Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’


There’s a great anecdote at the start of Byzantium. The author – a Professor of Byzantine History at King’s College London – is approached by two builders and asked, “What is Byzantine History?” This book is her response to the question posed by the workmen: an attempt to illuminate the world of Byzantium for ‘non-specialists’.

Has Judith Herrin succeeded? I think that’s up for debate. The book certainly borders on the edge of popular history. Accessibility is compromised by the complex language and a seemingly endless cast of historical figures. The latter point can be excused, however, when you consider that 1100 years of history have been tightly-packed into just over 330-pages (Penguin edition).

In favouring a thematic approach, Herrin eschews the cause-effect model that makes chronological accounts – arguably – easier to digest. The result is a fair amount of overlap between chapters, which forces the reader to re-engage with figures, often emperors, at different points in the text. Despite the above criticism, I think Herrin’s thematic focus also has its benefits; the reader is given a holistic overview of Byzantium, with short chapters on anything from Greek Orthodoxy and eunuchs, to The Crusades and the Imperial Court. As a relative newcomer to Byzantium, I learned ‘a little about a lot’, which is essentially what I was after.

The Byzantinism Stereotype

Where the book is undeniably successful is in challenging a near millennia-old prejudice against Byzantium. In contemporary Britain, ‘Byzantine’ is an adjective associated with excessive bureaucracy and backstabbing behaviour.

Herrin picks out the sacking of Constantinople (1204), during the Fourth Crusade, as a pivotal moment in the development of Western anti-Byzantine sentiment. An attitude that was entrenched by French Enlightenment philosophers:

“Yet the modern stereotype of Byzantium is tyrannical government by effeminate, cowardly men and corrupt eunuchs, obsessed with hollow rituals and endless, complex and incomprehensible bureaucracy. Montesquieu developed these caricatures during the seventeenth century as he tried to explain the reasons for the decline of the Roman Empire, and Voltaire gave them greater prominence, adding his own passionate elevation of reason above religion. While the former dismissed ‘the Greek Empire’, as he called it, because of the excessive power of monks, attention to theological dispute and an absence of the recommended separation of ecclesiastical from secular matters, the latter could condemn it utterly as ‘a disgrace for the human mind”. 

In contrast to these views, Herrin shows Byzantium to be a well-oiled and efficient empire, with a centralised system of imperial government in Constantinople. And although high-ranking bishops held political sway and Greek Orthodoxy was ingrained into everyday life, pagan institutions and beliefs also shaped Byzantine identity; the Byzantines saw themselves as Roman, with Constantinople thought of as ‘New Rome’. Byzantine legislation was effectively a continuation of the Roman legal code. And the education system was structured around studying Ancient Greek authors like Plato, Aristotle and Homer.

Europe’s Bulwark

Although the size of the empire shifted over time, enemy forces were a near-constant threat, particularly in Eastern Europe and further West, on the outskirts of Asia Minor. Yet, time-and-time again Byzantium managed to survive incursions and refortify frontiers. Far from ‘cowardly’ or ‘effeminate’, the Byzantines were an effective military force, inheriting their prowess from the Roman army. Mercenaries from across Eurasia – including Vikings and Frankish warriors – strengthened their cause. 

Byzantium’s most telling military contribution was in shielding Western Europe from the expanding Caliphate in the 7thand 8thcenturies. Following Muhammad’s death in 632, the unified tribes of Arabia set about claiming new lands in the name of jihad. They conquered a staggering amount of land, superseding the Sassanid Empire, and taking much of Northern Africa and Spain. 

Yet Byzantium stood firm, checking the marauder’s advance in Asia Minor. Constantinople, with its long and impregnable defensive fortifications, survived two extended sieges (674-8 and 717-18) by the Arabs. Had the gate-keeper of the Dardanelles been breached, the Balkans would quickly have come under Islamic control. 

“By preventing this potential conquest, Byzantium made Europe possible. It allowed western Christian forces, which were divided into smaller units, time to develop their own strengths. One hundred years after the death of prophet Muhammad in 632, Charles Martel defeated Muslim invaders from Spain in central France near Poitiers and forced them back over the Pyrenees. The nascent idea of Europe gradually took on a particular form under Charles’ grandson…Charlemagne”. 


I’ve barely touched on it in this post, but theology and theological debate also defined Byzantium over the course of its history. From the Iconoclast Controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries to the eventual Triumph of Orthodoxy and the East-West Schism of 1054. I found Herrin’s commentary on the early development of Eastern Christianity particularly interesting.

