Book Review: Hadrian’s Wall by Patricia Southern.

Interestingly enough I was born within the reach of what northerners simply call ‘the roman wall.’ As a kid I was taken to some of the forts, Vindolanda, Housteads, Chesters, etc and though he memories are now a little blurred, I do know that these trips never failed to inspire me. 

Even though my home, for a time, was miles to the south of it, Hadrian’s wall was a presence. It was on brown signs stencilled next to a stylised crested helmet on most main roads, parts of it emerged from the grass outside bland pedestrian walkways over busy motorways and rows of semi detached Council houses.

Though the wilds of the border reaches were out of sight, Hadrian’s wall was always there, ruined, inscrutable and yet unmistakeable.

Encyclopaedic and engaging, this book belongs on the shelf of every Roman Britain Reader. That’s the sum of it. Now what to do with the rest of the review? 

Well, now that everything else is partially redundant, I can assure you the author is a competent and concise writer, that meaning, this is less of a narrative as it is a lively discussion and as well as keeping a reader interested, does not spare them the process she used to arrive at a particular opinion, and likewise fails not to guide them through a debate that has no satisfactory answer.

The blurb tells us this will give us a look at everyday life on Hadrian’s Wall. Now allot of books promise to do this and whenever I read his I figure; oh, so they are trying to do what Ian Mortimer does with his time traveller books.

This one however, I must admit, offered the picture of daily life on the wall without attempting to play tour guide.Instead by it’s end you will have read about roughly every facet of life on the roman frontier, and therefore have a fairly comprehensive idea of the Rhythms of existence on Rome’s most famous boundary.

Everything from the building of the structure, to how it was manned and organised, the comings and goings, running and the many elements of civilian life and the examination of sources and evidence is included.

Life, death and everything in between that pertains to the centuries of the wall’s existence is covered. Although with all ancient history there are gaps, the author is a sensible and scrupulous manager of the records and whenever it comes to informed guesswork the book is always thought provoking.

Twain said that History Rhymes and one can only wonder if the construction of this great barrier had the same impact in it’s time as the discussion of modern frontier walls does today. With that in mind, and with the understanding that history is weaponised for political advancement a thorough knowledge of key aspects of it is vital for negotiating modern news and media.

Hadrian’s wall, as the most famous example of internal security in the ancient world can be argued as either a remarkably successful achievement or an ultimately flawed one.

From Donald trump to, Immigration crises, national security and even pop culture, (fun fact that everyone knows, Hadrian’s wall inspired Martin for a piece of Game of Thrones) This book will help those who read it to understand what it really was and what it did within the prism of it’s own time and our understanding of that time.
Josh.

Book Review: Eyewitness At Amritsar by Amandeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh.

What can have been going through the mind of General Dyer that day in Amritsar 100 years ago? What perverted sense of justice and duty led him to order his troops to open fire on an unarmed and unthreatening crowd in the Jallianwalah Bagh?

He said himself that he came to the decision in under a minute and that he did so to preserve the British empire. In less than 60 seconds thousands of lives were changed for ever and between three and five hundred lives would end altogether.  History itself changed that day.

Lauded even to his death as the man who saved India, ironically no enemy of the empire struck a more deadly blow against it than Dyer did that dark day in Amritsar.This is the timely story of a massacre in words and pictures, brilliantly and sensitively presented by Kashi House and handled expertly by it’s two authors.  

Before you even open this book you get almost a sense of intruding on a hallowed but tragic scene. The cover image is devoid of frills, a narrow alley leading to a wide dusty inner-city space. Empty and haunting, one can almost imagine oneself standing there, peering through, and trying to make sense of the insanity of it all.

That is the brilliance of this book. It is transportive and breaks down the walls of time and place and takes you on a journey, that is as visual as a documentary and as informative as an interview. 

Kashi House produces books that I love to read and this one I must be counted amongst those that are totally original in how they present their subject. I’ll be quite plain with you all, I help prove the stigma that the British don’t know about the Jallianwalah massacre.

I’d heard of it, I’d seen it recreated in the movie, Ghandi but I knew nothing about it and was absolutely ignorant of what happened before and after. When I received ‘Eyewitness’ I confess to worrying if I would be up to reviewing it with such pitiful knowledge of the subject. 

Yet as I turned the pages I saw that the authors had crafted a book that was designed to engage a blithe readership without scrimping on depth or detail. I devoured it in a day.

Eyewitness is separated into sections, beginning with an introduction that gives an overview, it then turns the story over to quotes by contemporary witnesses, victims, perpetrators and commenters all aided by some of the most evocative photographs and images I’ve seen collected in binding.

We first learn about Amritsar, about it’s cantons, holy places and narrow, teeming, streets that spider through the city with labyrinthine complexity. In some photos I swear I could hear the noise of the crowd. The text and photos are so well synced that it is as if we are taken through them, right down to the entrance to the Bagh.

Historical context comes next, India and the Raj in the aftermath of the Great War. It was a volatile time of loud discourse and angry passions but also great movements and leaders who dared to stage a rebellion in a way that no one had done before. It was a strategy that the British had no answer to, armed rebellion could be crushed with a certain legality, but not non-violent demonstrations. Nevertheless simmering tensions were building in Amristar.

