The Untold History of Healing: Plant Lore and Medicinal Magic from the Stone Age to Present
While the title of this book might appear underwhelming, don’t let it fool you. The Untold History of Healing: Plant Lore and Medicinal Magic from the Stone Age to Present is one of those sleeper books, something that lingers on your bookshelf for far too long before you idly pick it up one day, become entirely engrossed, and kick yourself, saying, “Gosh darn it, why didn’t I read this before?!” (For the record, the “gosh darn it” is entirely optional.)
This is a slower-paced but nonetheless fascinating read on healing, culture, and belief, and it shows how each has affected the other through time, delving into the whys and wherefores of ancient peoples and examining how belief has shaped medicine. It is a truly epic journey, and author Wolf D. Storl does a masterful job at keeping his narrative on-point and relevant. He includes a great deal of detail, has a pleasant narrative voice, and firmly roots his discussions in the everyday life of the ancient world. His descriptions of herbs, decoctions, and rituals may leave readers itching to tap into their own inner traditional healer.
North Atlantic Books
Wolf D. Storl
China at the Center: Ricci and Verbiest World Maps
In the early 17th century, Jesuit priests, eager to spread Christianity, made their way to China; two of these, Matteo Ricci and Ferdinand Verbiest, became noted scientists and philosophers in the Chinese imperial court. They brought their knowledge of European cartography and drew important maps that impressed their hosts and influenced Chinese mapmaking for years to come. This slim volume concentrates on the history of these two priests and how and why they created the two maps known as the Ricci and Verbiest World Maps. The maps are reproduced in sepia print, and the accompanying essays explain some of the detail, noting important aspects such as the inclusion of scale, positioning of the continents, mythical creatures or fantastic facts, and so on.
The maps are very detailed, but small; the text on the maps, written for a Chinese audience, is also written in Mandarin, so English-speaking readers may be disappointed that there is not more explanation of the various writings included on the maps. However, this is an interesting and accessible introduction to this little-known aspect of cartography, and will encourage interested readers to seek additional sources to truly study these documents and enjoy their message and history.
Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat
In twelve delightfully detailed chapters, science journalist Marta Zaraska reveals how we have become so fixated on meat in our diets. From the onset of life as microbes engulfed other microbes, the body’s demand for sustenance evolved into devouring both plants and animals. Religions, customs, rulers, topography, and geography frequently dictated the diet. Wealthier and more powerful countries tended to consume more meat—be it pork, cow, sheep, dog, horse, rat, fowl, or fish. The more carnivorous selection by the early hunter-gatherer is credited for enabling the increase in brain size. The umami component of meat seduced the consumer with its appealing protein flavor. However, plants also possess this umami essence especially in soy products, therefore vegetarians can also harvest this special quality in foods. Now with our increasing concern regarding meat consumption and its possible association with the incidence of diabetes, heart problems, cancer, and possibly obesity, dietary changes towards a plant diet seem indicated. Such a change would reduce cattle raising and reduce water demands, pollution, and global warming. Read the fascinating stories of cultural influences on eating habits, novel recipes shaping soy veggies into pseudo-steaks and burgers, and lab grown meat on petri dishes, along with the horror stories of how animals are treated. The contents are engrossing.
The Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome, A Brief History
When it comes to reading textbooks or primers on particular subjects, the key really is that the writing keep the reader’s interest, otherwise their mind is likely to wander and/or become bored with the subject matter they are reading about. Thankfully, Jack L. Schwartzwald’s brief history on the ancient Near East, Greece and Rome has an interesting and engaging voice that grabs the reader’s attention right from the beginning and keeps them going for the whole book.
This “brief history” is still a good 190-odd pages of informational text, along with an extensive bibliography and thorough index, giving the reader quick references at their fingertips. For those readers looking to read it cover to cover, the book is divided into three chapters: “The Cradle of Civilization: The Ancient Near East,’ “The Cradle of Western Civilization: Ancient Greece,” and “The Cradle of the Nation-State: Ancient Rome.” While it seems like heavy reading to digest the entire book with just three chapter breaks, especially on this none-too-easy subject, each chapter is subdivided into sections with titles to allow for breaks and digestion of the material. The shortest chapter is the first one at 30 pages, which is sad, because it is such an import period in history that lead to the foundation and creation of so much that came after, nevertheless it is clear that while Schwartzwald knows plenty about the ancient Near East, it is ancient Greece and Rome where he dedicates his true knowledge.
The history telling is straightforward, with lots of names and dates throughout the text, as the author lays out the history and events and happenings in succinct paragraphs. There is not a lot of discussion or synthesis here, as this is a “brief history” after all and nothing more. Schwartzwald is giving you the quick history of these times and places so that you can speedily digest and understand it. If you are looking for further, deeper material, that is what the bibliography is for. But in this way the book also serves as an excellent reference tool, along with the index, so that if the reader is tackling something in depth, but wants a quick refresher on a specific period in the ancient Near East, Greece or Rome, this book does the job well.