To summarise, Byzantium is an impassioned and subjective defence of the once-great empire. Light on narrative, it tackles overarching themes – religion, governance, war – and dispels a host of historical misconceptions.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Karen Maitland, ‘Company of Liars’ Review

I think it’s best to start with the parts of Company of Liars – Karen Maitland’s ‘novel of the plague’ – that I enjoyed. Set in England in 1348, it follows nine uneasy and incompatible strangers who band together and travel northwards in a desperate bid to outrace the Black Death. The novel plods along without any real pace, but the reader is treated to some evocative period settings along the way, including an unfinished chantry chapel, a Hermit’s island in the Fens and a Shepherd’s hut.

Hellbent on avoiding infected villages, the characters stick to the road and are almost constantly on the move. As such, the plague is more of a peripheral presence – none of the party are infected – and its effects are best highlighted by empty homes ominously decorated with black crosses. More pressing is the need to find food, shelter and suitable passage (poor weather has decimated crops, burst river banks and offset the mental health-related benefits of camping outside). Doom and gloom are everywhere, and the stark realities of medieval travel, particularly in the colder months, are captured well.

Blurring the boundary between the real and supernatural is a common trope in fiction set in the Middle Ages. This stems, in part, from the medieval world-view – belief in ghosts, angels, devils etc. Throughout Company of Liars events that at first seem ‘magical’ are, in time, shown to be quite the opposite. Rational thought and reason repeatedly triumph over mysticism. That is, until the final 50-pages. During the novel, the group are followed on their travels by a lone wolf who howls every few nights. It transpires that one of the party – Zophiel – used to be a priest in Lincoln, but after being accused of a grave transgression he is forced to flee, and steals holy relics from the church in retaliation. He claims the wolf is actually a ‘bishop’s wolf’ – a kind of hitman who has been sent to carefully recapture the stolen goods and murder him at the bishop’s command. Yet in the closing chapters *spoiler* we find out that Narigorm – a youthful, although sinister girl, who interprets runes – is responsible for conjuring the noises. The sudden occultist revelation feels forced and upsets the novel’s entire ideological framework. Rather than shock, it actually confuses the reader.

Aside from characters spouting painfully anachronistic views, clunky writing and a repetitive middle section, the narrator, a relic-seller named Camelot, encourages little sympathy. Published in 2008, I can’t help thinking this is the kind of entry-level medieval escapism that would have sold well in the wake of the Global Recession. And despite my criticism, something impelled me to plough on for 550-pages and reach the rather odd conclusion. Perhaps I was inspired by the stoic efforts of the characters.


Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

I’m currently reading Byzantium by Judith Herrin and moving onto Ravenna, her newest book, after.


Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’

There’s a great anecdote at the start of Byzantium. The author – a Professor of Byzantine History at King’s College London – is approached by two builders and asked, “What is Byzantine History?” This book is her response to the question posed by the workmen: an attempt to illuminate the world of Byzantium for ‘non-specialists’. … Continue reading Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’

Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde, ‘Cricket 2.0’ Review


Cricket 2.0 is a book that’s got the cricket community talking in the last year. Wisden, the sport’s bible-like handbook, awarded it their book of the year in 2020, and it also scooped up prizes from The Telegraph and The Cricketer. It’s been on my list for a few months, so I was excited to receive it for Christmas. 

Front cover of the book Cricket 2.0

Although I’m clearly generalising, cricket writing as a genre is somewhat repetitive and inelastic. What little cricket literature that makes it into major high-street booksellers often falls into a few rigid categories; former and current players releasing heavily ghost-written autobiographies is one, commentaries on iconic Test tours is another. Sentimental memoirs by authors with a conservative outlook on the game – ‘purists’ – also spring to mind. 

Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde – two youthful, enthusiastic cricket writers – tear up the rulebook in Cricket 2.0, bringing fresh impetus to the genre. Their analytical and holistic approach to cricket’s newest format – T20 – is highly absorbing, relying less on elaborate narrative and more calculated study. Another reason why the text has such a ‘revolutionary’ feel is that, as the co-authors point out, barely any literature exists on the subject of T20.  

The book contains 16 essays (‘Survival of the Fittest’ and ‘Up is Down’ are memorable standouts) that act both as individual units and part of a larger, cohesive whole. As such, at times they do overlap, and there are a few instances of repetition (the editing is suspect). There’s also a prologue and an epilogue which makes 31 predictions for the future of T20. The prospect of a T20 World Cup being played in the US during the 2020s, cricket in the Olympics and ‘super-fast’ bowlers are some of the more interesting forecasts. 

As specified in the prologue, the book is designed with both the hardcore fan and curious beginner in mind. The writing is digestible and unfussy – on occasion, simplistic to the point where the cricket connoisseur might become impatient. Yet, these instances of the co-authors tending to beginners are offset altogether by passages of rare insight. 

Data, data, data

Interest in sports data and the work of analysts is a relatively recent phenomenon in cricket. This stands in contrast to traditional American sports – baseball, basketball and American Football – where a data-driven approach is viewed as the best way to understand and appreciate each sport. Sure, cricket has always been concerned with averages and strike rates, but until recently few had delved deeper into the illuminating world of data. Wigmore and Wilde are firm converts when it comes to the power of analytics – and it is an analytical approach that defines their work. 

