Book Review: “The Cambridge Illustrated History of France” by Colin Jones

illustrated history of France book cover

Based on the recommendation of a friend, I found a used copy of this book and ordered it. In my quest to read as much French history as possible before my trip to France, I had read “La Belle France”, another overall survey and wondered if this book would cover the same ground. I was pleased this author takes an entirely different course.

Jones writes more from a social history standpoint in this book. I very much enjoyed the chapters on France before the Romans and Roman Gaul. His chapters on the Franks and the Middle Ages cover a lot more ground than the other histories I’ve read so far. The later chapters covering the Revolution, Enlightenment, World Wars I and II and modern times have less detail but are still erudite and interesting. Occasionally Jones gets a little technical and wandering when discussing certain political situations. One thing I admire in his writing is his attention to the status of women in France throughout the ages.

I can’t say enough about the illustrations. This is what the Cambridge Illustrated Histories are known for. There are numerous maps illustrating different elements of France and its history. The maps clarify countless aspects such as where French dialects were spoken, delineating where Roman law and customary law were practiced, gene pools, agricultural and urban areas, different political boundaries, kingdoms and regions of France, where barbarian tribes invaded, etc.

There are photos of art and architecture, illuminated manuscripts, engravings, paintings, drawings and photographs of key points in French history, all with excellent, well written captions. In every chapter there are also insets with more details about select people and events. Some examples are on Blanche of Castile, the troubadours, the court of the Dukes of Burgundy and so on. All of these images really enhance the text. This is another well-written, informative history of France and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “Before France and Germany: The Creation & Transformation of the Merovingian World” by Patrick J. Geary

before france and germany book cover

In anticipation of a trip to France, I’ve been on a mission to read as many of the books in my library as I can related to French history. Starting with the earliest in the timeline is this book on the Merovingian era of France. My personal knowledge of this time period is spotty so I was very interested in what this book had to say.

I was not disappointed. Geary starts by outlining some basic information on the Roman Empire and how it affected France and western Germany. He talks about the many “barbarian tribes” and their movements within the empire and just outside it. Caesar conquers Gaul and begins to incorporate the Roman style of government. Then various tribes settle in the same area. Geary explains how some tribes maintained the Roman way of governing and some didn’t.

Eventually a confederation of tribes commingled and become the Franks. The Franks have their own style of governing along with adopting some elements of Roman government. This is the birth of Merovingian Empire. He then recounts the reigns of some of the Merovingian kings such as Clovis, Chlothar II and Dagobert I. In addition to the kings and their government, Geary relates the history of the church in France which is most fascinating. The beginnings of Christianity started with the missions of Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks. The Merovingian kings and other nobles started the building of monasteries in France, the most recognizable being Saint-Denis where the French kings are buried.

This book details the fifth to the eighth centuries and recounts the start of the Merovingian government down through its demise, giving the reasons for its fall and the final chapter summarizes the legacy of Merovingian Europe. I found this book to be very revealing about this era and enjoyed it very much. I recommend it.

Book Review: “In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World it Made” by Norman Cantor

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The Black Death and all its consequences on Western Europe and the world is always a popular and intriguing subject. The topic was of interest and the book had been on the New York Times bestseller list so I had high hopes when I saw this book on the shelf at the bookstore.

It turned out “In the Wake of the Plague” does not relate an overall view of the magnitude of the results of the Black Death as expected. The first part of the book gives the bio-medical context of the plague. Cantor describes the symptoms of the illness and then goes into the possibility of its origin. He doesn’t believe it was just fleas from rats that spread the disease. Several specialists have put forth the theory there may have been an outbreak of anthrax or some other type of cattle murrain and people may have ingested tainted meat. Cantor subscribes to these theories.

The next chapters are devoted to the demise of specific individuals and what the outcome of their deaths meant. His first personality is Princess Joan, daughter of King Edward III of England. She was on her way to Spain to marry the heir to the throne of Castile and stopped off at Bordeaux in France. Because it was a port of trade, the plague had arrived and Joan soon succumbed to the disease. The marriage was a part of King Edward’s imperial ambitions. The plague decimated the manpower needed to continue Edward’s war in France, the war known as the Hundred Years War. Cantor argues this kept the kings of England from taking the throne of France.

Another person of consequence for Cantor was Thomas Bradwardine, the personal confessor to King Edward III and Archbishop of Canterbury appointee in 1349. He traveled to Avignon to receive the blessing of the pope and then returned to England for the ceremony to consecrate him as Archbishop. Two days later, Bradwardine came down with a fever and five days later he was dead. Bradwardine was eminent intellectual who had written treatises on velocity and theology. Cantor argues that with his death, the study and practices of science were set back by many years.

Other chapters are dedicated to the effects of the plague on land rights and assets for lords and peasants and men and women of property. Cantor explains the labor shortage created by all the deaths and how the survivors could command more for their labor. There are chapters on the how the plague was considered a Jewish conspiracy leading to many deaths and on the theories of how the plague was disseminated by cosmic dust, serpents and how it originated in Africa.

All of Cantor’s information is very interesting however his explanations are pretty esoteric and his writing is quirky. The time frame is not linear either. So while the subject matter is of use, it’s not an easy read. I would recommend this book if the reader is already versed in the history of the Black Death and its consequences.