A Year In (Historians’ Sketchpad-Adjacent) Books

I’ve read a lot of books this year, outside of normal work reading. Largely, this is a by-product of travel – spending so much time travelling back and forth between Tübingen and Leeds has meant that I’ve had lots of time sitting on planes, trains and buses pressing on with one book or another. So I thought that it would be interesting to briefly comment on some highlights, insofar as they relate to our blogological topics of interests. After all, last year’s main book post, whilst the most successful post on this blog not directly related to love or sex, wasn’t much fun. This time, I want to do something more upbeat. This is not a comprehensive list of everything I read for fun this year. It’s not even a comprehensive list of books I read about earlier medieval history – some (such as Clare Downham’s Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland, which I read for fun early in the year prior to actually going and making formal notes) I don’t have much to say about, in this context, beyond “I liked them and they were good”. I’ve stuck to books that I have something else to say about, even if not very much.

So here goes: some short comments on things I’ve read this year particularly interesting to early medieval history.

Edoardo Albert, Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army

This was fine, although its attempts at Flashman-esque comedy largely fell flat. I would like to mention Albert’s series of novels on the kings of Northumbria, though, which I read a couple of years ago and which I thought were really good, with an interestingly small-scale portrayal of sub-Roman Insular military activity.

Rodney S. Barker, Legitimating Identities

Barker may have shown me the way to cut the Gordian knot. One of my core arguments about tenth-century principalities is that they are essentially a development in political culture and legitimacy. Such an argument has never sat easily with the fact that it’s really hard to see reception of what comital courts are putting out until late in the eleventh century (at least outside Normandy). Barker, however, argues that the primary audience for claims about rulers are the rulers themselves, and the further away you get from the ruler the less of a role most legitimating activity has in your life. He also argues that this is far from negligibly important, because the self-confidence of rulers has direct implications for the nature and force of their rule (something I would argue we’re currently seeing play out in Iran). There is explanatory power here I need to tease out…

Frans G. Bengtsson, The Long Ships

Apparently to those in the know this is already a YA classic, but I hadn’t heard of it before helping Sam unpack in Tübingen and it proved to be really good. I especially liked how the translator’s rendition of Bengtsson’s Swedish original does a good job of matching the English translations of Old Norse sagas.

Patricia Crone, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran

For not insignificant amounts of this book it forgets what it’s actually about. Nonetheless, any structural weaknesses are vitiated by the absolutely bonkers amount of material Crone throws at the wall here. I have no idea how well this holds up to specialist scrutiny, because I can’t evaluate source material in about seventeen languages; but even knowing a Late Antique traveller’s diary describing Central Asia in Korean exists is pretty darn exciting.

Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Echoes of Eternity

One of the things I do in my spare time is paint Warhammer 40,000 miniatures. I am enough of a fan to also read the tie-in novels, and this one may be worth it even if you’re not a franchise or genre fan, because it’s tremendously affecting. The reason for that is almost too obvious to mention, which is that war is bad. Warhammer is full of war – clue’s in the name – and this book takes the harrowing impact of war seriously and viscerally. What makes it relevant to this blog is its relationship with earlier medieval violence. I am generally a historiographical minimalist on the impact of viking violence, and the actual impact of Carolingian warfare is not something I focus on at all. But as this year’s research has taken a much more military turn, this book came along at the right time to be a warning against callousness, and a reminder to approach the violence in our sources humanely.

David Drake, An Oblique Approach (and sequels)

…erm, by contrast these are kinda dumb. A colleague reminded me of this series, which I haven’t read in over a decade and never finished. They’re silly, but fun. Presenting Justinian’s Roman Empire as a (flawed) meritocracy makes me roll my eyes every time, although I suppose when the bad guys are eugenicist space robots from a million years in the future it’s possible in relative terms. Also, I love all of the dunking on Procopius.

Victoria Goddard, The Hands of the Emperor

Not the best fiction book I read this year (that would be Cordwainer Smith’s The Rediscovery of Man) but certainly the one I read the fastest, over a single Sunday. It’s a very cosy plot where nothing much happens. The main questions are 1) will the Prime Minister of the world’s empire make friends with the emperor; and, in the background, 2) will he institute his thoughtful, generously minded political and social reforms in the face of limited, respectful opposition? Much as I enjoyed it, it wouldn’t make the list except that the way it approaches its imperial government was really quite reminiscent of certain brands of British scholarship on Charlemagne…

Pekka Hämäläinen, Lakota America

I’ve mentioned Lakota America before this year, and probably the most interesting takeaway from this is his point about territoriality. He argues that two different polities can occupy the same space if their conceptions of space are different enough not to overlap. In this case, he’s talking about the USA (which thought they ruled large chunks of the Great Plains because of their claims under their own law) and the Lakota (who thought they ruled the same chunks because they were the ones taking resources from it); but it can work as well for some of our own cases. Otherwise, I’m not fully convinced by Hämäläinen’s historical point: the nineteenth-century Lakota pull off some spectacular military victories, but they always seem to be on the back foot. For me, it’s only during their relationship with the Mandan and Hidatsa that Hämäläinen succeeds in arguing they’re an imperial power.

