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A pig shall come forth

John Bossy: Etruscan haruspicy, 31 March 2005

The Scarith of Scornello: A Tale of Renaissance Forgery 
by Ingrid Rowland.
Chicago, 230 pp., £16, January 2005, 0 226 73036 0
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... What on earth, you ask, is a scarith? Well, it is a sort of mud-piecrust package, which may be tubular in shape, containing in various layers documents of immense antiquity. What language is the word from? Apparently from ancient Etruscan, or Hetruscan, if stories about the grandeur of the Tuscan kingdom up to the time of Lars Porsena of Clusium are to be believed ...

Take a tinderbox and go steady with your canoe

John Bossy: Jesuits, 20 May 2004

The Jesuits: Missions, Myths and Histories 
by Jonathan Wright.
HarperCollins, 334 pp., £20, February 2004, 0 00 257180 3
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... but I can’t quite see a Jesuit pulling off something similar – though on a smaller scale John O’Malley’s The First Jesuits (1993) isn’t a bad shot. I’m struck by the fact that the most powerful contribution made by an English historian to Jesuit history, Outram Evennett’s Spirit of the Counter-Reformation (1968) was written by a person who ...

A Tall Stranger in Hoxton

John Bossy, 3 July 1997

The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 
by Antonia Fraser.
Weidenfeld, 347 pp., £20, August 1996, 9780297813484
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... settled that, they swore an oath of secrecy, and received communion at a Mass said by the Jesuit John Gerard, who was in the next room: they presumably understood this as turning their undertaking into a religious vow and conjoining them in sacred solidarity. The first part of the scheme went with absurd facility. The conspirators rented some lodgings which ...

The Skull from Outer Space

John Bossy: ‘The Ambassadors’, 20 February 2003

The Ambassadors’ Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance 
by John North.
Hambledon, 346 pp., £25, January 2002, 1 85285 330 1
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... all to itself in the National Gallery; but I doubt if anyone has gone into it so pertinaciously as John North. North is an expert in the history of astronomy and mathematics, so naturally his view of the painting emerges from the jumble, which he does not regard as a jumble, of astronomical and time-telling instruments sitting on top of the carpet-covered ...

Trust the Coroner

John Bossy: Why Christopher Marlowe was probably not a spy, 14 December 2006

Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy 
by Park Honan.
Oxford, 421 pp., £25, October 2005, 0 19 818695 9
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... of the country. Riggs puts together Marlowe’s atheism and his spying to make of him (I quote John Gross) ‘the eternal rebel’; he reads the Tamburlaine plays, a wildly successful strip-cartoon in blank verse, as an engine of social criticism, and supposes that Marlowe’s death was personally procured by the queen, scandalised by his violation of ...

Application for Funding

John Bossy, 23 April 1992

Francis Bacon, the State, and the Reform of Natural Philosophy 
by Julian Martin.
Cambridge, 236 pp., £35, December 1991, 0 521 38249 1
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... Francis Bacon has had a variety of reputations, which have tended to go up and down in a random or independent sort of way. At the moment he is generally regarded as a master of English rhetoric, an unsuccessful reformer of natural philosophy, and a cold fish. Julian Martin has tried to put him together, not by a lumping biography, but by finding the crux ...

Not the man for it

John Bossy: The Death of Girolamo Savonarola, 20 April 2006

Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy 
by Lauro Martines.
Cape, 368 pp., £20, March 2006, 0 224 07252 8
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The Burning of the Vanities: Savonarola and the Borgia Pope 
by Desmond Seward.
Sutton, 320 pp., £20, March 2006, 0 7509 2981 2
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... Once I rebuked for bad taste a friend who described Savonarola, at his execution, as ‘serving as the pièce de résistance of a public bonfire’. Actually his taste was better than mine: I had ignorantly supposed that the friar had been burned alive, whereas he had been hanged first and his dead body then burned in what was indeed a public bonfire ...

Tush Ye Shall Not Die

John Bossy, 23 February 1995

William Tyndale: A Biography 
by David Daniell.
Yale, 429 pp., £19.95, September 1994, 0 300 06132 3
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The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice and Subjectivity 
by Debora Kuller Shuger.
California, 297 pp., £32, December 1994, 0 520 08480 2
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... burned) in October 1536. Daniell, like his hero, is an altar-stripper: he writes ‘Paul’ and ‘John’ for ‘St Paul’ and ‘St John’ as others write ‘Austen’ for ‘Jane Austen’. (For some reason Tyndale himself kept the ‘St’ for Matthew, but dropped it for everybody else.) He is that rare thing, not just ...

