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More than Somewhat Marred
on 1 August 2014
This is the book of an eight one hour BBC series written and presented by a senior political journalist. He is a not a historian and, quite frankly, it shows. Mr Marr has presented other mini-series dealing with more recent British history which I have enjoyed but I believe that in this work he has over-reached himself.
In covering such a vast subject I would hope the presenter would cover the important topics e.g. the birth of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, the main religions, the advances in science and technology, exploration, political thought, etc. rather than the story of this or that king or queen. At the same time a geographical and civilizational balance should be struck.
Mr Marr manages to achieve some of this but he could have done a lot better. A lot of his narrative is taken up with the stories of good and bad men and (a few) women whereas I prefer a history with more technical detail.
The writing style is clear and easy to read if occasional marred by an error that a fact-checker could have eliminated (e.g. on pg.135 we're told that after Cannae Hannibal was urged to march south - that should read north. On page 199 we're told that Chaucer celebrated the astrolabe in print. It's a wonder he didn't celebrate the time machine he must have had to bring him forward to the invention of the printing press!).
As this book has received a lot of two-sentence, five-star reviews, I'll concentrate on two major negative criticisms.
In its coverage of the history of Islam I have come to expect the BBC to use kid gloves while accentuating the positive and this book and the series are no exceptions.
Quite rightly, The Golden Age of Islam is covered and as the main part of my first main criticism I've chosen a few passages from pages 194 to 202 to show where I think Mr Marr has fallen down badly.
Mr Marr tends to jump around the centuries at times but I think it's clear that the following passage relates to the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages and not to the High Middle Ages. (At least I hope not).
In comparing Al-Andalus to (Latin) Christendom he writes of Western Christians that
"They could not accurately tell the time of day, and struggled along with a defective, slipping calendar...The shape of the world outside Europe and the Near East was a mystery; but it was probably flat, and if you travelled too far, you would fall off. The Abbasids, by contrast, prided themselves on their...hard science, in a world...whose circumference they measured." (pg.195)
Western Christians - like everyone else on the planet - of their day couldn't accurately tell the time of day. We can, thanks to clocks with a mechanical escapement. An invention of those Western Christians - probably monks wanting to know the correct time to say Matins (Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? Sonnez le matines, sonnez le matines, ding, ding, dong...) - sometime around 1300 and, while Western Europe is replete with churches and town halls complete with medieval clocks I've never seen a minaret with one.
Their Julian calendar - which they had inherited from the Romans - was defective and slipping and some - such as Mr Marr's fellow Briton Bede (d.735) - knew it. Their year averaged 365.25 days long. Our current Gregorian calendar - named after the pope who oversaw its introduction - averages 365.2425 days. So they were out by 18 hours a century.
Though Marr is comparing the Islamic world to that of Latin Christendom he doesn't mention the Islamic calendar. The one used by the people who prided themselves on their hard science. It is either 354 or 355 days long. This is not exactly useful for farming purposes so the Islamic world tended to use the old Egyptian calendar for agricultural purposes. At 365 days to the year without any leap years it was more inaccurate than the Julian one.
The Islamic calendar runs from the Hijra which took place in 622 AD by the Christian calendar. Since then the earth has gone round the sun about 1392 times and so the Christian year is 2014 i.e. 622 + 1392. However by the Islamic calendar we are in the year of the Hijra 1435.
Throughout the modern world people of all faiths and none use the Gregorian calendar. It's not perfect (it's out by about a day every seven thousand seven hundred years). It wasn't designed to be perfect. It was designed to be practical and to have an inbuilt corrective mechanism.
In the Gregorian calendar there are 146,097 days every 400 years. It is accurate to within just under an hour and a quarter over that period.
In the defective, slipping Julian calendar the Christians inherited there are 146,100 days every 400 years. The defect is 3 days every 400 years.
In the Egyptian calendar used for practical purposes by the Abbasids there are 146,000 days every 400 years. The defect is 97 days every 400 years.
