Review: Walls; a History of Civilization in Blood and Bricks by David Frye Assessment 8 out of 10

I had high expectations which weren’t quite met.

I loved its opening, “The mere concept of walls divides people more thoroughly than any structure…..For every person who sees a wall as an act of oppression, there is another urging the construction of newer, higher and longer barriers. The two sides hardly speak to each other”.

There were certainly parts I liked:

* Sparta, the unwalled polis, which turned away from culture, its language becoming laconic, those living behind city walls described as in “women’s quarters”.

* The numerous Chinese fortifications mirrored in their multiplicity elsewhere, for instance in Northern Britain, successively the Stanegate Frontier and Hadrian’s and Antonine Walls. If there were insufficient border walls, town walls were built. If there were insufficient town walls, town houses & city districts were walled. Medieval Iran was dotted with Turkoman Towers into which Persians crawled to escape Turkish slave raiders.

* Pre-urban peoples, universally warlike, took pride in cattle raiding and violence. They were un-historic, without written records. Frye refers to their poetic record in Beowulf and the Irish Bards, finding resonance in the writings of Tolkien and the Oxford “Inklings”. Technology empowered Steppe people with stirrups and the short bow shot from horseback. Mongols became an existential threat, destroying civilization and settlement in much of Asia.

* Walls weakened those they sheltered, “The Spartan warning”. Responses were appeasement, paying bribes & gifts to “tributary states”, hiring barbarians as soldiers. Some rebelled, others became more cultured. Frye cites the evidence of the Vindolanda tablets. Worst was admitting steppe tribes into defended zones. In 376 Goths, harassed by Huns and Alans, were admitted as refugees to the Eastern Empire. They turned against their hosts, defeating the Roman Army & killing the Emperor, Valens, before Adrianople. In China, those oppressed by wall-building Emperors admitted the Mongols, who then massacred the Chinese.

* The romanticsm of the barbarian/ uncultured, when they are no longer a threat

* “The long walls of the Dark Ages (one of my periods!) are impossibly anonymous and the tendency to reuse older Roman or even Iron Age defences only muddles their histories more.” Intriguing.

However, I had reservations.

*A relatively short book it covers too much ground, too quickly. When the North American Plains Indians & Russia are described, I began to tire (“Not my continents/periods”).

*There was also too much narrative and not enough discussion. If the wallers (civilized) / un-walled (barbarian) dichotomy was so significant, why wasn’t it recognized before? Or was it? Frye doesn’t say. In part, is this the weakness of a classical education, which over-emphasises literary sources?

*I wanted more analysis. I wanted to know how and why the existence of walls changed culture and society. How did the relations between peoples either side of a frontier develop? More on trade/ cultural diffusion etc between them?

* Other purposes of Walls than defence & security are barely referred to. (Frye does refer to the Iron Curtain & Berlin Wall as preventing escape from the Soviet Block to Western Europe, but little else.) What about sea walls and defences around Islands? Hardly mentioned, but certainly relevant to Jersey, where I live. What about walls as symbols, say in Belfast.

* Nor was I impressed by the maps and bibliographic notes. To be fair, you are directed to a full bibliography on Frye’s website. However, I much prefer direct references to sources & academic literature within a book to look up, as you read.

… And yet, I did find the overall thesis interesting, and one which will influence my view of other landscapes and other periods, for instance walled cities and settlements as indicators of violence & disruption.

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