What I Read On My Vacation, Part 3

I guess this has become an annual tradition.

Book 1: Spain in the Middle Ages

Angus Mackay
245 pages

Published by: The Macmillan Press

What is it with historians named Mackay? In addition to Angus, I've got Charles Mackay (Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds) and Christopher Mackay (a hilariously acerbic translation of the Malleus Maleficarum) on my shelf. Google reports an Ian Mackay and a Lauren Mackay can be added to the list and, by Aaron Smith-Teller logic, Machiavelli.

Someone should sequence those genes.

Anyway, Spain in the Middle Ages is solid book. It's not exciting or humorous. The author doesn't get sidetracked by macroeconomics, gossip, or deeply held personal views on the actions of people long dead. It feels immensely professional without being stiflingly academic. If you want to learn about Spain between 1000 and 1500, this book will give you a well-rounded background.

Book 2: Une Semaine de Bonté 

Max Ernst
208 pages
Published by: Dover

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this book. I think that's the point.

On Monday, the watery element pervades every picture, whether the locale is a bedroom or a city street: an anxiety-dream situation and perhaps an illusion to Noah's flood.

On Tuesday, large or small dragons (sometimes bats or serpents) are almost universally present, or else wings sprout from people's backs.
The surreal collages are mesmerizing. There are patterns; do they mean anything, or are they just patterns for their own sake? It reminds me of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (a book well worth reading). Each illustration cries out for a story. A Week of Kindness is probably best enjoyed in a slightly altered state.

I wish I knew where some of the pieces came from. There are a lot of public domain engravings online but nowhere near enough.

Book 3: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Charles Mackay
724 pages
Published by: Harmony Books

I've read bits and pieces of this book over the years, but I finally had the chance to read the whole thing. It's just as excellent as everyone says it is. The author is lively, argumentative, humorous, reasonably well-informed (for the time). It's well worth reading, though I think the life coach and economist crowd might overplay its importance. It's got alchemy, bad economics, and bizarre urban memes. I'll probably do a book notes series on it at some point.

Book 4: The Popish Plot

John Jenyon
346 pages
Published by: Phoenix Press

Speaking of madness, the Popish Plot covers the anti-catholic persecutions in England after the Great Fire of London, and the perfidious and convoluted tales spun by Titus Oates, and the unlikely cast of rogues who emerged to support his story. It's a tale worthy of the Coen Brothers. There are dramatic trials, forged letters, confidence tricksters who unexpectedly reenter the story, Catholic lords being stoic, parliament being parliament, etc. It's a wonderful book. Darkly funny in places, outright despairing in others, but meticulously sourced and organized.

Side Note: I'd like to make a timeline of all the English monarchs with films that cover their reigns. In my mind, Charles I will always be Alec Guinness (from Cromwell); his son Charles II is John Malkovich (from the Libertine).

Book 5: The Medieval Machine

Jean Gimpel
274 pages
Published by: Holt Rinehart and Winston

Predicting the future is hard. It's very easy to laugh at incorrect predictions. Fun too!

The Medieval Machine is two books. The core covers, with good citations, enormous advances made in the medieval era in the use of water and wind power, in mining, in pollution, in architecture, and in timekeeping. Mills dot the landscape like modern gas stations. Villard de Honnecourt presages Leonardo da Vinci. Walter of Henely wrote scientific advice on agriculture, telling his readers to test his ideas and "and you shall find what I say is true." The text is worth a book notes post, particularly the special liberties afforded to miners. They can legally steal rivers.

But the text is bracketed by pessimistic essays on the fall of western civilization. The energy crisis of the '70s and the mystic draw of Spengler convinced Gimpel that western civilization (mostly America) had lost its vital drive, much as (he claimed) medieval europe had done in the late 13th century.

