Tag Archives: European History

Review: “The Abacus and the Cross”

Pope Sylvester II (Gerbert) doesn’t have time for your lack-of-science-and-math bullshit.

Remember when I very enthusiastically reviewed Nancy Marie Brown’s Song of the Vikings? Well during the papal elections (I’m a not so secret Vatican/Pope fanatic. Not in the sense that I’m Catholic but in the sense that I am in love with the crazy shit that the Bishops of Rome used to get up to.) I picked up one of her older books, The Abacus and the Cross, which bills itself as “the story of the pope who brought the light of science to the Dark Ages.” Yes, this book is a biography of Gerbert (later known as Pope Sylvester II) but it’s more than the life of one man. In the same way that Song of the Vikings was a biography of Snorri that also told a grander story of Icelandic history and culture this biography uses Gerbert’s life to tell the story of the end of the first century in Christian Europe.

Gerbert is the sort of person who you have to feel bad for.  A peasant born monk who probably could have spent his life happily working away on various scientific and mathematical problems in the libraries of Europe Gerbert ended becoming involved in some of the big political kerfuffles of his time. The reader watches as the somewhat (Well, maybe more than somewhat) naive Gerbert is forced to learn the diplomacy needed to interact with kings and empresses and men with big tempers and even bigger armies. As Gerbert attempts to reunite the Holy Roman Empire it’s impossible not to want to hug him and say, “It’s alright, honey, you tried your best.”

Song of the Vikings helped provide a nuanced and more realistic portrait of Viking Iceland and The Abacus and the Cross does similarly for Plutarch’s “Dark Ages.” Following Gerbert’s travels to Spain we see the multicultural city of Corboda where Jews and Christians could advance to the upper levels of government in this Muslim city. There is no sugar coating in this book, no attempt to make the Dark Ages look like a “Kumbaya” singing group of multiracial people holding hands but it does put a clearer perspective on the cultural politics before the early 1000s.

Ms. Brown also preforms a service by reminding us of the importance of Muslims in not just preserving Greco-Roman science and culture but in adding to and advancing them to new heights. Indeed, Gerbert’s own achievements would have been impossible had it not been for the teachings of Muslim scientists and mathematicians. (Ms. Brown’s writings on the political motivations behind the demonizing of non-Christians that would follow only a few years after Gerbert’s death are also particularly interesting.)

The subject of the Church and its relationship with science and math and logic and reason (I’m working really hard to keep my agnostic evidence based snarky bastard side in check right now.) isn’t a new discussion but Ms. Brown provides more context by discussing how a Gerbert, a scientist who would become pope, found his faith and his science came together like one big happy family. By using him as an example for the more traditional faction of the Church that viewed science and math as forms of better understanding God versus those who were beginning to look at arithmetic as Devil worship Ms. Brown describes the contrasting sides quite nicely. The look at how this scientist pope was treated after death when those that disagreed with his views on science and math became the dominant voice is a fascinating way of understanding the shifts that occurred with the Church.

The Abacus and the Cross might not be as accessible as Song of the Vikings (I mean, the latter is about Vikings and who doesn’t love Vikings?) but if you give it a chance I think that most readers will find themselves engrossed in this book. This book could also be perfect for any reader who is looking for a solid history that provides nuances to their understanding of the history of the Catholic Church.

The Abacus and the Cross; Nancy Marie Brown; Basic Books, copyright 2010

Sod Off (Give Away)REMINDER: I’m giving away two copies of this print for free. Details are here.

 

 

Advertisements

Review: “God’s Secret Agents”

I’m going to lay this out right here and now: God’s Secret Agents is the best non-fiction book that I’ve read this year (Song of the Vikings is an exceedingly close second) and this review is going to be heavy on the praise. The Cliffnotes version of this post reads something like this: You should read God’s Secret Agents.

In God’s Secret Agents Alice Hogge has produced a book that hits full marks for every aspect I judge history books on. Text is accessible and engaging? Yes. Presents a point of view that is as objective as possible/acknowledges potential biases? Yes. Offers a new interpretation or understanding of subject? Yes. Provides insights into modern culture? Yes. 10 out of 10, you go Alice Hogge.

God’s Secret Agents follows Catholics in England from the early years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign when Catholicism went from the state religion to the religion of traitors up until the extremely unsuccessful Gun Powder Plot that made Guy Fawkes so famous. Though the book’s cover implies that it is focused just on the Catholic priests who fled England to study in Europe and then risked their lives to return to England in an attempt to bring their home back to what they saw as the true and proper faith the book’s subject is far more expansive. While the narrative of these priests would be fascinating by itself Ms Hogge goes above and beyond by providing a history that puts the idea of the “revolutionary priests” in the context of its time and lays out the driving forces of all parties involved.

There are two points that I feel Ms Hogge deserves extra praise on. The first is that she takes apart the whole concept of the Catholic priest plotting to kill the Monarch and bring the Roman Catholic faith back into England. Priests in elaborate hiding holes and Guy Fawkes (who wasn’t a priest) style agents dominate our notion of this time period but Miss Hogge explains how this notion is rooted in the English government’s propaganda which was itself rooted in paranoia and not so much in fact. Yes, there were certainly some who did want to kill Elizabeth (and later James) but from the accounts of the active Catholics themselves these seem to be a minority. Despite a Papal decision that could be interpreted as allowing the assassination of Elizabeth most of the priests who traveled incognito throughout England were more concerned with the spiritual salvation of their countrymen than with Elizabeth’s life. Indeed the idea that a Catholic could not be a true Englishman loyal to his country was much more firmly held by the English government than the Catholics, many of  whom didn’t see such a firm contradiction between holding onto the old religion and supporting their Queen. This is not to say that all was peaceful but it was certainly more complex than we like to imagine. Another important distinction that we tend to forget is that it wasn’t just Catholic priests (Jesuit or otherwise) who were active in trying to restore the Catholic religion to England.