What is perhaps surprising about the book is that it is all text, with not a single picture, table, graphic, or depiction of a graphic source. While, again, it is a “brief history” and meant for a quick and thorough reading of the time period, one would expect maybe a photo or two, a Roman statue or Greek piece of architecture, or even Hammurabi’s code of laws; something to break up the text and help make it all the more real for the reader. Nevertheless, the book does its job of providing a “brief history” of the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome, where the reader will not become lost and overwhelmed by too much, but able to digest everything in titled sections. It is an ideal book for someone taking an ancient history class and looking to get a feel for the history they are about to learn about or for the average reader wanting to learn more about the period, but not having to absorb a heavy and overwhelming tome. The people, dates, and events in the book are all laid out in chronological order, allowing the reader to take it all in swiftly and comprehensively.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
For the Western world, cities in the East have difficult names, are exotic, perhaps backwards, and rarely considered to have an impact on Western politics and society. This book’s aim is to present a case that these cities, and the empires that once claimed them continue to have a real influence on today’s economies all over the globe. World histories typically suffer from two main criticisms: They do not take in to account all factors that lead to major world events, focusing instead on only a few main ones which they claim are relevant. The second criticism is that they do not take into account all world events, sometimes ignoring large portions of history especially if these historical narratives are at odds with the historian’s world view.
This book attempts to explain world events arising from events and attitudes along the Silk Road (defined as the network of trade routes from China to the Mediterranean). It also reduces the impetus for major events to economic motives. In the process it focuses unevenly on certain historical events and epochs – a criticism that can be levelled against virtually any historical account.
The narrative is chronological starting with the Persian Empire, and speculating about the future. Along the way the trade and transportation of goods along the Silk Road is discussed which brings in its wake other consequences. One such consequence is the evolution of religions along the Silk Road as they compete and trade ideas with each other. Another is the transmission of disease that brought the Black Death to Europe. The Atlantic Trade is also discussed and tied to trade along the Silk Road, as are major conflicts. In recent times, the world has looked to the West as a model of sophistication. This book predicts that current world events will move the center of the world back to the Silk Road – where it claims it has traditionally been. Readers may not agree with the views presented in this book. However it does provide an alternate viewpoint. For those who embrace alternate viewpoints, or are curious about them, this would be a good book.
ClanDonnell: A Storied History of Ireland
David McDonnell tells Ireland’s history through a unique lens, tracing the history of the original Clan Donnell (Donald in Scotland) and offshoot clans (McDonnells, McDonalds, O’Donnells, etc.) that dominated the Hebrides Islands, Highland Scotland, and much of Ireland, until the English subjugated the island in the 17th century.
McDonnell has a story-teller’s voice, though his richly textured and layered 900-plus-page book is factual. Familiar historic figures star in this story, but the author shows a Donnell, a Donald, or a McDonnell on the scene at every turn, including “The Troubles” of the 1900s. It’s a mesmerizing book that feels like a personal journey through Ireland’s history.
In the Clan Era, there was much travel between Scotland and what was Ireland at that time: not a nation, but an amalgam of small kingdoms headed by clan leaders chosen by their clan members and associated clans. The McDonnell clan was predominant in the north but migrated south as well. “Redshanks” and “Gallowglass warriors” (well-trained Scots mercenaries loyal to McDonnell clan in Northern Ireland) could be rented out to other clans in both places, which gave the McDonnells more power and land for their clans. (The English were terrified of these warriors.)
Early Scots who immigrated assimilated easily into the Irish clans. Viking invasions of the 8th and 10th centuries also assimilated into Celtic clans. The Celtic clan culture worked for more than a thousand years, and author McDonnell raises a good question: Who really is Irish? Ireland was invaded over centuries by many different groups — all of whom wove themselves into the culture and became part of the Ireland we know today.
A clan leader’s first concern was to provide what was best for the clan. That changed with the Norman and English invasions in the late 12th century. Clan leaders who made peace with the invaders became earls instead; their clan members became tenants. Later, English colonizers turned this to their own advantage: when these Irish earls were recalcitrant, they were replaced with English landlords, most of them absentee landlords. The subjugation of Ireland became complete under Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, James I (who encouraged Protestants from the Scottish lowlands to immigrate into what is now Ulster), and Cromwell, whose system of forfeiture reduced most Irish to subsistence or homelessness long before the potato blight of the 1840s. James I and Cromwell set the scenes for “The Hunger” and Diaspora of the 1840s, and the horrendous “Troubles” in the 20th century. At every event in this absorbing book, one meets a McDonnell or two — some on one side, some on the other. There were McDonnell landlords and earls, McDonnell members of the IRA. Some fought for England in WWI.
As promised, McDonnell doesn’t litter pages with footnotes, claiming they make for a tedious read. I do think the book could have benefitted from appendices in the back with more timelines and maps. An index would have been helpful, too. I had to do a lot of re-reading and page-turning to keep track of events. That said, this is a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in Irish history.