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review 2019-01-06 11:52
A necessary stop for understanding Mazarin, but not the first one
Mazarin: The Crisis Of Absolutism In France - Geoffrey Treasure
In the mid-17th century, France emerged as the dominant power in continental Europe. While this development was the result of a range of historical factors and personages, one of the people who played a decisive role in bringing it about was the Italian-born Jules Mazarin. As chief minister of France for nearly two decades, he served as the main architect of French policy during this period, establishing the kingdom's preeminence through war and diplomacy. By the time he died in 1661 France had eclipsed Spain militarily, while the marriage Mazarin arranged between the Spanish princess Maria Theresa and the young Louis XIV helped to end France's ongoing wars with the Habsburgs and cemented its status for decades to come.
Given his achievements, Mazarin deserves a thorough biography that details his life within the context of his times. One of the things that makes Geoffrey Treasure's account of his life so impressive is that he manages simultaneously to both succeed and fall short in providing one for his readers. In it he charts Mazarin's life from his early years as a precocious young Italian nobleman through his years as a papal envoy (during which time he became a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church) to his emergence as Richelieu's deputy and successor as chief minister. Throughout it he describes the development of Mazarin's considerable diplomatic skills, his application of them in the service of both the papacy and the French monarchy, and his broader influence on policy. While an admirer of Mazarin's, Treasure does not hesitate to identify his flaws and the errors he made in both politics and policy, which he weighs against his many accomplishments to provide a nuanced examination of his subject.
It is for these reasons that Treasure's biography is an valuable resource about Mazarin and his role in events. Yet the author's style often inhibits his efforts. His book is a dense text that assumes the reader is already well-versed in the context of 17th century French and European history, which can be problematic given the range of complex subjects he addresses, from state finances to international diplomacy. Treasure's excessively florid prose only exacerbates this problem, with some sentences so convoluted as to be indecipherable. As a result, while his book is a necessary read for anyone seeking to understand Mazarin, to fully benefit from its value it should by no means be the first one they tackle.
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url 2019-01-02 13:54
Podcast #129 is up!
Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely - Andrew S. Curran

My first podcast of the year is up! In it, I interview Andrew S. Curran about his biography of the French philosophe Denis Diderot. Enjoy!

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review 2018-08-29 17:47
Podcast #116 is up!
A Business of State: Commerce, Politics, and the Birth of the East India Company - Rupali Mishra

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Rupali Mishra about her study of the governance of the East India Company and its relationship to the English state. Enjoy!

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review 2018-07-04 14:52
The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714
The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 - Barry Coward

After the act of the Tudors, how would the Stuarts follow up in ruling England?  Barry Coward covers the history of England between 1603 and 1714 in The Stuart Age giving the reading a comprehensive look at the developments across religion, economy, politics, and government while trying to dispel old assumptions and highlight new research.


Coward begins and ends the book with looking a statistical view England, at first looking how England developed through the early Stuarts to 1650 and then through the Interregnum and late Stuarts until the Hanoverian ascension.  The vast majority of the book covers the narrative flow of history of the period from the ascension of James VI of Scotland as James I of England after the death of Elizabeth to the death of his great-granddaughter Anne with all the twists and turns that happened within the domestic political arena that saw numerous failed attempts at Scottish union to disagreements between monarchs and parliament and finally the dispossessions of monarchs from the throne through execution and invited invasion then dictating who can take the throne.  Plus add in the events in Scotland and Ireland that played important roles at critical times that shaped events in England that made the century what it was.


The book is first and foremost an overview of the era with Coward attempting to give the events that took place their proper context in the evolution of government or religion or anything else related to “modern” Britain.  In doing this he set aside many myths about the era especially in the context of their times, he also gave context between “court” and “country” political establishments especially in relation to developments on the continent, i.e. the rise of absolutism and centralized government.  However, one of the drawbacks is that Coward would bring up other historians and juxtapose their theories on events without just simply making his own mark on the interpretation of the events.  Another feature which was lacking was that the military campaigns of especially the English Civil War, but also the continental wars, weren’t highlighted much especially since the Civil War was only covered in one whole chapter yet as an overview book it wasn’t unexpected.  And finally, as this edition of the book—the 2nd published in 1994—is almost 25 years old further research and debate has been missed out on.


The Stuart Age does its job fantastically well by giving an overview of the entire Stuart era that like other parts of English history seemed to be overshadowed by the proceeding Tudors.  Barry Coward’s layout of the period gives the reader perspective of the statistical elements of history that will influence the later narrative of the political and military events that make of the majority of the book then the aftereffects of those events on the same statistics, though slow in the beginning pays off and make this book pop.  If you’re looking for an overview of this period in English history, then you should consider this book.

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review 2018-04-07 06:30
A limited portrait of a monarch and his age
Suleiman the Magnificent - André Clot,Matthew J. Reisz

By nearly every measure, the sixteenth century bore witness to a remarkable number of extraordinary monarchs.  Rulers such as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I of England, Francis I of France, the Habsburg emperors Charles V and Philip II, Ivan IV of Russia, ‘Abbas I of Persia, and the Mughal emperor Akbar reshaped their realms through their ambitious policies and forceful rule.  Yet even in this august group the name of Suleiman stands out.  As sultan of the Ottomans, Suleiman led the empire during what is generally regarded as the pinnacle of its glory and power.  Under his rule the empire flourished and extended its control over three continents.  Yet in spite of this Suleiman has received far less attention form biographers than most of his contemporaries, present more often as an opponent or an ally in many accounts than as a figure worth of attention in his own right.


Given this, Andre Clot’s biography of the sultan is to be welcomed.  A longtime journalist, Clot divides his book into two parts.  The first is a straightforward narrative of Suleiman’s life that addresses on the political and military aspects of his reign.  This section focuses heavily on Suleiman’s interactions with Christian Europe, even to the point of having an entire chapter addressing the sultan’s relations with Francis I.  The second part of the book is an examination of the Ottoman empire during Suleiman’s reign, one that describes the economy, urban life, and culture that existed during his reign.  Though the two sections compliment each other, each part stands alone to the point of being able to be read separate from the other, a lack of integration that ultimately weakens the effort to present a rounded overall picture of Suleiman and his times.


In the end, the focus and structure of the book prevent it from achieving Clot’s stated goal of providing a fuller understanding of Suleiman and his empire.  The Eurocentrism of Clot’s narrative slights the considerable campaigns Suleiman conducted on his eastern borders against the Safavids, to say nothing of his considerable contributions to the empire’s internal development in such areas as the law.  Mixing the two sections might have counterbalanced this, but their separation inhibits an easy understanding of his role and impact within the broader empire.  These problems limit the usefulness of Clot’s book, which is recommended for anyone seeking to learn about the sultan only because of the disappointing lack of anything better.

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