May 20, 2010

Book review: "The History of the Medieval World," by Susan Wise Bauer

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The History of the Medieval World, by Susan Wise Bauer

The History of the Medieval World
By Susan Wise Bauer
WW Norton

It seems sometimes that the older I get, and the more collective information that gets filed into my grey matter, the more eager I am to go farther and farther back in history in my studies, to better understand the things that led to what I already know: when I was an undergraduate, for example, I concentrated almost exclusively on the 20th century, while in my thirties I got interested in the Victorian Age for the first time, while here in my early forties I find myself fascinated with the Renaissance and Enlightenment in a way I never have been before. I suppose it's inevitable, then, that soon I will find myself gravitating more and more towards what is alternately known as the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages or the Medieval Period, although for me just the mention of the subject is enough to intimidate me into stymied apoplexy; because for those who don't know, we're talking about a roughly thousand-year period of history (from approximately 500 AD, the fall of the traditional Roman Empire, to 1500 AD, the birth of modern science), a period precisely known for its relative lack of written records, when an endless amount of profound societal upheaval eventually changed the very structure of humanity itself, from a series of tribe-based warrior kingdoms to a complicated patchwork of nation-states based on rule of law, and which spawned what is today the planet's two largest religions, Christianity and Islam. So where do you even start when it comes to such an open-ended discussion? The splitting of the Roman Empire into Western and Eastern halves? The collapse of the former, and the morphing of the latter into Byzantium (now known as Greek Orthodoxy)? The settling of the northern barbarians into what's now known as the countries of Europe? The rise of Catholicism? The formation of the sham-like yet highly important Holy Roman Empire? And what about...you know, the other half of the known freaking world in those same years, the Easterners who flip-flopped over a millennium between Persian Zoroastrianism and Arabic Islam, between far Asian Confucism and even farther Asian Buddhism? And who had their own barbarians, who also eventually settled to form the nations of Central Asia? All of which has tended to be tidily ignored altogether by Western history textbooks, making the modern challenge to understand the Middle Ages even twice as intimidating as it was before?

So thank God, then, for historian Susan Wise Bauer's new The History of the Medieval World, part two of a coming trilogy which attempts to look at every major trend guiding humanity from the dawn of civilization to the Renaissance, this particular volume spanning in a neat 650 pages from the Christian conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine (at around 400 AD) to the first Crusade between Christians and Muslims, around the year 1000. (I assume, then, that volume three will cover the years 1000 to 1500; and yes, volume one of this trilogy, which covers the Sumarians up to the fall of pagan Rome, is also currently in my reading list.) And that's because Bauer has written an incredibly tight, entertaining guide to these years, one that moves quickly while still being informative; and in the meanwhile, as befitting our global times, this is a truly planet-spanning look at the first half of the Middle Ages, one which not only spends as much time looking at the formation of modern Russia, Korea, Japan, China, India and the Middle East, but even spends some time in the barely known Americas of those years, and presents us with what little we now know about those pre-literate societies. It's the perfect guide for a newbie like me, one that lays out all the major sweeping events that define this age, in a way that is thorough but never overwhelming.

Because that's really the first thing you learn about the Middle Ages when you start studying it, of just what an overwhelming amount of things happened during it, which is why the old term "Dark Ages" for this period has been rapidly falling out of favor in the last century; that after all was an invention of the rationality-loving Enlightenment scholars who were the first to start academically studying the age, who meant for the term to be a deliberately derogatory reference to the fact that religion had such a heavy role in holding things together in those years, and that the territories of that age were made sovereign mostly through sheer violence and an uneducated fear of God's wrath. But as Bauer shows us, humanity in general actually made the same slow progression forward in the Middle Ages as it has in all other periods of history; just take the transformation of Europe's barbarians, for example, into the modern nations of England, France, Germany and others, the way they changed over 500 years from nomadic warrior tribes to truly civilized farmers and merchants, even if their first leaders did initially rule through fear and superstition, and by doing things like making wine chalices out of their enemies' skulls (a more common occurrence during the Middle Ages than you might imagine). There may have been no senates or judges of ancient Greece and Rome, Bauer argues, but the general progression of humanity during the Medieval Period was upwards anyway, and it's high time that we reassess what the long-term benefits were of this age in general.

