History Book Round-Up : “Discovering” America

‘Tis the season for talking about explorers, colonizers, and the people who had to deal with them.  Here are my four off-the-top-of-my-head favorite books to date.  The ones that if I need to quick grab something from the shelf, here’s what I grab.

(I should note that I will be grabbing from other people’s shelves: three from my local public library, and the fourth from my dad’s house. 3 of the 4 come with a ‘buy’ recommendation, but since I don’t have to do so myself, I won’t.)

Read all four, and you should be well on your way to being able to discuss all the hot Thanksgiving-related history topics that will be no doubt swirling around the table next week.


Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned by Kenneth C. Davis

This one showed up on the New Books shelf of my local library either last winter or the year before, and I grabbed it despite myself.  From the title and cover it sounded like it was going to be one of those cute little wow-your-friends-with-trivia books written in large print with lots of bulleted lists of amazing factoids, destined to circle the internet in spamlets for years to come.  Not so.  Far from it.

Each chapter is devoted to a famous moment in American History, as usually taught in American public schools.  Columbus, Pilgrims, all that stuff.  (You can look at the table of contents on amazon).  The content is the setting-the-record-straight work that college professors do to incoming freshman, essentially filling in the details and nuances to stories that are too-often summarized in three sentences through most of k-12.

I think I must have found the book tedious at times — I had to make myself finish it for the purpose of being able to write a review.  For certain there are moments when Davis gets on roll and his politics start showing, especially when he steps beyond his area of expertise.  And of course if you read the book this week, you may find yourself an insufferable dinner companion at Thanksgiving next week when a well-meaning relative tries to tell the neices and nephews about ‘The story of Thanksgiving’ and you feel compelled to offer additions and corrections.

All that said, it is still a useful reference for anyone who is interested in US history but hasn’t been through a good college-level course lately.  Loaded with details and facts surrounding various controversial moments in US history.  If you have your brain intact and can therefore read critically and reserve the right to form your own opinion, this book is a good starting point for making the transition from a sound-bite ‘knowledge’ of history to a competent understanding of what actually happened, to whom, by whom, when and how.

–> I recommend it as a library find.  Not sure I’d pay for it (above and beyond my regularly scheduled tax dollars), but I’m glad I read it.

Mayflower 1620 published by the National Geographic Society is one we bring home every year from the library.  If I couldn’t get it there, I would buy it.  The topic is the historic voyage of the Mayflower, with photos from the travels of the living history group that re-enacted the trip. Lots of good, solid, detail-laden historic evidence.

Look for it in your children’s department, but the book would be of interest to anybody who wants a thorough primer on the topic. The text is for older-elementary years and up.  As a read-aloud to younger children, I find myself having to do way too much explaining.  Younger kids, however, will enjoy the photos, and you can tell a pared-down version of events as you browse.

(Nerd-person tip of the week: Because it is easily readable, illustrated with lots of captions, and interesting across age ranges, this would be a fun one to bring along to Thanksgiving, for the browsing pleasure of people who don’t do football, and are otherwise at a loss for post-dinner conversation.  If yours is the sort of family where perusing a history book could count as ‘fun’.  It probably is, if you read this blog.)

And here are two that longtime readers may remember:

I just re-posted my original review of Squanto’s Journey.   Excellent book, beautifully illustrated and told.  Best for middle-elementary age and up — a touch too detailed for little listeners.

And finally, moving off the whole Thanksgiving topic, but still very much concerned with the early encounters between europeans and native americans is the novel Cacique by Bishop Robert Baker.   Unless you’re from Florida (and even then) you may not have studied the history of the early spanish missions in that state.  This is a very fun way to learn a good bit about the topic, if you like breezy action-adventure tales.  (Who doesn’t?  And written by a real live catholic bishop, so you can feel virtuous for reading it.)  My original review is re-posted immediately below.


That does it for this week.  Have a great Thanksgiving, and try to be gentle with your fellow diners as you whip out all your newly-acquired historical knowledge.

(re-post) Book Review of _Cacique_

And here’s another one for the round-up, originally posted on the old site in February 2007.