In the Islamic calendar there are less than 142,000 days every 400 years. The defect is more than 4,000 days every 400 years.
Who had the more defective, slipping calendar?
I'm confident that a lot of uneducated people back then, Christian and Muslim, believed that the earth was flat just as educated Chinese did c.1600 when the Jesuits arrived to advise them otherwise. But among educated Westerners - there were a few even back then - then in the words of Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, "with...few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat". Or as Stephen Jay Gould put it "there never was a period of 'flat earth darkness' among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the Earth's roundness as an established fact of cosmology." If I may go back to Marr's fellow Briton, Bede, he described the Earth as being "...not merely circular like a shield...but...more a ball".
In the TV series we are shown a not very convincing re-enactment of al-Khwarizmi calculating a reasonable approximation of the circumference of the earth. An impressive feat but one managed by Eratosthenes almost a millennium before. In the book we are again told of al-Khwarizmi's undoubted achievements but I would have thought that reference to Ibn al-Haytham, generally regarded as the greatest of the Islamic scientists and one of - if not the - founder of the scientific method, would have been worth a mention.
"It is hard to crusade against someone and learn from them at the same time." (pg.197)
Having described how the Islamic world sought out knowledge from the Greeks he presumably believes that it is possible to wage jihad while doing so.
"Had the rival Muslim world of Al-Andalus not existed, much of this precious knowledge might not have arrived in Europe for centuries to come." (pg.197)
Al-Andalus wouldn't have existed without the Islamic conquests which reduced the West's access to its main source of writing material - papyrus from Egypt - forcing it to rely on far costlier velum, a severe handicap for scholars.
Muslim raiders - like those who sacked Old St. Peter's in 846 - and privateers - who continued taking Christians captive into the 19th century - made travel across the Mediterranean for any scholar seeking precious knowledge a potentially dangerous business.
It's a bit like those people who congratulate the leadership of Sinn Fein/IRA and their Loyalist counterparts for their part in the Peace Process in Northern Ireland while ignoring the fact that if the paramilitaries hadn't carried out an unpeaceful process for decades beforehand a peace process wouldn't have been necessary.
"Scholars such as...Duns Scotus brought Averroes and therefore Aristotle to a Christian audience...Aquinas absorbed his style of argument and, while disagreeing about aspects of Aristotle, found the Andalusian a vital inspiration...These early Christian Aristotelians encountered just the same kind of resistance from popes and bishops as Averroes and Maimonides from caliphs and imans." (pg.201)
It is in the section dealing with absorption or non-absorption of Aristotle's body of work into medieval Islam and (Latin) Christendom where I think Mr Marr's history falls down very badly. This is a very important topic for the two civilizations reached a fork in the road and one took one path and one the other and that in part is why the West came from behind to pull level and then further and further ahead while the Islamic world lagged and lags further and further behind.
Aquinas was influenced by Averroes - whom he referred to as "the Commentator", just as he referred to Aristotle as "the Philosopher" - but he differed significantly from Averroes's Christian followers - who, it should be said in fairness, held views somewhat different from those of Averroes himself. One of Aquinas's works is titled On the Unity of Intellect, against the Averroists.
More importantly Mr Marr gives a misleading impression in the above passage. Yes the early Christian Aristotelians did encounter resistance (though, unlike Averroes, Aquinas was never forced into exile) but - and this is the key point, a point that Mr Marr doesn't make, never mind make clear - Latin Christendom not merely accepted and absorbed Christian Aristotelianism it endorsed it (to the point where Galileo would get in trouble for challenging Aristotelian orthodoxy).
As Peter Watson put it in Ideas: a history of thought and invention from fire to Freud - "Before Aquinas the world had neither meaning nor pattern except in relation to God...In Christianising Aristotle, Aquinas eventually succeeded in Aristotelianising Christianity. A secular way of thinking was introduced into the world, which would eventually change man's understanding for all time."