But that said, what is easily more fascinating is watching the tidelike waves of influence that wash over various geographical areas over the course of 500 years, as first one school of thought then another gently fall in and out of favor, helped in this case by hundreds of no-frills maps that accompany this book's text, and which could be compiled into a cool little animated flipbook if one wanted; the way the Western Roman Empire shrinks to almost nothing, for example, over the course of a mere few hundred years, the way the Arabic Islamic Empire swells like a fever from nothing to nearly spanning the planet in just as short a period, only to break apart and eventually start dissolving on the edges just like the Romans did, when it too got too big to effectively manage. But along those same lines, it's equally as fascinating to focus in on the handful of unchanging "hot spot" cities of those years, the ones whose fates Bauer keeps returning to again and again, who manage to become beacons of stability within a world of chaos; the way that Rome holds off attack after attack even as the rest of its empire falls, the way that London thrives no matter who is controlling it in any given year, or especially the truly amazing Constantinople, which I now realize is perhaps the most successfully defended city in all of human history, and which remained an unchanging stalwart of Christianity for far longer than it had any reasonable right to expect (that is, until finally being conquered by the Islamic Empire for good, which is when it was renamed Istanbul, and is why the Greek Orthodox Church is ironically headquartered in the modern Muslim country of Turkey...but these were all developments during the Crusades, so not subject to purview in this particular book).

But perhaps most fascinating of all are the million "what if" questions that arise while studying such a world-changing period of history as this, of pondering all the ways that our modern world would be so profoundly different if only this highly contested war had ended in a different way, or if that much-hated emperor hadn't been assassinated on the eve of a major new offensive. What if the Roman Empire had never broken into halves in the first place, which after all was merely the result of a particular emperor loving his competing sons just a little too much, and figuring that he could avoid a family war by assigning different parts of his realm to them all? (Spoiler alert -- it didn't work.) What if the barbarian Visigoths had managed to maintain control of Spain, instead of eventually falling to invading African Muslims like they did? What if the resulting lack of threat never convinced Charlemagne to conquer all his tribal neighbors and create for the first time a unified France? What if India hadn't spent this entire period in an unending 500-year civil war between dozens of equally matched little fiefdoms (or "rajas," as the Hindus called them)? This is one of the main reasons to study history in the first place, is to ponder these imponderables, to better understand what happened by picturing all the things that almost but never actually did; and Bauer does an impeccable job here at encouraging that, gearing most of her stories in terms of how close they were to not getting pulled off, of how what we think of as "history" is actually in a constant state of flux while first occurring, even as its general trajectory is fated to move ever forward, ever more complex.

This regularity really comforts me at times, to tell you the truth, which of course is another big reason to study history, to be reassured that in the long run, humanity really is getting better as a whole, even if its accomplishments must sometimes be tracked in terms of centuries; anytime I have another of my constant freakouts these days about the f-cking teabaggers or the f-cking oil companies or my f-cking neighbor who blares her f-cking stereo at three in the f-cking morning when she comes home f-cking wasted, reading a bit of a book like this reminds me of how unimportant these petty annoyances are in the grand scheme of things, that they too will quickly get swallowed by the tide of history and soon be forgotten. It's for all these reasons, then, that today The History of the Medieval World becomes the first book of 2010 to score a perfect ten here at CCLaP, and why I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about this surprisingly sophisticated millennium of history. It was a true delight to come across, a dense scholarly tome that reads like an airport thriller, and I'm now highly looking forward to tackling the previous volume of the series, as well as anticipating the third volume to come.

Out of 10: 10

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:58 PM, May 20, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |