Medieval history

When the local wizard was the repository of all wisdom

What do you do when one of your possessions goes missing? Search behind the sofa cushions? Ask other members of the household where they put it? If you lived in Renaissance England, there’s a chance you would have consulted a local magician for advice, especially if the lost item was of value. In the absence of police to investigate theft or insurance to cover a loss, a wizard tracing the item seemed like a fair choice. Nor was it the entirely foolish idea it might seem now. In a time when belief in magic was widely held, making it known that a magician was on the case could prompt a

Sixteen cathedrals to see before you die

There can be no clearer illustration of the central role that great cathedrals continue to play in a nation’s life than the outpouring of grief that greeted the catastrophic blaze in Notre-Dame in 2019. President Macron described the building as ‘our history, our literature, our imagination, the place where we experienced all our greatest moments’. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of any major European city without a cathedral at its heart. Emma J. Wells has written an accessible, authoritative and lavishly illustrated account of the building of 16 of ‘the world’s greatest cathedrals’. Her subjectivity is evident in that only seven feature among Simon Jenkins’s top 25 in his

How the quarrelsome ‘Jena set’ paved the way for Hitler

Today, the German city of Jena, 150 miles south-west of Berlin, is the world centre of the optical and precision industry; but in the 1790s it spawned an even more marketable commodity. It was then a small medieval town on the banks of the river Saale with crumbling walls, 800 half-timbered houses, a market square and an unruly university. Here, in the philosophy department, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a young professor inspired by Immanuel Kant and the French Revolution, proclaimed from the pulpit his theory of the ‘Ich’. ‘A person,’ he roared, ‘should be self-determined.’ In an age of absolute power and the divine right of kings, the idea of free

Sex and politics in the precincts of St Paul’s Cathedral

In the tight dark maze of alleys that wind between the Thames and St Paul’s the pleasures of the living are intertwined with those of the distant dead. Try it for yourself on a late Saturday afternoon. Start by immersing yourself in the eerie darkness of the Temple of Mithras (ancient stones, reconstructed Roman voices calling for strong drink, a pagan pit beneath the guileless Bloomberg building); emerge and cross over to the Roman Watling Street, where you will see tribes of Essex women – Boudicca’s spiritual daughters – with faces of bronze, brandishing not fire but fags and lighters outside busy pubs and bars. Then on to the cathedral

What the Anglo-Saxons made of 1066 and all that followed

By any yardstick, the Norman Conquest was a ghastly business. Within two decades, the English aristocracy had been more than decimated, all of England’s cathedrals were being levelled and rebuilt, the north had been harried and the language of government changed. What made it worse was that it was utterly unnecessary. In 1066, Edward the Confessor had an heir of the blood royal – Edgar Ætheling, the grandson of Edmund Ironside (d. 1016). Had he not been shoved aside by bigger men, much fuss might have been avoided. In her superbly adroit new history, Eleanor Parker examines how memories of Edgar and his like – the generation that straddled the

From pirates to princes — the heroic transformation of the Normans

The Normans had an astonishingly good run. Not only did they take over England in 1066, of course, but they also triumphed over the Muslims, establishing themselves in southern Italy and founding a principality in the Near East. William the Conqueror’s is one of the most famous names from Europe’s Middle Ages, but the achievements of Robert Guiscard were nearly as astonishing: leaving Normandy with five knights and 30 infantrymen, he became Duke of Sicily, Apulia and Calabria. Meanwhile, his son Bohemond was one of several Norman heroes of the First Crusade, and rose to become Prince of Antioch. These military successes did not surprise contemporaries. They knew the Normans

The magic of manuscripts

Manuscripts have something of the appeal of drawings. They bring you closer to the creative process. Even a copy adds something special to the text: an editorial twist, a decorated initial, a margin full of beasts or just a beautiful script in which every letter is fashioned by hand like no other. Manuscripts do more than convey information. Their creation calls for imagination, physical effort, a love of meaning and beauty. They are works of art in their own right. I specialise in the most unpoetic kind of manuscript: administrative records of military and political history. But even they speak to us directly. ‘You fool — Norwich is inland’ is

They weren’t all that pious in the good old days

You need to be wary of being too flattering about English churches. As John Betjeman said: ‘Be careful before you call Weymouth the Naples of Dorset. How many Italians call Naples the Weymouth of Campania?’ Even so, the rise of the English medieval church was extraordinary. As early as 1200 there were 9,500 churches in England — all built since 597, when St Augustine started his mission to the English at Canterbury. And lots of them are still there. Our Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Gothic churches must be the highlight of our architectural history, just ahead of our country houses. But how did the English use their churches? Step forward Nicholas

What happens next? Gauging the fallout from the pandemic

What just happened? Some 15 months after the pandemic first struck, it’s still horribly unclear, which is perhaps why there have been no decent books making sense of Covid-19. This is not just about a virus but a collision of politics, panic, digital media, human behaviour and incompetence. Niall Ferguson’s Doom looks at each of these aspects, putting them into historical perspective in a book of dazzling range and rigour. He offers several answers — and none of them is comforting. For most of human history, viruses were unexceptional — hard to research, because no one thought them remarkable. When plagues struck in the Middle Ages, we’d rush into quarantine,

Gazing heavenwards: the medieval monks who mapped the planetary motions

We can probably blame George and Ira Gershwin. It was that brilliant duo who, in 1937, penned the memorable lyric ‘They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round’. The song has been recorded by at least 15 artists over the years, from Fred Astaire to Lady Gaga, and is embedded in the consciousness of the West. But its headline message — medieval people are stupid — is total nonsense. No one, as Professor Seb Falk points out in this brilliant study of medieval astronomy and learning, ever disbelieved the world was round, and medieval people were far cleverer than they get credit for. Half the

The crusaders were not such incompetent zealots after all

One of the strange effects that modernist, progressive society has had on what the French Annales school would refer to as our civilisation’s mentalité is the almost complete attenuation of memory about what the crusades were, why they were fought and what part they played in a multi-century struggle between two successful, expansionary and universal religions. Though this struggle is still being waged today, we’ve become expert at not noticing it. Even at the level of military history, the crusaders have been written off with a hastily scribbled judgment that amounts to: ‘Invaded the Middle East and captured Jerusalem. Eventually driven into the sea by the brilliant generalship of Saladin.’