“The History of the Renaissance World” by Susan Wise Bauer (Norton, 2013)

The History of the Renaissance World
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To many the renaissance was a time of rebirth and growth that began sometime around the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, ushering in a whole new era of scientific development and the advancement of knowledge. But after completing her History of the Medieval World, Susan Wise Bauer begins her History of the Renaissance correctly in the early twelfth century beginning with the rediscovery of Aristotle and ending in the mid fifteenth century with the conquest of Constantinople.

The detailed book is divided into five sections: “Renaissances,” “Invasions, Heresies, and Uprisings,” “Catastrophes,” “Regroupings,” “Endings.” Just as she did with The History o f the Ancient World and The History of the Medieval World, Bauer takes the reader on a fantastic whirlwind tour of the world, presenting a detailed history from specific periods of these various cultures, how they were interacting and engaging with each other, and what developments occurred and when and how they influenced the nations of the world. Where she can, Bauer uses timelines, photos, pictures and any other sources that will help the reader along.

Just as with her previous books in this series, The History of the Renaissance World is an ideal historical reference that can be enjoyed as a normal book, read from beginning to ending, taking the reader across the globe over three centuries of complex history, or used as a quick reference guide thanks to the concise contents listing and lengthy index, allowing readers to get to a specific historical event in time in seconds. This is a worthy volume to add to one’s collection and is perfect for the student or scholar wanting a handy reference manual for the period, or for the history aficionado who simply wishes to learn more about the renaissance and when it truly began.

Originally written on March 24, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The History of the Renaissance World from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

The History of the Ancient World  The History of the Medieval World

“Hild” by Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013)

Hild
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The beauty of the medieval historical novel Hild, by bestselling science fiction author Nicola Griffith is that it is a story about a woman who becomes a powerful and inspirational figure during the Middle Ages. The reason this is special is because most historical fiction novels of this nature, from the likes of Bernard Cornwell, Jack Whyte, and Ken Follett to name a few, feature leading male characters in all their books, with female characters playing a secondary, minor role.

Such is not the case with Hild, telling the story of a young girl who is full of life and determination, along with a certain special ability to predict what may happen and soon gains the ear and respect of Edwin of Northumbria in his effort to overthrow the Angles. The book follows her life, growing to become a powerful woman and eventually one of the pivotal figures of the period: Saint Hilda of Whitby.

Hild is a beautifully written novel that takes a little while to get going, but once the reader is fully engrossed in the character, Griffith doesn’t look to tell your average medieval historical novel of back to back action scenes and historic battles, but a moving story of people interacting and living through this tumultuous time and what they did to make a difference. And then of course, there is the captivating cover to draw any reader in.

Originally written on February 12, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Hild from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages” by Guy Halsall (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Worlds of Arthur
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One thing we will never be certain of is whether or not King Arthur actually lived.  There are literally hundreds of books, TV series, documentaries, movies, papers and journals on the subject and life of King Arthur.  There are also hundreds of historical fiction novels about him.  There are also a number of secondary sources recorded from various times during the Middle Ages that talk of Arthur, and his time, his battles, his life.  But we still don’t know how true any of these documents are, and whether there really was a large-scale Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain.

Guy Halsall is in the minority, and he admits this up front, in his introduction to Worlds of Arthur.  He has taught at universities in London and York, and has specialized in the Merovingian Period (c. 450- c.750), but has also written about a lot of other subjects from the period, including death and burial, age and gender, violence and warfare, and barbarian migrations.  He is also not a believer in King Arthur.  He believes, from his study of the sources and archaeology, that such a person never existed.  He also doesn’t believe that the supposed large-scale Anglo-Saxon migrations of the mid-fifth century were as large-scale as thought, and in fact began much earlier.