The narrative proper starts after that showing the riots that preceded the massacre, and then the inconceivable horror of the event itself as told by the participants. The plight of the victims loved ones being especially moving and the marble-cold outlook of General Dyer being more than infuriating.

What follows, as Ghandi said, was, at least from a philosophical/intellectual point of view almost worse. The humiliating repression that the increasingly tyrannical Dyer unleashed on Amritsar, again for scant legitimate cause, left me quite stunned.

Well might some of the quotes damn these actions as the point where India realised it could not depend on British justice and where faith in the system of imperial government was broken once and for all.

I cannot praise the ingenuity and hard work that went into this book enough. I’m not just crafting pleasing blurbs here when I say it is perfect for serious scholar and newcomer alike. 

This is how History should be popularly presented, it is how I’ve always hoped it could be presented and how I’ve often tried to present it. By using a preponderance of authentic voices and materials crafted together with a minimum of handling the reader can see, rather than be told, what happened. 

Eyewitness to Amritsar is a poignant, immersive, book that is both fair and incisive. A visual testament that allows readers to connect with the very fabric of history, giving a thrilling and eye opening glimpse into how events are recorded and how they played out.

From the Great to the small, this book is an all encompassing, respectful, tribute to a tragedy that changed history.

Josh.

Book Review: The Anarchy by William Dalrymple.

‘The Anarchy is worthy of it’s author’s ambition as a brilliantly realised and enjoyably written history which looks out at it’s subject with an eye to both the past and the future.’

FormatHardback 
Edition1st
Extent 576
ISBN9781408864371
ImprintBloomsbury Publishing

The EIC and the Corporatocracy

‘The country lies groaning under the Anarchy’ wrote the Compte de Modave of the country of Bengal in 1762. His use of the word anarchy was echoed by its use in the work of Mughal historians, and 20 years later by Maratha ones to describe the period of the decline and fall of their respective empires.


So too does William Dalrymple’s Anarchy, which chronicles, in a robust, fluid, style, the ‘relentless rise of the east India company.’ As the story of the fall of one is the story of the rise of the other, the author is therefore at pains to show how what he calls the world’s most magnificent Empire was replaced by a ‘dangerously unregulated private company.’ The significance of this took a while to resonate with me.


At face value this is not an unheard story, many historians have written the antique and modern records of the East India Company, this version is, however, is endowed with a new significance which has not been focused on, and certainly not with the same amount of force. 


Unlike other works on the infamous conglomerate, this book is not another history of the British Company in India. It is the pursuit of an echo, which strives to examine the relationship between big business and government. It is in fact a record of the first ‘corporatocracy,’ the new imperium. We need not look to far to see an example, because that was what made the USA a superpower after WW2. And it is also what is now driving China.


If you have ever noticed how industrial countries will invest in underdeveloped ones, exchanging various advancements for material assets, then deploy military force to secure the investment after provoking confrontation, ‘The Anarchy’ will start ringing bells. As mentioned, the East India Company was truly the first recognisable corperatocracy, and it’s record shows that it all but patented the system of wealth and territorial acquisition through commerce.


The claim that the Mughal empire was the most magnificent empire in the world is crucial to the juxtaposed history at hand. Based principally on the estimated revenue for the empire during the peak of it’s success during the early to mid 17th century, this is an undoubtedly correct assertion. Perhaps Dalrymple goes a touch far to say that Elizabethan England was a cash strapped, impoverished, realm, but there was no real comparison between the Mughals and Tudors at the time when the East India Company was founded. 

The EIC was remarkable because unlike other corporatocracy’s (which rely on their government to do the back-breaking) they took it upon themselves to create a military and civil service. As a result they could operate much more directly against a given target and did so with shocking success.

The mad idea that a private company such as today’s Walmart, Disney or Google could deploy it’s security forces (or even have security forces comparable to a modern state army) could grow not only in profits but indeed to actually replace a nation state and come to govern a huge chunk of the earth’s population is just that, mad.

The Imperial Accident?


And yet it happened, and it is not just Dalrymple or modern historians who have noticed the absurdity. A great swathe or intelligent thinkers wrote or voiced their befuddlement at the idea that the EIC, a private stock enterprise, answerable to it’s own shareholders, could have an army of over 100,000 men by the end of the century and be actually governing land. That number is more than twice the that available to the United Kingdom in 1793 when the war with Republican France broke out.


During Burke’s epic oration condemning Warren Hastings, he cut to the heart of the argument against this form of British rule in India. All the previous empires that had conquered it had contributed something culturally to the land as a nation, these empire’s had been or in time became Indian empires. But the company was only interested in taking from India rather than putting anything into it. 


When viewed in this light it is interesting to look at the often used argument that the British brought order and law to India, stuff and nonsense to be sure, but the philanthropic bent of the later British (as opposed to Company) Raj was that it had something to prove. As if shamed by the words of it’s 18th century critics, it all but broke it’s back trying to make their presence be seen as beneficial and philanthropic.


Beginning with the formation of the company, by ‘merchants and pirates,’ and running through its measured and bumpy rise to the careers of Clive, Hastings, Cornwallis and Wellesley, the Anarchy is a sweeping and insightful history of events that many will find eerily familiar from the wars and politics of the mid 20th century.


