Category Archives: history

“The Age of Cathedrals” by Georges Duby

I visited my first cathedral aged ten. I remember three things about it; 1) the vast height, 2) my uncontrollable hiccupping spell which interrupted the guide’s tour every 3 seconds, and 3) being bought a book about cathedral architects on the way out. It was in Portugal on holiday with my family and I’d already read all the books I’d brought with me. The cathedral book was the only English-language book my parents could find for me. I didn’t mind. It contained a dramatic account of an architect betting his life that his vaulted ceiling would hold and sleeping under it to prove his point.

Since then my knowledge of cathedrals has increased via visits to St Paul’s in London, Malta, Notre Dame and St. Chapelle in Paris and more. So when I spotted “The Age of Cathedrals” on the 501 list I decided to improve my architectural trivia base.

Duby’s book, which I had to source second-hand from Oxfam, was written in the 1960s and covers 980-1420 so includes Romanesque and Gothic buildings. What I hadn’t realised was that it covers a lot more than just architecture. It’s a social history of the world surrounding the cathedrals. Why were they built? By whom? With whose money? As society emerged from feudal times and edged towards the Italian renaissance, it was a time of huge flux in religious beliefs and in the power structures of the world, not to mention the Crusades and their influence on faith, populations, and economies.

The book is packed with facts about life of the time. Although I had understood that the carvings around church doorways were meant to educate an illiterate poor, I had no idea how influential cathedrals were in fighting particular heresies, or rival dogmas, of their day. Duby doesn’t limit himself to cathedrals and social history either as he shows how the art of cathedrals led to free-standing sculptures, commissions for secular patrons and beyond. Did you know that the first portraits sprang from effigy tombstones or that the first painted landscape was to illustrate Good Governance on a municipal building in Siena?

The book is fascinating but I would have a few quibbles about it. 1) the illustrations in my edition were only referenced in the final chapter and all located at the back. 2) Georges Duby is French and I would know that even without reading his author bio because he barely mentions the work of Irish and Scottish monasteries in preserving religious art in the years up to 980. In fact it nearly kills him to admit that the artistic torch later passed on to Italy for the renaissance. 3) the book took me months to read (interspersed with other novels) because the information is so densely packed that I barely managed ten pages at a time before needing a break.

So who would like this book? Any reader with an interest in European history, art, or art history. But be prepared for a long and detailed read. This is not a page-turner, but you will learn about the origins of art in Europe, and much more. If you want something lighter, try Ken Follett’s excellent “Pillars of the Earth” fictional, but well-researched, novel about the building of a cathedral in England during the same period.

(read June-September 2012)


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“The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon

In an effort to keep down the costs of reading the 501 books, I bought this one as a freebie “introduction to audio books” book from Audible. At a mere 1232 pages and 41 hours of listening, I reckoned that the book would, at least, be good value for money.

Doing so taught me a valuable lesson about myself – I don’t enjoy audio books. Apparently there are various different learning styles in life and most people use a combination of them all to a greater or lesser extent. Well it transpires that audio learning doesn’t work for me. I prefer learning by doing, learning by reading, or learning from pictures/diagrams/demonstrations.

But back to Mr. Gibbons (1737-1794), member of parliment and historian, and his amazing work of Roman history covering more emperors and wars than you could throw a stick at. In print it covers six volumes and Wikipedia informs me that it took him twelve years to write. It was time well spent as before that point nobody had gathered all the research and sources together into one comprehensive history of the greatest and most influential empire ever. I would guess that it is still used by students of the period today.

Yes, but is it a good read? I do enjoy history books usually and I loved his elegant turn of phrase and obvious scholarship but the audio-book aspect caused me problems. I kept falling asleep and having to re-listen to large chunks in order to find my place again. Not fun.

I thought his descriptions of how the Roman army operated were brilliant and he certainly held my interest in the various plots and schemes of would-be emperors. But when he reached the section about the Roman Empire becoming Christian I felt he lacked objectivity. I wasn’t surprised, when reading Wikipedia’s biography of him, to find that he had converted to Roman Catholicism and then back again, during his youth. He clearly had a strong interest in matters theological, but his prose about the formative years of the Christian Roman Empire leans strongly towards the dogmatic and put me off. Having said that, I was fascinated by his account of how the text of the Nicene Creed was agreed upon. I had no idea its roots were so ancient.

Any book that spans thirteen centuries of history is going to be flawed at some points, but overall this is a amazing piece of history writing and deserves its place on the 501 books list. Not recommended as an audio book though, except as a cure for insomnia.

(read Summer 2010)

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