Cacique: A Novel of Florida’s Heroic Mission HIstory

By Bishop Robert J. Baker with Tony Sands

St. Catherine of Sienna Press, 2006

ISBN-13:  978-0-9762284-4-8

ISBN-10:  0-9762284-4-0


I sent this book to my dad for Christmas, thinking it was more his genre than mine.   The plan was for him to read it, and then if he thought I’d like it, I’d read it over vacation.   First part of the plan didn’t work out — Dad has been short on reading time lately — so we skipped directly to step 2.  I read it, it was good.

Bishop Baker’s novel (pronounced ca-SEE-kay) is a fictional account of a franciscan mission to the Potano tribe in northern Florida.  The genre is Hardy Boys meets Butler’s Lives. The writing is clear and concise, not artsy — the prose serves as a vehicle for the story, not the end in itself.

Unlike the Hardy brothers, the heroes in this story do actually grow old and even die, such that in order to cover the entire life of the mission, Bishop Baker uses a sucession of main characters.  We begin with Fr. Tomas, the young and determined priest who founded the mission which is the subject of the book.  We end with the perspective of Felipe-Toloca, the cacique of the Potano village at the time the mission is disbanded by the Spanish.    The transition from one principal character to the next flows smoothly, and helps build the overall study of the life of the mission, which lasted over 100 years.  In moving from generation to generation we gain a sense of the history of the community, as well as a meditation on the communion of saints.

Also unlike the Hardy boys, our heroes are concerned with more than just fighting crime in Bayport.  The overarching theme of the many adventures is nothing short of evangelization and the bringing about of the kingdom of God.  Here Bishop Baker does a great service for catholic characters everywhere, for once rendering a series of faithful catholic heroes — first and foremost a priest — whose interior life is solid and sound.   Their struggles are not with the holy faith, but with how to live out that faith in the particular time and place given to them.

The novel succeeds where history books sometimes fail, in keeping the people real.  Neither the Spanish nor the Indians are made out to be a homogeneous pool of Good Guys or Bad Guys; we get individuals of all stripes, none perfect, and none are beyond the hope of forgiveness, mercy and redemption.

One of the risks of historical fiction is that we learn more about the author than about history.  Those looking for clues into Bishop Baker’s secret thoughts will discover the same messages that he has proclaimed throughout the diocese in his public life.   None of this was heavy-handed in my opinion;  even if our heroes are extraordinary for their own time — or our time — they are nonetheless consistent in action and attitude with other missionary saints of the 1600’s.

If you like an action-packed adventure story, this one is fun.  There are martial arts, traps, disguises, battles, shipwrecks, the whole nine yards.  If you are looking for a peek inside the mind of a missionary priest, that’s there too.  And at the end of the book there is brief note about the history that inspired the novel, as well as a bibliography for those who want to do further research.

Good book, very readable, very enjoyable.


And a bonus feature This book  deserves an award for making a major advance in the world of southern literature: It treats the landscape of northern Florida as if it were, well, a perfectly normal place to live.  No long odes to Spanish Moss or treatises on the humidity — mosquitoes are mentioned so infrequently you might temporarily forget where this story is set.  The land is simply there.  Alligators, springs, quicksand, palmettos — they are all present, but mentioned only when they are relevant to action at hand. There is a time and place, of course, for seeing a well-known landscape with the eyes of an outsider; but frankly it is a relief to see a novel that is not only set in the south, but told through southern eyes.

Book Review: The Fathers

The Fathers

Pope Benedict XVI

Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-59276-440-2

Summary: Wow. This is a good book. You should go buy it.

The details:

I was very daunted, as you may recall, at the prospect of having to actually read this book. Although I very much wanted to read it, or specifically, I wanted to have read it, I was afraid that it would be much too hard for myself, a junior intellectual. Fear not. The most difficult chapter is the first, and even in that one, there was only one sentence that I could not understand. And which, on a second reading, I do understand. So here it is, the very hardest sentence in the whole book, found at the bottom of page 8, emphasis in the original:

Clement’s letter touches on topics that were dear to St. Paul, who had written two important letters to the Corinthians, in particular the theological dialectic, perennially curent, between the indicative of salvation and the imperative of moral commitment.