Despite the blurb, Dalrymple is not pointing at the White House, rather the corporate driven world we live in as being a legacy of the East India Company. These businesses are pinnacles of organisation. The EIC was so effective in it’s hoarding of commodities that it reversed the flow of wealth that had been running east since roman times.

The money flow has now returned to the east and Dalrymple is hearing the echoes of the past resonating, the world he says has returned to a place it was when the EIC first came to India.
There is an argument that the British empire started accidentally. Yet with the idea of commercially driven expansion, can this be supported?

Dalrymple admits that the EIC had no long range plan to conquer the whole of South Asia, their seizure of the commerce of Bengal was purely driven by a desire for trade and developed into something both surprising and concerning as they discovered their increasing strength and abilities. Truly it was a sinister and dexterous runaway. It took almost a century for the British government to actually bring the company to heel.

Yet, like all the other colonial commercial ventures that birthed colonies, they did bring it to heel and they did take over. It was in the vested interest of the British state to see the EIC remain a successful enterprise.

The Ambition


Vaunted as Dalrymple’s most ambitious project yet I must admit that before I realised what the author was trying to connect with, the book seemed little more than a continuation of a pet subject. I was forced to reflect on it in a new light when realisation struck about a week later.

Dalrymple said this year that it’s scale was the ambitious part, having confined himself in previous books to reconstructing snapshots that connect a moment in time with the greater sphere of history. By comparison this is a sweeping history, of a faceless nonentity of boards, committees and armies. But that is it’s subtlety, and why it is brilliant.

Though in great part lacking any one central figure to follow, this does not mean that the characters and vignettes are now well drawn. Dalrymple’s description of Lord Wellesley as an empire building cuckoo in the Company next was priceless, and the impeachment of Warren Hastings is another example. Dalrymple, likewise, gets Clive solidly within his sights and gives no quarter.


Worryingly the book reveals that the British state did not conquer India, instead it sanctioned the actions of a private mercantile company to do so in its stead, much as it had with other ‘company’s’ during the 15th and 16th century’s.

Acting essentially as an addict does to a powerful drug, the flow of cash from the company’s clearing houses at the ports of Great Britain overwhelmed all good sense and moral imperative. As the old adage goes, the money trail is also the way to the truth of most human mysteries, and how even governments are at the mercy of big business.

It shows that the oft repeated curiosity of India being ruled by only a few civil servants is actually a legacy of the ruthlessly efficient organisation of the company, which after a century of operating still had only 35 permanent employees at head office.


At the end Dalrymple returns to his roots as a travel author and paints a languid picture of a boat sailing down the Yamuna at dusk, when the sky and water are contrasting and vivid and the land is dark, save for the blushing walls of the Red Fort. He ponders how a single private cooperation could have conquered the builders of this wondrous building.

In truth, as the book reveals, that the company did not actually conquer it in the traditional way, least of all the British government, a new kind of blueprint for empire building was founded. The company was the richest of the scavengers that came to pick at it’s carcass. Knocking aside those that had done the heavy lifting. 


The Anarchy is worthy of it’s author’s ambition as a brilliantly realised and enjoyably written history which looks out at it’s subject with an eye to both the past and the future. It challenges the nostalgia and nationalism which is prevalent in India and Britain. It corrects perceptions of how and why the British conquered their jewel of great price and asks us to take a look at the word today as a comparison. Reading this it is hard not to admit that we are blithely and perilously close to the Anarchy that consumed the Mughals. 

Josh.

Book Review: Dominion by Tom Holland.

  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown (5 Sept. 2019)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1408706962

“Revolutionary in every sense.’

Tom Holland has had this date from the beginning. It has been a long time coming but what was once just a distant call, echoing from the beyond in Rubicon became inevitable by the time Shadow of the Sword hit the shelves and the Twitter-debates led into death threats. In his history of the fall of the Roman republic, Holland referenced the execution of an itinerate street preacher that grow to have more meaning than many of the deaths suffered by the emperors of Rome. Indeed, his new book carries on the theme of narrating a Rubicon moment, for the history of western Christianity is at it’s heart a tale of revolution. At some point around 2017 or so his tweets, a sure thermoriter of whatever he is writing about, began to take on a eclectically biblical sheen as he polled his followers about the prophets and regaled them with the semi-heretical thoughts of century’s of thinkers from ‘pro’ and ‘con’ camps. 

Reading this book it struck me that though we tend to think of France and Russia when we talk of Revolutions, one of the greatest in world history occurred when over the course of many century’s a densely populated swathe of the world chose to believe in a common promise of an afterlife that came out of a dangerous backwater of the Roman Empire and grew to shape, in some way or another, everything that happened thereafter.  Tom Holland’s new book is revolutionary in every sense.

Underpinning the fabric of western thought is Christianity, Holland argues, keeping up his revolutionary theme. The reason for this can be found in what Holland sees as the labour pains of the church. The initial idea of Christianity, which championed the poor and downcast turned everything that the western world had taken for granted on its head and it proved a rigorously subversive doctrine. 

