Saturday, 8 June 2019

Review: The Hundred Years War, by Alan Lloyd

Written in the 1970s, this book is about 170 pages and covers the entirety of the war. Naturally, that means it has to skimp on detail in places (although the battles are well-described and I did learn some interesting facts I didn’t know previously, such as France’s population at the time being roughly three or four times that of England).

There’s plenty of medieval artwork (although the Henry IV portrait actually isn’t him, according to a much more recent biography of said monarch by Ian Mortimer) and maps, which are clear and helpful, are peppered throughout the pages.

The general ebb and flow of this prolonged contest, which was as much down to who happened to be king of either side as anything that happened on the battlefield, is well-described, and I’m glad the relatively low number of battles was gotten across, as was the development of siege weaponry and varying martial habits (from brutalising the peasantry to trying to win them over through restrained behaviour).

I liked reading the book, though it should be stressed this isn’t an exhaustive account (or, indeed, an attempt at one) so it’s perhaps best as an overview or introduction. Other general books of that nature, with more detail, include Philippe Contamine’s War in the Middle Ages (reviewed here), and Christopher Allmand’s The Hundred Years War (reviewed here).

There’s also Ian Mortimer’s excellent biography of Edward III (The Perfect King, reviewed here), which covers about half the conflict.


Saturday, 1 June 2019

Review: After the Ice, by Steven Mithen

After the Ice covers human prehistory from 20,000 BC to 5,000 BC. This extends from the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), covers the initial warming after the end of the Ice Age, the cold spike of the Younger Dryas, and the return of the warming trend.

Beyond the obvious warming and a vague fuzzy awareness of hunter-gathering giving way to farming, my knowledge of this sort of period was minimal at best.

It’s a global book, looking at every continent on Earth and charting, in some cases, the arrival of mankind (in the Americas), and the development of man, which varied quite a lot. It’s intriguing to see the differing advance of technology and the earliest establishment of towns (in the Middle East/Mesopotamia), and the intermediate phase between hunter-gathering and Neolithic farming that happened in Europe and elsewhere (the Mesolithic).

As interesting were common features, particularly cave art and the use of stone (mostly flint and obsidian).

The author’s approach was to combine a straightforward archaeological summary with the practical implications, telling these through plausible vignettes of an unseen time traveller, John Lubbock (named after a Victorian who wrote a related book), as he visits various places and times to see how people lived.

The book is quite large, just over 500 pages (beyond which lies the index etc), and later on some of the less distinctive places/locations do blend into one another somewhat.

The epilogue was very interesting, and I liked the credible alternative perspectives on GM crops (essentially, it could bugger biodiversity and cause extinctions, or cure world hunger) and other matters. Throughout the book there’s a general open-minded approach that avoids imposing a single view when there are plausible options or a lack of evidence.