Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu
By Laurence Bergreen
Published in October 2008
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
I have read one of the many translations of Marco Polo’s adventures several years ago, but thought that I would revisit the story. This time, instead of reading the original, I instead read a historian’s reconstruction.
The reconstruction added a lot of context to the original.
Having read this book after having read more about the Mongols and the period in general, I had a much better understanding of the characters and geography. I cannot believe I didn’t remember this - but Marco Polo was an advisor to Kublai Khan - a monumentally important detail that I somehow forgot.
One thing that struck me was how much Marco Polo was focused on sex. He describes entire towns of whores on the Silk Road, cuckold villages of Tibetans that invite all travelling strangers to bed their wives, the harems of Kublai Khan, the loose women of the Maldives, and the bizarre (fictitious?) sexual customs of the East Africans. After reading this book, I can only come to one conclusion: Marco Polo was the original sexpat [sexpat = sex + expat, basically a creepy white guy who lives in Southeast Asia].
If you are looking for a guide to better understand the adventures of Marco Polo, then this is the book for you. A word of warning - the book is true to the original, and more than half of the text goes into gruesome detail about the sexual practices of East Asia. This book is not suitable for children or the faint of heart.
Pope Innocent III: To Root Up and to Plant
By John C. Moore
Published in 2003
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Pope Innocent III is one of the most important popes of the Middle Ages. Many of the major ecclesiastical reforms that would shape modern Catholicism originate from his pen. Perhaps more importantly for his contemporaries, Pope Innocent III greatly expanded the political power of the papacy.
It is very hard for moderns to imagine the role of medieval popes. Many of our conceptions of the papacy during this period come from stereotypes established by the early protestants. As a result, it is easy to project the papacy of the 1400s backwards and imagine that it always was so throughout the middle ages.
The papacy of popes like Gregory the Great - who was the leader of a small “post-apocalyptic” community dwelling in the ruins of Italy - looks nothing like this post-protestant image. Pope Innocent III is so significant because he completes the process of modernizing the papacy into an institution still recognizable today.
Prior to reading this book, I had only heard of Pope Innocent III in passing when studying the fourth crusade. Now, I understand his true pivotal significance in European history.
This book is probably not going to be very interesting for casual observers of the Middle Ages. Understanding it requires spending a significant amount of time studying the period. However, if you already know a lot about the period, then this book will help fill in many important knowledge gaps. I recommend it to anyone who already knows a lot about the medieval period but wants to learn more.
The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages
By Nancy Marie Brown
Published in October 2012
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
The Abacus and the Cross is a fascinating biography of one of the great forgotten pioneers of mathematics: Pope Sylvester II (AKA Gerbert of Aurillac). He was pope at the turn of the first millenium, and lived approximately from 946 - 1003 AD.
Pope Sylvester II was a French monk who was educated in Islamic Spain. There, he learned the techniques of Islamic astronomy and mathematics. Notably, he helped import two very important technologies to Europe: the astrolabe and the abacus.
The astrolabe is a device that can help predict lunar and solar movements. It provided a rational, as opposed to superstitious, explanation of how lunar eclipses worked. This helped relieve the fears of the people, paving the way for modern astronomy.
More importantly, Pope Sylvester II imported the abacus. The abacus is a device with counting beads which makes it much easier to visualize very large numbers. The abacus enabled more complicated mathematics by helping people think in decimal terms.
Another innovation that Pope Sylvester II helped import from the Islamic world was the use of Arabic numerals. Roman numerals do not lend themselves towards mathematics. Arabic numerals correspond to decimal places, enabling much more complicated mathematics.
He also is credited with having invented the first mechanical clock in 996.
Additionally, he was involved in the complicated geopolitical conflicts of hsi day, and was a notable supporter of imperial state power as opposed to papal supremacy.
Pope Sylvester II is now forgotten, but he should not be. He is one of the great contributors of the enlightenment that would eventually lead to the Renaissance, and a pioneer of math and science.
This is a fascinating book about a very important historical figure that I had never previously heard of. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in computer science, mathematics, or medieval history.
By Johannes Fried
Published in October 2016
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
This book was excruciatingly boring. It took me 3 painful months to read, and I wimped out and didn’t finish the last quarter.
Johannes Fried opens by saying clearly that “this book is fiction.” Many historical details are missing, so the best Fried can do is make educated guesses based off of the sources. Fried attempts to reconstruct Charlemagne’s life in extreme detail.
