Monday, August 06, 2007

Carrier, Dawkins and a diabolical Englishman

Richard Carrier has replied to my post on Friday with a forthright defence of the ancient world combined with a bit of retreat from his previous rhetoric. I’ll be saying a bit more on the question on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins is back. This time he is going after astrology, spiritualism, homeopathy and the new age. His new series, The Enemies of Reason, begins on Channel 4 on 13th August. There is a lengthy interview and preview in the Sunday Times which generally approves of the enterprise. Melanie Phillips in the Daily Bigot (whoops, I mean the Daily Mail) is rather less sympathetic. Personally, I find the phrase ‘breaking a butterfly on the wheel’ comes to mind when I think of setting Darwin’s rottweiler on a bunch of harmless hippies.

Finally, in this rather disconnected blog entry, I’ve recently finished reading Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders (published as The Devil’s Broker Seeking Gold, God, and Glory in Fourteenth-Century Italy in the US). It’s OK. Saunders is a journalist whose previous book was on the CIA’s covert work to influence the arts and culture. Quite why this qualified her to write about late-medieval Italy, I have no idea. But in the weird and wacky world of publishing, having a successful book to your name and journalistic contacts is worth far more than being competent to write the book in question.

Anyway, as I said Hawkwood is OK. Saunders can write clearly and has done a fair bit of leg work in the library. There are occasional patches of the purple prose which is now obligatory in popular history, but just make it look like her editor has asked her to liven things up. The story she has to tell is a good one and it is reasonably well told. The problem is simply that she has not really grasped the material. Although there is a lengthy list of primary sources in the bibliography, most of her quotations come from secondary works. Saunders does not appear to have sat down and read all the contemporary chronicles and sources. She has clearly read the Canterbury Tales and some Dante, which is a start, but there is no sign she has mastered anything that isn’t available in English translation. The result is her narrative is often cursory and disconnected. Stuff happens, wars are lost, cities surrender and Saunders has absolutely no idea why. It maybe no one else does, but there are ways for historians to handle this. Hawkwood should have been a work of narrative history based on the original sources of the kind patented by Runciman, Wolfson, Freeman and Lord Norwich. Sadly, it is a much lesser beast although its little light does shine brighter in the murk of the current popular history market.

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