A Very Short History of the World, by Geoffrey Blainey


In 1801, the Annual Register, a popular book which chronicled the year’s events, declared that the outgoing century had been remarkable. Science and technology, more than in any previous century, had leaped ahead. While Europe was often at war with itself, it was busy spreading science, religion and civilisation into the remotest forests and gorges. Never had there been such exploring ‘of the more remote and unknown regions of the globe’. The thirst for knowledge, claimed the Annual Register, had supplanted the thirst for gold and conquest. Never had long-distance trade so increased. On the familiar sea lanes the sailing ships were much faster than before; and even the long voyage from Europe to India was no longer feared as an ordeal.

The world had shrunk but even rich people did not travel far in search of knowledge or pleasure. A queen rarely travelled outside her realm. Only a few European missionaries crossed the seas to work in strange lands. In eastern Asia a few pilgrims sometimes travelled far to visit the great Buddhist shrines, but few Islamic pilgrims travelled far to worship in Mecca. Scholars–and in every nation they were few–stayed at home and learned of the world through books. When the young London poet John Keats wrote the words, ‘Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seen,’ he signified that he travelled by reading. At that time he had never moved far from his birthplace.

The most travelled people in the world were not scholars and priests but ordinary European and Arab sailors, who, in their mobility, were the air crew of their day. Between 1700 and 1800 the largest category of long-distance travellers in the world consisted of those who had no wish to travel: the millions of African slaves led as captives across their own continent or shipped across the tropical sea to the Americans.

The world was composed of tens of thousands of small, self-contained localities. Even to sleep one night away from home was an uncommon experience. This was true of China, Java, India, France or Mexico, though not of Australia and its Aborigines. People spent their whole life in one place, and from it came nearly all the food they are, and the materials they used for clothing and footwear. Here originated the news and gossip that excited or frightened them. Here they found their wife or husband.

A holiday by the beach or in the mountains belonged to the future. Spa towns, where people drank the mineralised waters for the sake of their health, were the only specialised tourist towns in Europe. In these ‘watering places’, tourists drank the waters according to a strict formula that prescribed so many jugs or glasses a day. In the early 1800s perhaps the most international of the spa resorts was Carlsbad, a pretty town hemmed in by steep granite hills and pine forests a few days’ ride from Prague and Leipzig. In 1828 an average of no more than 10 visitors arrived each day in order to partake of the medicinal water. Its main spring still rises in a hot perpetual stream, and the water still has an excruciating taste which improves with amnesia.


“This,” Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey writes in his preface, “as an attempt to write a world history that is not too voluminous. It tries to survey history since the time when the first people left Africa to settle the globe. Inevitably, some large themes which I investigated are described so fleetingly that they are like glimpses from the window of a passing train.”

If so, then Blainey manages to route his train through some of the most fascinating scenery to be found in the landscape of world history. Condensed from his already brief Short History of the World, this is a terrific book, one of the most consistently interesting and entertaining I’ve read in years. Blainey does an amazing job of squeezing the history of human life on this planet into 450 small pages.

Faced with a task of condensation on this scale, Blainey tends to focus on trends instead of events, but he succeeded in keeping my interest where others (e.g., William McNeill) have failed. He manages to shift from the specific to the general and back again without seeming formulaic, and as a result, there is something new in every few paragraphs.

I kept dog-earing pages with such paragraphs as I read, and by the end, there were nearly a hundred pages so marked. Here is just a sampling:

Virtually all contact between the Americas and the outside world ceased, and maybe for another 10,000 years the silence continued. Migratory birds moved between the two continents, but people lived in isolation. Eventually the inhabitants of America had no knowledge of the place of their origins.

The Mesopotamian lion, which was smaller than the African lion, was the target of countless hunts. It is easy to guess why this species of lion became extinct. A baked tablet surviving from 1100 BC records that one royal hunter while on foot killed a total of 120 lions. When he was hunting from the relative safety of the chariot he killed another 800 lions.

Madagascar and New Zealand were the last two sizeable areas of habitable land to be discovered and settled by the human race [in about 400 A.D.].

A member of the camel family, though lacking the conspicuous hump, a llama could carry a load weighin 40 or 50 kilograms, thereby compensating for the absence of the wheel in Andes civilisation.

