Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Ben Hopkins - Cathedral

Covering 50 years in the history of a small town in the middle of 13th century German Rhineland this is an epic novel in every way. As the title suggests, the book centres on the construction of the massive cathedral in Hagenburg, a project begun by an aging Bishop who wants it to be his legacy. This sets the tone for the book's great scale, but around the cathedral spins a cast of characters whose lives, loves and scheming draw the reader into the world of 13th century German fiefdoms. Reviews have drawn comparisons with Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth, another massive book with a cathedrals' construction at its centre. But what makes the books different is that Ben Hopkins' understands wider dynamics in contemporary German society. The rivalries that set people against each other in Hopkins' novel aren't simply jealousies or hatred, they are the tensions created by a feudal system in crisis and the emergence of merchant capitalism.

The book opens with one of its central figures, a young serf coming into the town to pay his taxes. While there the serf borrows money from a Jewish money lender, to buy his freedom, and sets about learning the stonemasons craft. His brother becomes apprenticed to the Jewish lender, and develops a talent for buying low and selling high. Machinations at the top of the town - and conflict between the secular world of the merchants and the religious world of the Bishop's circles form a backdrop to tensions lower down. The cathedral itself becomes a venue for these arguments - as merchants and traders use it to organise their business.

But this is still a feudal world. Various lords scheme for wealth and power, and the rise of merchant capital both challenges them and offers them assistance. Hopkins' talent is to weave these different threads together. His writing isn't overly detailed - the chapters are short and tight - but he paints a detailed world. There are some interesting characters. Some strong women, and Hopkins' includes a gay character in a way that feels extremely realistic. I was most taken however by the way he shows the scheming, malevolence of the lords and bishops. Some of these are truly nasty people. My only gripe is that the authors' focus on the town means he neglects the main source of wealth for all these lords - peasant labour on the land.

Without spoiling too much, there are some surprising twists and deaths, and an excellently depicted medieval urban rising. But I wanted to finish by noting that Hopkins' has done excellent work in showing the way that Jewish communities were both central to urban life, and separate. The antisemitism and pogroms they face are described in brutal detail, but so is the way that the changes in medieval society also have their impact upon the Jewish community. It's a real strength of the Ben Hopkins' writing that a novel based on a Cathedral doesn't solely focus on Christians, but tries to reflect the whole of urban medieval life. 

In describing the book as epic I am also mindful of the way the author brings all the threads to a satisfying close at the end, even if a few of them seem a little too abrupt. But, for a book that is over 600 pages long, I was held gripped till the end. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Vuillard - The War of the Poor
Follett - World Without End
Follett - The Pillars of the Earth

Monday, May 24, 2021

Kate Aronoff - Overheated: How capitalism broke the planet and how we fight back

By far the best of the recent batch of books on climate change, this is an explicit attempt to demonstrate why capitalism drives climate change and what the alternative is. It's strengths are that it places the crisis central to the economic system, but also links in wider questions of racial injustice, colonialism and the financial system with these. Aronoff is arguing for a more just, more equitable society - but also one where people work less, are paid more and don't have to worry about housing, education or bringing up the kids. The problem is that there is no strategy to get this.

The excellent critique of neo-liberalism isn't extended to wider capitalism, which leaves the reader speculating that things would be better if we hadn't had Thatcher or Reagan. Even under capitalism we might win many of the reforms that Aronoff proposes - and have better, more sustainable lives - but she doesn't offer the reader any discussion of how we might win: Despite acknowledging the role of the capitalist state in blocking social and environmental change. As Naomi Klein once wrote, only mass movements can save us now. Sadly this book misses an opportunity to explore this further, which is a shame particularly as Aronoff frequently talks about the importance of workers and their organisations. 

You can read my full review of this and other recent climate books here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Jean Froissart - Chronicles

Jean Froissart's Chronicles are his relatively contemporary, and sometimes eyewitness, accounts of events around the Hundred Years War. There is something remarkably special about reading about events like the Battles of Crecy or Poitiers, or the Jacquerie and the English Rising by someone writing down oral accounts or stories passed on by witnesses. 

