Asimov / Belloc follow-up

Finished reading The Shaping of France.  Pretty happy with it.  All my reservations stated below continued, and of course it was just dreadful to read such an agnostic account of Joan of Arc — what a spoilsport!  But as a nice clear, readable telling of the kings and battles of medieval France-in-progress, it did the trick.  Great introduction to military history for people who don’t really do military history, but want to understand some of the big picture.  For all its faults, I think reading this one is a good starting point, or re-freshing point, before diving deeper into any particular topic covering medieval France or England.  (For example: 1215.)

I’m not sure whether it makes Hillaire Belloc squirm or chuckle, but I think his  Characters of the Reformation is a natural follow-on to The Shaping of France. Similar type of work, though the author’s historical lense now switches from ardently-atheist-mode to ardently-catholic-mode.   Belloc’s character-by-character approach is a little more disjointed and difficult to follow, but in exchange you get a slightly more intense look at each individual.  Likewise, Asimov is the more goes-down-like-popcorn story-teller, but I think Belloc is selling meatier ideas.  (And it was very refreshing to read an account of the reformation from an unabashedly-catholic perspective.  Just because you never do.  No doubt a bit of bias in there, but bias worth discovering for change.)  As far as historical-documentation goes, they are twins.

My only regret on these two: I really wish I had read The Shaping of France before Characters of the Reformation, because the one really sets you up to understand the other.


Next on my to-do list: Getting my notes done on my medieval-france honkin’ big pile of library books before they have to go back at the end of the week.   In between taking girls to the Nutcracker, cooking for Thanksgiving, attending Thanksgiving, hosting Thanksgiving, and maybe doing other fun stuff.  And then cleaning of my desk, haha.


Reading French History to Understand the English

I’m about a third of the way through Isaac Asimov’s The Shaping of France (Houghton Mifflin, 1972).  Not exactly a proper history book, since there are absolutely no citations or bibliography or anything else to back up his various claims, but more like a highly readable report written by an astonishingly good undergrad.   For all the man can’t seem to document, he can tell a mighty good story.

I picked up the book from the library wanting shore up my knowledge medieval french history, and certainly it’s been helpful for that.  But the surprise was this:  Suddenly the history of medieval England makes so much more sense.   Asimov’s telling of the Capetian kings’ efforts to build a stable (French) kingdom works like the denoument of a good mystery, where Father Brown or Miss Marple explain the motives of that one character you never really noticed before, but whose actions were driving all the strange comings and goings of the rest.  You need, of course, to already have the outline of English history in the back of your head, or else the final explanation won’t do you any good.

–> I’m don’t know that Asimov’s book is the best out there.  You could never use it for academic purposes without making your advisor chuckle (or cringe, or both).  And I’m only up to Philip VI, so this a PBR.  But if you need an easily-digestible history of the kings from Charlemagne forward, in a way you can actually pretty much remember and make sense of, Asimov is mighty handy in a pinch.   And just the trick for making sense of England.


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: 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.

Revolutionary War Book Review Bonanza

2nd Friday so we’re back to history again, and it looks like this month you’re getting a book bonanza – next week I’ll post my review of The Fathers, which leaves me this week to toss out a handful of childrens’ history books we’ve enjoyed over the past month.

Despite our passion for medieval history, a certain mother has determined one must, nonetheless, study other eras. So our official topic for this school year is American History. We started out with reading about various renaissance-era European explorers; whipped out the timeline notebook and determined that Christopher Columbus followed right on the heels of Joan of Arc. I think in the usual method of studying history in American schools, we tend to lose some of that sense of continuity: Chris C. belongs firmly to the course called American History, St. Joan belongs to another course in a different year, called European History or Medieval History or some other thing, and we never quite grasp that the events of the Hundred Years’ War would have been part of the renaissance explorers’ heritage, much the way the legacy World War II is still felt today.

Anyhow, we’ve since slipped into the colonial era, and I’ve got three nice books concerning the Revolutionary War era to share with you this month:

Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Greg Harlin; the topic is exactly as it says. Harlin’s watercolors elegantly capture the mood of the night’s events – so brilliantly done I’d recommend this book to aspiring artists and photographers. I can’t do them justice, so just go look. The text is clear and effective – you learn the technical details of the ride, and also the real danger, urgency, and excitement – but spare enough that it won’t be overwhelming to a competent but young reader, or to the parent charged with the read-aloud. A map at the start of the book shows the route of the ride (you will need a larger US map of your own to put the location into context), and an epilogue summarizes in three paragraphs the rest of the Revolutionary War and it’s ultimate conclusion.

Can’t recommend this book enough – interesting to adults who never had a chance to learn more about this famous event, and engaging to children who like a little adventure with their history. Frankly, if I had a student of any age who was history-resistant, I’d put this book in front of him, and mine it for all it was worth.

By the Sword: A Young Man Meets the War by Selene Castrovilla, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth, tells the story of Benjamin Tallmadge’s first foray into battle in August 1776. This is a more demanding text than Paul Revere’s Ride, and focuses as much on Tallmadge’s inner life as a new recruit in the colonial army as with the outward adventure of the Battle of Long Island. The intentionally-hazy oil-painted illustrations support the feeling of inward reflection, and of a man looking back on a turning point in his youth.

[Does introspection make good history? At our house,  mothers were unanimously in favor of this exploration of the danger and emotional turmoil of warfare; a certain boy complained that the story ended just as it was getting to the good parts – I suppose he wanted to read the rest of war while he was at it.]

At the end of the book is a detailed timeline of Tallmadge’s life, a list of relevant historic sites to visit around modern-day New York City, a page in which the author explains how she researched her book and how she made certain literary decisions, and then a very detailed bibliography. There is also a brief note from the illustrator about his art research techniques, and from the typographer about the choice of fonts.  Good stuff — really helps the student catch on to the study of history.

I’d say this book is more appropriate for older children – third grade and up.  The level of detail and discussion of historical research could be helpful even for much older students, as this is the same kind of work that would go into better term papers for highschool and beyond — perhaps more effective than a lecture from the instructor, and would be a quick, easy read for the teen who must be plagued with this lesson.  (Okay, let’s be frank: your average college history TA would give anything to get to grade an undergraduate history paper as well-researched as what the author models here.)

Finally I wanted to mention Welcome to Felicity’s World, 1774: Growing Up in Colonial America. Written by Catherine Gourley, though you will be hard-pressed to find the author’s name in this publication, which is part of the “American Girl’s Collection” as something of an accessory to that popular childrens’ historical fiction series. Not a bad book though – there’s a reason the American Girls franchise has done so well. The concept is something like DK’s Eyewitness Series, exploring colonial life and the Revolutionary War through many illustrations, photographs, short captions, moving stories, and sometimes more detailed narrative explanations, all divided into topical sections and subsections. It therefore makes a good browsing book – you can pick it up anywhere and look through just the bits of special interest.

This is most definitely a girl’s book, but subtly so – Mr. Boy has been reading it enthusiastically, and so far does not seem to have noticed the feminine bent. Maybe some month when I’m scrapping for a history topic I’ll walk you through the differences between girl-books and boy-books in more detail, to show you how it’s done; for now I’ll just say that it nicely combines social history with the usual names-‘n-dates type outline of a traditional textbook. Good reliable backbone for an elementary-years history program, and probably fairly easy to get hold of, since it is part of such a well-known brandline.  Felicity lives in Williamsburg, VA, by the way, for those who are looking for a text to coordinate with a field trip.