The teachings of Jesus offered a new kind of salvation and a new way to look at the world. Periodic bouts of persecution followed, which although never sustained, was what we would today call repression, as varying roman emperors championed, purged, and dismissed Christianity by turns. Persecution and repression was mixed with a great deal of confusion when the Romans embraced the faith as a state religion. The theological hierarchy of the church found themselves at odds, arguing about such topics as how Christians could remain true to their origins? How there could be such a thing as charity if there were no more poor? Could slavery really be an acceptable institution for a follower of Christ to be complicit in? Down to trying to rationalise and communicate the teachings and very divinity of Jesus and the Trinity for a international audience. The writers of the Torah, he writes, ‘formulated’ a divine covenant that would make sense to a geopolitical ancient audience much as the founding fathers of the USA would formulate a constitution to do the same.

These labour pains birthed the church and they were so acute and cut so deep into the very fibre of what it meant to be human; to seek purpose and to fear death, that with each successive convulsion layers of imperative significance began to be unconsciously dyed into the fabric of western society. No matter how rigorous the criticism, nor how indifferent the world has become, the more stringent the debate the more ingrained Christianity became. This is not only because it’s message speaks to a desperate need within the mass of humanity to be seen, but because unlike other major religions it has been made communicable and has bent and adapted to the culture that it in itself created. Rather than lose it, the western world has always sought to fit the message of Jesus into the changing world view of succeeding generations.

Christianity’s simple presence in society provoked the development of western thought. What is the nature of secularism and its place in the fabric of religion? What is it’s place in the world? What is sin in a world not of gentiles & Christians but of believers? In Dominion the rise of Christendom as a concept and the establishment of the church as an entity apart and separate from royalty and imperium was in itself the first revolution to rock the west.

It must be admitted that at times I wondered if what I was reading could truly find a ledge of continuity to swing from into the final summing up, or wether it would just end up as a good anecdote. Certainly within it all there is plenty to intrigue, such as how the Bible came to be and the strong Greek roots visible in the very contents of the old and new testaments. 

There are times, I suspect, when in the ardour of narrative creation Holland sinks into the proverbial sand. There is a whiff of contextual dismissal as well in the force of some arguments. As an example, we may use his suggestion that God was once worshiped by the Jews as a bull. An interesting and academically attractive thought. To support it he cites 1 Kings 12.28 and Hosea 8.6 as inpirical evidence of that resolution. While no one would argue that a certain bovine sanctity is prescient within the early scriptures, it may be said that some of the footnotes are a little self conscious of the weak shoulders upon which this assertion is held up. The theory mentioned above ignores a great deal of the more logical explanation for the raising of the two golden calves by Jeroboam, but maybe that is the point. After all in its 30th verse does it not make clear that this was a sin, and did not the psalmist openly mock the re-enactment of Aaron’s folly at mount Sinai? The passage in Hosea is a passage which damns apostasy with gleeful vigour, for in the preceding verses the prophet begs for mercy as ‘with their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction. Your calf is rejected O Samaria … an artisan made it; it is not God the Calf of Samaria shall be broken in pieces.’

If anything all this should have gone towards his argument that the Jews saw life as one long trail of sin, from the Apple in the garden to the Calf on the mountain. True, the Jews may well have once worshiped a graven image of God, but it was called sin and counted against them. Yet Holland, captured by the fancy that God existed to the ancient Jews in multiple forms, both benign and cruel, hammers and crafts his own image of a murky past where the God of Israel was legitimately idolised as a beast.

Another early theme is to offer a theology that God once fought for control of the heavens with other supernatural beings. Certainly the Jews of the Old Testament entertained household deities as is seen in the story of Jacob. God might well also be translated from old texts in the sense of all gods but such a linguistic ambiguity might merely further the idea of that long, wide, road from apostasy. 

Sometimes the revelations which are meant to surprise, come as no surprise. For instance Holland hints strongly that God had once been one of many ‘gods’ in the eyes of his chosen people who came to dispose of the others. The scriptures tend to be quite suggestive of the many spiritual powers at work in the world and the heavens. argument for God as the one and only is that of coming to accept him as the one and only sovereign, it is not to the exception of the existence of other ‘gods of men’. It seems clear that while the Jews proffered allegiance to one God as their own, their rejection of the others was not based on a lack of knowledge of the existence of other spiritual powers, but of the supremacy of their own over the others. It is generally accepted that whenever Jewish scripture refers to God over all, the ‘all’ represents heaven, earth and the children of Israel, the chosen all, not ‘gentiles’. Thus when a psalm speaks of God and gods, it is essentially placing those lesser beings under the feet of the Almighty. 

Yet Holland keeps mostly to the argument, prevalent, it must be said amongst zealots, of the existence of a single divine being without exception. It occurred to me that the Jews, (or perhaps this is a more Christian outlook, forming part of the said revolution) were capable of recognising a spiritual universe at work, that in itself was under the influence of personally unknown spirits, worshiped as gods by unclean foreigners. The argument becomes somewhat more circular when he semi-concludes that in some distant theology, God made himself master of the heavens and all the beings in it, both good and evil. By which means he concludes his roving discourse on the clash of the idea of a merciful and avenging God, without quite saying it; that God is a testing God.

