(Click on the book title for the detailed book review)
- The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt Against the Inquisition in the Last Days of the Cathars by Stephen O’Shea. This is a 12th century tale about a revolt against the Inquisition which happened in France
- Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science by Jim al-Khalili
- In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire by Tom Holland
- Master of the Mountain:Thomas Jefferson And His Slaves by Henry Wiencek
Stephen O’Shea recognizes that he has given himself a tough nut to crack in The Friar of Carcassonne. The book is largely the saga of Franciscan brother Bernard Délicieux, a courageous civic leader who laboured mightily to lift the yoke imposed on the people of southwestern France by the Inquisition in the late 13th and early 14th century. Délicieux is a heroic figure, to be sure, and his tale is well worth telling, but perhaps not at book length. Since his revolt against the Inquisition, which was led by the remorseless Dominicans, mostly consisted of legal squabbles, audiences with the king of France and ceaseless litigation, this book has a jarringly Jesuitical flavour.
Beginning in the 8th century, a series of enlightened caliphs began to commission translations of important texts from Persian and Greek into Arabic, laying the groundwork for a period of unprecedented intellectual activity in the Middle East. Geniuses such as the physicist Ibn al-Haytham and the philosopher Ibn Sina did much to influence Europe’s own Renaissance, seven centuries later.
Although occasionally bogged down in historiographic debate, Jim Al-Khalili’s book is a superb read full of fascinating pen portraits. We learn of the Berber polymath Ibn Firnas, who “at the age of 65 … built a rudimentary hang-glider and launched himself from the steep side of a mountain”. Eat that, Leonardo.
The ostensible subject at the heart of In the Shadow of the Sword is the sudden and totally unexpected rise of the Arab Empire of the Caliphate in the seventh century. Holland charts its emergence out of the two Empires that preceded it: the Byzantine Empire of the eastern Mediterranean and the Sassanian Empire of Persia and Mesopatamia. To disentangle the nature of these two very particular states, Holland looks back over the centuries to identify their different spiritual legacies and political dynamics. But the core of the narrative starts in 480 AD and takes us on a roller–coaster of an adventure, ending with the mutually assured destruction of each others territory by Heraclius and Khusrow, which allows for the sudden emergence of an Arab Empire in around 650 AD.
But by the 1780s, Jefferson’s views on slavery in America had mysteriously shifted. He formulated racial theories asserting, for instance, that African women had mated with apes; Jefferson financed the construction of Monticello by using the slaves he owned — some 600 during his lifetime — as collateral for a loan he took out from a Dutch banking house; and when he engineered the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jefferson pushed for slavery in that territory. By 1810, Jefferson had his eye fixed firmly on the bottom line, disparaging a relative’s plan to sell his slaves by saying, “It [would] never do to destroy the goose.”