Friday, July 17, 2015

The History of the Renaissance World

Love that gory picture!
The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople, by Susan Wise Bauer

This history series is challenging but very worth tackling.  The third volume of Susan Wise Bauer's history of the world project covers the Renaissance--what most people would consider to be the early Renaissance, really, but she makes an excellent case.  The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 marks the ending point of this book.  I haven't heard that she is writing another volume yet; she did a different project and recently came out with The Story of Science, a history of scientific discovery.  I'm looking forward to reading that, and I'm curious about whether she is planning to continue the history and produce a Durant-sized set or what.

This is a chronological world history, and so it constantly jumps around geographically as Bauer moves the reader forward  in time.  As more societies develop writing or come into contact with other peoples, they start showing up on the stage, so we see Mali and other African empires, early Mesoamerican peoples, and many others.  The Mongols get an enormous amount of space as they conquer pretty well all of Asia and then some; the Ottoman empire gets started and grows quickly; Europeans do a whole lot of squabbling and go crusading on a regular basis (the development and reasoning behind various crusades, and its eventual link to the Portuguese slave trade, is one theme that runs through the book); Hindus and Muslims duke it out in India.

Oh, and there's plague too.  But the plague is almost minor compared to the war.  One of my Goodreads updates for this book summed it up: "War, war, war, war, plague, war, war, plague, war. War!"  Do you know, the Mongols managed to shrink the population of China by about 50 million?  Many, many countries experienced shrunken populations through constant war and the attending poverty and disease.  Bauer also covers the beginning of the end of the Medieval Warming Period, which brought famine to weaken resistance to disease.  So overall, there's a tremendous amount of death going on.

I also re-learned the lesson of the History of the Medieval World: any group that gains the opportunity will seek to expand and impose its rule over others. Imperialism is a natural human impulse, regardless of race, culture, or creed. Everybody's done it. Though the Mongols were probably the most efficient and scary at it.

Bauer has an attractive writing style that I enjoy.  She is readable and fluent, while not repetitive (probably quite a trick when 90% of the chapters are about war).  She isn't flippant, but she is constantly coming up with trenchant observations that are striking or witty.  A few:
[King] John had a talent for turning gold into mud.

Yorimoto convinced a bunch of samurai to get behind his plan "based only on his family name and what must have been astounding personal charm."

...the emperor landed at Acre with only six hundred knights...Unfortunately, as Frederick II was excommunicated, the church could hardly take credit for it, which annoyed Gregory IX so much that he excommunicated Frederick II for a second time.

So, having learned precisely nothing from history, he sent an appeal to the pope for help.

[The army] included 120 war elephants whose tusks had been poisoned; this was a little off-putting to the Mongol army, but Timur...ordered his men to pile hay on the backs of camels, set it on fire, and drive the camels toward the elephants.

[John VII of Byzantium] was making a desperate tour of European courts, begging for men, money, and aid against the Turks.  He was having absolutely no luck.  The great kings were preoccupied, broke, invested elsewhere, or insane.
Many of the stories contained here are stranger than fiction.  I can't describe them here because it would take too much space, and I wish I could.  But my teenage daughter has been reading these for her schoolwork, and she says she can't understand why so many people think history is boring when there is so much weirdness going on.  So maybe that will convince you to give these a try.



1 comment:

jrleek said...

That's just because Katie didn't go through the public school system, which has a great talent for turning the fascinating into grinding monotony.