It was Venice, the Silicon Valley of its era, which improved on the old Roman methods of making glass. The glassmakers of Venice had become so numerous, and the fires burning in their workshops posed such a danger of setting fire to the whole city, that in 1291 the government moved them to the adjacent island of Murano. The first mirrors or looking glasses of any clarity were made in Venice about 1500, and the Venetians kept secret their novel process of manufacture for more than 150 years.

[In 1900] A skeleton of knowledge about remote lands was now in the curriculum of a thousand schools. Coloured maps of the world became commonplace. It is doubtful whether in the days of Napoleon more than a fraction of the people in Europe had ever set eyes on a map of the world; but a century later most of Europe’s schoolchildren had seen such a map or globe and could even recite the names of rivers and mountains in each continent.

In 1901, in the arid centre of Australia and far from the nearest railway, a miraculous thread was tied between the 20th century and the era of nomads. Professor Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen captured the dances of Aborigines on one of the first movie cameras and recorded their haunting songs on the wax cylinder of a phonograph …. It was a remarkable occasion and time signal. Here were the representatives of a dying way of life that had dominated the entire world in 10,000 BC, standing face to face with the latest step in technology. The dancing Aborigines retained the sense that they and not the strange intruders held the key to the universe.

Blainey manages to squeeze millenia into a few pages by deliberately slighting political developments in favor of technical, economic, and geographic factors. By so doing, he not only avoids dry accounts of regimes and rulers, but enables the reader to feel, sometimes almost viscerally, how the substance of daily life has changed. “Without initially intending to, I gave space to what people ate and how hard they worked in order to earn their daily bread,” Blainey comments reflectively in his preface.

Another refreshing aspect of Blainey’s approach is the attention he pays to the environment and the changes in man’s relationship to it. Here, for example, he touches on something as simple–yet so easily overlooked–as the moon:

The moon, small or large, was usually a commanding presence. The largest object in the night sky, rising and setting some 50 minutes later on each successive day, it moved majestically. A new moon was invisible, for it marched in step with the sun across the day sky. In contrast the full moon could be seen throughout the night. Alive and powerful and personal, the moon was a female to some peoples and a male to others. It was a symbol of life and death, and was said to determine when the rains would fall. It was believed to influence the growth of vegetation; and for thousands of years it was a rural rule that farmers always should plant during the new moon. At a later time, in India and Iran and Greece, it was believed that people after death journeyed to the moon. The cycles of the moon were to constitute the first calendars, after the art of astronomy appeared.

Blainey also overcomes the perennial bias towards the Northern Hemisphere, giving space throughout the book to developments in Polynesia, Africa, and Latin America. His prose is simple and lucid, easy enough for it to be accessible by young teens. Indeed, one could argue that A Very Short History of the World deserves a place on any short list of recommended reading for high school students. There are few places where one can learn so much about human history in so little space–and at the same time, be so richly entertained. Less than two years after its first publication, A Very Short History is already out of print outside of Australia. It’s our loss.

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A Very Short History of the World, by Geoffrey Blainer
London: Penguin Books, 2004

Little Lives, by John Howland Spyker (pseudonym of Richard Elman)

Little Lives, by John Howland Spyker (pseudonym of Richard Elman)
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1979

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Lace Curtains
Lacey (Lace) Curtains began as a drayman and became a joiner. In short order he was a cooper, a puddler, a mason, a hod carrier, a pedlar, a pinch bottler, and a short-order cook. Lace flailed wheat and farmed fennel. He was a boilerman, a pot stiller, and a punchboard collector, repaired Wurlitzers and Atwater Kent wireless radios, and wove and patched caneback chairs. He had an abiding interest in the Mexican gold half-peso, which he collected, when he could, and old wax Zimmerman consolette recording cylinders, conducted Bingo games, leaf tours in the fall, and grew chrysanthemums for the high-school football “boosterettes.” In the winter he harvested Christmas trees, was the check-out at the Grand Union, and pumped gas for Cumberland Farms.

This simple yeoman, a perfect amalgam of industry and thrift, lacked only one thing: skillfulness, and craft. He was, in fact, a bit of a bungler, and gollywoggler. A bad drunk, too. In his last years he raised pregnant mares for their urine which was then used in the synthesis of birth control pills.