There are many fascinating nuggets - especially information about the geopolitics of the time and how Charlemagne came to power. However the endless pages of details about Christological debates, political minutia, and architectural history prevents the good information from really coming onto its own. Even as an amateur historian of the Middle Ages, I also thought that the book lacked enough context to draw me in. I wished that there was more explanation of the technology, of the legacy of Rome, and of the era as a whole.
This book was originally published in German, then translated into English. That probably accentuated its problems. I’ve read several biographies of Charlemagne, and this one is probably the worst. I really cannot recommend this book to anyone, not even the most hardcore Charlemagne fans.
The Supply Chain Revolution
By Suman Sarkar
Published in June 2017
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
The Supply Chain Revolution is a cookbook-style second person explanation as to why supply chains matter for businesses. This book’s core thesis can be summed up like this: supply chains are extremely important. Businesses that ignore them do so at their own peril - they are something that the top management of companies should consider first and foremost, not something to be outsourced to a small company.
One aspect of the book that I really liked was that it was rife with specific examples and case studies. The most memorable case study was that of Apple. Apple put its supply chain first and foremost, in order to ensure quality products. By using vertical integration, Apple was able to ensure that the quality remained consistent at every level of the chain. Steve Jobs would be replaced by Apple’s former head of supply chain, Tim Cook.
The thing I disliked the most about The Supply Chain Revolution is that the book is written in the second person. It reads like this “the most important thing for your business.” Second person books always feel slightly condescending. There is also something slightly scammy / salesy about them. That alone made this book hard for me to engage with.
Overall, I don’t really recommend this book. It is too complicated for a novice, too irrelevant for most business owners, and too simple for a professional. It uncomfortably lies across several niches without satisfying any.
Proof of Heaven
By Eben Alexander
Published in October 2021
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
In 2008, famous American neurosurgeon Eben Alexander contracted bacterial meningitis. He then slipped into a coma for three months. While in a coma, Eben Alexander believes that he went to heaven and spoke to God.
I’ve had this book in my audible library for roughly five years, and thought that I would give it a crack.
After reading the first third, I had to put it down. I wish that the author had spent more time talking about his own experience and the neuroscience behind it. Instead, he pontificated about his own life experience, his adoption, his emotions, etc… I hate reading self referencial books, and find them somewhat narcissistic. The book was incredibly saccharine, oozing with sentimentality for strangers that I don’t really care about.
Overall, it was quite boring, and I decided not to finish it. Alexander’s conclusions and science may or may not be good; but I didn’t ever go there.
History of the Langobards
By Paul the Deacon
Published in the late 8th century AD
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
This book was a real slog. I couldn’t find any audiobooks, so read it as opposed to listening to it. I don’t recommend this book to anyone except for the most hardcore history nerds out there.
Paul the Deacon was a Lombard (aka Langobard) monk who lived around the time of Charlemagne’s conquest of Italy and subsequent destruction of the Langobard kingdoms. After Charlemagne’s conquest, Paul the Deacon decided to write a history of his people.
The history starts with the Langobards’ distant origins in Norway, then covers their slow migration into Germany. The Langobards then settle in Pannonia (modern day Croatia), where they become mercenaries for the Eastern Roman empire. They fight against the Italian Goths on behalf of emperor Justinian, eventually themselves settling in Italy.
The Langobard domination of Italy consists of roughly 200 pages of sacks, rapes, slaughters, massacres, and wanton destruction. Whatever traces of Roman civilization had survived the fall of Rome, reign of Odoacer, and Gothic wars were completely wiped out by the Langobards. This is further compounded by constant invasions of Avars (a successor state of the huns), Slavs, Bavarians, and Franks.
My comprehension of the text was quite low.
Paul the Deacon is constantly making reference to antiquated place names, making it very hard to follow where the action is going on. At first I found myself constantly consulting maps, before finally giving up, and deciding to just ignore the locations. The names of the kings, dukes, and other characters are no better; an endless succession of obscure Germanic medieval figures makes following the action incredibly difficult. Finally, the translation I was reading used really long and complex run on sentences.
By book five, I found myself skimming the text rather than reading it, which only made my comprehension worse.
As with nearly all medieval texts that I’ve read, there are many fascinating nuggets of information. Old men (aliens?) sleeping in a cave, priests smiting then healing the warriors who come to execute them, dragons leading armies of serpents to siege the city of Rome, wives poisoning their husbands, and many stories of hidden treasures. The nuggets would make for a great podcast episode, but don’t redeem the book as a whole.
The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders
By Peter Heather
Published in March 2014
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
The Restoration of Rome is a history of the numerous attempts at restoring the Roman Empire during the early Middle Ages. It is a fascinating and well written book, although for people who are just getting into medieval history might not be the best starting point.
