Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Marc Bloch: Feudal Society (1940)

Translation: L.A. Manyon, 1962
Edition: Routledge Kegan Paul, 2014
Review number: 1507

The foreword to this Routledge Classics edition, by Geoffrey Kozol, starts by asking, "Why read a work of history written over seventy years ago?" Clearly, after such a long time, a scholarly work of this kind no longer represents current knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, any more than earlier historical classics like Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Carlyle's history of The French Revolution do.

Each of the books mentioned, including this one, has good reasons why you might want to read them. Three in particular are common to all of them: they have all been influential in one way or another; they are all quite general overviews of topics often treated on a smaller scale by specialists; and they are all of high literary quality.

In Feudal Society Bloch attempts a study of several centuries of Western European social history, analysing the genesis, flowering and eventual modification into something else of the culture known as "feudal" - that is, based around vassal/overlord relationships, tied to land grants (fees, the origin of the word feudal). Given the fragmentary state of the documentary record, especially in the early years going beyond the major chronicles to understand the society is hard work, but in this book Bloch uses a huge array of small scale records (mainly legal documents) to produce as full a picture as possible.

To research this way is now far more common, but the scale of the project in this case means that it is still an impressive synthesis - indeed, it would be fair to say that Bloch is phenomenally successful. Naive historical accounts, in any era, tend to paint a picture of society as though it remains the same over long periods of time, so that Roman customs and fashion appear to be constant from the late Republic to the end of the Empire, for instance, or (more relevantly) as though feudalism as an organising principle sprang into being in the tenth century and then was replaced during the fifteenth, and was the same in France, Germany, Italy and even England after the cataclysm of 1066. It is clear that these pictures are nonsensical, and Bloch of course gives a far more nuanced and subtle description of a culture which was never uniform, and which developed significantly over time. Bloch identifies the economic downturn of the late Carolingian era and the disruptions to social order and centralised power at the time of the Magyar and Viking raids as causes of the adoption of personal vassalage and serf labour in the manorial system, as a development of Germanic and Roman customs. The argument is convincing, but I would like to read a modern equivalent of this book to see how today's scholarship has modified this viewpoint. That is, of course, if there is a modern historian with such detailed and widespread knowledge and understanding.

At the end of Feudal Society, Bloch suggests that one area which could the focus of further study is how European feudalism is related to other historical cultures which have been described using the word. He discusses in particular the Japan of the samurai, and describes a number of significant differences from medieval western Europe. Although I don't think it's all that clear from the text, I'm sure that Bloch was perfectly well aware that the use of the "feudal" label for Japan is based on superficial likenesses: the real interest is to look at how and why the similarities and differences on opposite sides of the globe.

Overall, Feudal Society is an inspiring classic from "the father of scientific history", and, like Carlyle and Gibbon, deserves to be read and remembered. My rating: 10/10.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Michael Spivak: Calculus (1967)

Edition: Addison-Wesley (World Student Series)
Review number: 1506

Calculus was the very first textbook I read for my university degree. As well as being a fine description of the basics of analysis (mostly real, with a toe in the deep water of complex functions), it is an excelent book to ease the transition from mathematics as taught at school level to the rigours of university mathematics.

Unlike many writers of textbooks in mathematics, Spivak makes a big effort to give more than a dry exposition: theorem - proof - next theorem etc. Considerable attention is paid to motivating the discussion, showing why each result is important (though mainly in the pure mathematics context, applications of calculus being mainly found in the problems at the end of each chapter). Of especial use to the budding mathematician are the points where Spivak discusses potential proof strategies for the theorems, often explaining the pitfalls that student taking a naive approach could fall into. There are even occasional jokes, both in the text and the index.

For students with an interest in how analysis can be used in apparently unrelated parts of mateematics, a number of advanced sections give proofs of such topics as the transcendence of the number e, and a construction of the real numbers from set theoretic principles.