Froissart was a historian, writer, poet and courtier who lived around 1337 to 1405. His life covered much of the key period of the Hundred Years War and we are blessed that Froissart was an able writer, with an eye for detail and scandal, as well as a compulsion to put it all down on paper. Some early parts of The Chronicles are based on earlier writings of the French chronicler Jean Le Bel, but the bulk of Froissart's work is notes made from interviews with eyewitnesses. They are entertaining, illuminating and at times very insightful. That said, they aren't always historically accurate. 

The modern reader might find Froissart somewhat of a snob. He seems obsessed with chivalry, and details of courtly events. His eyewitness account of a jousting tournament is fascinating, though the edition I read cuts it short because the detail of shields, emblems, and how each individual joust proceeded is repetitive. "Their lances were stout and did not break, but curved up, and the powerful thrusts by strong arms stopped the horses dead in their tracks. Both knights then went back to their own ends, without dropping their lances..." But reading these descriptions you realise that this information is of the greatest importance - the descriptions of chivalric behaviour, the details of who won and lost, are crucial for Froissart's audience and those who commissioned him.

While it is the big events that Froissart describes, or saw, that often draw readers attention - the Peasants Revolt, or the fall of Richard II are examples, I was also struck by other details - such as when Froissart talks about staying in an inn or a casual discussion. Whether or not Froissart is completely accurate in his description of the Papal schism (he isn't), his account of the role of the Roman population again gives a sense of what he would have thought important. 

Which brings me to the two events I was most interested in - Froissart's descriptions of two Peasants Revolts, one in France and one in England. I've previously read, and re-read, his accounts of the 1381 when the English Rising shook Richard II's kingdom to its foundations. They are similar in tone to his writings about the Jacquerie a few decades earlier. In both cases Froissart demonstrates both a hatred and a fear of the masses, whom he understands as being irrationally angry and violent. The French rebels, were

evil men, who had come together without leaders or arms, pillaged and burned everything and violated and killed all the ladies and girls without mercy, like mad dogs. Their barbarous acts were worse than anything that ever took place between Christians and Saracens. Never did men commits such vile deeds.

He goes on to say that these deeds were so awful he "could never bring myself to write down the horrible and shameful things which they did to the ladies". 

Most striking, for me, about these passages is less the violence (which Froissart exaggerates) and more the reference to the rebels rising "without leaders". Here he is upset at the disordering of the medieval world. The rebels aren't, in his view, just rebelling, they are also doing so in ways that destroy hierarchies. Ironically, as Justine Firnhaber-Baker has recently shown, the rebels did have leaders - chosen from below (as they did in 1381 in England). Though Froissart would no doubt have found this equally unpalatable.

Froissart's Chronicles have been popular through the ages precisely because his eye for detail makes them extremely entertaining. Many of the events he describes are some of the most important of the era, but readers will also be struck that the Chronicler is doing more than writing history - he is writing a version of it that fits the prejudices and class interests of his aristocratic audience. It is this that makes the book truly fascinating.

Related Reviews

Firnhaber-Baker - The Jacquerie of 1358
Sumption - Trial by Battle: The Hundred Years War I
Sumption - Trial by Fire: The Hundred Years War II
Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History
Hilton - Bond Men Made Free
O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Mathew Lawrence & Laurie Laybourn-Langton - Planet on Fire

This ambitious work tries to pose a positive alternative to the capitalist driven ecological breakdown that we are experiencing. Its great strength is that it locates the problem not as an outlier to capitalism, but as a consequence of a system driven by profit. As such, ecological crisis isn't separated from wider social, gender and racial injustices. The authors recognise the legacy of colonialism and ongoing imperialism as part of the problem. The problem with the book is two fold. Firstly there is no real break from capitalism - essentially the authors want a world where companies aren't run for profit, where the finance system is greened and equitable and where production is organised in the interests of people and planet. But they want this without explaining how this break with capitalist practice might occur. Which brings us to the second problem - there's no agency. People are seen as part of the solution, but not the mechanism for this transformation. So the book is a worthy read, full of interesting ideas, but feels like the Utopian socialists all over again.

You can read my full review of this, and other recent books on climate change here.