Take the chapter ‘Spin Kings’, which makes a convincing case for there being three separate eras of spin bowling within the 18-years of professional T20. The first era (2003-07) was led by wily finger spinners who generally bowled slow and stump-to-stump, forcing batsmen to generate all the power when facing their deliveries. Throwback County Cricket names like Gareth Breese and Jeremy Snape are quintessential examples. The game’s evolution has led to the dominance of mystery spinners – who generally bowl flatter and quicker, with a repertoire of deliveries in their locker – in the current era. Not only that, but the role of spinners has been redefined over time. They bowled 6% of deliveries in the Powerplay during 2006 and 25% in 2018, a process instigated by mavericks like the West Indian leg-spinner, Samuel Badree. 

‘Why CSK Win and Why RCB Lose’ is another engaging case study on two Indian Premier League (IPL) teams with contrasting fortunes. Using data, the co-authors highlight that Chennai has exploited their home advantage (by stacking their line-up with spinners on receptive pitches), given players specific roles and mastered the art of the IPL auction. All of which has contributed to their success. In contrast, RCB is prone to changes in their line-up and approach the auction poorly, splurging on elite overseas batsman and neglecting the acquisition of star bowlers (that great bowlers not batsmen, on balance, win more T20 Games is one of the book’s proverbial truths). 

The IPL’s Enduring Influence

Although T20 is Cricket 2.0’s overriding focus, the IPL is the leading sub-theme. The co-authors do an excellent job of explaining how India’s domestic, franchise competition has shaken-up cricket’s power dynamics. And it all boils down to a matter of economics. 

The launch of the IPL in 2008 saw broadcasters bid enormous sums – the likes of which cricket has never seen before – for broadcasting rights to televise games. India’s large and cricket-mad population would show an immediate interest in the competition – an enduring fascination that has kept the price of broadcasting rights on the up (Star India paid $1.97 billion to show live fixtures from 2018-2022). 

For the first time ever, cricket players could match the wages of footballers. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in a 6-8-week period – a staggering rise in earning potential. For many, a domestic tournament now promised more financial reward than playing for one’s country. Given that England’s home Test summer clashed with the start of the IPL, elite players now faced a decision: sacrifice playing Test cricket – the pinnacle in the eyes of traditionalists – and join the IPL, or turn down potentially the biggest pay cheque of their lives. As Wilde and Wigmore highlight, a desire to play franchise cricket was the ‘beginning of the end’ for Kevin Pietersen’s relationship with the English Cricket Board (ECB). He was signed to RCB for £1.15 million in the 2009 auction.

The IPL has had other far-reaching implications, such as providing India and it’s cricket board, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), with newfound financial clout and superiority on cricket’s global stage, usurping England and the ECB. There have been a number of spin-off franchise leagues (BBL, PSL, BPL etc) where players stand to benefit from similarly fruitful contracts. But fundamentally, the IPL prompted world cricket to invest in T20 as a format. Certain nations – like the West Indies – began to specialise in the shortest format, targeting and achieving T20 World Cup victories. And now T20 receives undoubtedly more attention than ODI and Test cricket: a role-reversal of the climate in 2003. 

A democratising force?

Cricket, a sport traditionally regarded as elitist and hierarchical, has encountered the full liberalising force of T20 in the last twenty-or-so-years. One result has been that Nepalese and Afghani players, like Sandeep Lamichhane and Rashid Khan, now ply their trade across global T20 leagues, competing against star players from Test-playing nations. This would not have been possible without the inception of professional T20, Wigmore and Wilde explain. 

As a format, T20 values uniqueness and unorthodoxy in a way that Test cricket, fixated on ‘proper’ techniques, does not. Players from associate nations are often under-coached and self-taught, using whatever resources are available to them. Rashid Khan, the leading men’s T20 bowler, practiced using a tape-ball on a cement-based floor (he now finds it easier using an actual cricket ball). Within this environment, he developed an unusual bowling technique and an elaborate array of deliveries that are integral to his recent success. Should he have grown up in say, Australia, traditional coaching and better resources may have inhibited his progress. 

Thanks to T20, cricket is at the onset of a great revolution: of finally becoming a game open to all the talents, regardless of the nationality on their passport.

Undoubtedly the best and most insightful cricket book I’ve read. Cricket 2.0 is all-encompassing in its scope, with chapters on leading lights of the game (Narine McCullum, Gayle, de Villiers), the T20 economy, tactics, doping and match-fixing, and more. I should also mention that the writing is interspersed with interviews from leading analysts, players, cricket writers, broadcasters, coaches and franchise owners – offering the reader a valuable window into the minds of the sport’s most reputed thinkers. 