Worlds of Arthur is divided into four parts. The first consists of Halsall discussing the various secondary source that mention or reference Arthur and the period.  The second part is about the archaeology of the period and what it states.  In the third part Halsall goes into detail on these sources and linking with the archaeology to show that they actually tell very little about Arthur and whether he existed or not.  Finally, in the fourth section Halsall lays out his theories and researching about how and why Arthur never really existed and the events we have come to think we know about the period that aren’t completely true.

Halsall is thorough and detailed in his discussions, using his experience and knowledge of the Merovingian period and the subjects mentioned above, but he also seems to rely a little too much on this, and not on the history and archaeology of Britain itself, as well as what its peoples left.  It is nevertheless a worthy debate in the story of King Arthur that is well worth the read and deserves to be heard and accepted, even if it is in the minority.

Originally written on April 27, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Worlds of Arthur from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

Battle for Britain  Death of King Arthur  Winter King

“King Arthur’s Battle for Britain” by Eric Walmsley (Matador, 2013)

King Arthur's Battle for Britain
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The legend of King Arthur is known in some form to most people, and has had so much literature written about that it’s quite astonishing.  The real man likely lived sometime in the fifth century, but within hundred years of the man’s death – whenever it actually was – people began writing about him over the centuries and up to the present day.  Not just biographies and supposed factual historical accounts, but plenty of fiction and historical fiction speculating on the period and what sort of man King Arthur truly was.  In reality, it’s very unlikely he was ever actually an official king, but more of a great general for the Britons.

In King Arthur’s Battle for Britain, Erik Walmsley provides an accounting on Arthurs twelve battles pulling from sources like Nennius and Gildas, as well as many others be they short accountings or pieces of poetry.  He also creates the scene and story with each battle, adding description and action, but also providing geographic detail and photos, as well as a brief history of the region.  The book begins with introductory chapters on Arthur, who the man might’ve been, as well as the evidence that speaks for him, then a dedicated chapter for each battle with maps showing likely locations.

The one failing with King Arthur’s Battle for Britain is that as great of a story as Walmsley tells, he doesn’t cite his sources so readers aren’t sure what primary or secondary source he is getting certain information from, or whether he’s just adding his own fiction to create a stronger scene.  Eric Walmsley is not a medieval historian, but he has researched this period and the sources for this book.  While what he posits in King Arthur’s Battle for Britain needs to be taken with a grain of salt, it is nevertheless a plausible explanation for events recorded in these unconfirmed secondary Arthurian sources and who the man known as Arthur might have truly been like.

Originally written on March 16, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of King Arthur’s Battle for Britain from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Death of Kings” by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins, 2012)

Death of Kings
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In the sixth book of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, he makes it clear with the title that this is the most important book of the series, as it’s the one where Alfred the Great finally passes from this world, leaving this torn country with an uncertain future, and it will be up to his successor to decide what to do.

King Alfred dreamed of a united England, but now as he lies on his death bed, time is running out and this reality seems like it won’t be happening anytime soon.  The Danes to the north are still not giving up, controlling a considerable proportion of the country and hungry for more.  It comes down to who has the more soldiers and the stronger alliances.  Also, even though Alfred’s son Edward is the heir apparent, there are some other Saxons who have aims of taking the throne.  The Saxon-born, Viking-raised Uhtred who still believes strongly in the Norse gods will be the leader to once again make things happen; he has already sacrificed much for Alfred, and now finally receives a just reward, but he will have to fight to keep it from the attacking Danes, as well as swear fealty to the new king, Edward.

Fans will quickly gobble up Death of Kings, as they pay witness to the passing of an important character that was inevitably going to happen, but the good news is that Cornwell makes it clear in his afterword that while Alfred’s part in this story may now be over, there is still more to tell, and Uhtred still has an important part to play.

