Looking for a Fight

By Hilton, Lisa | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), December 6, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Looking for a Fight

Hilton, Lisa, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)

History First came the doom-and-gloom pillaging - then the raging battle between wainscotting and marble

History feels urgent again. Perhaps it's the new decade, perhaps it's the intense political and economic challenges of the last, but history has cast off its donnish tweeds and emerged lean and sexy.

Early-medieval Europe generally gets a rough deal. Sandwiched between the fall of Rome and the rise of proto-nationalist polities, the period is frequently defined only in terms of what came before or after. Chris Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (Allen Lane, 35) insists on its value as an independent field of study in a daring effort at "history without hindsight". The clumsiness of received divisions between East and West, civilisation and barbarism is convincingly elucidated, but Wickham's dexterity with his sources transcends theory, creating vibrant living portraits of individuals who were unaware that history would condemn their lives as no more than a mosaic of decline and fall.

Hemlock all round for those who think the classics are irrelevant: like Wickham, Josiah Ober's Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (Princeton, 20.95) provocatively re-examines an unfashionable period. Unapologetic about the relationship between democracy and knowledge, Ober is also explicit in drawing comparisons between Athenian democracy and American attempts to promote its own version around the world. Participatory democracy on the Athenian model, Ober argues, can surpass authoritarian rivals, particularly as the potential of technology for facilitating knowledge aggregation and public action has yet to be explored.

Robert Ferguson's The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings (Allen Lane, 30) is a new account of "Viking heathendom" which incorporates not just a significant period of British history, but a discrete culture which dominated Northern Europe for centuries. The definition of "Western" values has been an ongoing debate in recent years, and Ferguson, one of the world's leading scholars of Scandinavian literature and archaeology, adds another layer to our perception of our origins, in this compelling and often poignant portrait of a pagan warrior society faced with Christianity on the march. Ferguson rejects revisionist views of the Vikings as "a group of long-haired tourists who roughed up the locals a bit", seeking to show how our understanding of the Vikings is incomplete without a consideration of the violence of their culture. But he remains sympathetic to the poetry of their doomed world. Rape and pillage have never been so thrilling.

Revolting peasants are the history teacher's standard gag, and two books on the British penchant for dissent illuminate the background to our unique political consensus. Inspire your inner anarchist with David Horspool's The English Rebel: One Thousand years of Troublemaking from the Normans to the Nineties (Viking, 25), a millennium's worth of British bolshiness which demonstrates that "left-wing is the last adjective that could be accurately applied to rebellions from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century". The English reputation for placid stoicism, Horspool argues, derives more from the fact that our revolutions are older than those of continental Europe. Indeed if there is such a thing as national character, ours includes a talent for tactical violence - inherited from the Vikings, perhaps? Horspool's invigorating comparisons between, for example, the silvatici of the 11th century and contemporary eco-warriors suggest that rebellion remains a thriving tradition.

Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 (HarperPress, 20) by Dan Jones is more tightly focused; an alliance of sound scholarship and sexy writing which makes this first popular account of our most famous class war essential reading. Jones' account of the circumstances leading to the Peasant's Revolt places it within the negotiations between monarch and people power which shaped the British constitution, as well as assessing the influence of wider European circumstance.

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Looking for a Fight


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