If you can read that, you can read the whole book. And if you can’t read that, you can probably still read all the other sentences, which aren’t nearly so bad. I read the entire rest of the book not knowing what that sentence meant, and never really suffered for my want of knowledge.

What is in the book?

The Fathers is a series of twenty-six biographies of church fathers, starting with St. Clement of Rome and finishing with St. Augustine of Hippo, one person per chapter. The text is taken from the Holy Father’s weekly general audiences from March 7, 2007 to February 27, 2008; depending on the person, the chapter might have been covered in a single talk, divided into two separate talks (usually “life” first and “teachings” second), or in the case of St. Augustine, three talks. So, almost blog-like in format. If, say, you had a blog written by the pope.

As a result each biography can stand alone, although they form a continuous whole if you have the time and interest for reading the book cover to cover. I recommend doing that, by the way, if you can. But if you can’t, don’t panic. You could also put the book out in a convenient space and just pick it up periodically to read a chapter at random, and you will still benefit significantly.

Each entry gives a history of the life of the church Father (all but three are saints), including the context in which they lived. It will help if you have some knowledge of the history and geography of ancient Rome. If not, this is as good a place as any to get your introduction. I had only one place-name that left me completely stumped: Aquilea. Never heard of it before. Usually the text gives some clue – the modern name of a city, for example, but for this one all we were told was that it was in the Decima Regione. I, sadly, did not know my Regione – though I do now. At least that particular one. The rest of the biographies, though, gave me no geography trouble at all.

Following the history is a section on the father’s teachings. Here again, a junior scholar’s serving of theology is helpful. I would say that if you are comfortable with the Catechism of the Catholic Church – that is to say, you can pick it up and read it and make good sense of whatever it is you are reading – then you can probably work through this book with similar confidence.

Is it a boring book?


Here are the three things I found most interesting:

1. You get a real sense of the depth of the catholicness of the early church. You cannot come away from this book persuaded that early church history is just a bunch of myths shrouded in the mists of time, nor that our (catholic) understanding of it is based on a few scraps of paper interpreted how we want to read them. You really get a sense for the weight and substance of our catholic heritage.

[One possible pitfall: After reading this, if someone pulls one of those anti-catholic ‘just a medieval invention lines’, you’ll probably just stare at them dumbly and wonder where they came up with that nonsense. You’ll be thinking some piece of apologetic brilliance along the lines of ‘Are you one of those people who has twenty cats and tin foil on your windows?’ So be warned. Knowledge of history really is knowledge of the catholic church. They aren’t making that up.]

2. The biographies find a beautiful balance between breadth and depth. Each entry is substantial enough to give you something to chew on, but not overwhelming. You will feel like you’ve ‘met’ the church father – if it is your first meeting, you come away with a good idea of who he is and what he thinks, and will want to get to know him better; if he is an old friend, you’ll enjoy the chance to say hello again, and be reminded of the reasons for your friendship. Even more, if you read the whole book front to back, you will get a sense of who the fathers are as a group – how they fit together, how they fit into church history, and how their theology fits into the history of catholic doctrine.

3. There is Pope Benedict XVI’s ever fresh and practical spirituality. There is just nothing dry in any of these biographies. Every one of these church fathers could be your parish priest, speaking to you, today, about the spiritual challenges you face. The holy father isn’t trying to ‘make’ the ancient fathers of church ‘relevant for today’ – he shows you that they what they teach, both by their lives and their writings, really is as inspiring and applicable to us in the 21st century as it was so many centuries earlier.

Conclusion: This is a book to keep around the house. I definitely give it a ‘buy’ recommendation. If not for All Saints (really, you should), then put it on your Christmas wish list. Good for reading, and good as a reference for your all your quick-look-up-a-church-father needs. It isn’t an easy book, but it isn’t a hard one either. If you are a basic model catholic blog reader, it should be about your speed, challenging but not overwhelming. If you’re more advanced, it will be light and refreshing. If you are a junior junior catholic, you’ll have to work through it, but the format is such that you can bite off just a little at a time and still benefit, without having to feel like you have to read the whole thing right away.

Good book. Get yourself a copy.


And now a word from our sponsor . . .

This review was written as part of the Catholic book Reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on The Fathers.

