Monday, 8 February 2010

Book Review: The History of the Medieval World

History of the Medieval World

History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer

Category: Non-fiction

Synopsis: This book takes us “from the conversion of Constantine to the first Crusades”. Okay, I give up, I can’t write a synopsis for a history book.

My Thoughts: This book contains five sections and I have chosen to give my thoughts on each section as I go along and then I have a concluding section tying my thoughts together.

Part One Unity: This part consists of eight chapters, out of these eight five are about the Roman empire, one is about India, one about China and one about a country I think is now China. One of the Roman chapters also has information about Persia. This focus on the Roman Empire is good and understandable, unfortunately it means that the chapters on India and China feel disjointed and disturb the narrative. Despite reading this section in one day I felt confused about which empire was which because I had to go back and check who came before. I know Wise Bauer believes in telling history chronologically and this is a belief I share, however, I think this section would have benefited from either more on China and India or less. Currently these chapters just disturb the narrative flow.

Part Two Fractures: This part also concentrates primarily on the Roman empire with a token chapter for India and one for China. There are also chapters on Persia and Ireland/Britain however these chapters do tie in with the story with regards to Rome so they do not feel as misplaced or awkward as the Asian chapters do. I do realise that there might not be as easy to gain information on these parts of the world as it is to gain information about the European countries but I am still left with a sense of “who cares” about the Asian countries. 

Part Three New Powers: I really enjoyed this section. It was much more varied as far as geography and this made for a more varied read. I particularly enjoyed the history of early Islam as this is something I knew little about but feel is becoming increasingly important to know about. This section was much longer than the previous two. Two specific examples of things that stuck with me in this section: 1)As someone who has lived in Scotland I found the analogy to soccer (football thankyouverymuch) to explain the fanaticisms associated with chariot racing in Constantinople very accessible and, if true, horrific. 2)The chapter on the beginning of Islam (chapter 37) is, to my mind, particularly good at showing the peaceful nature of Islam something that often gets left by the wayside in today’s rhetoric. And how come what started peacefully turned less so.

Part Four States and Kingdoms: This is the longest section in the book and it feels more evenly balanced. Each of the large powers in the world where information is available seem to be present. One thing is abundantly clear, being a king is NOT a good thing. They keep getting killed by their relatives. In addition the Vikings finally arrive on the scene! I have to say I am a bit disappointed in how little they are mentioned. I did enjoy learning more about the origins of Islam and Buddhism. The historical origins of the current conflict between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims was very illuminating.

Part Five Crusades: I find that this section is somewhat misnamed. Only the last few chapters concern the crusades. And even then I feel that it gives a very fleeting view of this part in history. In addition the crusades are only told from the perspective of the Christians. There is very little information about the reactions of the adversaries. This section, again focuses to much on the former Roman and Byzantine empires.

My Concluding Thoughts: What I really like about this book is the accessible language. Wise Bauer does not, like many academics, pepper the text with words that, once you look them up, turn out to mean something really simple. This is something I often find annoying with academics (and I have been a student for more years than I care to admit). The accessibility of the text is one of its clear strengths. That said this is definitely a book you need to study rather than read. You need to have a notebook at hand and keep a personal timeline (there are timelines in the book but for your own reference I suggest making one for yourself when people are mentioned). You need the maps and you need to be able to flip back a forth to different maps to keep people, places and armies apart.

Each chapter has a short summary (two to three indented lines). I am in two minds about these. On the one hand it is helpful to know what the chapter is about. On the other hand I like finding that out for myself. Part of me is left to wonder if the author things she should do my job for me.

Although the book contains several parts about religions other than Christianity but I find that Christianity is the main focus of the book. Although I know that there are reasons for this, much of the politics in Europe were tied to the church at this time I wish that especially the first two sections had been a bit more balanced with regards to Europe-Asia. As a Scandinavian I also wish that there had been more information about the Vikings and not just them sacking Europe.

Overall I found this book to be a fair introduction to this period in time but I would want to read other sources as well.

Disclosure: This is a review of the digital galley copy I got from Peace Hill Press, the author owned publishing company, Thank you Peace Hill Press! By posting a review I have been entered into a prize draw for gift certificates to Peace Hill Press. I will, once the book is published, purchase my own copy (I actually have a pre-order sitting with and I was always going to review this book.

Copyright ©2009-2010 Zee from Notes from the North.clip_image001This post was originally posted by Zee from Notes from the North. It should not be reproduced without express written permission.


Michelle said...

I love the Medieval times. I'll have to check this one out!

Enbrethiliel said...


I also really love the Middle Ages and don't think that one book could ever do this era justice. Yet I'm always interested in any author's attempt to condense into such a single volume what he considers essential about the time. In the end, I think the book reveals as much about the author as about the historical period!

Zee said...

Enbrethiliel~~I agree that one book can never do an entire time period justice and I definitely agree that it reveals much about the author to read their books. What this book has going for it is that it also refers to other books (many of them primary sources) of the time so it is a good place to start further studies.