I'm not really sold on either idea. The America of 1956 was vastly different from the America of 1971, but Gimpels' predictors and points of comparison are either spurious or purely anecdotal. He's older. The world has changed. People seem slower and more sedate. There are fewer gadgets. Nothing has been created to match the Empire State Building. Therefore, the world is winding down. Young people just don't give a damn anymore. Etc.

I'd also take issue with the idea that gadget-fascination is a indicator of anything. People of all times seem to love gadgets. I'm willing to bet some early medieval farmer, newly prosperous, returned home to show his wife an hourglass.
"For what do we need this hour-glasse?" she'd ask.
"To measure the time it taketh to doeth a thinge," he'd reply in bad pastiche.
"Prithee, I knoweth how long it taketh to doeth a thinge," she'd say, "without the turning of a glasse or the fallenge of sande."

Book 6: The Devil in the White City

Erik Larson
445 pages
Published by: Penguin Random House

Erik Larson writes perfect vacation books (for me). They're tolerably accurate, they're exciting, and they're very easy to read. A perfect summer mix of true crime and historical perspective. The 1890s is a famously bonkers decade and I'll take fresh insights whenever I find them.

Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left [Chicago] did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the city's rail crossings. Their injuries were grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards. Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. Fires took a dozen lives a day. In describing the fire dead, the term the newspapers most liked to use was "roasted". And there was murder... In the first six months of 1892 the city experienced nearly eight hundred violent deaths. Four a day.
Larson deliberately draws out or temporarily obscures facts to create tension, which is fine (if a little theatrical in places). But at the end of the book, he cites all his quotes and, more importantly, tells the reader how the sausages was made. What inspired him. What sources were valuable and why. What choices he made between competing narratives. More authors need to do this. There's no Magic Circle of authors with the power to expel those who reveal their secrets.

Book 7: Byzantium, the Apogee

John Julius Norwich
389 pages
Published by: Penguin

I stuck this book in my bag as a backup and ended up reading it first. Rereading Norwich is always a pleasure. I've already written a post on this book. Norwich isn't a scholar and doesn't pretend to be one. "I knew little about Byzantium when I began writing about it," he says in the introduction, "and I shall doubtless have forgotten a good deal of what I have written soon after I come to the close. If I tend to give economic considerations less than their due, it is because I am not an economist and a three-volume work is quite long enough already. Similarly, if I concentrate on the personalities of Emperors and Empresses, rather than on sociological developments, I can only plead that I prefer people to trends."

He treats accounts of single combat between rulers uncritically and makes a few wild leaps of faith, but for RPG purposes, Norwich is a very fine source. Untangling Byzantine history is not an enviable task.


  1. On Book 4: Shouldn't that be Titus Oates?

    Looking at your sidenote, George Macdonald Fraser's Hollywood History of the World may be the book for you. As an account of how English language cinema up to 1985 or so depicted history it is quite fun, and lists the actors that have played major (often English) historical figures. This means you encounter quite unexpected performances - John Le Mesurier as Cromwell springs to mind.

    1. Correct, Titus. There are so many Johns in english history that I guess I defaulted to it. :D
      Good suggestion. IMDB, my own memory, and some convenient wikipedia articles should get me most of the way there. And that is a very odd choice. Cromwell will always be Richard Harris in my head though.

  2. Have you read the War that Ended the Peace by Margaret MacMillan? I really recommend it, it's a great overview of the lead up to the Great War. I liked its summary, where it briefly described the various fates of the characters mentioned earlier, from freezing to death under a Berlin bench to chopping trees in the Netherlands.

    1. I don't believe so. The The Proud Tower/ The Guns of August / The Zimmerman Telegram by Tuchman are my go-to non-academic reference works for the era, but I'll see if I can find a copy somewhere.

  3. Quick check: Spain and the Middle Ages was copyright in 1977? (UK edition is copyright Palgrave, to add to the confusion...)

    1. It's this one: https://www.amazon.ca/Spain-Middle-Ages-Frontier-1000-1500/dp/0333128176