This is one of the hardest books to describe that I’ve ever read. The only comparison I can think of is to Carlyle’s French Revolution, which is style-wise very different. But both books are nonfiction about a very interesting topic, filled with vivid anecdotes, and yet the reason to read them is not the information but the writing itself. Both seem to assume the reader’s prior familiarity with the subject (there is even plenty of untranslated Latin, among other languages, strewn about the book), and weave an allusive, poetic web of words around the topic rather than directly and clearly narrate. It reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s distinction between learners and readers: this book is definitely for readers.
The book is an overview of the poets who wrote in Latin from the end of the Western Roman Empire until the beginnings of the Renaissance, mostly rowdy clerical students who seem exactly like the university students of today: constantly poor, constantly drunk, playing pranks and making music. Waddell describes them and their writing in brief flashes of illumination, not letting the light shine long enough for you to get the full picture, but giving enough of an impression to fascinate. She seems to have an enormous breadth of learning to draw from for purposes of comparison, and not just about Latin, medieval history, or even Western literature: when she says “There is something Chinese about Ausonius,” it’s not an Orientalist cliche she’s invoking. She was born in Tokyo, daughter of a scholar of Chinese, and has a volume of poems she translated from the Chinese. The book is stuffed with allusions and quotations, and I think unless you are Waddell herself, it’s impossible to be conversant with everything she references; so it passes like a dream, partly understood and imperfectly remembered, but beautiful. Here is a representative quote, which I have opened to completely at random: “It is not to say that every thirteenth-century sculptor, every down-at-heel goliard poet, had read the De Universitate any more than the ‘rakehelly rout of ragged rhymers’ in Elizabethan England had read Giordano Bruno. But these things are in the air. Provençal poetry demands no other intellectual background than that of its century, a May morning, the far-off singing of birds, a hawthorn tree in blossom, a Crusade for the Holy Sepulchre. It is the Middle Ages in the medium of a dream.”
I find this book extremely hard to recommend, because if I say “you should read this book about wandering scholars in the middle ages” it sounds like the interest is in the topic. But on the other hand I can’t say “the subject matter isn’t interesting, the writing is,” because the subject matter is interesting, and the anecdotes are eminently re-tellable. But I do recommend it, to anyone who loves reading the supersonic ranging of an amazingly learned and nimble mind, who clearly adores her subject and wants to convey the essence of it, rather than mummify it in objective, neutral prose.