Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers: the history you weren’t taught in school

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Read 26/04/2016-30/04/2016

Rating: 3 stars

LibraryThing review

My friend is signed up as an Early Reviewer on LibraryThing. Not so long ago, she was sent Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers to review. The only problem was, she was sent the Kindle edition and she doesn’t have a Kindle.

She passed it on to me. I was quite excited at the thought, because I’ve wanted to dip my toe into LT’s Early Reviewer club, but my TBR is so huge that I didn’t dare. Now’s my opportunity.

I liked the Amazon synopsis for the book:

Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers unveils the history you were never taught at school. With a breathtaking sweep spanning Rome to the modern day, popular historian and author Dominic Selwood challenges the traditional version of some of the best-known events of the past. From ancient Christianity to the voyages of Columbus, and from the medieval Crusades to ISIS and the modern Middle East, this book debunks dozens of historical myths.

I was less thrilled by the comment comparing Selwood to Dan Brown, towards whom I feel a very snobbish aversion, despite never having read more than a paragraph of one of his books. Or perhaps because I’ve read one of his paragraphs.

I scanned the list of things that Amazon promised the book would reveal to me, things never taught in school. I knew a fair few of them already, but to be fair I am an historian, and I do love popular history. I also enjoy a bit of historical controversy, so when I opened up the book and scanned the contents list, I felt a bit more certain that there would be things to surprise and excite me.

Selwood got me onside early on in his foreword, with the lines

…history is not a hard science. It is much more soft and yielding, capable of being defined and shaped – or distorted and falsified – by those who live it, or those who tell it.

I deal with this almost daily, working in a museum, a place which seeks to entertain as much as to educate, where the people delivering the interpretation (gallery text, school session, or live demonstration) are often frustrated by the insistence of the collections staff (of whom I am one) on everything being rooted in fact. Shaping of fact is a necessary to make it accessible. Distortion of fact is a disservice. Even when the staff shape rather than distort, visitors have their own rules and, as Selwood points out, mislead themselves, seeing only what they want to see. So I was interested to see how this historian tackled the rectification of popular fallacy.

Originally written as short articles in The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator magazine, each chapter focuses on an aspect of history that isn’t widely known. Selwood ties the story to an anniversary, or a current affairs story elsewhere in the news, or some aspect of popular culture, and so demonstrates how seemingly inconsequential events have actually had a big impact on modern life.

There is a certain tone to the articles which probably plays to the political leanings of the readership of both publications, but Selwood presumes that readership has a good level of intelligence. By which I mean the articles are in no way dumbed down.

The book is split into historical eras, and the chapters focus either on a little known, or under recognised, personality or give an overview of events and opinions in a given time period.

The tone of the book reminded me of articles I read as a child in The Reader’s Digest, of which there were always copies in the bungalow my parents rented for a week every summer. I thought Selwood did a good job of distilling the complexities of history into manageable narratives. I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more in the way of thrills and excitement that the subtitle “The History You Weren’t Taught In School” seemed to promise, but the articles were engaging enough.

There were some thrills, excitement and surprises for me. The chapter on the Vikings was my favourite, for its wordplay and the things I learned. I didn’t know viking was a word to describe pirate activity, rather than a societal description. The chapter on the Battle of Hastings/Norman Conquest was action packed and I enjoyed the excitement Selwood generated about everything else that was going on at the time.

I also liked the point Selwood makes about British society being a very European society already, thanks to our ancient history. It’s more recent history that gives us Brits our insufferable superiority complex on the global stage. The Brexit lot need to think about that.

Selwood makes reference to Game of Thrones and Tolkien a few times in his articles. If you’re interested in the back story to Middle Earth style fantasy novels, but don’t want to read a full on scholarly tome, this might be the book for you. And once you’ve read Selwood’s overviews, you might feel inspired to dig a little deeper.

Selwood also discusses the history of the Middle East in an accessible way. I found the information on the history of occupation and war in the area that includes Syria, Jordan and Israel helpful in seeing a span of activity that has brought us to where we are now.

The Dan Brown reference on Amazon presumably stems from Selwood being an expert on the history of the Knights Templar. I remember first being fascinated by them when I read Ivanhoe, and then again when I read Foucault’s Pendulum. For anyone with a glimmer of interest in this enigmatic bunch of mediaeval warrior monks, there is plenty within Selwood’s book to add some facts to the fiction.

Because I have limited knowledge of American history, the accounts of the genocide committed against Native American peoples were shocking to me. I found the actions taken by European settlers against Native Americans from Columbus onwards disgusting.

Selwood is interesting on the Reformation in England and its consequences. His take on Thomas Cromwell seemed more personal dislike than objective assessment of the historical record, but his examination of the effects of Cromwell’s zeal in destroying the Catholic church’s hold over English government covered some interesting points. I hadn’t considered the effect on British cultural history, through the destruction of religious artworks and the banning of what the reformers viewed as superstitions in the form of prayers for the dead and celebrating saints’ days. I coincidentally read the article about St Walburga on her saint’s day and found the line drawn by Selwood from the ending of harmless superstitions to the ensuing witch hunts a convincing one. The Protestant reformers didn’t like women, pinning all kinds of evils at our door. Poor men, with the conflicts that rage inside them, uncontrollable and irrational. Of course it must be down to women that they feel that way. We were witches in the 16th and 17th centuries, feminist harridans in the 20th century, and throughout time, but noticeably in this 21st century age of entitlement, sluts who ask for sexual violence. And that’s just the Western tradition. Selwood offers other explanations for why the witch hunts took such a grip of English society at the time, but acknowledges that it was mainly misogyny.

I was less engaged by the articles based around First and Second World War anniversaries, possibly because there has been a lot in the news in recent years about both conflicts and it felt less fresh as a topic. The article about Fritz Haber, Nobel Prize winner for the Haber-Bosch process of producing ammonia, was interesting. Haber really shouldn’t have been awarded the Nobel Prize, because by the time of its award he had gone on to develop the chemical gases used in World War One. His work on chemical gases also resulted in the development of Zyklon B, used to such devastating effect in World War Two.

I read the book straight through because I was reviewing it, and found it a bit repetitive at times. Around two thirds of the way through, I was ready for a rest from Selwood’s voice. For that reason, I’d recommend it as something to dip in and out of. Definitely worth investigating, though, if you want some interesting titbits about historical events.

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