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.