This folksy and capacious (some might say baggy) trawl through 2,500 years of writing history is an unashamedly personal take on the past. Richard Cohen, a distinguished publisher who has written acclaimed studies of great writers, the sun and swordsmen (he was five times UK sabre champion), begins this book with a biographical chapter about his time during the 1960s at Downside School, a Benedictine foundation in the west of England, where he studied the work of David Knowles, a medievalist who, by a convoluted path, became Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge.
Cohen was surprised to discover that Knowles had once been a monk at Downside. In the 1930s, he had become obsessed with a Danish psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kornerup, and had left the school a ‘renegade priest’. Knowles was hugely productive as a scholar. His The Monastic Order in England, which was published to considerable acclaim in June 1940, was the first of four influential books on the subject. They were a Catholic ‘counterblast’ to G G Coulton’s Five Centuries of Religion. In a judgement of some hyperbole – typical, some might say – the Peterhouse don Maurice Cowling claimed that Knowles ‘came nearer than any 20th-century English historian … to finding a language through which to insert into the structure of a major work of scholarship conceptions of the reality of God, religion and eternal life’.
Others saw Knowles’s approach in a different light, born of his dissatisfaction with the modern Benedictines from whom he had fled. According to the Canadian medievalist Norman Cantor, Knowles’s works ‘were written out of despair, anger, yearning for revenge’. But for Cohen that is not, it appears, necessarily a