. . . The opinions, of course, are entirely my own. When I say it’s a good book, it’s because it’s a good book. That said, it’s not like I’m going to sign up to review anything that looks like it’s a bad book, heh.

The Catholic Company is still accepting new reviewers, by the way. Here’s the link: http://www.catholiccompany.com/content/Catholic-Product-Reviewer-Program.cfm Free books, but of course you have to actually read them, and then tell people what you think. Not that you don’t do that with your books anyway.

Book Review – 1215: The Year of Magna Carta

1215: The Year of Magna Carta

by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham

Simon & Schuster 2004, originally published in Great Britian in 2003 by Hodder & Stoughton

ISBN 0-7432-5773-1

This is a fun book. The goal of the book, I think, is to help the reader understand what the Magna Carta really was, how it came to be, and what on earth it was talking about. [Quick! Why is it important that your recognizance of novel disseisin be held in your own county’s court?!  Yeah, I didn’t know either.  This is why we read *about* the Magna Carta in school, but almost never read the document itself.]

The books opens with very broad chapters setting the scene – what was life like in a medieval English castle, or town or farm – and gradually shifts towards the events leading to the Magna Carta itself. The details are fascinating, entertaining, and sometimes disturbing – the excerpt I posted last week is typical of the kinds of colorful anecdotes the authors use help build a vivid portrait of medieval life.

–> One of the most helpful  of the earlier chapters for me was on warfare (“Tournaments and Battles”), because I don’t think until this reading I had really understood quite how it all worked – most books on medieval warfare that I have read tend to dive into a single aspect – castles, or knights, or the winning of particular battles – this book finally gave me the broader picture.

The narrative is quick – the word ‘breezy’ comes to mind – flowing very quickly from one idea to the next, and dropping details and anecdotes wherever they can be fitted smoothly.   Examples of various practices jump around time and place, and often a character is introduced without any real context, so that it was hard at times to fully understand the meaning behind the anecdote. The complete absence of footnotes did not help. This complaint of mine applies primarily to the earlier chapters, though, and by the end of the book, as the authors unroll the month-by-month developments leading to the Magna Carta, it is much easier to follow the train of events and be sure of who is doing what and why they are doing it.

In all I found the book to be believably balanced in its view. History being what it is, you can of course always find an argument with the historian’s version of events, but I can’t remember any point where I thought the authors were overlooking an obvious explanation for some particular practice.   Generally I found the reading of people and events to be very real – very aware of the normal humanity of the people involved, not at all trying to make them into something other than what they were.  And of course, if you know very little about the Magna Carta, this book is just the remedy.

So my recommendation is: Check it out from your local public library. I wouldn’t urge you to buy it unless you are really at the point where what you need is a readable popular history of the topic – it is a good book, but the lack of footnotes is a real stumbling block for those who want to use it as a launching point for further study. (There is a bibliography, though, if you are the sort who uses those. Perhaps it will be enough for you.)

I do think it makes a good beginner (adult) book – someone who was jumping into medieval history for the very first time could probably read and enjoy, and come away the winner for it.  And that in itself is impressive — there are not many history books that are informative for intermediate readers and still approachable for beginners.  I should emphasize that although younger readers could understand and enjoy, you would not necessarily want them to do so.  Parental pre-reading strong advised.

3rd Friday – Book Review

Note before I begin:  Two things always seem to happen to me when I visit Las Vegas:  1) My baggage arrives on a different plane than I do, and 2) I end up borrowing a computer that causes strange formatting issues on my blog.  The first is resolved now, but the 2nd I’m not so sure about.  If this post is difficult to read, my apologies, and if need be I’ll try to fix it when I get home.




Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Jeffery L. Singman (Greenwood Press, 1999)

Daily Life in Chaucer’s England, Jeffery L. Singman and Will McLean (Greenwood Press, 1995)

Daily Life in Elizabethan England, Jeffery L. Singman (Greenwood Press, 1995)


Summary: These are some of the better history books I’ve seen.  They may or may not be what you are looking for, but if you are interested in the topics they cover, I think they do a great job.  I can’t say there was never a single sentence that made me pause and go ‘hmmn’, but I don’t have any of the reservations I have about other very helpful but still flawed works on the same era.


