all intents and purposes an event that is still going on as Americans continue to struggle with the trauma that layered itself on top of their national schizophrenia. Something close to one in ten young men died by violence and disease and malnutrition and neglect--those factors collectively known as "glory"--in the war years and after, and the larger social questions of racism, civil rights and political participation for all Americans are still not resolved, as modern political parties continue to gerrymander and pass "voter ID" laws that the manipulative operators who filled the void left by Lincoln's death would recognize as variations on their own theme.
Because when you hear the voice of God in your head telling you to do terrible things, the one thing you will never admit is that you were wrong to do them, or back down from your relentless pursuit of the goals they have directed you toward, regardless of the human cost.(less)
This is the most remarkable biography I have ever read.
I have a basic grasp of the Napoleonic era, and have read histories of the Peninsular War and t...more This is the most remarkable biography I have ever read.
I have a basic grasp of the Napoleonic era, and have read histories of the Peninsular War and the Russian Campaign and the like, but I have never read such a clear and evocative precis of the little Corsican sociopath himself.
Like the little Austrian sociopath 150 years later, the man himself diminishes the more you know about him. The child of a rebellious political environment, always arrogant and self-aggrandizing, he changed the face of Europe for the worse, killing upwards of three million human beings and wounding and assaulting untold millions more in the process.
A brilliant, energetic and improvisational general, he never mastered the disciplines of logistics and intelligence the way his ultimate nemesis, Wellington, did. Alan Schom details his pattern of failure from the abortive and incompetently executed Egyptian campaign onwards, and documents the same mistakes made over and over by a arrogant little prick who was so self-involved he was incapable of learning from his spectacular and deadly mistakes.
The only thing lacking--which is hardly a critique of this masterful biography!--is an examination of the sociology of dictatorship. How is it that such spectacularly incompetent administrators repeatedly insinuate themselves into the highest offices, from the Roman Republic to modern day developing nations to the rather broken republic to our south (I am writing this from Canada)?
If you want to learn more about how the political landscape of Europe was reshaped 200 years ago by a disgusting nutjob and his legions of emotionally-addled followers, you could not do better than read this meticulous, lively and well-reference work. (less)
This is an impressive work of popular history, focusing on the life and times of one of Rome's strangest politicians.
Cato the Younger was the great-gr...moreThis is an impressive work of popular history, focusing on the life and times of one of Rome's strangest politicians.
Cato the Younger was the great-grandson of the famously puritanical Cato the Elder (he of "Carthago delenda est" fame, or however it goes.) Growing up in the shadow of his great ancestor's reputation, and following his own proclivities toward abstention and self-denial, he became an acolyte of Stoic philosophy and adopted a wide range of extremely eccentric behaviours, from wearing and outdated and simple toga to refusing to wear shoes. The authors liken this to a modern senator showing up in 18th century costume to a regular day's business.
The real strength of the book is the careful yet lively accounts of Rome's political battles in the tumultuous decades of the late republic. This is a story we've all seen or read parts of, but it's a complex and confusing tale of shifting alliances and unfamiliar institutions. I've read a fair number of contemporary histories as well as modern accounts of the same period, and this one does an extremely good job of threading a coherent path through the chaos of events. The authors wisely skim over some of the weirder political machinations (Julius Caesar's ploy to hold office despite being pontifex maximus is given no mention) while giving fair accounts of the relevant ones, particularly Cato's strange treatment of his wife.
They also draw fewer parallels to the intransigent and politically tone-deaf conservatives of the present day than they might, but that's a good decision. It lets the reader decide to what extent history is repeating itself, or perhaps merely rhyming.
If you have an interest in late republican Roman history--and really, anyone who is interested in the struggles of democracy in the present day ought to be--this is an excellent book for both neophytes and relatively knowledgeable readers. (less)