The second point that I thought Ms Hogge addressed very nicely was how violent and terrifying this period could be. While the reign of Bloody Mary is well remembered for the persecution of Protestants and Puritans the reign of Queen Elizabeth has been more sanitized (I have two pet theories on why this is: Our desire to remember elevate Queen Elizabeth to impossibly high standards and the fact that Catholics never returned to power.) Ms Hogge introduces us to an England where suspected Catholics faced not just financial persecution but also gruesome tortures and executions. Indeed this is an England where one nobleman felt that if his friend had been a murderer or thief or pirate or anything other than a Catholic he would be able to ask for leniency from the courts but since his friend was accused of being a Catholic he would be risking his own life in asking for leniency that would not be served. This book is an important and strong reminder that even golden ages can be filled with horrific details that we try our best to forget.

Ms Hogge’s final chapter is a particularly important aspect of this book as it presents one of the best connections between the past and present that I have ever seen. She first dismantles the connections frequently made between this period and modern events and then offers up more reasonable ones that actually, you know, make sense. Her history on the evolution of Catholic identities in England from the Tudor/Stewart era to modern politicians is also highly fascinating.

God’s Secret Agents is a thorough and comprehensive history that brings light into an aspect of history that has been obscured by retention to the propaganda of the time and should engage even the most casual student of history.

God’s Secret Agents; Alice Hogge; HarpersCollins, 2005

Review: “Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths”

The line between a good, or even great, biography and a really excellent biography lies in the biographer’s ability to tell their subject’s story and also connect it to the larger world. Nancy Marie Brown’s biography of the Icelandic poet and political schemer Snorri is an excellent example of biographies that tie together people and the times they lived in. Not only a biography of a Snorri Sturlason this slim book (It’s only 208 pages in the hardcover.) covers Iceland’s history and lore. Using the arc of Snorri’s life as her guide Ms. Brown tells the story of Iceland’s and continues to the cultural impacts of Snorri’s tales in the 20th century.

It’s refreshing to read a biography that wasn’t written by a sycophant. Ms. Brown addresses Snorri’s numerous flaws (primarily his self-serving nature) but she doesn’t try to explain them away or turn him into an overblown characterization of a villain. Her treatment of the Icelandic culture is similarly fair. Carefully making the point that the Icelandic Vikings were not the horned-helmet-wearing, looting and ravaging hordes that we remember them being she doesn’t hide their darker sides. Along with stories of Icelandic law courts and justice are stories of a six-year old smashing his playmate’s head open with an ax after losing at a ball game and the joy that this brings to his mother, glad that her son will be a true Viking when he grows up.

The legal and political life of 13th century Iceland is carefully explored in Song of the Vikings and it may just the be the political nerd inside of me talking but it is absolutely fascinating. Ms. Brown takes us from the first days of Iceland’s founding by Scandinavians who chaffed under the rule of a king to the arrival of Christianity to the domination of Norway. She adeptly breaks down the legal system that allowed this small island to maintain its unity so that even a complete novice such as myself feels that I understand. As a strict agnostic with an interest in how Christianity spread and its interactions with the native religions I was delighted when Ms. Brown addressed this very topic. The frustrations of the Bishops who tried to maintain a Christian attitude over a population with a very strong “Don’t Tread On Me” mentality provided a nice example of the outside world trying to exert its control over Iceland.

Snorri wasn’t the rough and tumble Viking that one sees in popular culture. A portly writer with dreams of becoming the “Uncrowned King of Iceland,” a strong goal for a Chieftain living in a country ruled by a strong oligarchy that prickles at the idea of a one-man rule. His constant struggle to achieve greatness makes a fascinating tale and one that takes the reader from the intricacies of Icelandic local politics to the court of the young Norwegian king. Unlike his more aggressive neighbors Snorri uses his control over language to work toward his end. In his attempts to court the teenage king of Norway Snorri repackages the old myths of Iceland to make them Christian friendly and presents them as a symbol of his intelligence and craft.

Ms. Brown’s prose is clear and crisp with few unnecessary flourishes. This does not mean that the book is cold or stiff. Rather it is has the comfortable warmth that the Icelandic sagas also hold. Song of the Vikings makes the reader feel that the author understands them and wants to engage them. Ms. Brown even acknowledges the sexual allure of the Vikings, using descriptions such as, “we can imagine his long blond hair loose over his shoulders, his massive chest and manly thighs bared.” Wooof! You can see the grin that must have been on Ms. Brown’s face when she wrote this, a grin that’s quite similar to the one I had when reading it. I would suggest that if you, like I, don’t have a great head for proper nouns then you might want to keep a pen and paper handy to keep track of all the characters in this book. Not only are the names unfamiliar and somewhat similar sounding to an American like me there are also a fucking lot of important people.

The final chapter of Song of the Vikings links Snorri and the myths he preserved to major cultural and philosophical ideas today. Unlike some who make rash comparisons and stretch connections Ms. Brown puts together a thorough chain from the 13th century to the 21st and goes through the chain link by link. She uses concrete evidence to put together her claims and, in my opinion, does so very well.

Song of the Vikings is an entertaining book that adds dimension to a period of European history that has been flattened by simple stereotypes of Vikings. Not just a cultural history, not just the biography of a man who you can’t stop reading about, not just a political intrigue, not just an overview of Icelandic lore, Song of the Vikings is a comprehensive read that covers a wide variety of topics. Yes, the history buff and the folklore buff will devour it but so will the casual reader, who will discover a new interest in Iceland and might just pick up a copy of Snorri’s writing.

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths; Nancy Marie Brown; Palgrave Macmillan, copyright 2012.