The SuperHusband brought two of these three home from our local library for me last fall. I was skeptical (judging the book by the cover and all that), but eventually boredom got the best of me and I cracked one open. Pleasant surprise.  [The three are part of a larger series, but I haven’t read any of the other titles in the series, which are by other authors.]  I made myself read the entirety of Medieval Europe last fall so that I could write a proper review; I think I read all of Elizabethan as well, or at least the bulk of it; Chaucer’s England I picked up the a few weeks ago when I went to fetch the others in order to prepare this post, and have skimmed it to see what’s there, but have only read snatches of it in any detail. I lump them together because they are all by the same author, and are very similar to each other in the kinds of information and comments they contain, and are all of similarly good quality.


As the titles indicate, these books deal with what ordinary life was like in the indicated time periods; if you want detailed accounts of kings, bishops, and battles, you’ll need to find some other book – though these do each open with a brief overview the history of the period, to help put the bulk of the book into context. In contrast, if you always wanted to know about how much it would cost* to buy a quart of ale in 16th century England, or maybe you have some spare honeycombs sitting around and were looking for a nice medieval mead recipe to use them up, these books can help.


The goal of the series is to provide an entry-level to intermediate resource, but which is more substantial than most beginner’s histories. At this is fully succeeds. Something like this would be a good choice before trying to get into A Day in a Medieval City (which I reviewed last month). The reading level is adult, but not overwhelmingly complex or technical – a high school student shouldn’t have any difficulty with the books, and would probably really enjoy picking one out to read as part of a European History course.


I expect that younger students who are strong readers and highly interested in the subject would also find them accessible, and it is fairly easy to skip to the sections of high interest for those who don’t want to read the whole book. That said, parental guidance is always recommended – I can’t recall anything particularly objectionable, but I’m fairly sure I ran across some adultish topics, though if your children are already immersed in contemporary American pop culture (mine are not) I bet you’ll never bat an eyelash.  If nothing else the discussion of religion is one where parents may want to provide some perspective.


What I really love about these books is the respect with which they describe and speculate about the people living in medieval and renaissance Europe. The author comes from a living-history background, and I think this really shows through – people of the past are treated as ordinary people quite like ourselves. The three d’s of the gossip-method history writing – dumb, depraved, and disgusting – are refreshingly absent, and without succumbing to the opposite error of combining nostalgia and amnesia to gloss over the difficult realities of the time period.


Another strength is the avoidance of gross generalizations. Medieval Europe, the title most likely to succumb to that temptation, limits itself to the high middle ages – approximately 1100 to 1300 – and to northwestern Europe. In each of the chapters devoted to village, city, monastic and castle life, a specific location (one for which ample documentation is available) is chosen and examined in detail. Rather than pretending that you could possibly explain two hundred years and four countries worth of monastic life in a single chapter, for example, the book gives you a detailed look inside Cluny, thus giving you a general idea of what a monk’s life might have been by showing just how it was in that particular time and place.


All three books are geared towards helping the re-creationist get started. There are specific instructions for making clothing, as well period songs with sheet music, descriptions of how to play period games, specific recipes culled from historical sources, and so forth.   For that reason these books would make an excellent resource for planning a themed party, educational event, or costuming and set ideas for a play (or story) set in the relevant era.  Obviously Chaucer’s England is just begging to be read by anyone studying The Cantebury Tales, and Elizabethan England would likewise be a natural accompaniment to a study of Shakespeare.


Some differences between Medieval Europe and Chaucer’s England, in case you are wondering which title will better fit your needs:  As I mentioned above, the former covers the period from 1100 to 1300, whereas the latter focuses on the second half of the 14thcentury.  Also, as one could guess from the titles, Europe covers a slightly broader geographic era than England.  In addition to the study of Cluny, the chapter on town life uses Paris (mining the data from the 1292 tax assessments for evidence) as its sample city.  The sections on castle and village life are based on locations in England.  Chaucer’s England leans very strongly in the direction of aid to the aspiring re-creationist; it lacks these detailed studies of archeological sites as found in Medieval Europe, but seems to have more material on clothing, music, games, and so forth.


*Answer: about a half-penny.


