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’

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.

Salman Rushdie, ‘Quichotte’ Review

Salman Rushdie’s post-modern take on Miguel de Cervantes’ 16th century classic, Don Quixote, is comic, calculated and poignant in equal measures. It nods to the original but paradoxically remains distinctively modern, with the issues affecting contemporary US society taking centre stage: the opioid crisis, consumerism, pharmaceutical corruption and racism.

It is also a tour-de-force of pop culture, literary allusions and genre. Cultural references adorn nearly every page: from Alice in Wonderland to Oprah, American Idol and Madonna, Sonny Liston and Elvis. Through the main character Quichotte – a fictional creation of failed spy thriller writer, Sam Duchamp – Rushdie satirises America’s infatuation with junk culture and laments its damaging effect on the public psyche. A travelling salesman, Quichotte – formerly Ismail Smile – spends long hours watching reality TV in cheap hotels, falls in love with chat-show host, Salma R, and sets out on a long road-trip quest to purify himself before uniting with his ‘beloved’. Along the way, he dreams up an imaginary son, Sancho, battles mastodons, experiences small-town xenophobia and confronts his forgotten past. 

As aforementioned, Quichotte is a story within a story; a few chapters in the reader is introduced to Sam, who, disillusioned with his literary output, is attempting to write his magnus opus. Yet we are also given the perspective of Sancho, Salma R and Sam’s sister, just to confuse things further. While the layered structure appears quite disjointed in the first half of the novel, the second seems to work considerably better. The clear demarcation between author-character becomes increasingly distorted, and we begin to question what is fact and what is fiction: arguably one of meta-fiction key aims. As Rushdie settles in to his groove the connections between Sam and Quichotte’s worlds appear ever closer. 

“AS I PLAN MY QUEST,” Quichotte said, drinking from a can of ginger ale, “I ponder the contemporary period as well as the classical. And by the contemporary I mean, of course, The Bachelorette”.

For me, the text deliberated effectively on the connection between author and their output, and recalled memories of studying Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ theory in university. Rushdie’s interest in how myth permeates society and the boundary between fiction/non-fiction makes Quichotte a topical work in the post-truth world. 


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Reni Eddo-Lodge, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’


In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death, there has been a renewed focus on the social obligation we all share to educate ourselves of the ills of systemic racism. Books tackling race relations and racial inequality have dominated best-seller lists across the globe in recent weeks, and information about the Black Lives Matter movement and instances of police brutality have spread across social media like wildfire. The bold front cover page of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race has become instantly recognisable – ‘marketing gold’ in the current climate, according to one literary reviewer from The Times. It was in the spirit of educating myself – with a particular interest in Britain’s problematic racial history – that I began reading. 

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is, in essence, an expose of structural racism in Britain. It contains seven essays – both self-contained and inter-connected – that tackle topics from white privilege, fear of immigrants and the intersectionality between race, gender and class. The first essay – ‘Histories’ – functions as an illuminating synopsis of the struggle faced by black people in Britain over the last half a millennium. It is a tale of slavery, lynchings and police brutality. Eddo-Lodge writes in an angry, passionate and stark manner, from the perspective of an individual who has both experienced and intensely studied her topic. 

As a white, anti-racist reader, I found the book particularly challenging in that it asked me to come to terms with my complicity in a racially unequal social structure. Eddo-Lodge’s argument is that maintaining anti-racist sentiment is not enough, and that white people should first come to terms with their unrealised biases and prejudices, using this moment of realisation as a launching-point for enacting future change. It is uneasy to read something that plainly accuses you (as reader) of wrong, but the bold and accusatory nature of the text is one of its main strengths. 

The author’s explanation of ‘white privilege’ really stood out to me. She describes it as an ‘absence’ – not something to be gained, but something that white people are fortunate to live without.

“White privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost.” 

After all, there are millions of disadvantaged, working-class people in Britain who face poverty and deal with social inequality. But they can be confident that their race will not negatively affect them in the same way. The figures are startling and shocking: ‘According to the Department of Education, a black schoolboy in England is three times more likely to be excluded than the rest of the population’; ‘between 2012 and 2013, the highest proportion of UK students to receive the lowest degree-ranking… was among black students, with the lowest proportion being white students; research shows that individuals with white British-sounding names are more likely to be called back for interviews than those with African or Asian-sounding names, despite having similar skill-sets, education and work histories.

Eddo-Lodge’s diatribe against structural racism concludes by suggesting that the burden should not be carried by black people in purging racism from our institutions, but that the white British population should take up the mantle and spread anti-racist ideology, whether in the workplace, the streets or in the home. She contends that rage is more powerful than guilt, and so her final message to readers is: ‘get angry’. 


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Julian Barnes, ‘England England’

After fittingly revisiting Albert Camus’ The Plague at the start of quarantine, I next wanted to read an overtly comical novel that was lighter in tone. After some research, I ordered Julian Barnes’ England, England; having never encountered Barnes’ oeuvre before, I was not disappointed. I actually read England, England alongside Mikhail Bulgakov’s seminal work The Master and Margarita, and whilst I enjoyed both, Barnes’ novel resonated more with me. 

England, England loosely follows the life of Martha Cochrane from her adolescence, through to her working life and later years. Martha, a Special Consultant, is employed by the heavily satirised newspaper magnate, Sir Jack Pitman, who dreams up the idea of creating a microcosmic, mini-England on the Isle of Wight for wealthy tourists to enjoy. Martha and her co-worker turned love interest, Paul, eventually blackmail the megalomanic Sir Jack and assume control of the island, only for scandal and betrayal to deprive her of her job. In the third and final section of the novel, Martha returns to a nostalgic ‘Old England’, which has regressed to a pre-industrial state. 

On reading Barnes for the first time, what stood out to me immediately was his range and mastery of language. The prose was rich, evocative, symbolic and, at times, shocking. It could also be visceral and sexual: ‘With Christine he burst into a world of condom-unrolling and menstruation, of being allowed to put his hands anywhere’; ‘she slid a finger into her mouth, and then into the top of her cunt’. His characters engage in witty and calculated conversations (Paul and Martha’s bedtime conversations are a real highlight) and the entire novel is deeply satirical. But whilst it is undoubtedly a ‘funny’ book, there are poignant moments and strands that infiltrate the narrative, particularly when Martha philosophises on her childhood, gender and sexuality. 

The prominent themes relate to national identity and national myths. When Sir Jack asks his Concept Developer, Jeff, to come up with a list of the fifty quintessences of Englishness, he bemoans the ‘character assassination’ of the English that the survey implies: ‘snobbery’, ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘whingeing’ are all traits that potential visitors to the island consider integral to Englishness. Throughout, Barnes deconstructs, subverts and re-interprets powerful ideas about the nation and identity. Attractions and historical figures are simplified and caricatured. Myths are re-imagined so that they are purged of any perceived impurities and made accessible for the doting visitors. Nell Gwynn (mistress of Charles II), for example, is presented in pure and unthreatening terms as a friendly, elderly lady selling juice: ‘her essence, like her juice, had been concentrated’. Yet later in the book the actors playing Robin Hood and his Band of Merry Men adopt their roles so readily that they literally become outcasts, stealing livestock and shooting arrows, ‘rebelling against the Project, against .. [the].. repositioning of the myth’. 

England, England is a complicated and multi-faceted novel that is both unwaveringly critical and farcical. I will definitely be returning to Barnes in the near future.