Donald Michael Platt, Bodo the Apostate

In the comments of one of Sam’s posts, we had a discussion about the absence of fantasy fiction based on the Carolingians, and I noted in passing the absence of (English-language) historical fiction about the Carolingians as well. The main exception I read this year was this, which is about a real figure, a deacon who converted to Judaism, moved to Cordoba, and started an anti-Christian polemic with a Jewish convert to Christianity. It has the distinct feel of an essay written by an undergraduate who has not understood the topic and is trying to compensate by regurgitating large chunks of the textbook. Absent the trivia infodumps, it would be about half the length; even then, it would drag because of how flatly the characters are written. (Lothar I in particular gets short shrift: paging Elina Screen!) I wish there were fiction set in the Carolingian world as good as some of that in the earlier medieval North Sea

Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm

This requires a small disclaimer, insofar as Price is not great on the Continental stuff where I know the most – we haven’t really thought Normandy was created in three mid-tenth century tranches for a while now, and he’s pessimistic on Carolingian responses to the vikings in a way which most Carolingianists aren’t anymore. Nonetheless, this is my new to-go suggestion for a one-volume introduction to the viking world, in particular because it integrates the eastern European material so thoroughly and successfully. Price also writes beautifully, something which brings to life especially the early portions. I was intrigued by the way Price relates the grim Norse mythology we currently have, the disappearance of a thousand-year old sun cult, and climactic anomalies in Late Antiquity. (I’m still a bit worried it’s a bit ‘Atilla the Hun was really Odin’ – one of the barmier things I’ve read from a serious academic – but it’s a fun possibility at the very least.)   

Robert Rath, The Infinite and the Divine

Second 40K book on the list, and the reason is much smaller than Echoes of Eternity: it’s one of the best portrayals of a vast sweep of chronological time I’ve ever read, up there with Galaxies Like Grains of Sand and the works of Olaf Stapleton. You can take or leave the plot (although the characters are quite fun), but the way the setting evolves dramatically yet plausibly over thousands of years in what’s not a long book really worked for me.

Khodadad Rezakhani, Re-Orientating the Sasanians

A challenge I’ve been trying to face over the last few years is to find a work on the Sasanians that I can set undergraduates which is neither nuts nor technical. This is the second time I’ve read Razakhani’s book, and the first time I really liked it for basically the same reason I liked Crone’s Nativist Prophets above: it was a panorama of places, times, and people about which I knew nothing. On re-reading… it’s actually way too technical. Back to the drawing board…

James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed

Another ‘good to think with’ book, although its specific geographical setting doesn’t map all that neatly onto the earlier Middle Ages. Scott also has the bad habit of mentioning in passing things perhaps more interesting than what he’s actually writing about. I would really have liked him to go into more depth on the idea that spaces caught between mandala polities might end up have both polities’ authority cancelled out, for example.

David Sneath, The Headless State

Similarly here, this should have been longer, at least for me as a non-specialist. Sneath spends about four-fifths of the book addressing theoretical models of Staatlichkeit within his own field, in order to justify his idea that nomad polities could exercise the functions of states without necessarily having political centres. This means that he only takes one chapter – perhaps the same size as a mid-length article – to actually explore how the concept can help us understand these polities. As someone who was on board with the idea from go, I’d like to read more of the latter. (It strikes me, for instance, that Sneath’s headless state might have some strange and profitable interactions with the concept of the mandala polity…)  

Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Corner That Held Them

And finally, a genuine surprise: a small, quiet novel about an underfunded convent (mostly in the fourteenth century). The characters are nothing special and the plot is, let’s say, picaresque, but the evocation of atmosphere and scene gives The Corner That Held Them almost the sense of a prose poem. I really liked it.


The Invention of Power: An Uninteresting Blog Post

This may surprise some of you reading, given that it’s my main tool for publicising the blog, but I don’t go on Twitter very much anymore. This is not a decision I particularly regret. (I’ve eaten some tasty bread made of the wheat from that site, but my God there’s been a lot of chaff.) Nonetheless, I do still go back occasionally. Recently, I noticed a group of medievalists dunking on one particular book, and it annoyed me. This tetchy response wasn’t anything to do with them – I’m perpetually cranky at the moment owing to trying to get everything finished at home and also organise an international move whilst planning as much travel between the UK and Germany to spend time with my wife as possible –  but still, I did think to myself, ‘It’s not fair to make fun of a book you haven’t actually read, so I’m going to get hold of a copy and read it really sympathetically and review it for the blog and say positive upbeat things about it.’

