This has been a week of synchronicity, though I’m not sure that I should attach any significance to the fact that I have been reading quite co-incidentally two Australian authors Paul Collins and Peter Carey and reading about the tenth century papacy at a time when the Conclave to elect a twenty-first century pope was taking place.
As you know, if you’ve checked my Currently Reading page, I am reading Paul Collins’ The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century. I am finding this book very engaging, but it is quite a weighty tome, and keeping track of the various Henries, Heriberts, and Hughs—let alone the Lothars, and Louis, Ottos and Odos, all of whom keep making alliances and betraying them, or joining each other to fight Vikings or Saracens—requires focussed attention. And then, of course, there are the popes and bishops, some of whom were so young one doubts whether they were actually old enough to take their first communion let alone administer it.
It is many decades since I took an undergraduate course in Mediaeval History, and I am finding this book an enjoyable refresher that at times gives one serious pause for thought. I had been previously unaware, for example, that the church was relatively uninvolved in marriages at this time (125). Marriage was still regarded far more as a civil arrangement than a sacrament. Very interesting, given current debates on what constitutes marriage and on who should be allowed to marry. The dust jacket “blurb” informs me that Collins “resigned from the active priestly ministry in 2001 due to a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997).” My suspicion is that in Collins the historian dominates over the theologian.
Collins writes lucidly and engagingly without academic pomposity. The notes and bibliographies are informative, but I do wish historians would adopt the parenthetical citation format: flipping to the back of the book every time one wants to check a reference or read a little further is a little boring. In fact (dare I say it?) I rather miss footnotes where all the “extras” were at the bottom. Of course, there were those footnotes that became several pages long themselves.
As a change of pace, I have also been reading Peter Carey’s 30 Days in Sydney, which I bought heavily discounted with his The Chemistry of Tears, which is waiting to be read along with Zadie Smith’s NW and Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies both of which have been sitting waiting for my attention for some considerable time. But I keep being diverted. And Carey’s 30 Days in Sydney is extremely diverting. The chapters are short; the descriptions of place and character, pithy. I am also learning a lot about the early history of Australia, a place I have yet to visit and about which I realize I am really rather uninformed.
I think what is striking me most at this point about Carey’s book is its vitality. The characters he describes are so vibrant, idiosyncratic, and human. When I have finished it, no doubt, I will have more to say.
So back to my reading.