Monday, July 30, 2012

Book: Crimea, The Last Crusade by Orlando Figes

I picked up Crimea, The Last Crusade at a used bookstore on Tottenham Court Road in London. The Crimean War was a bit of history that I knew next to nothing about, an omission well remedied by this book.

The book is written as serious popular history. The author has read widely in both the primary and secondary literature, and there are many pages of notes at the end. Still, the style was a bit less academic than I care for, both in the sense of detailed documentation and in the sense of explicit discussion of the literature in the text. I suspect for many readers this is a feature rather than a bug.

As suggested by the title (which is different in the American version I linked to above), the author emphasizes the religious nature of the conflict, which included Muslims, protestants and Catholics on one side and the orthodox on the other. The book is a good reminder that people used to take these differences quite seriously, and that at one time orthodox Christianity seemed just as exotic as Islam to many protestants.

Figes also does a fine job of interweaving political history with social history, both in the sense of discussing broader social trends on the home fronts of the combatants and in the sense of including sources such as sermons (odd and a bit scary to read Anglican ministers in England getting all worked up about the "heathen" orthodox) and letters written by soldiers on the front.  Also interesting was his detailed treatment of English Russophobia, and the shifting relationships between England and France.

I was also glad to finally learn a bit of the history of Florence Nightengale and the Charge of the Light Brigade, terms I think most everyone has heard but for which I had never before had any real context or understanding.


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