The ambiguity of the author’s graceful prose is useful for such an emotionally charged subject. Some of it will be outright provoking, though not in an obvious way. Holland, being an artful fellow, rarely outright challenges something, he massages it into flexibility. Thus Moses, whose grave cannot be found and whose deeds are recorded only in one place, is suggested, though never declared, to never to have existed. 

He strives to find a new interpretation of how the scriptures have been interpreted, and wonders at what they were before. A lead objective being to try and lay out the character of God, on a purely intellectual basis, and what made him different and indeed more special, more attractive to an ancient mind than any of the others. He begins this quest by examining why it was such a big deal to be crucified, and it emerges very quickly that he wishes to trace back from the indelible stains of the Christian experience, to see why the passage of centuries have left them patched and remade but unfaded. The blood of Christ, he might be prone to say, hasn’t blotted easily. 

Moving with method the book rolls through the centuries, and layers of significance build and build. By it’s end we can reflect on it and for me I drew a few conclusions. One being that surely one of the greatest strengths that Christians can claim is the knowledge that the Dominion of God is still potent. Though many might declare that God is dead and that nothing is now sacred because we have science, though many philosophers, writers, and historians, Holland included, say that at some point or another they grew to prefer the gods of Greece and Rome, it is a sentiment that everyone knows to be glib. The gods of the classical past are amusing, sterile things of fable, fertile in the realm of story but little else, save for the vertiginous potency of distant imagination. But neither they, nor anyone else believes in them any more than they believe in a work of theatre. Yet on a daily basis a vast index of western humanity will stub their toe, break a plate, or communicate surprise by invoking the name of God, Jesus or Mary. Truly, the name of God still weighs both light and heavy in the everyday life of the Dominion once called Christendom. 

What can be argued is alive. And Holland proves, above everything else, perhaps, that one of the great legacies of Christendom is the ancient love of debate. Dominion is by turns awed, horrified, reverential and irreverent towards it’s subject. It is a fascinating journey from the Cross to the iPhone. An eye opening and thought provoking read about the revolution at the heart of western thought. 

Josh.

Book Review: The First Anglo Sikh War by David Smith

  • Author: David Smith
  • Illustrator: Steve Noon
  • Short code: CAM 338
  • Publication Date: 25 Jul 2019

https://ospreypublishing.com/store/military-history/period-books/19th-century/the-first-anglo-sikh-war-1845-46?___store=osprey_rst&___from_store=osprey_usa

In October 1854 when the Russians had drubbed the Light Brigade at Balaclava, Sir Richard Airey was heard to shrug off the disaster by saying, ‘This is nothing to what we had at Chillianwala.’

His words would have been equally apt had he referenced any of the Battles of the 1st Sikh War, such as Ferozeshah. Few knew much about this obscurely named place in a far away country, where a decade before Balaclava a poorly understood enemy had almost destroyed a British army. Fewer in the UK know about it today.

Although a proud moment in Punjabi history the Sikh Wars hold no resonance to the British. It is just another embarrassing colonial conflict to be quietly avoided. It was embarrassing at the time as well because of the offhand way in which it was prosecuted.

The first was a curious War, as many authors, including the present one; David Smith have commented, because the war aims in the first conflict of both the British and the Sikh’s were ultimately the same; the destruction of the Sikh army. 

Multiple campaign books covering each battle of the 1st Sikh War could have been done, but this general survey is nonetheless precise and detailed. It’s prominent citation of Amarpal Singh Sidhu’s work is enough in itself for me offer it as a recommendation.

It quickly emerges that the war was fixed from the start, though no one knows exactly how. The author is quite sure that the inexplicable performance of senior and talented Sikh officers can only be explained by self interest and treachery.

Even so, with overconfident fire-eaters commanding the British Army of the Sutlej, the tide could easily have been turned as British battalions were decimated in hasty & unscientific frontal assaults.

The Sikh army is described accurately as an efficient and effective military force with every modern advantage. But it had become unwieldy & it had lost the commander it had been created for. The British are not super humans in this book, they are only slightly worse led, marginally more dogged and in the end victorious due to a long tested regimental system & loyal officers.

The book falls down only in the sense that it crams so much into less than 100 pages. As such there is little by way of explanation or discussion and some elements of the fighting are just ignored. When dealing with Aliwal for instance the author fails to explain how the 16th lancers broke the Sikh ‘square,’ and leaves out that the Gurkha battalion present almost lost it’s colours during the battle.

Luck & treachery would coincide to hand the British government in India & certain factions in Lahore their long hoped for wish. The Sikh army of Ranjit Singh was broken, though not in any true sense destroyed. The crippled remnant would rally again but the blow had served it’s purpose. A second war followed, as difficult as the first and referenced by Airey, but by the time the Light Brigade rode into the valley of death, the Sikh Empire had disappeared.

The book covers the ferocious fighting at Mudki, Ferozeshah, Smith’s masterly victory at Aliwal and Sobraon. As usual there are helpful maps & an interesting selection of images in the title.

Steve Noon’s colour plates are masterful examples of illustration, packed with colour and detail, imagining scenes with realistic yet cinematic grandeur. It is always a joy to look at them and pick out the details and stories they hold.

This title is a detailed overview of the war that will prove very useful for enthusiast and student alike.

Josh.

Book Review. Killing Napoleon by Jonathan North.

