Thursday, 13 December 2018

Book review: Human Race, Ian Mortimer (2014)

Subtitled ’10 Centuries of Change on Earth’, this book goes into detail at various times in history to show how things in the past were the cause of major changes, but have since been forgotten by people in the broader community. I read part of the chapter on the 14th century as that is an era of particular interest for me, but I couldn’t really get into the book.

While it is adequately detailed to allow you to grasp the importance of the things that the author singles out for regard, I found the book disappointingly dull and uninspiring. I cannot put my finger on the problem other than to say that nothing that Mortimer singled out for attention seemed to me as of particular significance.

To give an example of what I’m talking about, Mortimer in the chapter on the 14th century focuses on the rise of nationalism in the period, and the consequent increase in the importance of vernacular languages. Now, this is something that I am particularly interested in as it dovetails with my own conception of later Medieval history as a time when major changes were afoot that might have been invisible to people living at the time. And vernacular literature is one such phenomenon. But Mortimer doesn’t talk about Frencesco Petrarch at all, despite the fact that, with his earlier countryman, Dante Alighieri, Petrarch almost single-handedly sparked the conflagration that would become the Renaissance, with his vernacular poetry and his interest in classical manuscripts.

So Mortimer missed out on an opportunity to link his ideas with larger trends that characterise this period of history, and that would become more important with the rise of religious fundamentalism associated with the era that came immediately after it. It seems like a small failing but I think that Mortimer should have taken a more popularist approach to his task, and linked what he wanted to say to larger narrative conventions (Martin Luther, Renaissance theatre) that people in the wider community will already have at their command. It doesn’t hurt to give people hints as to how to interpret the material that is original and rare that you are showing them.

The other thing that is a little disappointing is that the book seems to be determinedly Anglocentric, by preference making much of advances that originated in England. This is really strange for a book that purports to be of universal significance (although it is purely focused on European history).

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