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If you read the author’s excellent popular histories RUBICON and PERSIAN FIRE
on 5 August 2017
If you read the author’s excellent popular histories RUBICON and PERSIAN FIRE, you may be surprised by this. For instead of their brisk accessibility and concern to focus on what is most significant, this is a sprawling deluge of a book lacking focus and direction. This is due in part to the weight of detail. There is a vast amount of material here, much of it connected only in the sense of being about the same time and continent, and its sheer volume overwhelms any attempt at cohesion. Moreover, this material is not adequately 'narrated': there is a sense that the book’s structure is no more than a way of packing in as much stuff as possible.
This is linked to an initial issue, the book’s founding proposition. Near the outset, the author asserts that Holy Roman Emperor Henry’s obeisance to the Pope (signalling the separation of religious and secular powers, etc.) marks the beginning of what we think of as the modern medieval world: this is the thing that makes the ‘millennium’ period distinct, and so the rationale from which the book proceeds. But while this is an okay idea for ‘O’-level history teaching (where it is a staple), it ultimately doesn’t wash, and prompts more questions than it answers. Why should we regard the separation of powers as the foundation of that world? What is the modern medieval world in this sense? How separate were those powers actually, given that we’re talking mostly about people from the same social class, representing the same vested interests and world view? The idea doesn’t stand up even to cursory interrogation, and is, finally, the kind of formulation you resort to when you don’t want to get into sticky areas like real politics.
(And while we’re at it, can we really talk about a ‘millennial’ shift when the book spans several centuries? Can we postulate a single, pivotal change when it occurs against what are, consequently, different social, political and economic backdrops?)
I suspect much of this stems from the topic being outside the author’s usual areas of expertise, and having researched it more or less from scratch, and finding himself with a whole library’s worth of notes, he wanted to get everything in. The ‘separation of powers’ thesis is there because it seemed a way of roping all that disparate material together. But he doesn’t stick to it, it doesn’t actually unify the avalanche of fact – and, anyway, it is finally not a plausible idea. It doesn’t help that the author seems not to have a developed overview of the subject/period, and hence a grasp of what might really be significant and what might not, consequently giving similar weight to the momentous and the trivial (Gustav’s hairiness? Really?), anecdotes and facts wrestling for pride of place.
Ultimately, I couldn’t help thinking the book didn’t actually have a core. This is an exercise in roping lots of ‘stuff’ together. But (and this, I think, is the key point) the result is just detail, without a reasoned explanation for that stuff. History cannot consist solely of data, but must also be an account of that data, an interpretation of why it occurred, what its significance is, etc. That interpretation needs to be open and up-front – because there will always BE an interpretation, and if it isn’t overt, its assumptions will be unspoken – but there does need to be one. As a historian, your narrative has to be more than a way of stringing material together, should be the way you navigate through that material, collating it and explaining it, or else you have a series of what would otherwise be footnotes.