Monday, February 15, 2010

The History of the Medieval World

The History of the Medieval World: from the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, by Susan Wise Bauer. W. W. Norton & Company (February 22, 2010), 768 pages.

I have been looking forward to seeing this second volume of Susan Wise Bauer's history of the world project. I enjoyed the first installment, The History of the Ancient World, and I was happy to get this opportunity to read The History of the Medieval World. Chronicling the entire history of the world is such an insanely ambitious project that I both admire Bauer for taking it on, and wonder how she's going to pull it off. I'm looking forward to seeing the results over the next few years.

This series concentrates on the history of nations: rulers, wars, and religion. Bauer connects them together and shows how they influenced one another. In particular, she concentrates on the twining of religion and political ambition--how rulers used religious identity to consolidate power, and how religious authorities exerted political influence. For the most part, you will not read about how common people lived; this is a "big picture" project that will give you a solid foundation for further study.

Bauer covers most parts of the world for which there is history available. This means that there is quite a lot of information about China and Byzantium, but only a couple of chapters on native American civilizations; there just isn't much material to work with there and we know very little about rulers and events during this period. Likewise, there is almost nothing about Africa except where Islamic empires were established, because there is so little written history about the peoples of Africa during this time. I think some smaller groups could have used more time, but the book can only hold so much.

Explaining 800 years or so of world history is not a simple task, but Bauer draws coherent threads of narrative through centuries of events with insight and humor, as in this observation about life in the large city of Kannauj in north India:

"...all three kings coveted it. Already the city had passed back and forth between the Pala and Pratihara kings, much to the dismay of the citizens, who had to flee for cover whenever a new army stormed through the gates. It was extremely uncomfortable to live in a symbol of dominance." (p. 437)

As the book progresses and more history becomes available, it's quite interesting to watch new kingdoms pop into existence in places like Russia, Scandinavia, and Ireland. They follow similar patterns all over the world. As new leaders gather power, they need legitimacy: a history and equal recognition by other kingdoms. A good history can be made up--just ask Geoffrey of Monmouth--but recognition as an equal from other rulers is hard to come by, and often requires force. All these nations constantly jostle for power and land; one lesson to take from the book is that the story of the world is the story of war, and the imperialistic impulse is part of human nature. A medieval kingdom that didn't expand would shrink.

Medieval history and literature is a favorite subject of mine, so it was a bit dismaying to realize how ignorant I am about nearly all of it. I particularly appreciated the chapters on Korean history, which is probably not very well-known to most people outside Korea--certainly not to me. The history of the Chinese empires and the great influence they exercised over so much of the east is fascinating. The many ever-changing kingdoms of India are terribly complex and difficult to follow, and I admire the effort that must have gone into making them comprehensible. However, I don't know enough about any of these societies to be able to judge the accuracy of the information.

I am not sure that I would end the medieval period at the First Crusade, just before 1200 AD; I felt that was a bit early. Bauer makes a case for the "marriage of spiritual gain and political power" starting a new era after centuries of tug-of-war between secular and religious rulers, and I see her point (p. 666). I may have to wait for the next volume to be able to form a full opinion about her judgment in ending there, but after all, the line had to be somewhere. At the moment, I'm wondering how she'll get the next 800+ years, with all their new nations and developments, into just two books. So far Bauer has done an excellent job with this enormous project, and I would certainly recommend this volume to anyone wishing to study medieval history.


JILL O. MILES said...

I look forward to reading this. Thanks for the review.

Amira said...

I enjoyed your review.

Elena said...

That's on my list for the Tournament too. I just haven't ordered it yet, nor finished the first volume! Thanks for the preview.