One may talk about “being unable to put it down”, but I have actually read few books at one sitting. Possibly a whodunnit or two on a long, boring flight, but nothing else.
In Vol. 31 No. 13 · 9 July 2009 of the London Review of Books, the world’s most exciting magazine, Caroline Walker Bynum reviewed a book. Having read the review I added the book to my “Wish List” on Amazon and forgot about it. As if, appropriately, by magic, it turned up in my Christmas stocking and lay with the pages uncut (an affectation, I admit, and according to that link, an inaccurate affectation) until yesterday when I idly picked it up. And read until the last page.
It’s entitled The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages and was written by Robert Bartlett as a hard copy of the Wiles Lectures he gave at the Queen’s University in 2006. There are four lectures, each copiously footnoted in the book although presumably not during the lectures themselves, and each maintaining the informality of speech in the written word, complete with the odd throw-away joke.
I can’t compete with Bynum’s review that first piqued my interest (all of the LRB reviews and much else are now online for your delight although I won’t be getting rid of my paper copies yet) but I would like to quote Bartlett’s provocative introduction to the fourth lecture:
The trouble with contemporary Western education is that far too little emphasis is placed on science, mathematics and foreign languages, which are the essential foundations of research and which have direct practical benefits. … Especially now, when relations with the Muslim world are so crucial, it is a disgrace that there are so few diplomats trained in the arabic language.
Yes, you guessed, a summary of Roger Bacon’s thoughts, written in 1267.
And it came as a shock to find my namesake, St Christopher, portrayed as a doghead. I frequently saw a less cynocephalic interpretation of him carrying the baby across the river in St Mary’s church in Huntingdon when, as a small child, I accompanied my father in stoking the boiler there. I would have run screaming from the one depicted in the book (and on the web site above). The story of carrying a load that gets increasingly heavy as time passes, particularly resonates with me.
Barlett’s book presents not only an authoritative discussion of the balance between the natural and the supernatural but also poses deep questions that need to be answered today; the primary of these being how we relate to people with beliefs that we do not share. This is posed in the context of understanding the reasoning of the medieval mind but also, I suppose, covers my reprehensible behaviour in encouraging Jehovah’s Witnesses into the house so that I can tease them.
By the way, if you want them to grow well, make sure that your olive trees are planted by virgins and use sealskin to protect them against lightning.