Lace had none of the advantages of the educated man and it showed. Whatever he put his hands to he usually failed at: his barrels leaked and his walls would not stay up. When he plucked ducks and dipped sheep the poor creatures usually died before their appointed times. But in his later years he collected many abrimming stoop of urine and prospered, until a mare kicked him almost fifty feet and he had to retire.

Well, you know, he died miserable and poor, and he even lacked good will. People said they stopped caring for Lace when he overcharged them at the Grand Union.

Lace always said the most important thing he owned was his last name. If drunk, he would sometimes add: “It will be curtains for you, too, my man, if you don’t learn to respect that.”

He was also quoted as saying: “When I die I want to be that TV fellow, George Plimpton. Queen for a Day.”

Needless to say, he had a son with Rose Edmundson and they called the lad Bledsoe, and when I asked why, Lace explained, “Because it’s Eosdelb backwards.”

Washington County, New York, where Little Lives is set, lies upstate, across the border from Vermont and south of Lake George. It’s hilly, scarcely populated, mostly devoted to dairy farming:

The County has one of the lowest per capita incomes in New York (and the Nation); it is settled largely by the descendants of Dutch, Canuck, and Scotch Irish yeomen and farmers, with more recent sprinklings and ejaculations from other minorities, such as the Eyties.

As its fictional chronicler, John Spyker describes the County, “It was the birthplace of nobody lasting or famous beyond its borders that I know of.”

Instead, as Spyker protrays in a hundred-plus sketches that range from before the Civil War to present day, its inhabitants are a collection of mediocres distinguished most by their physical deformities (the Boleg twins “were noted for their ‘canker sores” and bad teeth”), bizarre notions (“Fred was no ordinary GOP supporter, or loud mouth Buckley-ite. He was an out-right fascist, but polite about it as never-you-mind”), and most of all, sexual proclivities.

There’s Vanessa Wunderlich, for example:

The poor thing was suffering from an infection that venereally gnawed at her gums. It came from what she had once eaten, in a rash moment, at her cousin Ellen’s house in Chestertown: the hair pie, or so I was told….

There is Doc Morgan, the local Ob/Gyn, to whom Spyker attributes at least ten children: “All I know for certain is he made a lot of money and most of the local women, when they mounted his stirrups, chose his ‘raw beef injections,’ too, though Ma always said he had a gentle soul.” There are Little Rose of Sharon and Evelyn DeVilbliss, “friends, as well as lovers”: “Nobody ever knew of any discords between them; they were thick as tracel, and good to everybody who approached them except Brubaker, the knife and scissors grinder.”
There is Stace Coleman, who traffics in “pessary sponges,” which “… affixed to the cervical os, finally was to provide our local women with some protection against that most habitual infection to their wombs–increase.” Spyker’s own grandmother admitted to owning one:

As a token of that amity he gave her one of the few devices he was able to salvage from his second voyage, which she told me she used for nearly twenty years to good effect. She even produced the thing for my inspection and it was not only walnut-shaped, but walnut-hard.

Alongside the intimate relations of the county’s residents, however, Spyker also recounts some tender tragedies. Hetta Wessels, a housewife trapped in a loveless marriage and housed with a malicious mother-in-law, goes quietly mad one day, puts rat poison in her children’s potato-and-leek soup, then packs their bodies in two suitcases and attempts to run. Caught, she chokes on a hunk of bread while awaiting death by hanging: “Her jailors say her cell walls were covered with a three-word scrawl in Hetta’s hand: ‘I am sorry. I am sorry.’

Some sketches are brief–Naomi Kigelhoff’s is just two sentences: “Bart’s wife. Totally and thoroughly undistinguished except they say she drove every Friday morning to Troy to buy Kosher meat for the week.” Most are a page or two long. One of the longest tells the story of Lorelei Dembitz, who believed “that her ‘soul’ was not her own but that of another person, even smaller, frailer, and morally more ‘tattered’ than she.” Lorelei thought “‘this alien’–Francine, by name–had come to take possession of her sometime before her sisteenth birthday….”

But this is not a simple case of split or multiple personalities:

“I am most certain,” she declared, “she and I do not converge throughout our entire integuments. If I lie down she extends somewhere between my shoulders and my knees. When I stand up she peers out through the nipples of my breasts. But we are not corollaries. She crowds my soul. She cramps my heart. I am not her coefficient.”

