Erik Sass & Steve Wiegand, The Mental Floss History of the World
2009 | Label: Tantor Media
To impress guests, Roman patricians would serve lavish, exotic meals. On the menu: jellyfish stuffed with eggs, pig uterus, boiled ostrich with sweet sauce, rabbit fetuses, and lamprey roe. Pope Paul II died of a heart attack while engaged in sodomy with a pageboy. Designed to prove that the best history remains untaught, The Mental Floss History of the World rummages through nearly 8,000 years of human development and finds plenty to chuckle over — the events of the last hundred years especially make us doubt whether humans have evolved at all.
Steve Wiegand and the aptly-named Eric Sass rarely lapse into unearned snark; their book offers a contrarian take on periods too often taught in high school classes in reductive terms. Take the so-called Dark Ages — the several hundred years between the fall of Rome and the first stirrings of strong European nation-states. Sass and Wiegand remind us that many civilizations flourished while Europe reeled. Thoughtful bits on Chinese dynasties and the participation of African tribes in the slave trade demonstrate the fallacy of leaning too heavily on Western notions of rise and fall (not to mention good and evil).
On every page, Sass and Wiegand tweak facts with filigrees, to killer effect. Until Queen Victoria publicized the fact that she took a chloroform anesthetic while in labor, Christian women were forbidden to mitigate the pain of childbirth (“In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” held sway for almost nineteen hundred years). The flu pandemic of 1918 started in Kansas, not Spain. Primitive text message technology developed in Britain, not in the United States. These gems compensate for periodic tonal missteps, such as citing the crossbow as “incontrovertible proof of Chinese badass-ness,” or failed attempts at understatement (about Jesus Christ’s apostles: “A whole lot of people eventually believed them”).
But for the most part, The Mental Floss History of the World belongs on the bookshelf beside Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: a witty collection of riffs and addenda that force readers to question received wisdom.