The book was The Invention of Power: Popes, Kings and the Birth of the West by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita; and reader, the Twitter medievalists mocking it were absolutely right. This book is dreadful.

This book took up valuable time I could have spent reading about the history of Walt Disney World

Unfortunately, the precise way in which it’s bad is so basic and uninteresting that it’s almost too obvious to mention: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I could leave it there, and I’m tempted to, but I suffered through all nine chapters and by God I’m going to get some blog content out of it.

So let’s start at the beginning. What’s the book’s argument? The book argues that the exceptionalism – by which the author means both the higher relative economic performance and freer, happier societies – of Western Europe and its ‘settler colonies’ can be traced back to a series of concordats made between the pope and the various rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, England and France in the twelfth century. In accordance with the terms of these concordats, a uniform procedure for appointing bishops was put in place, whereby the Church nominated a bishop, who was then accepted or rejected by the king; in the meantime, the king would pocket the temporal revenue of the diocese. This created a series of incentives for both the popes and temporal rulers. Kings wanted secular appointees, whilst popes wanted religious appointees. If the king turns down a Church nominee, he gets more money and/or the potential for a more loyal secularly inclined bishop, but has to pay the political costs of an angry pope. Therefore, the richer a diocese, the more incentive for the kings to be pickier: in a rich bishopric, the potential gains for the kings by not accepting a papal nominee outweigh the potential risks of papal anger. By contrast, in a poor bishopric, the inverse is true, and the Church has more leverage. This creates the incentive for kings to promote economic development to create lots of rich dioceses, whilst the Church would like to retard economic development to create lots of poor dioceses. To promote economic growth, kings needed to incentivize their subjects to increase productivity. This requires making concessions to these subjects to share in the benefits of increased productivity, concessions such as parliaments and other forms of accountable governments. Thus, in areas of Europe covered by the twelfth-century concordats, we would expect to see greater economic development and more accountable institutions than in other parts of the world. This combination of economic development and accountable institutions led to the exceptional Europe and Europe Outremer of the modern world.

…Look, I’m not going to attempt to touch on all of this. As more medievalists get hold of this book, I imagine an interested reader could take to Twitter and see more and more different approaches to analysing its failure as scholarship. For the rest of this post, I’m going to consider the failure of the book as a work of the historian’s craft. Now, it’s worth noting that the author does say:

I am not a historian, let alone a medievalist or a specialist on the Concordat of Worms. Undoubtedly, readers will find here and there a wrong date or an error in some other detail of the story… [but] the big story being told here is what matters, and the big story does not depend on anecdotes or on any individual fact. Rather, it depends primarily on quantitative evidence, which I have supplemented with anecdotes to illustrate rather than evaluate the argument.

The problem is that this book’s problems don’t come from any individual error of fact, but from a complete failure of approach towards the subject. This is ‘Garbage In’: the approach the author takes to historiography, sources, and analysis inherently preclude this book from reaching any useful conclusions.

Let’s start with the historiographical garbage: Bueno de Mesquita is working with a very old-fashioned view of the medieval past. The bibliography is almost aggressively antiquated, and secondary works are deployed with very little understanding of the sources they’re based on. In a section which struck particularly close to home for me, his account of the pre-eleventh century papacy is based on Mann’s The Lives of the Popes vol. 4: The Popes in the Days of Feudal Anarchy (1910) and a Wikipedia article. (As an aside, there’s an unnerving amount of Wikipedia in this book for what is supposed to be the product of a veteran scholar – in footnote 9 for Chapter 4, for instance, we learn that his information about episcopal careers throughout the whole period he covers comes entirely from the website.) Historical thinking on this matter has changed since World War One as we have developed better understandings of our sources – notably, in this case, that the fundamental basis for a highly negative view of the tenth-century papacy comes from polemical works trying to justify the Ottonian invasion of the 960s. Sometimes, to be sure, a distance from the orthodoxies of mainstream historical scholarship can prove advantageous; but that does require knowing what they are. This is simply repeating the orthodoxies of over a century ago. 