The two co-habit, awkwardly and uncomfortably, for over forty years. As time goes by, Lorelei struggles to keep Francine separate: “In the voting rolls from 1922 on she listed herself as F. Lorelei Dembitz.” In the end, Lorelei is removed to the County Home in Argyle, then buried in the Argyle Free Cemetery. A second headstone is placed beside hers “inscribed, simply, FRANCINE.”

The odd vernacular Elman created for Spyker is one of the highlights of Little Lives. Spyker may be the Washington County’s chronicler, but his perspective is hardly objective and detached. His voice comes right from the odd mix of proper and profane that characterises many of the portraits. The stereotypes and bias of the County are his, too. Kissy Kigeloff is a “lezzy.” The depression of 1881 is blamed “on Jew bankers such as the Goulds and Fisks of metropolitan Gotham.” Brody Shansky is “a mick neighbor I had for a while….”

Spyker’s prejudices are inherent in his raising, but he claims no superiority for himself. At one point, he tells of the time when he learns that Chester Bowles is visiting the county. Assuming this is the minor political figure of the 1940s and 1950s, he rushes over to make his acquaintance. It turn out to be Chester Bowles, the “retired D&H railway engineer.” “He wasn’t quite the go-getter I expected,” he remarks afterward. “Teach me to social climb.”

Little Lives did garner favorable reviews when it came out in 1979, but faded quickly after its paperback release. Its cover featured enthuastic comments from critic Maxwell Geismar and novelist Frederick Busch (“If Grandma Moses had ball and could spell, this would have been her book”), but most of its hardcover edition went quickly into remainder. I actually bought a copy from a remainder house years ago, but it took A.P. Siegel’s mention in an item on neglected books in Maud Newton’s blog to get me to give it a second look. I’m glad I did. I will never think of upstate New York in quite the same way again.


Time, 12 March 1979

Like its literary antecedents, Spoon River Anthology and Winesburg, Ohio, John Howland Spyker’s Little Lives consists of sketches: hard, brilliant line drawings of small-town Americans. With a roving eye for bawdy detail, Spyker (pseudonym for Poet and Novelist Richard Elman) compresses each life into a tidy epiphany; an individual is captured with an anecdote or gesture, an eccentricity or epitaph. Judge Fury collected wives and knives; “P.C.B.” Terry, who once took a swig of that carcinogenic chemical, spent the rest of his life growing tomatoes that no one else dares to eat. Hypolite Hargrove made a small fortune concocting cocaine-spiked fruit drinks savored by Mark Twain and Jenny Lind.

Each biography is enlivened by a macabre whimsy: a man is steamed alive “like a lobster” when his car wash malfunctions; children are fed meals of worms; decent folk fall victim to robbery, infidelity and bad genes. Spyker reports it all, creating a community from the disparate characters as well as a portrait of the narrator, an “outlander… struck more by bits of detail than the total sepia haze of the picture: by odd names or locutions, specific items and photographs that have survived, the price paid for caring.”

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Out of Print Expert Weighs In, from Maud Newton’s Blog

from Maud Newton’s Blog, out-of-print expert Robert Nedelkoff nominates three American novelists for rediscovery:

“What I’d like to do here is to present to any interested editors (at major houses, or at small presses with the kind of resources that would be needed) three American authors, whose oeuvres are extensive, and entirely out-of-print — writers whose work deserves the kind of treatment that Dawn Powell received at Steerforth or Stanley Elkin received at Dalkey Archive.”

His nominees:

Peter De Vries:

“De Vries … invariably hailed as ‘America’s foremost comic novelist.’ A writer whom Robertson Davies, in the Seventies and Eighties, repeatedly called the best American novelist, period. A writer praised by Kingsley and Martin Amis, Christopher Buckley, Julian Barnes, Thurber, Paul Theroux . . . the list could go on for centuries.” [Ed. Note: The University of Chicago Press reissued De Vries’ The Blood of the Lamb and Slouching Towards Kalamazoo in 2005.

Vance Bourjaily

“His first novel, The End Of My Life, was very nearly the last book edited by Max Perkins — and Bourjaily, to my knowledge, is the last living writer who worked with Perkins. (And, speaking of another of Perkins’ writers, Hemingway, in a conversation with Leslie Fiedler in 1960, singled out Bourjaily as the best writer of his generation….)”

