Thursday, August 20, 2009

Defenders of the Faith: Charles V, Suleyman the Magnificent, and the Battle for Europe, 1520-1536, by James Reston, Jr.

James Reston, Jr. has written a number of histories of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but till now I have never read any of his books. So when The Penguin Press asked me if I'd like to review Defenders of the Faith for this blog, I said "yes."

Reston states in his Foreword that this book is "a work of historical literature, accurate in every respect but winnowing [names, dates and places] to the essentials..." Translation: this book (which contains lots of detail in any case, is an old-fashioned narrative history. It's a story, not a discussion of how scholars have interpreted the material and why. There is definitely a market for this sort of thing, always has been and always will be. And Reston has picked an interesting period, when the Ottoman Turkish Sultan and the German-Spanish Hapsburg Emperor fought for the domination of Europe, just as the Reformation split the Christian churches of Europe. Reston can honestly present this as a time when the future was up for grabs. No need to hoke up the historical drama, it's really there.

If you read this book, you should be prepared to believe that such periods are best understood by following the exploits of rulers and generals and the occasional religious leader. Defenders of the Faith strikes me as a little too focused on them, to the neglect of their historical background. For instance, Reston thinks Martin Luther is an interesting and important figure, but he spends very little time discussing why he developed the ideas he did, why he took a stand, and why his fellow Germans followed him in such numbers. Why the Reformation, why Germany, why the particular shape it took? Are the answers to these questions so obvious? A few well-chosen paragraphs could have told the readership, not all of them well-informed on the structure or theology of the Catholic and Lutheran churches, some key facts that would help put this "sometimes violently angry" monk/professor into a more vivid context. It seems to me that Reston's talents lie in the direction of describing dramatic set-piece battles, confrontations at court, or the Diet of Worms where Luther defied Emperor Charles V.

I could complain some more about things that I found frustrating or things Reston handled well (relating the chronology of all the complex military and diplomatic maneuvering), but this should give you an idea of whether you'd like the book.

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