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Mark Twain, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ Review

Although I briefly reviewed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my ‘November Reading: Recap’ post, it’s such a beautifully constructed and evocative novel, and definitely merits a closer look. The first time I stumbled across it was in my teen years; I distinctly remember being engrossed with it then, and the outcome was no different the second … Continue reading Mark Twain, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ Review

Mark Twain, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ Review


Although I briefly reviewed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my ‘November Reading: Recap’ post, it’s such a beautifully constructed and evocative novel, and definitely merits a closer look. The first time I stumbled across it was in my teen years; I distinctly remember being engrossed with it then, and the outcome was no different the second time around. 

Mark Twain’s magnum opus follows Huckleberry Finn, a carefree teenager, and Jim, a runaway slave, down the Mississippi River in search of their own respective notions of ‘freedom’. The pair originally plan to travel to Cairo, Illinois (a free state), but end up as far south as Arkansas. Along the way, they encounter a diverse range of characters, many of which are heavily satirised by Twain. To a certain degree, then, the novel is a comedy of manners set in antebellum America.

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For me, Huck Finn is fundamentally a tale of conscience and morality explored through the lens of the youthful protagonist. Throughout the journey, Huck attempts to assimilate his innocent, child-like worldview with society’s warped ethical system. In the end – and to the reader’s delight – he fails. The tension brings to mind Antonio Gramsci’s writings on ideology. The dominant ideology in America’s South at the time was pseudo-Christian and built on the notion of white racial supremacy. Huck, who is continually at odds with the morally bankrupt characters he encounters, represents a counter-hegemonic force vying with the dominant ideological system. 

Although Huck eventually triumphs in the closing chapters, it is not an easy ride. Moral dilemmas continually surface. 

“Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doing wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better”.

Huckleberry Finn

Most significantly, Huck worries about his own moral failing in aiding Jim’s quest for emancipation. By law, he ‘belongs’ to Miss Watson, a fervent Christian who adopts Huck. In this way, Twain showcases the friction between Christian ideals and the institution of slavery. Only when Huck vows to “never.. [think]… no more about reforming” (a verb with religious connotations) can he focus on saving his close friend, Jim, from being sold back into bondage. 

Near the end of Chapter 15 is one of the most emotive literary passages I’ve read. Having been separated on the water on a foggy day, Huck eventually finds his way back to Jim after a few hours. Rather than celebrate, he teases that Jim has dreamt the whole situation up and that they had actually been together the entire time. The lie is soon spotted and after witnessing the pain he has caused, Huck makes a heartfelt apology. This moment is significant for two reasons. One, from this point race becomes insignificant to Huck and he begins to perceive Jim solely as a human being – with emotions and insecurities, the same as himself. The empathetic apology is also tied to a more all-encompassing moral virtue, the ability to distinguish between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. 


Jim: “When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin’ for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’… En when I wake up en fine you back agin, all safe en soun’, de tears come, en I could a got down on my knees en kiss yo’ foot, I’s so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin’ ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is TRASH”

Huck: “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way”. 


An honourable mention should go to the Duke and King, two ‘rapscallions’ that join Huck and Jim on the raft, travelling with them down the Mississippi over a period of time. The two con artists work their ‘tricks’ on Southern folk, preying on their feeble-mindedness. They represent the subversion of the American Dream. Men who, rather than work hard and gradually accumulate wealth, favour exploiting others in the hopes of earning a ‘quick buck’. 

Rife with memorable characters and vignette-like episodes filled with satire, Huck Finn is both a genuinely funny and socially conscious novel. 


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

November Reading: Recap


November was quite a busy month for me, so I haven’t found the time to post any reviews – or to even read a lot! But I did tackle four books over the month, which I will very briefly review during this post, despite it being the middle of December.

I actually received an Economist subscription for my birthday a few months ago and it’s only dawned on me recently how long it takes to read; I easily spend 3-4 hours going through each edition every week: time that could invariably be spent reading other things.

Once again, I read a few historical texts – and also managed to squeeze in yet another Tom Holland book. But I also ventured into economics/finance with The Economist Guide to Financial Markets. The intention was to shore up my knowledge of financial markets – unsure if its paid dividends or not…

November’s reads

David Edgerton, ‘The Rise and Fall of the British Nation’ (Allen Lane)

Excruciatingly researched. The level of detail is astounding – clearly the culmination of decades of academic study. Fundamentally a revisionist work that debunks popular myths surrounding the British nation, but also a lot more than that.

Dense, scholarly and testing – not for the faint hearted. I found myself zoning out at times, especially when Edgerton starts one of many long-lists (on every British trade union in the inter-war period, for example).

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Tom Holland, ‘Persian Fire’ (Little, Brown Book Group)

My favourite Tom Holland work so far. Explores the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century BC, playing close attention to battles like Marathon, Salamis and Thermopylae.

