Tuesday, July 14, 2009

In praise of Osprey books

As someone interested in military history from an early age (in fact military history is how I originally became interested in history) and an avid wargamer for many years, Osprey publishing has been part of my reading patterns for a long time. They provide easily digestible specific discussions with an emphasis on how things worked plus helpful illustrations and photos.

While at a medieval recreation Festival a few years ago, ordered from Mainly Medieval booksellers copies of their books on Bronze Age War Chariots, Viking Longship, Mounted Archers of the Steppe, Carolingian Cavalryman, Rome at War, Byzantium at War, all relevant to what I teach in putting on Ancient and Medieval days.

I was reading Rome at War AD293-696 and noting it was very scholarly, so I checked who the author was. Michael Whitby, Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Warwick University. That would account for it then.

I particularly liked the chronological period chosen. It seems to me that going from the period when Rome is a unified empire incorporating the Mediterranean basin and beyond to the point when first Germanic and then (after Justinian's resurgence) Arab conquests have reduced it to a rump of the Balkans and Asia Minor is exactly the right way to go. Not to deal with the collapse of the Western Empire as if the survival of the Eastern Empire is not revealing, nor treat the Eastern Empire's loss of half its territory and three-quarters of its revenue to the Arab Caliphate as some later unfortunateness, but to deal with the entire process in a unified way.

The series, being British, obviously has a bit of a British Isles focus, but only a mild one. And it does provide very accessible information. I like the use of AD, rather than the let's pretend we're not using a Christian calendar even though we are Common Era wank.

John Haldon's volume on the medieval Eastern Roman empire explains the problem with the 'Byzantium' usage straight up and refers to it in the text for what it was—the medieval Eastern Roman empire—and is a splendid treatment. The longship volume does make it pretty clear that the most likely explanation for the sudden explosion of Norse going a-viking was improvement in shipbuilding technology (particularly sails). The steppe nomad volume notes the common patterns and problems of nomadic pastoralism and that it was a much later developing social form than agrarianism. Not convinced by the chariot volume that chariots were a product of agrarian civilisation—it would be the only significant feature of horse technology that was such a development (and certainly not the view from the Wikipedia article). The Carolingian cavalry volume is somewhat shapeless, but the available information is very limited to begin with.

For readability and information accessibility, the Osprey books are very useful (and clearly, and deservedly, a flourishing enterprise).

No comments:

Post a Comment