As this suggests, the book’s handling of evidence is also very poor. The author points towards quantitative evidence to support his conclusions – in a word, data – seemingly without realising that this data is based on sources. This is not even a case of failing to perform basic source criticism. Rather, the author systematically does not engage with medieval primary sources. This is true even at the most crucial moments for his arguments. For instance, to show that his game theory logic works, Bueno de Mesquite has to demonstrate a significant correlation after the concordats between secularly inclined bishops and rich dioceses. His data for whether bishops were secularly or religiously inclined comes – as noted above – from reading Wikipedia summaries, rather than from any kind of engagement with the sources for these bishops’ careers or elections. What this means is that he has 2,709 data points where he has no idea what the evidential basis is for that data. Regula magistri is not usually considered an acceptable kind of evidence, let alone regula anyone-can-edit-orum. Similarly, he determines whether or not dioceses were rich or poor by correlating whether or not dioceses were on trade routes and modern estimates of their potential to produce high-calorie crops. Notably missing from any of this is any discussion of medieval evidence. In fact, this particular methodology is both theoretically and empirically nonsense: first, because it assumes the bishop holds a proportionate amount of the wealth produced within the borders of his diocese; second, because it ignores property held by bishoprics outside the borders of the diocese; third and most importantly – again – because it’s untested against the actual economic histories of these bishoprics. In short, the author’s claims rely neither on primary accounts of bishops’ careers, nor on even vaguely contemporary economic data. In addition to not dealing with medieval historians (modern professionals) whilst writing this medieval history book, he has also not dealt with medieval historians (contemporary authors). What is required to prove any of these claims is a systematic, source-based analysis of episcopal elections and medieval economic history. What we have is Wikipedia. 

Probably the worst failure to think about evidence comes when he talks about art – trying to prove the changing relationship of ‘secularism’ and ‘religion’, he scoured four popular art history textbooks for images from the period in question, decided if they had a ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ subject matter, and has the gall to put the results in graphs as though it shows anything about the Middle Ages!

[edit 23/04/22: this comic came up today and seemed very appropriate. (source)]

It does produce the amusing image of Charlemagne’s court as a hotbed of ‘secularism’ – because art history textbooks have a lot of pictures of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. I also can’t prove this (because – just as in the case of secular/religious bishops and rich/poor dioceses – I can’t find a list of which data points count as what either in the book or on his website), but I did find one of the art history textbooks he used online, and based on the datapoints for the graph in question, I think he’s counting this portrait of Otto III as secular art, which is pretty funny because, y’know, it’s an illustration from a gospel book. So this book doesn’t engage with the evidence from which it is claiming to draw data and as such can only produce inherently flawed conclusions.

This brings us, finally, to the analytical garbage. Because the author does not engage with the sources for the medieval world, and because the secondary works he reads are badly out of date, his assumptions about the period are fundamentally flawed. The distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ bishops is probably the biggest pile of nonsense here. The definitions Bueno de Mesquite gives of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ bishops is as follows:

Bishops are classified as religious (i.e., aligned with the pope and church) if their job prior to becoming bishop for the first time was a religious post, such as abbot, monk, hermit, deacon, archdeacon, or priest. Bishops are classified as secular if their prior post was as an agent of the secular authorities, such as court ambassador, chancellor, tutor to a monarch or his children, and the like, or if their biographical information indicates that they were specifically linked to or were suggested as a candidate by the secular ruler over the diocese to which they were appointed.

The whole analysis here rests on the idea that a clerical career = a pro-papal stance = an anti-royal stance (and, the inverse: secular career = pro-royal = anti-papal). This chain of assumptions might look plausible if all you’re reading is The Papacy in the Days of Feudal Anarchy, but it doesn’t stand up to any kind of familiarity with the evidence. Notably, Bueno de Mesquite rarely discusses particular examples. We get a lot of abstract hypothesising (‘a king would be motivated to do such-and-such’…) without any systematic, source-based analysis of what specific people actually did. This has the useful effect of meaning that his assumptions don’t have to be tested against contemporary sources – who needs that when you have models? And this is true again and again – bad assumption after bad assumption, leading to faulty question after faulty question, all supported with worthless ‘data’ but clothed in the trappings of science to lend it an air of false authority. 

Why does this matter? Everyone who reads this book will have their own criticisms (I haven’t come close to covering all the issues – I leave the problems with the framing of the initial question, for instance, for others to deal with) and their own reason it matters, but for me it’s to do with the intellectual value of expertise. This isn’t the same thing as ‘being an historian for a living’. Good history is like good woodwork: you don’t have to be a professional to do it, but you do have to have a grasp of the tools, materials, and techniques. The problem with this book is not that it’s wrong. It’s that it’s so obviously, basically wrong, but presented by a senior academic with such a pretence of authority that its fundamentally flawed approach to the Middle Ages runs a serious risk of being influential, making it concomitantly harder to not be wrong in the future. Good history requires craftsmanship; this has no craftsmanship, and has the potential to devalue craftsmanship as a key attribute of historians.

I don’t like being this negative. This book does have good bits. There’s a really interesting discussion of ruling coalitions in Chapter 2 – turns out the senior political scientist is very good at explaining political science theories. However, if you want that, read a political science book. The Invention of Power has two grains of wheat in a warehouse of chaff. Even worse, the ways in which it’s bad are obvious and boring and mean it can’t possibly be recommended, even to point and laugh at*.

*Except the ‘art historical’ analyses. Those are so amazingly ill-thought out that it genuinely is quite funny.