I learned a lot about Persian and Athenian culture, as well as Spartan ideals and practices (elite men had to live in military housing until they were 30?)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Mark Levinson, ‘The Economist Guide to Financial Markets, 7th Edition’ (Profile Books Ltd)

Easing into this at the moment. Reads like a textbook, but definitely the kind of thing I was after. Would have liked Levinson to contextualise the markets further with more real-life examples, however.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Mark Twain, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (Penguin)

One of the quintessential American novels. Read this a few years ago and loved it. It’s a struggle to get-to-grips with the character’s vernacular initially, but after a chapter or two you get the hang of it. In fact, the variations in vernacular become a real highlight.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Beryl Bainbridge, ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’, Review


Packed into only 192 pages, The Bottle Factory Outing is a real gem of a novel. I actually stumbled across it online a few years ago when I was on the hunt for a short comic novel, and although I started it on a train journey from London to Manchester, I never got round to finishing it. This time, however, I really enjoyed it.

Bainbridge has a darkly comic style of storytelling that, at times, borders on the absurd. Her tone and sentence structure repeatedly lull the reader into a false sense of security: I often found myself reading through a paragraph without realising the potentially darker implications, only for a light bulb to go off in my head some sentences later. This stylistic choice is linked to Bainbridge’s interest in the normalisation of patriarchal culture — the way in which denigrating behaviour and prejudice towards women is ‘swept under the rug’. For, although The Bottle Factory Outing is an inherently funny text, it is also a sustained commentary on gender politics in 1970’s Britain.

The Plot

Set in bleary North London, the novel is primarily concerned with two ‘chalk and cheese’ friends – a typically Bainbridgian trope, so I have read – who share a cramped bedsit and work in an Italian wine factory. Attractive and overweight, Freda is a failed actress with a domineering personality and emotional inclinations; Brenda, a divorcee hailing from a respectable Northern family, is mousy and restrained — the very antithesis of her roommate.

Once relations between the two women have been established, attention turns to the workplace. Freda will stop at nothing to attract Vittorio, the handsome trainee manager and nephew of Mr Paganotti, owner of the bottle factory. In contrast, Brenda must continually negotiate the unwelcome sexual advances of Rossi, a married manager, as well as rebutting Patrick, an Irish van driver who is the firm’s only non-Italian employee.

In order to woo Vittorio, Freda organises a work outing to a stately home in Hertfordshire, confident that the pair will come together, spurred on by the romantic setting. However, her quixotic vision soon falls through. We learn that the van booked to transport the workers is a no-show (later finding out that Vittorio has cancelled it), and so begins a dramatic chain of events brimming with tension, comedy and eventually, despair.

The Workplace

In some ways, this is very much a novel of its time, reflecting the skewed sexual politics of the 1970’s, and for modern readers, there is a temptation to trivialise the kind of aggressive sexual behaviour that unfolds in the factory, as if we have all but conquered improper conduct in the workplace. However, with the popularity of the #MeToo movement in recent years, it is self-evident that men imbued with institutional power – dare I say, managers, like Rossi – continue to indulge in misogynistic practices in the workplace. So, this is also a text that enriches current debates about office politics and the mistreatment of women. 

Fractured Relationships

Relationships in The Bottle Factory Outing are plagued by selfish intentions, dissonance and a glaring lack of empathy (especially in the final 20 or so pages of the book), with characters failing throughout to form meaningful connections with their counter-parts. In fact, although Freda and Brenda are ‘friends’, they lack the kind of deep emotional connection we might expect. Theirs is merely a friendship of convenience.

Such fractious and discordant relationships crop up everywhere. Brenda, neglected by her former husband, an alcoholic Yorkshire farmer, decides to leave for London; Rossi is willing to con his fellow countrymen/workers out of their hard-earned money in order to resume his sexual advances towards Brenda, with no regard for his wife; Brenda cannot understand Patrick’s romantic gestures, a man she feels nothing for.

Bainbridge’s suburban London is really a world full of lost individuals. Although the characters interact readily with each other in private and public spheres, they never truly understand one another.

Final Thought

The Bottle Factory Outing is a Booker Prize nominee, and it’s not hard to see why. Graham Greene’s observations sum it up well: “An outrageously funny and horrifying novel”. This will definitely not be my last Bainbridge.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

See also…

Tom Holland, ‘Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom’ Review



Millennium is Tom Holland’s panoramic journey through the two centuries either side of the year 1000. It is, in many ways, a rebuke to the stigma surrounding the Dark Ages in popular and academic circles. Rather than regurgitate the accepted narrative of cultural decline commonly attributed to the period, Holland argues that it was, at this crucial juncture in history, that the foundations of the modern West were slid agonisingly into place. 