Originally written on February 6, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Death of Kings from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

The Burning Land    Agincourt    Sword Song    Lords of the North

“Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe” by Peter Heather (Oxford University Press, 2010)

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As time passes, more research is done, more artifacts and items are discovered, and more is known about the beginning of the Middle Ages, often know as the so-called “Dark Ages.”  The simple explanation that is spouted in most simple history books is the idea that when the Roman Empire fell, all of Western Europe regressed to barbarian savages and everything was lost, and it was not until around a thousand years later that this continent achieved a civilized status once more.  But as more study, archaeology, and discoveries are made, the idea of these “Dark Ages” is turning out to be a gross misnomer.  Thankfully, books like Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians are doing their part to strike the use of this term from the record.

Peter Heather, a professor of Medieval History at King’s College London, begins with an important recapping of the waning centuries of the Roman Empire, setting the stage with what was going on and why the giant machine came to a grinding, crumbling halt.  Heather then launches into a discussion on the birth of Europe and what exactly was going on, using thorough and up to date research.  The book is divided into eleven large chapters covering the big social groups of Europe including the Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Huns, and others.  It is commonly conceived that many of these groups moved in massive migration patterns easily around the continent, displacing other ethnic groups that were already there; new evidence and research, however, says otherwise; this is what Empires and Barbarians is about.

Heather spends many pages discussing and educating the reader on the migration patterns of these social groups, which were not in such large numbers as previously thought.  Heather never proclaims, but is a good historian with theories and suppositions on the evidence, going into detail that it was more likely these large groups weren’t displaced or killed, but joined up with the smaller invading social groups.  The result was a new ruling class, the best example of which is the Norman invasion (thanks to the Doomsday Book), that became a part of the society it was invading, not seeking to eradicate it so much as to rule over it and become part of its culture.

Empires and Barbarians is a thick and thorough history book on this important period in history, backed up with maps and a lengthy bibliography.  Peter Heather doesn’t hold back on what he thinks and has to say, but the key is to stick with it and you end up learning more about the early medieval world than you ever would’ve expected.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on June 28 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

If you liked this review, you might like:

History of the Medieval World Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages The Vikings Inheritance of Rome

“Elves in Anglo-Saxon England” by Alaric Hall (Boydell & Brewer, 2009)

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Alaric Hall, a lecturer in Medieval English Literature at the University of Leeds, delves into the sources that mention or reference elves, or ælfe, looking not just at texts and writings from Britain, but also Scandinavia and mainland Europe to find similarities and linkages in these references.  Hall breaks it down to the language level, exploring spellings, uses, as well as inferring meanings for elves, which at times can get dense, but for those looking for proof in the original language, Hall certainly does this, using the original Old English and providing translations.  He is quick to point out that while comparing British texts with sources from other countries, one cannot make assumptions through this as they are from different cultures.  References are made between elves on the subject of belief, health, gender, and identity, each with their own chapter, and while it is relatively short book, Hall has begun an important foundation here as more is learned and discovered about the use of ælfe in the Anglo-Saxon world.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on March 3rd 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Burning Land” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2010)

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In this fifth installment of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, as he reveals the incredible life of Alfred the Great and the world of Viking England, he doesn’t hold back, putting his hero, Uhtred, through every trial and tribulation possible.  Uhtred finds himself tested by Alfred, by the priest because of his pagan beliefs, by his Viking friends, and by his Saxon friends.  Compared to the last four books in the series, The Burning Land has a lot more going on, as the end appears to be in sight for Alfred, for Uhtred, and for Cornwell.

England is still in a shambles, as hoards of Vikings march across the land, taking towns and slaughtering people, while Alfred defends his small domain in the south.  Alfred has become pious in his old age, turning to priests for advice and suggestions, which just infuriates Uhtred.  Each time he turns to the man for the final advice on what battle to choose and where to fight, and each time Uhtred leads him to victories, but he never makes it into the tales and stories recorded by the priests.  Cornwell is making a point here that we shouldn’t believe everything of the sources we read, that often reality is very different to what is recorded.  But Uhtred finds himself torn: owing allegiance to Alfred, but also wishing to join the Vikings up north in an effort to take back his land, Bebbanburg, taken by his uncle.  For some time he does fight with the Vikings, putting fear in the heart of the Saxons to the south, as Alfred is rumored to be very ill and possibly dead.  In the new year the rumors are proved otherwise and Uhtred returns to his lord and fights for him once more.