Avicenna and Averroes did not succeed in Aristotelianising Islam, with consequences that are with us to this day. Ibn Khaldun - to whom Mr Marr makes a passing reference as "another Arab historian", which is a bit like referring to Shakespeare as "another English writer" - wrote The Muqaddimah in 1377. Has the Islamic world made a comparable contribution to the intellectual advancement of humankind since then?
A possible insight into Marr's mind-set occurs on page 255 we are told that "the Spanish monarchs ...destroyed the last Muslim foothold in Europe...Granada." Does he not think that the Balkans, most of which was under Ottoman rule in 1492, is part of Europe? Or is it that he is so conditioned to think about the "good" Muslim rule in Europe i.e. in Iberia that he just blotted out the not-so-good rule in the Balkans?
I accept that any such work will have to skip over vast amounts of material but the really important points should be covered. Here is my second major criticism.
To my mind a serious omission has to do with his coverage - or lack thereof - of medieval Europe - apart from comparing it unfavourably to medieval Islam. Now in covering world history a presenter/writer has to strike a balance between different times and different regions/civilizations. Given the amount of coverage that the West will have to be given, particularly post-Industrial Revolution plus the coverage that should be given to ancient Greece, the Age of Exploration, the Scientific Revolution, the (re)birth of democracy etc it makes sense to leave coverage of other areas of Western history to the bare minimum to allow time to cover other civilizations.
However I believe that certain things that should have been covered weren't.
If I may quote from The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe,
"Western civilization was created in medieval Europe. The forms of thought and action which we take for granted in modern Europe and America, which we have exported to other...portions of the globe, and from which indeed we cannot escape, were implanted in the mentalities of our ancestors in the struggles of the medieval centuries. Since 1500 our civilization has not had to endure any upheaval remotely comparable with the shattering and rebirth which accompanied... the Dark Ages between 400 and 900... therefore, it has not seen any flowering of new ways of life and attitudes as fundamentally novel as those which grew up around the cathedrals and universities, the royal courts and the commercial cities in the centuries between 900 and 1500.
Most Europeans live in towns...which existed in the lifetime of...Aquinas... The modern nation state grew out of the monarchies created by kings such as Philip Augustus of France and John of England. Democratic forms of government are based on the systems of representation and consent evolved in thirteenth-century parliaments. The idea of popular sovereignty emerges first in the writings of a fourteenth-century scholastic, Marsilius of Padua, who knew the communes of contemporary Italy. Our methods of commerce and banking are derived from the practices of the Florentine Peruzzi and Medici. Students work for degrees already awarded in the medieval universities...in courses which have gradually evolved out of those followed in the medieval faculties of arts. Our books of history and our novels are lineal descendants of the works of...Bruni and...Boccaccio. Our troubled sense of the distinction between the physical world of nature and the spiritual world of religion and morals derives from the dualism of Aquinas's thirteenth century when popes and universities confronted kings and parliaments and the scholastics struggled to reconcile Aristotle and the Bible."
And from Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror,
"While political power centralized during the 12th and 13th centuries, the energies and talents of Europe were gathering in one of civilization's great bursts of development. Stimulated by commerce, a surge took place in art, technology, building, learning, exploration...universities, cities, banking and credit...Those 200 years were the High Middle Ages, a period that brought into use the compass and mechanical clock, the spinning wheel and treadle loom, the windmill and watermill; a period when Marco Polo travelled to China and...Aquinas set himself to organize knowledge, when universities were established ...when Giotto painted human feeling, Roger Bacon delved into experimental science, Dante framed his great design for human fate...a period when religion was expressed in...the gentle preaching of St. Francis and in the cruelty of the Inquisition, when the Albigensian Crusade ...drenched southern France in blood... while the soaring cathedrals rose arch upon arch, triumphs of creativity, technology, and faith.
They were not built by slave labor. Though limited serfdom existed, the rights of serfs were fixed...and the work of medieval society...was done by its own members."
And what of this does Mr Marr cover? We get told the tale of the tale-teller Marco Polo, a more interesting tale than that of "the mother of machines" or how Aquinas married Aristotle to Catholicism. But not a more important one.