Jerome Weidman

“Not long before he died, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote (it’s in his published letters) that Weidman was worth fifty or a hundred Steinbecks (forget which it was). Later in the Forties, Hemingway said in a letter that Weidman, in his first books, certainly proved he could write. Rebecca West liked him too.”

The Family Carnovsky, by I. J. Singer

Israel Joshua Singer was the older brother of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. Also a novelist, I. J. Singer wrote several well-regarded sagas of Jewish life in Germany and Poland. Here’s what Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote in Commentary magazine reviewing a reissue of his novel, The Family Carnovsky, in February 1970:

In an era of novels in which the milieu is evoked with a stroke of the pen if it is rendered at all, in which the novelist’s craft is praised in direct proportion to that amount he is able to show without telling, I. J. Singer comes to remind us of some long forgotten relish in the novelist’s activity. The Family Carnovsky will come with strange thickness to an audience which has learned that the novelist’s genius is economy, those deft single strokes, the gesture which defines a whole universe, as though the art of the novelist were the art of the dancer. It will seem even stranger to the reader who has been given to understand that the more he is left to gather from the unspoken and the unrendered, the more likely it is that he is in the toils of a vision rare beyond rendering.  

Nothing is too rare for Singer. To read him is to know again the pleasures of an endless novelistic energy, a loving and discursive relish for detail not far from the fashion of the 19th-century novelist. Indeed, that is what Singer is, though The Family Carnovsky, his last complete work, was published in 1943. And, though he is more often compared with Thomas Mann than with Dickens, there is the Dickensian in him very much more, in his insistence on the meaning of social detail, and on its moral meaning precisely.  

The world of Singer’s novels is morally fateful, always. In The Family Carnovsky, the social question, and its moral valuation, quite simply hang on the question: how does one live as a Jew, if it is hard to be a Jew? And it is always hard to be a Jew. It is hardest of all to be a kind of Jew or a part of one, since for the most earnest assimilationist, there is no guarantee that the world will recognize which kind of Jew he is, or, if he is part of one, which part is which. There was certainly no such guarantee in the world of the late 19th-century German-Jewish enlightenment, the era in which David Carnovsky leaves his Melnitz shtetl to join, an assimilated Berlin Jewish society.  

The Family Carnovsky is the story of three generations of Jews, each more surely rooted in its German culture than the last. But culture is not blood, and it is not character, and Singer never fails to remind us of the ineradicable ancestry of the Carnovskys. Let them assimilate: their hair is black, their doctor’s hands are brilliant, their scholarship natural and effortless, their ethos prominent…. 

It is that radical difference, that degree between men, which is Singer’s novelistic concern. This he engages without any depth of formal psychological scrutinythough there are things which make for psychic allusion in an old way: Georg’s uneven, flashing teeth, his wife’s blush, the wasted awkwardness of their son. These are all we know: these and circumstances, and somehow it is enough. From a complex structure and milieu, characters emerge affecting and powerful, as much as to say, when we know what happened to them, we know very well how they felt.


French Ecclesiastical Society under the Ancien Régime, by John McManners


There was a fund of resourcefulness, truculence and independence in Robin’s character which made him a most redoubtable opponent. He was of solid bourgeois origin, and as proud of it as another man might be of four quarters of nobility. A little country house which he built at Empiré, on the outskirts of his parish, was adorned with busts of himself and of the wholesale corn, iron and coal merchant of Saint Florent-le-Vieil who was his father, while his boastful autobiography in Latin verse does not allow us to forget that he had sacrificed a profitable inheritance in the family business by seeking ordination. Perhaps out good abbé insists too much on these worldly advantages nobly forgone, yet we may readily forgive him, for, while at different levels of the hierarchy, to the son of a noble or a peasant an ecclesiastical career was an avenue of advancement, for children of the prosperous lower bourgeoisie it was likely to entail genuine sacrifice. Minor promotion pleased those who escaped from poverty, major promotion went to those with influence: those who were neither poor nor influential could more easily be disappointed. Robin’s vocation certainly involved him in a long period of apprenticeship as a vicaire in various parishes before he obtained the modest living of Chanehutte, and he was thirty-seven years of age when he finally rose from the morass of minor country clergy to a stall at Saint-Maurille at Angers. Being no careerist, he does not complain of this comparatively slow promotion, but there is nevertheless a bourgeois pride and self-conscious rectitude about him which forms the basis of his vivid and combative personality.