Related Reviews

Gates - How to Avoid a Climate Disaster
Klein - This Changes Everything
Klein - On Fire
Hultgren - Border Walls Gone Green
Commoner - The Closing Circle

Saturday, May 15, 2021

James S.A. Corey - Nemesis Games

Volume five of the Expanse novels is a very different work. For a start it feels less self-contained, more of a bridge between the epic setting of the scenes in the first novels and the later half of the series. In the first half we learn how the various factions of humanity, spread through the inner solar system and the minor planets suddenly break out into the wider galaxy, provoking war, economic chaos and depopulation as people rush for new galactic real estate.

Nemesis Games however returns to the solar system. Our heroes from the previous books, James Holden's crew, are recovering from their adventures and while their spaceship is reparied, they take leave to return to friends, family and secrets, from their previous lives. Scattered between Mars, Earth and the inner solar system, they are caught on the hop as Earth is attacked by a massive attack. Millions die, and Holden's crew have to find their way back to each other while surviving the catastrophe and the subsequent battle for political supremacy that takes place after Earth is almost wiped out.

It's another decent novel in the series, a quick read that feels more like an episodic TV series. Enjoyable for fans of the previous works, even if it felt a little like filler for the wider story arc.

Related Reviews

Corey - Abaddon's Gate
Corey - Cibola Burn
Corey - Leviathan Wakes
Corey - Caliban's War

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Michael E. Mann - The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet

At its best when taking on climate deniers and explaining the science, this attempt to be optimistic in the face of the climate threat by a renowned climate scientist fails to get to the heart of the problem. Mann's solutions focus on shifting public opinion to pressure fossil fuel corporations and economic pressure through carbon pricing. There's no real sense of a system that destroys the environment through a relentless drive for profit. A weak, liberal, book that doesn't do justice to the problem.

You can read my full review of this and other recent books on climate here.

Related Reviews

Gates - How to Avoid a Climate Disaster
Klein - This Changes Everything
Klein - On Fire

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Justine Firnhaber-Baker - The Jacquerie of 1358: A French Peasants' Revolt

Reading Jean Froissart's Chronicles of the Hundred Years War recently I was struck by the vehemence with which he describes participants in the Jacquerie - the peasant revolt that shook France. The rising took place in the political chaos that followed the French defeat at the Battle of Poitiers where the English captured the French king. For Froissart, and other contemporaries, the Jacquerie were "strange and terrible happenings"  where "evil men, who had come together without leaders or arms, pillaged and burned everything and violated and killed all the ladies and girls without mercy, like mad dogs". 

Such language matches that with which Froissart and contemporary chroniclers describe rebellions in England and I wondered at other parallels. So I was very excited to learn about Justine Firnhaber-Baker's new book. As the reader quickly gathers from Firnhaber-Baker's extensive notes and bibliography there are no shortage of books and articles on the 1358 events in France. But her book fills an obvious gap for English readers - an accessible and scholarly study of the events. She begins by summarising what took place at the end of May 1358:

As summer approached and people prepared to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi, thousands of French villagers revolted. In the Île-de-France north of Paris, Normandy to its west, Picardy and Champagne to its east, and further afield, they attached the nobilities castles and manor houses, burning them down and destroying or stealing their contents. They killed noblemen and assaulted their families. According to some reports, they event killed noble children and gang-raped noblewomen, murdering some pregnant ones. On 10 June at the eastern city of Meaux, they allied with urban commoners and troops from Paris, itself in rebellion against the crown, in order to attack a castle on the Marne River... there they were defeated. The castle's noble garrison chased down those who managed to flee and slaughtered them 'like pigs'.

The Jacquerie sent shivers down the spines of nobility throughout Europe. Yet, unlike some other medieval rebellions, such as the English Rising of 1381, source material is much more scarce. Firnhaber-Baker has scoured it to explore the detail behind the crude propaganda of Froissart and others, and try and answer key questions. Why did the villagers revolt? Why in 1358 and not before? What were the links between national politics and local issues? How barbaric were the rebels? How violent was the crushing. 