Although I don’t agree anyone can read about the Napoleonic and Revolutionary wars without being aware of the royalist opposition to both, I do admit that there is a widespread delusion that Napoleon was a beloved and cherished leader.

Fanatical loyalty to the emperor did indeed exist, but an equally fanatical element opposed him and everything that had occurred since the overthrow of the monarchy.

This is best exemplified in the attempted assassination of Napoleon in 1800, the subject of this book by Jonathan North. The first Consul, as he was then, was nearly the victim of an indiscriminate explosion that was detonated as his carriage drove by.

Fate intervened to spare Napoleon a martyr’s death and the Napoleonic Wars were destined to play out in all their collective horror. North’s book is about recreating this dramatic event that almost changed history, and examining the effect it had.

North does a good job of retelling the story in the vein of a thriller novel, loading a relatively short book with detail. Sketching out the characters, their motivations, the political and cultural scene right down to the place the ‘Infernal Machine’ was laid.

Unfortunately, although I enjoyed the book in many respects, and found it on the whole very interesting and detailed, I was unable to get past the author’s opinion or spin that this was an early example of a terror attack.

Many people interpret ‘terror attack’ and ‘terrorist’ differently. To my mind these are modern terms and have no real equivalent in the early 19th century. My interpretation of terrorist is an individual of a political group that is intent on bringing about a certain political result through violence against the public. 

It is a fine point, for the elements of this event bear strong resemblances to modern terrorist attacks. However the would be assassins, though uncaring about who died in the explosion, were really after one target, Napoleon, they were not out to terrify the public. 

There was also never a concerted, conscious campaign of violence directed against the citizens of France exterior to course of conflict in western France, which was a civil war between royalists and Republicans not relatable in practice to modern terrorist activities.

The attempted assassination of Napoleon was similar to a terrorist attack, but in spirit quite unlike one. That aside I thought that ‘Killing Napoleon’ was an interesting and entertaining read that sheds light on an important moment in the history of Napoleonic France.

Until the next time, Believe me: Josh,

Book Review: Richard the Lionheart by W.B. Bartlett.

I very much enjoyed Bartlett’s book on King Cnut. It was a very incisive work that offered a different view of medieval England. However in starting his new biography of Richard the Lionheart I was set very quickly on my guard.

To begin with Bartlett is a writer attempting to create readable and engaging history, which involves giving snappy, sharp opinion and lively narrative, but in so doing he is faced with the issue of conveying alien concepts that were once seen as normal to a readership over 800 years removed, without the taint of personal opinion.

 In the prelude, Bartlett is constantly striving, or advertising, the need to view the life of Richard I in a 12th century context. I will be honest and say that this is becoming an increasingly overused trope, necessary as it is to employ. 

It is so easy to publicise a book as different because it apparently looks at things as they were, yet miss the delicate point at the heart of this argument. This has caused an oversaturation of self righteous rhetoric where, ‘we cannot judge the past by our standards’ is also code for ‘you are wrong, I am much better informed.’ It is becoming close to drowning the legitimate point with facile argument.

It however signifies little except to reassure us that the author has this in mind. Nevertheless it also brings with it the vague and unspecified charge of out-of-context study against practically everyone else’s work. A brave inflection when one considers that John Gillingham is still alive. I doubt Bartlett truly means to accuse medieval scholarship of failing to make allowances for dead culture, but the inference is nonetheless there, and if not aimed at other scholars it is certainly aimed at his readership.

With that said it is undoubtedly true that the history of the life of Richard I is a labyrinth of personal prejudice. Proving how practically difficult it is to truly stay aloof from the trap of looking at things from a modern perspective. Bartlett further expounds on the sources, using the once more over-used cynicism that contemporary writers are usually prejudiced. 

In itself this begs the question, if in 100 years people are still studying the subject in question, will they not bring modern schoalrship into question for its own possible prejudice, and indeed distance from the subject? That is not to say that, once again, the grain of truth comes from fertile ground. Some medieval chrinichles are humorous in their hagiographic approach, it is nevertheless old news and when you begin to write a book about Richard I, the last thing you want is to give the reader the impression you are rounding the bases.

References to the ‘controversial king’ who ‘divides opinion’ is also dangerously close to stock-phrasing as it does not adequately address who is divided and by which controversy, and if any of the divided people are divided due to a controversy that did not exist in the 12th century then the author has fallen into a dungeon of his own making. Even within the framework of scholarly investigation there are, here and there, anomalies such as the admission of a quote pertaining to the existence of ‘chivalry’, which was apparently in danger of being wiped out before it was even popularised. Indeed any biography of Richard should discuss 12th century chivalry much more than this does.

The author seems painfully aware of his modern audience. On several occasions in the second chapter archly noting, with a sense of righteousness only a 21st century mind can muster, the ‘misogyny’ and ‘gender bias’ of the 12th century. All modern terms to parallel what the author is similarly pleased to call the ‘context of the times’. The book itself is marketed as a Richard ‘for the twenty first century,’ so to say the least, I was in some confusion from the outset. 

I further must say that the prose in this work is somewhat laboured when the author tries to paint a picture, as if he is trying too hard. I know from whence I speak, as I too get carried away and am often guilty of over-writing. I was unable to avoid observing that this could easily have been sharper and lighter.