On a brief side note, if you are more interested in Tom Holland’s study of Late Antiquity, In the Shadow of the Sword, please click this link to be re-directed to my review. 

The Antichrist and The Second Coming

Central to the narrative in Millennium is the notion – located in the apostle John’s writings in the New Testament – of the Antichrist springing up on Earth and ushering in the Second Coming. Christians held that the Antichrist would emerge on the anniversary of Christ’s birth, so the years predating the millennium were fraught with anxiety across Christendom. That the latter half of the 10th century was particularly destabilising, only served to re-enforce the belief that Christ’s adversary could rise up and instigate a wave of destruction at any moment

But the year passed and Antichrist did not appear. Attention now turned to the year 1033, a thousand years on from the crucifixion of Christ, as a likely date for impending Armageddon. Jerusalem had long been fabled as the site of the final showdown between good and evil: after the Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ordered the sacking of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009, this reality appeared closer than ever. Pilgrims across the West flocked to the Holy City in the ensuing decades, eager to catch the exact moment that Christ would rise from the dead. 

But the year passed and Antichrist did not appear. Attention now turned to the year 1033, a thousand years on from the crucifixion of Christ, as a likely date for impending Armageddon. Jerusalem had long been fabled as the site of the final showdown between good and evil: after the Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ordered the sacking of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009, this reality appeared closer than ever. Pilgrims across the West flocked to the Holy City in the ensuing decades, eager to catch the exact moment that Christ would rise from the dead.

Tom Holland, ‘Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom’

But once again, the year 1033 passed inconspicuously by and nothing out of the ordinary came to pass. Christendom took this as evidence that the end was not nigh; imbued with a newfound optimism, popes, monks and bishops set about creating a new religious order, while kings and princes started to stitch together new empires.

The Twin Pillars of Christendom: Church and State

The uneasy relationship between Church and State is a recurring theme in Holland’s account of the years 900 – 1100. On Christmas day 800, Pope Leo III had crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor of the West, a high point in relations between the two parties. A devout Catholic, the focal-point of the Carolingian Empire set about consolidating Christianity’s presence in his domain. However, in the following centuries, politics and religion would increasingly clash in the West. 

The decline of the western half of the former Carolingian Empire (West Francia) had led to a power vacuum. Dukes, counts and castellans fought to retain, and expand, their regional power bases. Peasants were helpless in the face of armoured men on horses – knights – and even the clergy suffered, especially from land loss. Bishops in Southern France ushered in the Peace of God in 989 at the Council of Charoux, a mass peace movement that threatened feuding nobles with religious sanctions. Ecclesiastical legislation sought to regulate warfare and protect the vulnerable, and was supported by vast crowds in open-space councils. 

In the latter 10thcentury, Holland explains, there emerged a succession of ‘Reforming Popes’ bent on increasing papal authority and stamping out impious behaviour within the Catholic Church, particularly simony and priestly marriage. Gregory VII, formerly Hildebrand, and Urban II, otherwise known as Odo of Châtillon, were two key figures. 

Gregory VII was hellbent in his conviction that he was God’s vice-regent on Earth, and that the central role of the Catholic Church was to unify the entire world into a single, Christian society. He clashed increasingly with Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, over the appointment of bishops in a stand-off that became known as the investiture controversy. Although lay powers had traditionally invested bishops with their power, Gregory VII believed in papal supremacy over secular might. 

Over the course of his papacy, Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV three times for disobeying him, the king famously walking over the Alps to Canossa in an attempt to secure the Bishop of Rome’s forgiveness. Henry IV even appointed an Antipope, Clement III, to try and wrestle away power from the incumbent pope. The events lead to a growing tension between the Church and State, which was only partially resolved in 1095, when Urban II called for the nobility to wrestle back authority over the Holy Land from Muslim infidels. The call was answered, and Jerusalem finally fell to the Crusaders in 1099.  

The Edge of Christendom 

Millennium adopts a notably Christian-centric perspective of the High Middle Ages; the spread of Christian doctrine across Europe is viewed as fundamentally beneficial – a process that served to prop-up, and enlarge, kingdoms and empires. 

Considerable attention is afforded to the periphery of Christendom in the first half of the book, particularly the pagan forces dwelling to the north and east of Europe. Holland offers detailed accounts of how the Kings of East Francia brought the Wends and Hungarians to submission, the baptism of the Duke of Poland (966), Rollo and Alexander of Kiev’s respective conversions to Christianity (911 & 988), the desolation of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain and the spread of Christian belief in Scandinavia. 

Over the roughly 200 years that Millenniumcovers, Christendom succeeded in not only shoring up its outposts, but expanding across vast swathes of land formerly inhabited by non-believers. 

Feudal Order

Narrative history is, by nature, less focused on why things happen, and more concerned with capturing historical events in an enticing and exciting manner. Invariably, Millennium suffers from the same fate. However, a chapter in the middle of the book, ‘Yielding Place to New’ is Holland at his analytical-best. 

