Mini book reviews

This is mostly catch up…I’m spending my free time getting ready for a talk on the 15th…

A History of the Vikings
Gwyn Jones
Oxford University Press
Recommendation: read

History of the Vikings If it wasn’t for the unfortunate early death of King Knut, a Viking, who, in 1033, briefly ruled over all of England, Denmark, and Norway, and created an Anglo-Scandinavian empire, we might gather round the fire each winter solstice to sing Here we go a viking. Instead, Knut’s death contributed to the success of the Norman invasion and we gather around the yule log at Christmas and go a wassailing. To a medieval Scandinavian, to go viking was to sail off in the hopes of adventure, plunder, and treasure in foreign lands. In time, the name of the practice of ruthless privateering stuck as the label for the men doing the invading.

As a sidelight, it turns out that wassailing, as it originated, is a weaker form of viking: it’s still festive mayhem, but usually without the thought of conquest attached to it.

Jones does a magnificent job of running through Viking history by sorting through the contradictory source material. The northmen, or norsemen, started as small communities in Scandinavia, prospered and needed more space to put their people. So a viking they went. They tamed and colonized Ireland, England, Scotland, Iceland, Greenland, and even tried in North America and Wales but were chased out by the locals. They had a wonderful religion with Odin, Thor, Vallhala, the Valkyries, and so on.

But time passed and they slowly assimilated with the rest of the Continent, were Christianized, made repeated attempts to form an Anglo-Norman-Scandinavian alliance, and then, after the death of Knut who nearly realized these dreams but failed to secure a legacy, pulled back into the North and became good little Europeans.

Christopher Hibbert
Weidenfeld & Nicolson History
Recommendation: read

Agincourt A succinct account of this famous battle. In 1413 Henry V was crowned King of England. He quickly decided that God had told him that France rightly belonged to him so he raised and bankrolled an army and sailed to Normandy in 1415, surprising the French who thought he’d land at Calais (which is the same mistake the Germans would make 529 years later).

Incidentally, the French king was insane (this statement, I agree, is probably a tautology) and believed that he was made of glass and that if anybody should touch him he would break.

The English took one fortress, established a base, and then marched across France to meet an army at least four times their size at Agincourt. The immense French army was pinched between two woods and could never bring more than a fraction of their force to bare. I won’t spoil the fun by telling you how the English won except to say that it was a gruesome display of medieval warfare. Find this book if you can (it’s back in print).

Stuart Isacoff
Recommendation: pass

Temperament This book promises to reveal the “idea that solved music’s greatest riddle.” Technically, and in a minor way, it does, but I’d say less than half the book was actually about music; the rest is just filler (biographies, tangential history, etc.). Worse, the slim sections devoted to music where not terribly informative.

The central problem is this: how many and at what steps do you divide the interval between octaves, where an octave is a doubling (or halving) of a frequency (or tone). In other words, how do you create notes.

Isacoff provides a brief history of the skirmish between mathematical purists (those who wanted the divisions to be based on ratios of whole numbers) and musical pragmatists (those who wanted to divide the interval between an octave into even increments). The pragmatists won because it turns out you can prove it’s impossible to divide up octaves using rational fractions. End of story.

But not really, because he leaves too many questions unanswered. He must have been worried that his readers would be frightened by mathematics so he leaves out the major descriptive resource at his disposal. The problem is, after all, mathematical. A few simple equations with accompanying graphs would doubled the value of this book.

Again, it’s worse, because at the very end of the book, when we think we have temperament all figured out, he dangles the line, “Non-Western music did not have these difficulties.” Really? Why not? How is non-Western music different? We do not even get a hint! Give this book a pass.


  1. Spruance

    Dear Mr. Briggs,

    I am quite sure that you would love John Keegan’s “The Face of Battle” (ISBN 978-0140048971) too!

    Kind regards

  2. Briggs


    Thanks for the recommendation. It is a great book.

  3. Non-Western music did not “have this problem” because none developed the harmonic sophistication required to make the problem obvious. As long as you avoid thirds and sixths, diatonic keys, or worse, key shifts, the Pythagorean Comma is there, but it isn’t obviously so.

    And its all because 2/3 isn’t a rational number …

  4. Bernie

    I totally agree that Keegan’s Face of Battle is excellent.
    I am sure Hibbert has done a fine job as he did with Rebels and Redcoats. Bernard Cornwell has just released his novel and historically detailed rendition of Agincourt – which is OK but somewhat boringly Sharpe-like. More interesting is the marketing stuff, viewable on Amazon, that has been put together in support of the book. It really is quite well done. Perhaps if you have access to a splendid cottage on Cape Cod near the water, a similar treatment could boost sales of your book? .

  5. Desmond Steward, 1978, The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453, Attheneum, is a marvelous book.

    From 1337 when Philip VI of France confiscated the Duchy of Guyenne from Edward III to Joan of Arc and Charles VII who drove the English out, for over a hundred years English mercenaries looted France in scorched earth campaigns of terror. The English archers with long bows had a miltary advantage, but eventually the Fench responded with gunpowder artillery.

    The English/French animosity continues to this day. Odd, since they have so much in common, yet burned deep in the blood. The slaughter of innocents has been going on for a very long time in Europe.

  6. Joy

    For an excellent history of england, “The Sceptred Isle” was an audio programme on BBC radio that is available on CD, ,
    Or The Anglo-Saxon chronicles if you read old English.

    And they’ve still got our Bayeux tapestry.
    You’d think it’s just the English that hate the French until you go to France and discover the feeling’s pretty mutual. We have a lot more in common with the Danes both in politics and temperament.
    One of the local churches is the oldest wooden church in the world, built in 10th century with later, Norman, Stuart and Victorian additions. One of the graves is believed to be that of a crusader. The atmosphere there is amazing, whatever the weather. Probably the calmest place, and so quiet.

  7. Alan D. McIntire

    I sing in a barbershop quartet. A few years ago someone coaching us mentioned that the different notes on a pitch pipe are not scaled perfectly- That means when the lead sings a C note, the tenor doesn’t sing the E on the pitch pipe, but a note a hair lower than that to get the perfect harmony. The person singing the G should sing a note a hair higher than the pitch pipe G to produce a perfect harmonic.

    I hadn’t given this a thought previously, but I immediately realized that since 3/2 and 5/4 don’t have rational 12th roots, the 12 steps on a piano scale must be a compromise between a perfect pythagorean scale and an ability to play in differnet keys.

    This math forum thread gives a pretty clear explanation.

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