The author’s high ground is best utilised when combatting the criticisms of others levelled against Richard. Many of the things he was and is accused of were part and parcel of the Middle Ages. Bartlett sticks mostly to the conclusions of Gillingham as regards Richard’s personal life, but nevertheless strays to the opposite, more sensational and melodramatic camp in certain small cases. Bartlett asserts that no leonine appellation was appended to Richard within his lifetime, instead he quotes the humorous nickname dreamt up by a troubadour, but for a much less logical reason than that explained by Gillingham. 

One detects an almost arbitrary habit of choosing whatever would be the opposite explanation for any event. William Marshal hurried back to England not because he was excited to marry his young, rich, fiancée, but only because he was eager to get at her money, declares the author, filling in the gaps. Richard is the pawn in King Phillip’s Hand, yet it could equally be the other way around. Bartlett’s love of a good, emotional story cannot help but dwell on the aspect of Henry II’s tragic family life. 

Bartlett is on much stronger ground when he leaves the subject of Angevin/Capetian politics and focuses on the 3rd Crusade. But the author is no great friend to his subject and the book is full of a marked patronising superiority of a present day writer of ‘our secular age’ to a long dead world.

Despite the claim that Bartlett is viewing Richard’s life within a 12th century context. Layers of 21st century significance are very often overplayed, perhaps at the behest of a sales oriented editor, but which at any rate confuses the issue. 

No effort is made to recreate the world in which Richard lived, nor to understand it very well and the narrative is very much uncertain as to his character, and is generally at the mercy of whoever had the most arch opinion at the time, (and sadly, sometimes even these opinions are swallowed without or with forced context).

Rounding up, this book does nothing that Gillingham and other biographies have not done better. In that sense it does no harm, and is engaging and fluid enough, an easy read to be certain, but not without its flaws.

As a basic summary of an important life, this book does yeoman service. It is diverting and easy to get into, but contained one too many niggling annoyances for me to be able to wholeheartedly recommend it.

Until the next Adventure in Historyland, I remain: Josh.

Book Review: Kulikovo 1380 by Mark Galeotti.

The history of medieval Russia is one of the most interesting portions of medieval studies. However it is chronically understudied in English and those books that are not in Russian are almost as inaccessible

Osprey itself has something of a history of trying to make this subject easier to approach. Older studies on the battle of Lake Peipus, and various Men at Arms books on Russian medieval armies were written by David Nicole and illustrated by the great Angus McBride.

It is a great pity that most of us are left with online sources in order to read about pre Romanov Russia. But thankfully Osprey continues to champion difficult to reach Military history and has done so with their new title of Kulikovo, written by Mark Galeotti.

As every campaign title should, Kulikovo allows a reader to gain a basic appreciation of warfare in a specific time period through a single battle. The author has consulted the medieval Russian odes, and histories to not only reconstruct a pivotal battle in medieval history but to make us aware of a founding moment in Russia’s popular mindset.

All through her history, wether Tsars or Comissars, Russian history has always been able to be moulded to the times that needs it. No orthodox Tsar or metropolitan wanted to admit that Russian nobles had colluded with the mongols and fought against them during the convoluted era known as ‘the mongol yoke’.

Indeed the Romanovs tended to set Russian history aside in favour of the study of Europeanism. Yet the grand princes of Muscovy were lionised into popular hero’s in folk tradition, that carried down through to soviet times. 

You’d wouldn’t think the communists would be terribly proud of the feudal legacy left to them by their highly religious medieval past. However the pseudo democratic states of medieval Russia and their aggressive campaigns against invaders of differing ideologies, served as a perfect canvass to paint an inspiring portrait of the timeless virtues of the Russian people.

Though we are mostly familiar with the argument that Russia saved Europe from domination twice, first in 1812 and then in WW2, there was an earlier event in 1380 which Russia can assert as the origin of their claim to be the ‘shield of Europe.’

As the Mongol Yoke began to slacken, the great princes of Russia began to assert themselves. Grand Prince Dmitry of Moscow took his opportunity of apparent Mongol weakness to refuse to pay tribute to, Mamai, leader of the Golden Horde. 

The Mongols responded by marching to crush Moscow. Dmitry gathered an army of disparate princes and boldly opposed Mamai. It was no mere bravado however, Dmitry was a skilled organiser and an adept tactician. His strategy in the battle of Kulikovo, seen within the times, was a mixture of defence in depth and envelopment. 

Fought on 7 September 1380 the fight marks Prince Dmitry as one of the most talented medieval generals in history. It is seen today as the birth of Russia as a distinct power. Mark Galeotti cuts through the legendary devices of prose, legend and poem to reconstruct this pivotal 14th century battle.

With concise, fascinating detail the armies are surveyed, and the images have been well selected. The maps are clear and though it might be said that this book has been written more with an eye to explaining modern Russia than medieval Russia, it is an excellent retelling of a military campaign.

The full colour artwork is provided by Darren Tan. His scenes show, without need for elaboration why this period of history is so rich and inspiring to students, scholars and wargamers. The best being the cover art of the main battle where the ‘phoney Dimitry’ is killed during the crisis of the battle. But I won’t give too much away.