His egocentricities were reinforced by another and very different passion, which added a delightful touch of extravagance and whimsicality to his character. An oddly erudite student of the past, he was caught up in fantasies born of his own living, and was deliberately acting a part of the stage of history. He believed that his writings were destined to immortality, and to make assurance doubly sure, he immured copies of his books in walls and public monuments for the benefit of future archaeologists. “They call me impossible,” he confided to one of his vicaires, “but they will come in pilgrimage to my tomb”–and that tomb, complete with a Latin epitaph, was already prepared for veneration in the chapel of his little house at Empiré. The canons of Saint-Pierre were faced by an opponent who could not easily be brought to reason by practical or cautionary considerations, for while they fought for their profits and their privileges, he had posterity in mind as well. In 1752, six months after acquiring a stall at Saint-Maurille, Robin exchanged it to return to parochial work. It seems that the role he had set himself to play and which filled his imagination was essentially that of a curé, and for no worse reason than a genuine love of the manifold duties of parochial responsibiliy, which brought him into daily touch with common people, who saw little of his pride and inflexibility, and loved him for his unconventional sermons, his care for children and his genial accessibility. In everything, our curé was a partisan–witness his opinions, pungently expressed, on a trip to Paris and Rome in 1750. After being present at a disputation of the Sorbonne, he observes that this was an “ordinary” difficulty compared with subjects normally set at his own university; when he first sees Genoa, he reflects that the tiles on the roofs are of poorer quality that those in Angers; his considered opinion of Rome is that only “a French pope with 50,000 men of his own nation” could possibly “introduce good manners and honest morals” there. And above all, he is a partisan when he considers the dignity of his own office of parish priest. To a footman, who tried to exclude him from watching the King at table, he replied, “I am one of the King’s men, I am a curé of his dominions, and I desire the honour of seeing him dine”; that being so, he stayed to examine the gold plate and sample the dessert. After seeing the Pope at his devotions, he declares openly and dangerously, that he’d rather be curé at Chanehutte than Pope at Rome. If the humble priest of Chanehutte admitted no superior, clearly the curé of Saint-Pierre would not yield an inch of ground when his just rights were in question. If this was the green tree, what would he be in the dry?


French Ecclesiastical Society under the Ancien Régime was recommended by Peter Gay in The American Scholar’s “Comments on Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years” feature from 1970. In the article, Gay wrote:

Your idea of rescuing neglected books from oblivion strikes me as a most excellent, and, as a matter of fact, I have a candidate. The book is rather specialized and is not likely to appeal to a very wide audience. Still, I think it might be worth calling to the attention of your readers, especially since I believe it was never published in the United States. The author is John McManners, and the title is French Ecclesiastical Society under the Ancien Régime, published by Machester University Press in 1960. The book is a brilliant, affectionate, and at the same time detached and sardonic portrait of a town in eighteenth-century France whose single industry in a very real sense was the church. By digging through the most recondite sources and making sense out of what must have appeared at the beginning a mess of unrelated facts and trivial reports, Mr. McManners has succeeded in clarifying confused issues, laying out, as it were, before our eyes the life of a city which was engaged, above all, in religious observances and in its religious business, and has done so with so much skill and so much historical objectivity that what emerges is a wholly authentic and convincing account of a single town in the process of change and face to face with revolution. Mr. McManners is a master of research and possesses the synthetic historical imagination at its finest. As many historians know, the eighteenth century, particularly in France, is normally protrayed as a single, simple fight between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. Of course, if one happens to be not a Christian, the forces of light are the philosophes; if one is a Christian, the forces of light are the representatives of the church. Mr. McManners avoids such unfortunate oversimplification; he shows life as it really was — complex in all its manifestations. He rescues a number of interesting individuals from oblivion, he clarifies complicated matters of rivalry among clerical orders or houses, and in that sense greatly advances our knowledge of the eighteenth century in France. I can think of few books that I would rather give to a student of history — even of other periods — than this one.

French Ecclesiastical Society under the Ancien Régime: A Study of Angers in the Eighteenth Century, by John McManners.
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1960.