Calculus was not just the first university textbook I read, but one of the best.

My rating: 10/10.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Alexander Broadie: Introduction to Medieval Logic (1993)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1993
Review number: 1505

The title is perhaps somewhat misleading. I would expect that a book introducing medieval logic should be fairly easy to follow for someone like myself, with a doctorate in modern mathematical logic and an interest in medieval philosophy. But the first few chapters assume a fair amount of prior understanding of the form of logic used in the middle ages, i.e. one based on natural language rather than symbolic representation of carefully pre-defined and abstract ideas of such ideas as truth, implication, proof and so on (this, the basis of modern mathematical logic, being the legacy of Frege and others such as Russell, Tarsky, and Gödel).

In fact, what is eventually revealed is a way to relate the arguments of medieval logicians, which can seem weird and monumentally pedantic, to a process which moves from the potential ambiguities of natural language towards more abstract understanding of the processes of logic. No matter how interesting that might be to me, though, the path travelled through mainly fourteenth century logical arguments is one I found hard to follow. For me, the best part of the book is the concluding chapter, in which Broadie discusses the transition from scholastic logical thought to humanistic ideas of proof, more based on rhetoric and Ciceronian legal arguments, and the relation of scholasticism to the ideas of modern mathematics.

I would have welcomed a lot more historical context, and also some way to connect the thematically organised discussion to that context

My rating: 5/10.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Patrick Dennis: Auntie Mame (1955)

Edition: Pan, 1958
Review number: 1504

I'm a big fan of Patrick Dennis, although the difficulty of finding his books nowadays means I haven't read all that many of them - three out of sixteen (all published under various pseudonyms, his real name being Edward Everett Tanner III). Even the normally reliable Fantastic Fiction only lists the two Auntie Mame books.

This is the third of his books, the first under this name, and was hugely successful in the fifties, made into a play and then an Oscar nominated film with Rosalind Russell as the title character. The trailer for the film describes it as "the one you've been waiting for", and expects the watcher to guess the name of the title character. So this was a huge phenomenon at the time, and yet it seems to be almost forgotten today. (It later became a stage musical and another film.)

It is a parody of an autobiography, scenes from a bizarre Bohemian childhood. The narrator, named as Patrick Dennis, is sent as a nine year old to be brought up by his aunt after the death of his father. This catapults the boy into a completely different world - one which many today would still consider unsuitable for the raising of a child. In her company, he expands his vocabulary, meets a lot of strange people, and gets involved in many scrapes, as he becomes an integral part of his vivacious aunt's life. The last scene in the book depicts Patrick, now married and respectable, being persuaded by Mame to let his seven year old son join her on a trip to India: although the book's chronology would indicate that she was by this point in her seventies, she had not changed a bit. This also sets up Dennis' second novel, Around the World with Auntie Mame.

Auntie Mame and its sequel are lit up by the  larger than life character of Mame. I can easily imagine that she would be tiresome in the long term in real life. Indeed, the portrayal by Rosalind Russell in the film is wearingly strident to me, even in the short dose of the trailer. The literary version of the character has a lot more charm, and her dominance of the book makes liking Mame crucial to enjoyment of the humour.

It's easy to see why it was so popular. It's still immensely funny, and bears comparison with the best comic fiction ever written. Why, then, is it so much less well known today? Dennis himself stopped writing and became a butler before his death in 1976, but already by then his books were out of print. It is possible that revelations about the author's lifestyle (he was bisexual and was involved in the Greenwich Village gay community) made publishers less keen to promote his work. Indeed, a number of publishers rejected Auntie Mame, presumably because of its endorsement of an unconventional lifestyle, tame though much of it seems today. Maybe it was the opposite: in the liberated 1970s, did people no longer feel shocked enough by Dennis' writing to want to read it? I don't know what happened, but whatever it was, Patrick Dennis was too good a writer to deserve it.

My rating: 10/10.