The chapter zones in on the emergence of a new social order in the late 10thcentury, one that empowered local powers and detrimentally affected the multitude: the peasantry. Holland finds the first roots of what would become feudalism in France. He argues that the fashion for building castles – which, had initially flourished in Italy – made it easier for dukes and princes to harass rural dwellers. 

Indeed, the castle, in Holland’s eyes, was an almost mythological-like structure that began to dominate the French countryside in the Dark Ages: a power symbol that instilled fear into the hitherto free lower classes. As warring lords began to assume control over dotting farmers, the faintest signs of feudalism started to appear. 

Conclusion

Holland’s narrative-driven, ambitious and colourful take on narrative history offers a lot for readers. I learned a considerable amount about Norman efforts in Southern Italy, the formation of East and West Francia and popular religious prophecies in the period. 

Don’t expect 400 pages of systematic analysis and insight, but do expect a sound overview of developments in Europe across the High Middle Ages. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Tom Holland, ‘In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World’ Review


With a cast of characters including communism preaching Persian mystics, pillar-topping stylites and warrior-scholars, it’s hard not to be gripped by the grand narrative in Tom Holland’s study of Late Antiquity, In the Shadow of the Sword. Although the book purports to chart the founding of Islam, it does so much more, dissecting the religious and geopolitical history of the Near East from roughly 480 AD to the founding of Baghdad in 762 AD – the glistening capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate. A few of the key themes and motifs are: the cyclical nature of empire, the intertwining of state and monotheistic religion, and the power of the pen.

The birth and rise of monotheism

In essence, Holland examines how the world came to be shaped by the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and, to a certain extent, Zoroastrianism – the state religion of the Sassanid Empire in Ancient Persia. From the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 AD, to the power afforded to Muslim scholars in regulating laws and customs in the Caliphate, monotheistic religion played an increasing role in state-building towards the back end of antiquity.

Holland does a great job of elucidating the tensions between the Abrahamic religions, such as the fundamental differences in scripture and belief, and also carefully analyses what Christianity and Islam, in particular, may have looked like in the centuries following their inception: discordant, tainted by traces of paganism and lacking a guiding central force. He emphasises how scholars and religious figures – bishops, rabbis, ulama – came to be authoritative figures in the age, entrusted to interpret religious texts and guide their flocks in the shadow of the divine.

Controversy

This ultimately being a work of revisionist history, the author makes some controversial claims. Rather than corroborating thousands of years of Muslim scholarship, he contends – rather convincingly – that Muhammad did not live and prophesise in Mecca, but further north, on the fringes of Transjordan. By carefully constructing the Near East as a cultural melting pot, he also goes on to implicate that Islam emerged as a hybrid religion, and points towards the Quran’s reliance on a whole host of religious sources – both polytheistic and monotheistic – from the region.

‘The story of how Islam came to define itself, and to invent its own past, is only part of a much broader story: one that is ultimately about how Jews, Christians and Muslims all came by their understanding of religion. No other revolution in human thought, perhaps, has done more to transform the world”

I’m a big fan of maps being used as additional sources in popular history books. They help me to visualise where nations and cities are located, and to gain a greater appreciation of regional tensions. I can gladly write that In the Shadow of the Sword is full of them, with maps of Arabia, Iranshahr and The Holy Land, to name but a few examples. In a book that flickers across the world of Late Antiquity, referencing cities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Mesopotamia and the Hijaz, they are essential. The timeline of key events and list of dramatis personae, located at the end, are two more key tools to help readers comprehend a text that spans multiple centuries and empires.

My only partial criticisms would be…

  1. At times the book can feel slightly disjointed (although given its scope, this is somewhat understandable).
  2. Holland’s syntax can be difficult, with lots of clauses.
  3. Clearly symptomatic of popular history in general, but, the language was excessively colourful and dramatic in places.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Reading Log


We are now three quarters of the way through the disaster that is 2020 – only three more months to grind out – and to mark the occasion I thought I’d do a log of everything I’ve read so far this year.

I appreciate that it would have made more sense to do this 6 months into the year, but I’ve missed the boat and had some spare time last night, so quickly tallied up the texts on excel, dividing into fiction and non-fiction categories.

It was surprising to see that I’d read almost as many fiction texts as non-fiction texts (13 vs. 15). Since graduating with an English Literature degree, my natural inclination has been to drift towards historical/geopolitical books – a kind of sub-conscious rebellion against all the fiction I consumed in my three years in Manchester. That said, it seems I’m still partial to the odd novel.

I suppose part of the reason why I feel like I have always got a non-fiction book in my hand is because they invariably seem to be longer. Whereas I can get through a novel in 3-4 days, a 700-page historical text can take 2-3 weeks.


