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review 2019-10-29 15:27
Podcast #159 is up!
Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands - Dan Jones

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Dan Jones about his history of the Crusades as told through the lives of the men and women involved with it. Enjoy!

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review 2019-10-18 04:29
The men and women of the Crusades
Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands - Dan Jones

What is there new to say about one of the most frequently written about events in human history? To his credit Dan Jones makes no grandiose claims about a fresh interpretation, but instead approaches the story from the standpoint of some of the key individuals involved: men and women who played a role in the various military campaigns and the Christian kingdoms they spawned. An accomplished writer with a gift for identifying the engaging detail, Jones writes about their lives in an entertaining narrative that makes for a good read.

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review 2017-04-27 23:57
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 3 of 3)
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume III (Modern Library) - Gian Battista Piranesi,Edward Gibbon

The finale volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 49 through 71 of the author’s vast magnum opus.  Beginning with the Iconoclast controversy in correlation with rise of the Vatican and Holy Roman Empire in the 8th century and ending with a description of the causes and progression of the decay of the city of Roman in the 15th century, Gibbon relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments in both Europe and the Middle East ultimately led to the end of Byzantine Empire with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans and the state of the city of Roman at time of the Roman Empire’s complete end.

 

The majority of the 22 chapters deal with the rise of Islam and the resultant political and martial effects that would ultimately determine the fate of the Byzantine Empire.  Although beginning with the Iconoclastic controversy that began the schism of the Christian church as the bishop of Rome rose to power in the West, Gibbon used those developments to launch into how Islam rose in Arabia then spread across not only areas once under Roman control but also their long-time Persian rivals in the aftermath of the reconquests of Heraclius.  While detailing the internal struggle within the Caliphate period, Gibbon reveals how Emperors attempted to combat this new faith and military force to increasing little effect has time went on.

 

The thorough retelling of the numerous political changes throughout Asia that affect the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire shifted the focus away from the ‘Roman’ world to locations as far east as China, but revolutions of people in these areas would play into the fortunes of Constantinople.  Also playing into fate of Byzantine was the barbarian Christian West that the Emperors called for aid not only from kings but the Pope as well.  Unfortunately the resulting Crusades and mercenary arms that went East would inflict a mortal wound to the Empire in 1204 thus beginning a centuries long death spiral that only lasted as long as it did because of internal revolutions with the growing Ottoman Empire until 1453.  This dreary recounting of the end of Byzantium is mirrored by Gibbon in his recounting of the history of the city of Rome itself throughout the Middle Ages until the fall of the New Rome in the East.

 

This finale volume of Gibbon’s life consuming work revealed the struggle of the Eastern Empire of Byzantium to continue against a succession of Islamic powers and its ultimate demise thus completing the fall of the Roman Empire.  Yet in retelling the eventual fall of Constantinople, Gibbon paints a huge picture for the reader about how events both near and far away from the Bosporus affected the fortunes for both good and ill of the New Rome.  And in recounting the history of the city of Rome throughout the Middle Ages, a reader sheds a tear with Gibbon about the loss of the monuments of both Republic and Empire due to the necessity or vanity of the people of Rome after for the fall of the Western Empire.

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review 2016-08-05 00:00
The Northern Crusades
The Northern Crusades - Eric Christiansen Someone needs to tell the Islamophobes: Europe was made Christian at the point of the sword and the most important targets and lasting conquests of the centuries of Crusades were not the Muslims but the people of Europe.

This history looks at the enforced Christianisation of the northern lands around the Baltic, the long and fierce defence of the pagans against encroachment and the Christian commitment to endless warfare, characterized above all by the fanatical orders of crusading monks, for whom campaigning was never merely seasonal and never for limited objectives, but a total and uncompromising commitment to complete and final victory. Yet for the secular rulers in these lands, religion was always secondary to the material goals of plunder and tribute, conquest and the control of land. The choice between Christianity and paganism was largely a strategic one and ultimately, the Christians had the greater resources - and the more ferocious commitment to endless warfare.

Place this history alongside accounts of Charlamagne's brutal "conversion" of the Saxons, the Albigensian Crusade to "convert" the Cathars (or "kill them all"), the Normans in Southern Italy and Sicily and the Spanish "Reconquista" to get a more complete picture of the way Europe was reduced to (Roman) Christianity by fire and sword.

“Christianity had not pacified these peoples. They were still dominated by fighters, brought up to kill and be killed, whether they lived as princes, landowners or swordsmen; and between the fighting classes and the rest there was a barrier of birth, breeding and outlook reinforced by heroic tradition and law. ...foreigners found it brutal and unchristian.” [p.69]

“When the Saxons demanded to be let loose on the Slavs, they did so for good old-fashioned reasons, either to get submission and tribute, or to seize more land; for the Danes it was an opportunity for revenge and retaliation against the pirates and slavers, and for the Poles a chance of intimidating the Prussians. The fact that knes Nyklot and his people were heathen was a secondary consideration; ... ” [ P.112].

“Both rulers were religious enough. Henry went on an arduous pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1172-3 and Valdemar donated half of his patrimonial lands to Danish churches. But neither could afford the luxury of religious wars. They fought to increase their wealth and prestige and did so by fighting each other, if necessary, the heathen Slavs at other times, and the Christian Slavs also.” [p 129].



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review 2016-04-11 18:05
The first of a triptych but not the full story
Tobias (The Triptych Chronicle) by Prue Batten (2015-12-01) - Prue Batten

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I was fascinated by the description and the concept behind this historical novel. A story of spies, trade, politics, brotherly love, prejudice, song and art, set up in the era of knights, noble houses, the Crusades and Byzantium, the book had story, adventure and interesting characters (including the protagonists, achondroplasic twin brothers, Tobias and Tomasso, dwarves who are not only minstrels and accomplished musicians, but can fight with the best and are spies too).

Although there is plenty to recommend this story (beautiful writing, incredible description of settings, power relations, ships, trade routes, and even social and religious customs), my difficulty with it was that I felt I caught the story half-way through after lots of it had already happened. Not having read the previous series the author has dedicated to the noble house of Gisborne, the constant references to facts and adventures that had happened before made me feel as if was missing a big chunk of the action (although this is book one, and that could cause confusion to some readers).  

The story is told in the third person but from Tobias’s point of view and I had some difficulty with the amount of telling that required at times, as due to their small stature and the need to be discreet because of the risks involved in the business at hand (the trading in an illegal and very valuable purple dye, that has come to embody power and everybody wants), the brothers are in hiding often and others have to tell them what happened. I felt the style of these fragments was not different enough from the rest of the book as to clearly indicate another speaker, rather than something once again seen from Tobias’s point of view.

I also felt I needed further information to fully empathise with the main character and his hesitation, ambivalence, difficulty making decisions, and his strained relationship with his brother (whom I found the more interesting of the two, perhaps because more morally ambivalent, with several shades of grey). Not knowing how Tomas had changed, or what their relationship had been like before, other than in a brief flashback to their time in Paris, didn’t help me fully understand why he found him so difficult now. By contrast, I thought some of the secondary characters like the captain of the ship, who is always handy to save Toby, and the doctor, were fascinating and well deserving of their own books (perhaps that’s already planned).

A solid book about a fascinating topic, with historical detail of the period beautifully rendered, that I feel it will be enjoyed more by readers already familiar with the characters and their backgrounds.  

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