Books briefly noted: ancient and medieval

January 31, 2020

Today, quick notes on a few books that crossed my bed-stand lately:

Making Medieval Manuscripts
Christopher de Hamel
(Bodleian, 2018)
176 p.

Here is a wonderful book for those with an interest in things medieval. I have quite a few books on or about medieval manuscripts — mostly coffee table books on illuminated manuscripts — but here is the first book I have seen devoted to explaining how those manuscripts were made. Christopher de Hamel is a Cambridge fellow with long experience working with these manuscripts, and recently won wide praise for his book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, a great, thick book that I borrowed from the library but returned unread on account of its great thickness. The present volume, however, which is a re-working of his 1992 book Scribes and Illuminators, is invitingly thin and generously ornamented with pictures. It was a quick and fascinating read.

Hamel starts at the beginning — with dead sheep — and explains the process by which parchment was made from the skins. He gives the recipes for medieval ink, and talks about the process of planning the layout of books, as well as the arduous task of actually writing or copying them. We learn a little about the economics of book production. The central section of the book is devoted to the art of illumination: how drawings were planned, how pigments were made, the order in which pictures were coloured, the process by which gold leaf was produced and laid onto the page. Finally he describes how pages were sewn together and bound into codices. The book gives one a renewed appreciation not only for the beauty of the finished books, but also simply for the many volumes which we have inherited from ancient and medieval times, each one of which was produced with great labour. Hamel writing is clear and genial, and his obvious affection for his subject is evident. The book is handsomely produced on glossy paper and filled, as already mentioned, with beautiful and instructive pictures.


Warfare in Medieval Manuscripts
Pamela Porter
(British Library, 2000)
128 p.

While I would stop short of claiming to have a positive desire to fight in a medieval war, I think it is still legitimate to point out that a certain romance attaches to the figure of the medieval warrior: the armour, the banners, the tents, the parlays, the horses, the valour, and the heraldry must, in justice, be considered alongside the spear in the torso and the arrow in the eye for a fully rounded picture. This little book provides a brief overview of the conditions and tactics of medieval warfare. We learn about knights and the chivalric tradition, military training, weapons and armour, siege tactics, battle formations, and, in the later middle ages, technological advances such as gun-powdered weapons that sufficiently altered military affairs that a new age of warfare could be said to have begun.

But only, by my estimate, one-quarter of the book is text. The rest is filled out with manuscript illuminations depicting one or another aspect of warfare, and these pictures are the principal attraction of the book, for they are wonderful — all the more so after reading Hamel’s book above and having, therefore, a fresh appreciation for the difficulty with which those illuminations were made. A preponderance of the pictures appear to have been taken from English and French manuscripts — at least, it is very often that the two armies depicted are the English and the French — which makes sense given that they were curated from the British Library’s collection. Although the book is not large (just 6 inches on a side, roughly) the reproductions are of high quality and the colours are vivid. Recommended to students of military history and lovers of medieval art.


Practical Theology
Spiritual Direction from St Thomas Aquinas
Peter Kreeft
(Ignatius, 2014)
400 p.

Kreeft had a good idea: highlight within St Thomas’ voluminous writings a set of topics that could be of interest to ordinary (non-philosopher) Christians, add commentary to explain or elaborate Thomas’ points, and then staple them all together. The book includes over 350 of these topics, typically one per page. They range from broadly pastoral topics (“Why God doesn’t give us enough grace to overcome sin”) to moral reflections (“How unbelief is a sin”; “Why wealth can’t make you happy”) to catechesis (“What the Eucharist signifies”). There is plenty of philosophy too (“Knowing God by analogy”; “The importance of reason in morality”). Each treatment is short enough that the book could serve as a kind of daily devotional reader, and this was how I approached it. St Thomas’ writings are incredibly rich, seeming sometimes to be a reservoir for the accumulated wisdom of our whole religious and cultural tradition, and Kreeft’s selections are judicious, even if the treatments are sometimes cursory.


Ancient Warfare
A Very Short Introduction
Harry Sidebottom
(Oxford, 2004)
165 p.

By ‘ancient’ is meant, for the most part, Greco-Roman. Sidebottom casts quite a wide net for a short book: war in ancient art, war as a metaphor and conceptual framework in ancient society, motives and justifications for war, and techniques for waging war. He includes an interesting though brief discussion of the development of our just war tradition: Greeks made limited contributions, but Cicero in his Republic specified basic conditions for commencing a war, while some Stoics (Epictetus and Dio Chrysostom) denied that any war could be just, even when fought in self-defence. Soldiery was frowned on by early Christians, not only because soldiers were the pointy-end of the Imperial stick wielded against them, but because soldiers were obligated to uphold the cult of the Emperor; it is telling that in early Christianity the image of the spiritual athlete predominates over that of the spiritual soldier.

The most interesting chapter to me was on the conditions of ancient warfare “on the ground”: what soldiers wore and carried, how they fought in formation, how commands were given, the basic shape of naval warfare, the techniques of siege warfare. Least interesting were the author’s occasional nods at matters in academic vogue (“war was strongly gendered in classical antiquity”). The book as a whole advances an argument about the nature of “the Western way of war”; generally I think that brief, introductory volumes meant for beginners are poor venues for proposing pet theories, but perhaps the publisher thought differently.

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