Reading List 2020

Fiction

  1. Mikhail Bulgakov, ‘The Master and Margarita’
  2. Albert Camus, ‘The Outsider’
  3. Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’
  4. Chuck Palahniuk, ‘Fight Club’
  5. David Foster Wallace, ‘Infinite Jest’
  6. Henry Miller, ‘Tropic of Cancer’
  7. Ian McEwan, ‘Machines Like Me’
  8. John Steinbeck, ‘Cannery Row’
  9. Julian Barnes, ‘England, England’
  10. Julian Barnes, ‘The Sense of an Ending’
  11. Patrick Hamilton, ‘Hangover Square’
  12. Salman Rushdie, ‘Quichotte’
  13. Virginia Woolf, ‘To the Lighthouse’

Non-Fiction

  1. Alex Ferguson, ‘My Autobiography’
  2. Andy Malsen, ‘Write to Sell: The Ultimate Guide to Great Copywriting’
  3. Chris Wickham, ‘Medieval Europe’
  4. Eugene Rogan, ‘The Arabs: A History’
  5. John Romer, ‘A History of Ancient Egypt’
  6. Marc Morris, ‘The Norman Conquest’
  7. Micheal Atherton, ‘Atherton’s Ashes’
  8. Paul Strathen, ‘The Medici’
  9. Reni-Eddo Lodge, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
  10. Simon Jenkins, ‘A Short History of England’
  11. Thomas Williams, ‘Viking Britain: A History’
  12. Tom Holland, ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’
  13. Tom Holland, ‘Millenium’
  14. Tom Holland, ‘Persian Fire’
  15. Uwe Schutte, ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’

In terms of what’s up next… Judith Herrin’s new book, Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe, is certainly on my reading list, and so too is Maggie O’Farell’s period tale, Hamnet. Sport-wise, Cricket 2.0 by Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde has been causing a bit of a storm, so I will try and get my hands on that.


Ian McEwan, ‘Machines Like Me’ Review

I raced through Machines Like Me. The narrative was gripping and enriched by a sense of foreboding. It always felt as though something dark might be around the corner (and their often was), but the novel never quite descended into the dystopian ‘machine gone wrong’ tale that I had expected. Having never read anything by McEwan before, the suspenseful and evolving plot was a real highlight.

Set in a counter-factual London of 1982 – one in which technology is anachronistically advanced, the Falklands War has been lost, and Alan Turing is alive and celebrated as the patriarch of AI – the novel charts a love-triangle between two humans and a humanoid robot named Adam. The narrator, Charlie Friend, is a thirty-something technology enthusiast who avoids full-time employment by making incremental profits on the stock market. Unable to inhibit his curiosity, he spends his inheritance on a cutting-edge robot named Adam. Deeply in love with Miranda, a social history student living above his North Clapham flat, Charlie envisages that co-parenthood of their proto-child will bring the two closer together, but Adam is soon romantically drawn towards Miranda, and vice versa. 

“As Schopenhauer said about free will, you can choose whatever you desire, but you’re not free to choose your desires”.

McEwan tackles a multitude of themes (consciousness, political factionalism, historic recurrence, the complexity of human relationships) but his deliberations on morality are central. Although Adam is meticulously programmed to behave as if human, he struggles to comprehend man’s flawed ethic, and this leads to his demise. Openly in love with Miranda, he is compelled to indict her at the conclusion of the novel, confident that the sense of justice will liberate her. In contrast, human characters repeatedly allow emotions (love, rage, revenge) to overpower ethical considerations. Adam is not alone in suffering from a realisation that humanness equates with imperfection. He is one of thirteen ‘Adams’ and twelve ‘Eves’ who are sold to the public, and we read how a handful of the androids effectively self-implode when they fail to reconcile humanity’s failings. One is compelled to sympathise with the cyborgs. 

The ethical dilemmas don’t stop with Adam. Miranda tells how her childhood best friend, Mariam, was raped by a boy named Gorringe at their school. She pledges Miranda to secrecy and then later commits suicide. In response, Miranda keeps the secret but later orchestrates an elaborate plot to get Gorringe convicted on a false rape charge. Where does this position the novel’s heroine? The tragic story of Mark, a child placed into care who Miranda and Charlie plan on adopting, is another interesting sub-plot, and allows McEwan to take aim at the endless bureaucracy and general inadequacy of social services.

In spite of the sections on AI and some of Adam’s philosophical meanderings, the prose is generally limpid and transparent. Characters are well-constructed and complex. Charlie is a technology whizz and devout lover, but he is also avaricious, self-indulgent and uninspiring; Miranda is compassionate – a dedicated student, daughter and friend, but also harbours a dark secret. Their relationship mutates over the course of the novel, and it is never quite clear if Adam’s love is fully reciprocated.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.