It is easily one of my favourite Osprey’s this year. Josh.

Book Review. The Scandal of George III’s Court. By Catherine Curzon.

In 1820 crowds and reformers clamoured in the streets demanding that Queen Caroline, the popular wife of the unpopular George IV’s, be granted her rights. The unfaithful husband wished to divorce her on grounds of infidelity, but she was determined to be queen. 

The events that followed were farcical, as the royal family’s dirty linen was put on full display and many thought the ongoing crisis might lead to a constitutional disaster. Petitioners, espousing the cause of the queen barred the Duke of Wellington’s way while he was out riding. They demanded he give a cheer for the queen. 

The private lives of the monarchs were no secret, everyone knew what the King and Queen had been up to, as if it had been a weekly soap opera. The Duke raised his hat and obliged, but added ‘May all your wives be like her’ as he rode on.

You honestly cannot invent more high profile scandal than what is contained in the history of the Georgian monarchy. The court itself was hardly a place of refined pageantry, it was a place of passions and intrigues, both petty and great. The court was a scandal.

This book is a slim, good quality hardback with a single image section filled with black and white portraits of the major players, captioned with simple identifying tags. There is an index, a bibliography and a notes section.

Not as dramatic or romantic as the Stuart’s, nor as institutional as the Saxe Coburgs the House of Hanover represent an ideal of monarchy that is both recognisably opulent and scandalous.

The appeal of any monarchy revolves around the daily life of its court. The rich and powerful have a reputation for excess and insanity that is more than borne out by this book.

You can have no better tour guide to the subject. Catherine Curzon’s sense of humour and eye for detail is eminently suited to opening a window of the court of the house of Hanover and peeking in.

(She is something of a whiz at the ins and outs of the Georgian Royalty you know) We of the online court know her better as the great brain behind the Madame Gilfurt blog and an all round good egg.

Her descriptions of important members of the royal family, their attendants, friends and retainers and the associated goings on offer a glittering, extravagant contrast to the typical Austin view of the Georgian and regency eras.

In this book she delivers on her promise to get to the bottom … I mean lift the petticoats … I mean tailcoats … untangle … She investigates allot of the most famous scandals associated with the various George’s and their queen’s.

Dangerous husbands, philanderers, and that surprising instance of the King’s son, the Duke of York (who went right up to the top of the hill and back down again), CinC of the army getting into hot water over his mistress and the dodgy sale of army commissions.

So have some snuff and a reviving gulp of brandy handy as the author takes those naughty caricatures from Gillray and Rowlandson and tells the story’s behind them. By the end you will wonder how any of the royal family managed to keep a shred of reputation.

Josh.

Book Review: The Pharaoh’s Treasure by John Gaudet.

  • Amberly Publishing.
  • ISBN 9781445689944
  • Paperback
  • 15 Jan 2019
  • 40 Images.

In the 1991 movie Black Robe, Ernest Schellenberg plays an Algonquin leader escorting a Jesuit missionary. One of the best scenes is when the priest demonstrates how writing works.

In 1532, when the Sapa Inca, Atahualpa was awaiting his fate, he would ask that words be written down for him so that he could learn Spanish. Not least so he, a man who knew nothing of writing could observe how the work of a scribe was performed.

Where would we be without paper? He asks typing on a touch sensitive screen, ordering pixelated keys to generate letters that will never be printed.

Like all good true stories The Pharaoh’s Treasure focuses on a something simple and uses it to expose greater truth.

Behind every royal library were scribes, and behind them were the people who made the materials that allowed the library to exist at all.

When so much is a trick of the eye, untouchable, generated and at the same time more accessible than ever the value of paper is all at once enhanced and diminished.

A handwritten note shows you care. It’s also a demonstration of class. What was once a commonplace gesture now speaks in volumes.

Already we think about paper much differently to what we did 70 years ago. Might we conceivably return one day in the distant future to looking at it as prized commodity?

When did it become so time consuming to write something with our own hand? He said ruefully staring at the image on his screen.

Waxing lyrical, or poetic about the timeless qualities of communication has already been done efficiently enough in this book for me to add anything.

Gaudet’s book is well written and full of fascinating detail. Not your average history book and very original. It is primarily concerned with the history of Papyrus. The Pharaoh’s Treasure.

A 4,000 year old history that can be written because of the medium it studies. That is special. It is what Papyrus has done best for longer than parchment & pulp paper put together.

The Pharaoh’s Treasure shows us why Papyrus was so special. It is a mundane but key note. It’s durability, sustainability & simplicity  was it’s success. 

Because of these key facets of its manufacture and use, Papyrus became a time capsule for the collected knowledge of the centuries.

Previous to its widespread use, information had to be imparted on clay & stone. Though Papyrus was more susceptible to fire it was easier to store in large quantities, so much of what we know is thanks to this treasured paper. 

All of the above make up a central point of John Gaudet’s book. This ancient story is at the heart of everything we think, and want to remember. 

Think about the last time your laptop crashed, or your phone went dead on you. Sometimes … indeed most of the time, the answer to our problems can be solved by a piece of paper.

Suddenly technology doesn’t seem as friendly as that notebook. Suddenly that long history of paper becomes very relevant. And this is why you’ll enjoy this book.

Josh