Key to answering these questions is the author's central argument that the motivations of the rebels cannot be separated from wider politics. We must not think of medieval villagers as being ignorant masses unconcerned with wider issues. In fact, it's precisely the interaction between "national politics" and local concerns (economic and political) that drove English rebellions such as those of Wat Tyler, Jack Cade, Robert Kett and more complex risings such as the Pilgrimage of Grace. So Firnhaber-Baker quotes the Royal Chronicler who said of the people in Paris and it's countryside were "greatly dismayed, for they feared that there would be conflict between the two lords leading to the destruction of the country."

In other words, the political crisis at the top of French society that followed the capture of Jean II at Poitiers, cascaded down through society among people who could expect to feel, or had already experienced, the ravages of military forces. For ordinary people the fractures taking place in society were a direct threat because they upset the established order. 

So it would be wrong to simply understand the Jacquerie as a economic revolt against oppression, low incomes or serfdom. But simultaneously it would be incorrect to ignore how these issues fed into wider discontent. Which helps explain why the rebellion was sparked when it did. Firnhaber-Baker explains the rebellion itself was not "spontaneous". There is always a tendency after rebellions or uprisings take place for commentators to be surprised at events taking place "out of the blue". It is as true of (say) contemporary riots and protest movements against police racism which seem to come out of nowhere, but reflect deep-seated discontent at racism as it was in 1358 or 1381. 

Froissart implies the Jaccquerie began when someone got up and denounced the nobility and called for their destruction, but events had much deeper roots. As Firnhaber-Baker says about the massacre of nobles at Saint-Leu-D'esserent that marks the start of the rebellion:

The rustics may have acted on their own initiative, for while the incident did serve the Parisians' purposes, they do not seem to have anticipated it. Nor were urban sophisticates the only ones to have opinions about politics. Country-folk knew what was happening in Paris, and some were sympathetic. A month earlier, a villager had been killed near Compiegne for telling some noblemen 'Go to Paris, where all you nobles will be killed just as others already have been'.

A "spontaneous" attack on nobles took place because the presence of the nobles themselves in the area was linked by local people to wider political changes. The attack on the nobles would likely have been understood by participants as an engagement by their communities into national events. That latter commentators close to the victorious elite saw this as the result of a few agitators reflects their fears and prejudices. Firnhaber-Baker points out that the rising was not an intended consequence of the actions of peasants in one part of France. "Organising a large-scale rural uprising would have required a prodigious act of imagination on anyone's part", but nontheless it happened. Rural revolt was not unknown in Frnace, but large-scale revolts were "rare".

The scarcity of contemporary sources hides much of the detail of the rising from us. But the lack of political demands on the part of the rebels should not imply that they didn't exist - even if they weren't articulated into a series of "articles" like those of Robert Kett's movement. But there are moments when the "masses" enter onto the historical stage and begin to shape events, even if few participants understand them, at least initially, like this. Leon Trotsky famously wrote in his History of the Russian Revolution:

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

This is not to pretend that the Jacquerie was a precursor of the 1917 Russian Revolution, but rather to try to understand the dynamic that was taking place on the ground. In May 1358 the French masses took to the historical stage, and began to shape national politics.

A few weeks into the Jacquerie there is a key moment when one noble, Charles Navarre appears to switch sides and attacks the rebels, despite them being essentially on the side of his own allies. A crude class analysis, which Firnhaber-Baker rejects, says that this occurs because of him recognising his innate position in French society: "Speculation that Navarre's class consciousness trumped his strategic interest do not jibe with the evidence". Instead she sees it as Navarre's actions as arising out of "political opportunism" rather than "morality or class solidarity". I'm not entirely convinced that the separation is as clear as that - in fact it strikes me that Navarre's opportunism arises precisely out of his class position. It must have been clear to him that the Jacquerie were not going to militarily defeat his enemies, and making his own class position clear through violent repression cannot have harmed his cause, or his opportunism. 