Zigzags

John Bossy, 4 April 1996

The New Oxford History of England. Vol. II: The Later Tudors 
by Penry Williams.
Oxford, 628 pp., £25, September 1995, 0 19 822820 1
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... and Myres, and Stenton) and Taylor’s. I doubt if the new one will fare any better. John Roberts, the general editor, does not show his hand in detail, and we must keep our fingers crossed about the whole being greater than the parts by giving ‘an account of the development of our country in time’ – ‘our country’ meaning something ...

Using the Heavens

John Bossy: Renaissance Astrology, 1 June 2000

Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer 
by Anthony Grafton.
Harvard, 284 pp., £21.95, February 2000, 0 674 09555 3
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... Emperor Rudolph II, who sat in his high palace in Prague communing with the stars and tried to get John Dee to put him in touch with the heavenly orders. True, there had been Pope Paul III, a politician if ever there was one and founder of the Counter-Reformation: he retained an astrologer to tell him, I suppose, when it was prudent to launch the Society of ...

Remember Me

John Bossy: Hamlet, 24 May 2001

Hamlet in Purgatory 
by Stephen Greenblatt.
Princeton, 322 pp., £19.95, May 2001, 0 691 05873 3
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... Stretch him out longer.’ Tough? It sounds like an absurd American misprint: Lear played by John Wayne. We have been brought up to read ‘rough’. But there it is in the Wells and Taylor Oxford Shakespeare. Can it be right? In the OED I find the first date for tough = ‘hard’ as 1619. Well, I can see that twenty years here or there is no great ...

From Notre Dame to Cluny, via a Beehive Hut

John Bossy: Abelard’s Final Fling, 2 July 1998

Abelard: A Medieval Life 
by M.T. Clanchy.
Blackwell, 416 pp., £45, January 1997, 0 631 20502 0
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... Everybody knows that Abelard was a philosopher, the lover of Heloise, and castrated in consequence: a romantic figure, like say Tchaikovsky, in an age of epics. Michael Clanchy’s life of him is too serious to count as romance, and too witty to be epic. He writes extremely well, and matches with a wide and happy learning, which runs from Socrates to Eliot and from Cole Porter to Eco, his intense engagement with the mind and heart of Western Christendom in the 12th century, a time which always seems particularly springlike ...

They were less depressed in the Middle Ages

John Bossy: Suicide, 11 November 1999

Marx on Suicide 
edited by Eric Plaut and Kevin Anderson, translated by Gabrielle Edgcomb.
Northwestern, 152 pp., £11.20, May 1999, 0 8101 1632 4
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Suicide in the Middle Ages, Vol I: The Violent Against Themselves 
by Alexander Murray.
Oxford, 510 pp., £30, January 1999, 0 19 820539 2
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A History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture 
by Georges Minois, translated by Lydia Cochrane.
Johns Hopkins, 420 pp., £30, December 1998, 0 8018 5919 0
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... In 1846 Karl Marx published a version of a chapter about suicide which had recently appeared in a book by one Jacques Peuchet entitled Mémoires tirées des archives de la police. Peuchet had been an encyclopedist and statistician of some distinction, and is said to have invented the term ‘bureaucracy’. He had survived the Revolution, and under the restored Bourbons had become archivist of the police records of Paris and hence a benefactor of Richard Cobb and readers of his Death in Paris (1978 ...

Haleking

John Bossy: Simon Forman, 22 February 2001

The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman 
by Barbara Howard Traister.
Chicago, 260 pp., £19, February 2001, 0 226 81140 9
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Dr Simon Forman: A Most Notorious Physician 
by Judith Cook.
Chatto, 228 pp., £18.99, January 2001, 0 7011 6899 4
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... Twenty-five years ago A.L. Rowse, whose memory becomes more blessed in an age of research assessment exercises, made known to the world the riveting personality of the Elizabethan and Jacobean astrologer, private-enterprise medical practitioner, counsellor, sexual athlete and compulsive writer Simon Forman. Forman’s voluminous papers, case-notes, diaries and all sorts of other writings had been in the Bodleian Library since Elias Ashmole presented them in the late 17th century ...

Walsingham’s Plumber

Patrick Collinson: John Bossy, 5 July 2001

Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story 
by John Bossy.
Yale, 189 pp., £18.95, May 2001, 0 300 08400 5
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... Court of Elizabeth I, Michel de Castelnau, seigneur de Mauvissière, an establishment described by John Bossy as ‘zany, convivial and leak-ridden’. Bossy asks us to take our places at the dinner table at Salisbury Court in November 1583, ‘as in a late novel by Henry James’: ‘who had done what, who knew who had ...

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