Book Review: A Day in a Medieval City

A Day in a Medieval City, Chiara Frugoni

University of Chicago Press, 2005 ISBN: 0-226-26634-6

(Originally published as Storia di un gionro in una citta medievale, Laterza, 1997)

Chiara Frugoni is a professor of medival history at the University of Rome, and this book builds on articles written by her father, Arsenio Frugoni, who died in 1970 and who was also, in his time, a professor of medieval history at the University of Rome.

The book begins with an introduction consisting of Arsenio Frugoni’s original work, which vividly captures the feeling of life in an eleventh or twelfth century Italian city, as well a brief perspective on how it reached its medieval form. Chiara Frugoni adds seven chapters that explore various themes ( “Inside the City” “Childhood Learning”, etc.) in more detail. It seems to me she draws the majority of her examples from the late medieval period (14th and 15th centuries).

The book is written for adults, both in reading level and content, but is very approachable for the hobbyist-historian. Someone who has never studied medieval history at all might be more comfortable reading some more introductory works first, and going to this one as a sort of ‘intermediate’ level text. Detailed endnotes add another layer of depth.

This is a book I can’t help but like, despite several reservations I’ll mention below. The vividness of detail is positively delightful, and with little to none of the gee-whiz snappiness that plagues many popular works on medieval history. For example there is an exploration of the role pigs played in the city (as garbage collectors), including period accounts of pig-related incidents. If you are looking for illustrations of medieval dress and furnishings, there are 153 images available for your perusal.

The most compelling feature of the book is this enormous collection of (period) illustrations it contains, and the explanations that go with them. A typical medieval history book might have a caption that gives the title, author, date and place of creation. Chiara Frugoni puts detailed descriptions in the text of the book, often describing a work panel by panel, to help draw the eye to details the reader would otherwise overlook or perhaps not comprehend at all.

[A note of caution: the illustrations include all aspects of medieval life. Including, say, the torture and execution of captured enemies. Not for the faint of heart. On the other hand, haven’t you always wanted to see a little toilet-related artwork, and the discover the story that goes with?]

One of the weaknesses of the book, though an understandable one, is that it flits back and forth through a broad time frame, even within paragraphs. Topics are arranged by theme (medicine, education, religious belief, etc), and often the entire medieval period is treated in the aggregate. It is helpful to have studied the timeline of medieval history elsewhere, so that you can parse apart references that mix and match centuries.

This is probably one of the first works on specifically Italian medieval history that I’ve read, and I think I probably missed a few jumps between cities as well. I liked the work because it dealt with a region I hadn’t previously studied (most lay-accessible english-language books on medieval “Europe” tend to focus on England), but as a result, I really didn’t have the capacity to know just how alike or different, say, Venice and Milan might have been at the time, and whether an anecdote from one city reliably shed light on the other.

Last in my list of complaints, there were moments when I thought the generalizations needed a little more documentation. For example, at one point the author writes in a passage on women reading, “They used reading stands made for the men of the house (it is difficult to imagine that they were built to meet the particular needs of women)”. Now this may be entirely true, and yet it is a terribly bold statement to make – here we are looking at illustration after illustration of women reading, and we are to believe that in this time and place men didn’t give their wives gifts related to their daily activities? It may well be the case, but any time you accuse whole gender of utter selfishness towards their own family members*, it would seem appropriate to present a bit of evidence.

Likewise there were times when I wanted a little more context for a quotation. I found myself wondering, Is this preacher condemning something that is widely practiced, or is he largely “preaching to the choir”? Is his opinion widely held in the church, or was his sermon preserved because of its unusual nature? I also wish the references to witchcraft had been footnoted – so many excellent footnotes elsewhere had me spoiled, I suppose.

And I think these last examples sum up my mixed feelings towards the work as a whole. It’s a beautiful book, a splendid look into a region that isn’t as well known to English-speaking readers, full of detail after vivid detail about medieval life. But it is a book you would want to read with a bit of salt handy – hold onto the treasure trove of illustrations and anecdotes, but be prepared to want to question some of the interpretation.



*In our home the accusation tends to be kind of the reverse. “Oh honey, how thoughtful! A reading stand? For me? It’s just what you’ve always wanted!”