But time is passing; Arthur grows older and sicker, while Uhtred draws closer to fighting for his homeland.  There can’t be too many books left in the Saxon Tales, as Cornwell brings the series to a close in the n ext book or two.  One wonders how it will end for Alfred, and how Uhtred will fair.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on March 11th 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Vikings: A History” by Robert Ferguson (Viking, 2009)

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There have been many books written on the Vikings, and everyone has their own stereotypical – and in most cases, inaccurate – idea of who the Vikings were and what they were like; media has done much to reaffirm these clichés.  Thankfully, there is The Vikings: A History by a “leading authority in the field of Scandinavian studies,” Robert Ferguson.  Ferguson puts all the misconceived and incorrect notions of Vikings to rest, launching into a comprehensive history of these northern peoples and what affect they had on Europe from the eighth centuries on through the first millennium.  Ferguson pulls from many sources, and presents not just the viewpoint of the Vikings and their achievements, but also short histories on the northern British Isles, Charlemagne, and the various kingdoms of the European continent, showing how greatly affected they were by the Viking attacks and takeovers.  The Vikings: A History will clear away the image of a horn-helmeted brute and replace it with a developed, complex culture that was intelligent and creative, and had reasons for the attacks against the various peoples of Europe.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on January 15th 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Sacramento Book Review.

“Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered” by Peter S. Wells (Norton, 2008)

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Peter S. Wells, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and author of The Battle That Shaped Rome and Barbarians Speak, takes on a bold new subject as he attempts to prove that the so called “Dark Ages” really weren’t that bad at all, but were a time for important trading, the long-term migration of different peoples, and that most of what we consider to know about the period from the fall of Rome in approximately 410 to the takeover of England by William the Conqueror in 1066 is actually not correct.

Wells begins with Late Antiquity and the fall of the Roman Empire explaining how this all came about and what state Europe was left in once Rome was gone.  But instead of painting the invading tribes as desecrating the relics of the once great empire, he creates a whole new canvas in revealing that the migration of foreign tribes and peoples in the former Roman Empire was a gradual one that took place while the Empire was still thriving.  There was not necessarily a “hostile takeover,” but a replacing of government with people who were not indigenous to the region and had lived there for some time.

Wells creates the same setting for the mass migrations of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from Western Europe to Britain as not an event that occurred within a hundred years, but something that took place over centuries.  The author attempts to prove all these findings which are quite contrary to common thought on the subject with photos and evidence of the regions apparently revealing that the migrating people had been there for a lot longer than thought, or in the case of the Anglo-Saxon migrations, that the populations were never that large to begin with.

The other part to Barbarians to Angels, according to Wells, is that the “Dark Ages” were not a return to an ignorant and primitive way of life for many, with the power lying in the hands of the church, but a time of life similar to that experienced during the Roman Empire, with extensive trading throughout the continent of Europe.  With this trading there would’ve been an exchange of cultural knowledge and education leading to better developed societies.

Peter Wells does an impressive job in revealing perhaps a different world and way of life for the people of the Early Middle Ages.  His failing lies in the amount of evidence presented, which may be partially due to the limitations in the length of the book, but may also lie with there simply not being enough evidence to help prove his point.  As a medieval historian, I’m not thoroughly convinced with the case he presents in Barbarians to Angels, however there are some very interesting ideas, with evidence that cannot be ignored.  The most sobering and perhaps convincing item is that of a bronze figure of Buddha that was crafted in northern India in the sixth century and was recovered in Helgö, Sweden, which leaves one at least contemplating the ideas expressed in Barbarians to Angels.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on October 7th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.