A History Of Christianity, Diarmid MacCulloch, 978-0-141-02189-8
Set aside some time to read this; at comfortably over a thousand pages, you’re unlikely polish it off in a weekend.
MacCulloch nominally starts his history in 1000BCE, though devotes just a few dozen pages to the Greek/Roman and Jewish background. The following 2000 years get considerably more detailed attention, across a broad geographic range. Western Europe, Russian, the Greeks, the Miaphysites and Dyophysites of the Middle East, China, Africa (especially but not only Ethiopia) and the Americas are all covered (and I’ve probably missed more than a few from this list).
It is of course thoroughly entwined with other elements of history: Constantine, Charlemagne and colonialism all make an appearance. Some appreciation of (particularly, western-oriented) history over the last couple of thousand years will surely help the reader but the wider context is not neglected. Equally, you will find a lot of philosophy and science in here, covering both religious background to new thinking and subsequent engagement with it.
The writing is excellent, informal without being lightweight, and making occasional but good use of sarcasm; the result is a pleasure to read. Particularly well done is the 16th chapter, which despite the dry-sounding title ‘Perspectives on the True Church’ in fact engrossingly lays the intellectual and political groundwork for the Reformation.
I’ve previously reviewed The Popes by John Julius Norwich. Where that was the narrowest of vertical slices through history, this book may be as broad a slice as is possible while still representing a single coherent theme. Recommended both for readers interested in Christianity in particular, but also world history in general.
(A curious detail that I’d not previously been much aware of is the growing strength of Dyophysite Christians among the Persian elite in the first half of the 7th century. Given the previous Roman experience, it’s interesting to wonder how that would have played out had the Sassanian empire survived any longer.)
God’s Crucible, David Levering Lewis, 978-0-393-06472-8
A history of Islamic Spain and its context and impact. The first quarter of the book quickly covers Roman and Persian background material leading (in the west) to Visigothic Spain and (in the east) to the rise of Islam, before putting the two together with the Islamic conquest of Spain in the early 8th century. The rest covers the history of ‘Al-Andalus’ and its interactions with its geographical and ideological neighbours. (Sadly for my particular interests the author simply states one of the theories for the etymology of the name without alluding to the difficulties in this areas.)
At the political level those interactions generally produced much heat and little light, although the Byzantine gift of De Materia Medica to ’Abd al-Rahman III is a notable exception - essentially a bribe to maintain opposition to the Abbassids, but in practice a substantial injection of knowledge into the western Caliphate and (eventually) Catholic Europe. And it underlines the case the author really wants to make: for an extended period Islamic Spain was the major intellectual and cultural centre of western Europe, for instance putting Alcuin’s efforts in the Carolingian empire into the shade, and moreover that it had an outsized impact on the rest of western Europe.
The case is not badly, though I thought that the balance between the political and intellectual history could be shifted further towards the latter with little real loss. Maimonides, for instance, has to share a chapter with the comparably significant Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and the two of them don’t even get the whole of it. Still, this is a minor flaw. An enjoyable book about an interesting episode in history.