Monday, June 25, 2007

Three History Books Reviewed

Today, I review three books on my pre-Oxford reading list. Two of them are a disappointment. One turned out even better than expected.

The two disappointments are The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe and of The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. I was expecting these to be excellent. After all they came recommended and are put out by Oxford University Press.

But I had trouble keeping track of the threads and the plots as I read in both books. Eventually, I figured out the fault is not all mine. Both books are poorly organized. I felt like I was trying to decipher an overly complicated but sloppily written soap opera upon watching it for the first time.

In addition, the History of Britain engages in blatant axe-grinding. I’m still shaking my head over it calling Edward VI “the boy bigot.” That opened my eyes to axe-grinding elsewhere in the book. That added a lack of credibility to its lack of organization. So I have left off reading that one.

Conversely, I’m about to finish R. W. Southern’s Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. I will have then gladly read it cover to cover. Don’t let the title (or Southern’s reputation for excellent scholarship for that matter) scare you. It’s a paperback of just over 350 pages, is easy to read, and is very well organized.

Southern makes it easy to follow the big trends of the western medieval church. At the same time, he makes excellent selections of anecdotes and details of history to illustrate his points.

Often, those details are downright entertaining. For example, Southern quotes a letter from Pope Innocent IV in 1244 to illustrate that the Franciscans had a reputation for *ahem* aggressive recruitment methods:

. . . the schoolmaster’s servants had been bribed to dope his drink. Whereupon certain friars induced him to join their Order by pronouncing (he was incapable of further speech) the simple word “Yes” . . . They were about to tonsure him when he came to his senses, seized the scissors, and chased his attackers from the house. . . .

I can’t praise Southern’s book enough. If only all scholarly works were so well written, well organized and, yes, enjoyable even.

I will certainly take this book, thoroughly marked up, with me to Oxford. But I don’t think the Oxford Illustrated Histories will be making the trip.

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