Rightly Firnhaber-Baker rejects crude class analyses of peasant revolts. Understanding, for instance, the contradictory roles of local landowners or lords, during (say) the Pilgrimage of Grace or Kett's Rebellion means seeing their class role in the context of wider society - and local as well as national social links. Nonetheless we cannot ignore that there was a class role. So the author is right to say in her conclusion that:

Politics were important, but more so in terms of the practices of mobilisation and coalition-building than ideas about society and government or the objectives of change The social relationships that wove people and communities together or that tore them apart were at least as important in creating the revolt and ensuring its suppression as were opinions on governance, war or even taxation.

But it is also true to say that the revolt would not have happened without class interests and the factional fights within the ruling class, shaping wider changes in society. 

If I've focused here on the role of class. I should also point out that Firnhaber-Baker's book is excellent in drawing out other divisions in society. In particular I was impressed by her account of the role of gender. While noting the role that women played in the revolt itself, she also highlights how their wider labour was central to making sure that the rebellion could happen at all.

No rural rebellion could have taken place without someone milking the cows, nursing the babies and weeding the kitchen gardens. If the law was unconcerned by these quotidian labours, the nobles' reaction demonstrates and understanding of their contribution to the uprisings. Considering responsibility to have been corporate and universal, they punished whole villages, without apparent regard to innocence or guilt, age or gender. 

It is precisely this nuanced approach that places the Jacquerie in a wider social, political and economic context that makes this book such a delight to read. Justine Firnhaber-Baker's book fills an important gap in the literature and is likely to be the definitive work on these events for many years. I encourage anyone with an interest in rural rebellion and medieval revolts to read it. 

Related Reviews

Sumption - Trial by Battle: The Hundred Years War I
Sumption - Trial by Fire: The Hundred Years War II

Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History
Hilton - Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381
Hoyle - The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s
Wood - Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England

Friday, May 07, 2021

Phillip Mann - Wulfsyarn

I first read Wulfsyarn when it was published in the early 1990s. I thought I would remember almost nothing about it, but I quickly found I remembered key imagery from the book even though I'd forgotten much of the story. The thoughtfully portrayed artificial beings that are at the heart of the story turned out to be particular memorable. The story is told by Wulf, the autoscribe. Wulf is a massive floating object shaped like a Spartan helmet. Alongside Wulf is Lily, a medical robot, whose bulky body is designed to protect and treat injured humans. On her front in faded paint, is a cheerful face, painted to comfort the orphan she used to look after on a war ravaged planet. There's more than a hint of comic cyberpunk to these characters, but the book takes things in a very different direction.

Both Lily and Wulf are extremely old. Thus Wulfsyarn covers only part of their personal stories, though he fills up gaps with both of their histories - cleverly fleshing out the universe that the main tale is part of. The two robots care for Jon Wilberfoss, the captain of the Nightingale, a massive transport, hospital ship and exploring vessel that disappeared. Wilberfoss was the only survivor. The remainder of the crew - human and alien - perished in some unknown disaster.

Though Wulf's retelling (and occasional embellishment), the reader gradually pieces together the story of the Nightingale's first and last voyage. We learn about what drove Wilberfoss to be a member of the religious order that built the Nightingale, his marriage to a non-human and the fears that torment him. Seemingly minor events in his youth, and smaller parts from other characters all contribute to the crisis that engulfs Wilderfoss' ship and his escape. The religious backdrop to this novel might surprise some readers - with a power church it reminded me a little of Simmon's Hyperion novels or the steampunk future of Roberts' Pavane. But for Mann the religious is less about creating a intergalactic empire like the Hyperion Cantos and more about giving substance and motivation to Wilberfoss, and those who abandon him when they perceive his failure.

I didn't expect to enjoy Phillip Mann's novel as much as I did. My memories weren't positive, but in the early 1990s I preferred a diet of action and adventure to more cerebral SF&F. My edition has a quote from The Times' review "Here by tygers of the mind" - I don't think I quite understood the meaning until my re-read.  But while the story at the heart of Wulfsyarn is fairly straightforward, its retelling by Wulf (with small contributions from Lilly) and Phillip Mann's cleverly constructed universe makes for a work that ought to be read more widely. 

Related Reviews

Roberts - Pavane
Simmons - Hyperion
Willis - Doomsday Book
Anders - The City in the Middle of the Night