The book covers four major attempts at restoring the roman empire during the period 500 AD to 1000 AD.
During the waning years of Western Roman imperial authority, a barbarian general Odoacer stages a coup. He announces that a Western Roman emperor is no longer needed, sending his Imperial robes back to Constantinople. This marks the official end of the Roman Empire. In the immediate aftermath, the Eastern Empire sends Gothic general Theodoric to depose Odoacer.
Theodoric’s regime marks a partial restoration of the earlier Roman Republic. The Senate once again becomes one of the most prominent institutions in Italy. Furthermore, many of the neighboring barbarian tribes who have settled in former Roman territory submit to his authority. Under his rule, Roman culture enjoys a brief second flourishing - authors like Cassius Dio and Boethius reinforcing traditional Roman values. Finally, his reign sees the birth of the institution that would slowly evolve to become the Papacy/
Theodoric’s brief renaissance comes to an end when Eastern Roman emperor Justinian decides to invade Italy. While Justinian is often hailed by modern pop culture as a great “restorer” of Rome, in reality his regime is authoritarian and despotic. His wars decimate Italy, marking the final death blow to Roman civilization. Worst of all, his reconquests prove fruitless. In many ways, Justinian’s death marks a good alternative end date for the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
In the century after Justinian’s reign of terror, barbarian chiefs in modern day France and Germany begin consolidating their power. Because there has now been no Roman empire in centuries they decide to legitimate their authority. Charlemagne crosses the alps, destroying the Lombard barbarian kingdom which had appeared in the wake of Justinian. There, he “liberates” the papacy, and has himself crowned Western Roman emperor. He even attempts to marry the Byzantine empress in an attempt to reunify the Eastern and Western halves of the empire. Some of his successors, like Otto, would also feebly attempt to crown themselves Roman emperor, although by then it would be reduced to the status of a meaningless title.
Ultimately, the institution that would durably replace the Western Roman empire would be the Catholic church. Heather argues that it is in fact “barbarian popes” who would restore the Roman tradition of written law, once and for all superseding the need to restore the Western Roman empire.
The Restoration of Rome is a must read for any intermediate researchers who want to learn about the early Middle Ages.
The Rule of Saint Benedict
By Saint Benedict of Nursia
Published in 516 AD
Thibault's Score: 3/5
The Rule of Saint Benedict was the law that governed most medieval monasteries. Still today, many monasteries continue living under Saint Benedict’s rule.
It is a fascinating historical document that sheds a lot of light on life in the Middle Ages.
Most interestingly, it makes life seem really awful. Monasteries control every aspect of a monk’s life. Monks are totally cut off from the outside world; they have nowhere to hide. Few institutions in history seem as totalitarian as the medieval monastery.
After reading Procopius as well as some modern biographies of figures like Gregory the Great, I can’t help but get the general impression that life in late antiquity / the early middle ages was extremely totalitarian. I typically associate the late middle ages with an era of proto-libertarianism, especially when reading about the early Islamic societies and the crusades.
The rule of Saint Benedict is very short. I was able to finish it in just over an hour; for that reason alone I must recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the early middle ages.
Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, First Man of Rome
By George E. Demacopoulos
Published in October 2015
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
Finishing this book was a bit of a slog; I only did so because I love studying the early middle ages.
Gregory the Great was the Roman pope at the end of the 6th century. He grew up during the Gothic Wars of Justinian, and was one of the first popes to reign under the newly restored Byzantine domination of Italy. His tenure would be troubled: during his reign, Rome had been reduced to a ghost town. Furthermore, Byzantine Italy was under constant threat by the Lombards and other Germanic raiders.
Reading this book really helped me understand the period. From Gregory the Great’s perspective, two contrasting viewpoints were apparent. First, Christianity was already ancient by this time. Jesus had lived nearly 600 years earlier, and the Roman Empire had already been Christian for 300 years. Second, it would have been easy for Gregory to perceive his own era as the end of times due to the devastated state of Italy.
This book could have been great - but the writing was bad, and the book was very poorly organized.
Instead of giving a chronological account, Demacopoulos gives a topic by topic account. This makes following the chronology extremely difficult. Even though I have extensively studied the period, I had to constantly go onto Wikipedia to follow the events.
He doesn’t give enough context or focus enough on the period. I wish there had been more discussion about the social and political context of Italy. Instead, much of the writing feels “navel-gazeley” and is focused on Christian theology.
The reason why Demacopoulos writes this way is because he isn’t focused on telling a good story, and educating the reader about history. He is more concerned with squabbling with modern academics about different interpretations rather than laying his own case.
I do not recommend Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, First Man of Rome, even to historians interested in the period.
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