Here are five new books that are not entirely about the Middle Ages, but the other sections are good too.
By Egill Bjarnason
Excerpt: First, the country was visited by three explorers, arriving one after the other, who had each come to Iceland mostly out of curiosity and the desire to verify one another’s boasts about finding a vast empty island. Flóki Vilgerdarson, the third explorer to arrive, allegedly gave Iceland its name while standing on top of a mountain overlooking the wide Breida Fjord, packed with sea ice. Other proposed early names included Snowland, Gardar’s Isle, and Thule.
By Olivette Otele
Excerpt: A slow shift also occurred as many Europeans came into contact more often with Africans. Stories about the role played by the Ethiopian Prester John, a legendary king said to have ruled over an Eastern Christian nation, travelled and provided a hopeful platform for the expansion of Christendom. The representation of black saints took a new turn in the second half of the fifteenth century. Ideas about the blackness of sinners, as represented in the sculptures of black saints, or recognition of the role of black figures such as the magi in the foundations of Christianity were slowly replaced by a worldlier black presence. This was caused by the establishment of links between Ethiopian monks and Rome, Constance and Florence, and by the possibilities offered by potential alliances between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which were supported by Pope Eugene IV. In the sixteenth century Southern Europe saw the emergence of a number of black saints, amongst them the Sicilian Franciscans Benedict of Palermo and Antonio da Noto.
By Douglas Boin
W.W. Norton and Company
Excerpt: A talented immigrant is denied citizenship by an unjust empire and, in retaliation, unleashes a surprise attack on one of its beloved cultural capitals, Rome. His journey from ambitious boy to disillusioned adult takes four decades. But by the time he dies, in the fifth century A.D., he will be remembered as the foreigner who forced the most powerful politicians of his day to think twice about who they called a “barbarian.” He changed history, and yet his version of it has never been told. His name was Alaric, and this is his story.
By Sudipta Sen
Yale University Press
Excerpt: The Ganges near Kanauj that the Chinese traveler and scholar Xuanzang saw was pure and blue like the ocean, its banks full of fine grained sand. He describes it as the legendary “river of religious merit” that had the manifest power to wash away countless sins. He also saw large crowds at the major pilgrimages along the river, such as the GangaYamuna confluence at Prayag, full of merit seekers gathered to assuage the wrongs of their lifetimes. Some had come for penance and mortification, some to fast unto death in the hopes of getting to heaven quickly. Bathing in the Ganges was synonymous with the acquisition of merit as a kind of spiritual collateral for divine judgment after death, and the regimes that succeeded the Maukharis and Pushyabhutis of Kanauj fought over the distinction of protecting the many pilgrimages and sacred cities that dotted the Ganges valley. The Gupta Empire had left behind a rich and variegated iconography of the Ganges. Some of these representations, especially of the river as a female guardian or as the heavenly companion of Shiva, became standard figures installed in temples throughout the Indian subcontinent.
By Jamie Mackay
Excerpt: By the eighth and ninth centuries, following a long period of civil war, the Abbasids, a Sunni dynasty from modern-day Iraq, emerged as leaders of Islam. Like Christianity, the faith was born as a revolutionary movement, premised on restoring the ‘original’ order of god, Allah, to the world. Between 610 and 632 the prophet Muhammad, who claimed to have a direct relationship with the divine, led a campaign against the ‘pagan’ polytheistic cult members in Mecca and the ‘false’ monotheisms of Christianity and Judaism. His religious motivation was to spread the direct word of god. It’s important to recognise, though, that he was also inspired by a political task: to unify the disparate groups across the Arabic-speaking world into a single body. The faith’s early militarism was not, therefore, a question of opposing all competing religions, or not only. First and foremost it was a symptom of a more complex, ultimately secular, dispute among competing tribes.