Of course burning books is barbaric. So, maybe just one.

I meant, at this point probably months before I actually post this, to write something big about the ‘judgement of history’ and the medieval warm period, apropos of the 56-newspaper climate change alarm call and the recent University of East Anglia embarrassment. I have subsequently done this, and it will go on Cliopatria soon. But I couldn’t do it at time of writing because I was spitting with rage. Yes, I had been marking essays, which was the efficient cause, but many of them were good. When they were bad, however, there was one single factor that united almost all of them. I was warned, too, but it is not something I was in a position to control. It is that those essays relied on Ralph Davis’s A History of Medieval Europe: from Constantine to St Louis.

Cover of Ralph Davis's History of Medieval Europe

Cover of Ralph Davis's History of Medieval Europe

I’ve never read this book. When I was studying at the right level it had recently been reprinted, so I could have, but no-one ever mentioned it to me so I didn’t. But my lot reached for the first thing on the shelf and this is what they found, and they didn’t realise it’s forty-five years old and polemical, they cited it as if it’s right. And because they cited it, at least, I know it’s not. I was seriously tempted to make a sign for the tutorials that said, “1. Ralph Davis was wrong. 2. If you have scored a low mark and cited Davis in your essay, see 1.” I did not want to explain to every single case that, for example, Gregory VII was rescued from Rome not by the Lombards but by the Normans; that the Carolingian Empire was not beset by Vikings, Saracens and Magyars at exactly the same time, not least because by the time the Magyars were up and running the Empire was largely no longer Carolingian; or that the Merovingian kingdom may well have been damaged by partition, but since it struggled on for eighty years under single rulers before finally being shut down that can’t be an explanation by itself. But I had to. And I know who to blame: Ralph Davis, and Robert Moore for ‘updating’ the book for 2006.

I’m sorry if this sounds petty, but, because they would have had to read something else, my students would know more if this book did not exist.

15 responses to “Of course burning books is barbaric. So, maybe just one.

  1. I love this post. I’m away from home at the moment, but I *will* be back!

  2. If that’s all petty, then I think I would like to see Petty Jarrett write a little bit more often. :)

    As for book burning… Oh, I don’t know, I can think of about a dozen books that ought to be burned. ;)

    And that’s not counting one entire publishing house that, though they don’t call what they publish “history” or “archaeology” per sé (file under: “spirituality”), consistently, and with every single book of theirs that I have read, allows the human past to be mangled the degree that you think the authors got their history lesson from writing down whatever drivel their four year old could remember from a programme on the History Channel two weeks later.

    • Petty Jarrett looks a lot less employable than Sober Academic Jarrett, I fear, so he doesn’t come out very often, at least not where the Internet can see.

      As to your dubious publishing house, well, I figure people will write what sells, but that sort of thing hopefully isn’t aimed at university reading lists as this one was. It’s not the oldest textbook out there either: the other thing they used was C. Warren Hollister’s Medieval Europe: a short history, which is also from 1964 but available in much more recent reprints, but that as far as I can see is less pernicious. The most recent (2002) edition is updated by Judith Bennett, of all people, but since Moore did Davis so little good even though you’d expect him to have, I’m not prepared to say that Bennett makes Hollister OK again without seeing it.

      Fifteen years ago there might have been an excuse for this, because there was a real dearth of decent survey textbooks for the early Middle Ages; I remember. But since then there’s Roger Collins’s Early Medieval Europe, the last of a dying breed of dates-and-battles history perhaps but valuable for that in itself, then just recently Barbara Rosenwein’s and Matthew Innes’s new books, the Moran & Gerberding one I’m currently evaluating, already 5 years old… There’s just no excuse for these things to still be in print except that the publishing houses know that old names sell better than new names. Gah!

      • Cullen Chandler

        The Hollister-Bennett update, now in 10th edition (which I did not even know about, having received a copy of the 9th a few years ago) is fine, I think. It’s a bit more comprehensive than Rosenwein’s survey, Europe-wise, even if it doesn’t have the nice attention paid to Byzantium and Islam. And my students like the writing style.

        I haven’t gone over it with supreme thoroughness, so I can’t say anything about errors or whatever. I do, though, wish that treatment of different periods could be more even. By that I mean that the High Middle Ages get the most and the biggest chapters, while other periods (e.g., the early stuff) get much less. I know there’s a bit more evidence and scholarship on the HMA, but reading the book gives the impression that not much was going on before about 1000. And Byzantium + Islam = one chapter, early in the book, which covers them from late antituity through the whole millennium.

        But I find it OK for my purposes. I’ve heard of Moran-Gerberding, but haven’t read it. Thoughts? Thoughts on other surveys (Riddle, Backman, Peters, etc.)?

        • I’ll do a proper review of the Moran-Gerberding one when I get to the end of it; an initial answer would be that its coverage is excellent and its material written to a very modern taste, but that there do lurk within it one or two 1066 And All That-style howlers, the which will likely be called out in their own blog posts because they’re far from unique to here. Not enough to stop me recommending it however, and if anything it gives more space to early than late, not least because it gets more cultural as it goes on. It does sound as if it meets the objections you raise to Hollister, though. The others ones you mention, I haven’t yet met…

  3. I’m not sure where your students got the Lombard idea from, since Davis says correctly on p.277 that it was the the Normans who rescued Gregory, not the Lombards.

    And Moore didn’t update the book in the usual sense of a new edition – the bumph on the back explicitly says the text was left unchanged, with Moore adding postscripts.

  4. This is in large part why I’m using Matthew Innes’ honking big book for my early medieval survey (Collins is not available in sufficient numbers since I understand that a new edition of that is in the works). I’m going into the class telling them that it’ll be a challenge but a worthwhile challenge because he’s knocking down all of the presumptions and paradigms that have gone by the wayside over the last fifty years.

    Much better than a textbook that just rehashes what was already dated when I took my undergraduate survey in the subject!

    • I’m really pleased to see people putting Matthew’s book to good use, I know he put a lot of work into it. I didn’t know about the new Collins though. I fear that may well become the Davis of its day since no-one seems interested in replacing a book of that sort, or at least not yet.

  5. Now you know how Asianists feel every time we open up a new World History textbook — Oh, it’s Pomeranz and Hane again, or, good ‘ol Reischauer, Fairbank and Craig, or, god help us, Rhodes Murphy. Now, with the emphasis on travel, it’s “follow the bouncing Jesuit” half of the time.

    I suppose we should write a “1274 and all that” for Asian historiography, but we’re not a big enough market, really.

    And student essays? Honestly, half the time this year I felt like the essays would have been improved if they’d read wikipedia carefully. Not only is the textbook weak, but they don’t know how to read it effectively.

  6. I use Hollister and Bennett (I believe it may now be B&H) and recommend it (but would not if I was an early medievalist). It gets a nice and difficult balance between general overview and crisp example, even jokes. It has useful panels set aside for biographies – and the juxtaposition of the very different expertise and style of the two authors (Bennett is far more than a reviser of Hollister) provides a surprisingly broad coverage. The suggestions for further reading are good to. If you have to use a text book (and I would never recommend such a thing for essay writing). This one is OK.

    • That does sound like a reasonable balance. Regrettably, it seems the relevant library only has the pre-Bennett version on the shelves. But you’re right of course that the basic problem was writing an essay from textbooks anyway. This point got made as gently as I dared…

  7. Pingback: Well, what would you recommend, Dr Jarrett? No. 1 of an indefinite series « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  8. Pingback: “Studying history stops people believing rubbish”, and other Internet gems « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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