Richard Fidler’s latest book Ghost Empire is “two-thirds history and one-third travel memoir” according to the ABC radio presenter. A trip with his fourteen-year-old son Joe fired up Fidler’s passion for the city of Constantinople – as modern day Istanbul was called – and for the rich history that was the Byzantine Empire. See our interview with Fidler about the writing of Ghost Empire.
Passionate about history, Richard Fidler told Better Reading his Top Ten List of Books on the Riotous, Bloody Mess that is the Middle Ages:
Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe, by William Rosen
Rosen gives us a vivid account of the outbreak of the plague during the reign of Emperor Justinian. Yersinia Pestis – a germ hiding inside the gut of a flea, perched on the fur of a rat – was unknowingly ferried by ship to the glittering city of Constantinople in 542 AD. In just ten days the Queen of cities was utterly transformed; its streets choked with bloody corpses, too numerous to bury. In four months Constantinople lost nearly half its population. The emperor himself fell sick, but he was one of the few who recovered. Rosen shows us the workings of the plague, and terrifying lack of moral logic at work: the good and the wicked, the young and the old, the rich and the poor alike all fell victim to this nightmare, which seemed to be a punishment from God for their sins.
The Sagas of Iceland
I was introduced to the sagas by my friend Kari Gislason, an Australian writer born in Iceland. These are the more-or-less true stories of the first Viking families who settled on that remote island in the Middle Ages; tales of love, death, power and revenge that were told for centuries until they were written down on calfskin vellum in the thirteenth century. The Viking men and women of the sagas say and do extraordinary things, but the authors never tell us what they’re thinking. I’ve read some of these rich stories many times over, and they never fail to move me. It now seems like a miracle that such a remote, sparsely populated island could give birth to one of the world’s great storytelling cultures.
The World of Late Antiquity, by Peter Brown
Peter Brown, with this hugely influential and beautifully written book, recalibrated the way the world saw the era between the collapse of ancient Rome and the rise of the Arabs under Muhammad. Previously, western historians had presented this transitional period as a slow and sad winding down of the glory of Rome. But seen from the point of view of people living in Byzantium, Persia and Arabia, it was a time of invention and renewal, when the pulse of culture and conquest started to quicken. I adore this book.
A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman
Is there a better author of narrative history than Barbara Tuchman? In A Distant Mirror, she sees the horrors of the early twentieth century reflected in the plagues and upheavals of fourteenth century Europe. Tuchman builds her story around the life of a single French nobleman, and extends it into a larger portrait of the different social classes of the time, who are rocked by events such as the Black Death, the One Hundred Years War and the Papal Schism.
One of my all-time favourite history books. Davies’s masterwork encompasses the entirety of European history, but the three chapters on the Middle Ages are worth the cover price alone. He shows us how the tribes of Europe moved around the continent after the fall of the western Roman empire and settled into a form that would come to be known as ‘Christendom’. We see the conquests of the Vikings and the Normans, the slow emergence of Russia, the rise of the papacy, chivalry, and the madness of the Crusades, interspersed with little capsule histories that shine a pencil-thin light on a specific person, place or theme.
A History of Venice, by John Julius Norwich
This is a stupendous volume which follows the long story of the Most Serene Republic of Venice from is humble origins as a trading outpost in a marshy lagoon to its glorious apogee as a major mercantile and naval power, to the ignominious end of its independence at the hands of Napoleon.
The Secret History, Procopius.
Procopius might be the bitchiest historian from the medieval world. He was born into an aristocratic family in Constantinople and served at the court of Justinian and Theodora. The high-born Procopius detested both these upstarts with every fibre of his being: Justinian was the adopted son of a pig farmer, and Theodora was the daughter of a bear-keeper from the Hippodrome. But like everyone else, the snobbish Procopius was obliged to publicly bend the knee to the ruthless imperial couple. Procopius wrote several respectful official histories, but at night he furtively poured all his bile into a document known to us as The Secret History. In page after page he records the Emperor’s every wicked deed, both real and imagined. Justinian is portrayed as a demon, able to detach his own head and go wandering about the palace late at night. Theodora is depicted, in the way that powerful Roman women so often were, as sexually insatiable, and he recounts her public performance of an erotic parody of Leda and the Swan, where geese were trained, allegedly, to pick breadcrumbs from her private parts. The Secret History lay forgotten in the Vatican Library for centuries. Its publication, more than a thousand years after the events recorded, titillated and scandalised Europe.
Millennium by Tom Holland
Tom Holland’s hugely enjoyable account of Europe in the eleventh century begins with the dawning (and for many, disappointing) realisation among the Christians of Europe that the world would not come to an end after all with the arrival of the new millennium. As the apocalyptic doom-mongering began to dissipate, it was replaced by a flickering sense that a new era was about to begin.
The Alexiad, Anna Comnena
Anna Comnena is one of my favourite people of the medieval world. Born in Constantinople as the daughter of Emperor Alexius Comnenus, Anna received a first-class education and she administered a hospital for women, where she lectured in medicine. She hoped to succeed her father, but when the throne passed to her little brother instead, she plotted to overthrow him. The scheme was discovered and Anna was sent to live in a convent in the city. She passed her days by writing a colourful history of her father’s reign known as The Alexiad, and in doing so became the world’s first female historian.
This is one of the most dramatic and moving tales I’ve ever encountered in my reading. By 1453, the ’empire’ based in Constantinople was an empire in name only. Constantinople was a shell of its former self, a walled city of Christians surrounded on all sides by the Muslim Ottoman Turks. Crowley recounts the last months of the city and the utterly weird (but explainable) phenomena that accompanied its final days. He shows us the main protagonists: the restless and brilliant Sultan Mehmed II, and the very last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI, a resolute and tragic figure. Despite the mismatched forces, the defenders put up an extraordinary fight, ensuring that the Byzantine Empire expired with a bang, not a whimper.