Book Review

"The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade" by Susan Wise Bauer

Meredith L. D. Riedel
Friday, December 17th 2010
Jan/Feb 2011

It is no mean feat to describe the events of 800 years of medieval world history in one book. In order to accomplish this, Susan Wise Bauer limits the narrative to rulers and religion, and more specifically, how medieval kings and emperors em-ployed religion to justify their right to rule. This book follows her earlier History of the Ancient World, which focused on the rise of kingship based on power, and picks up the thread of the story as the justification for kingship changes from individual strength to divine blessing. The History of the Medieval World begins, appropriately, with the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity. With this event, "all at once, Christianity was more than an identity. It was a legal and political constituency’exactly what it had not been when Constantine decided to march under the banner of the cross" (11).

This history is divided into five parts titled "Unity," "Fractions," "New Powers," "States and Kingdoms," and "Crusades." The transformation and development of imperial legitimacy by means of religion links together eighty-five chapters at a galloping pace. Ranging across the globe, the author produces short, vivid chapters that give a global perspective on world history from the fourth to the twelfth centuries. She covers China, Korea, Japan, India and Sri Lanka, Byzantium and the Arabs, Palestine, the Caliphate, the Russian steppes, Europe, the Vikings, and the British Isles. Fascinatingly, she also presents six pages on Mesoamerica in chapter 27 and ten pages on Greenland and the Americas in chapter 75’additions that mark this synthesis as unusual, if not unique, among world history books. Another unusual feature is the mention of the well-documented Medieval Warm Period (431 and 575), and the explanation that this global temperature shift enabled the Vikings "to sail to lands where they had never been before." Few world histories take account of geothermal variations, even where they have a discernible influence on the historical record of human events.

This book will appeal to the average reader who is curious about medieval history and is seeking to know more about the bright and noisy drama of human events in all their unexpected glories and disasters. It is an excellent resource for home schooling and offers a comprehensive bibliography for readers who want more depth. The stories are written in clear, straightforward prose that is vivid and easy to follow. This is not a scholarly book aimed at the erudite, but an invigorating collection of stories that demonstrate that history is exciting’and it shows its significance with verve and humor. The chapters have short descriptive titles (chapter 59: "The Second Caliphate") and a concise synopsis (chapter 59: "Between 861 and 909, Turkish soldiers take control of the Abbasid caliphate, new dynasties break away in the east, and a new caliph proclaims himself in Egypt"). Each chapter contains occasional brief footnotes explaining things such as the hierarchy of deities in Platonic thought (10), the various Goths named Theodoric (145), or the meaning of the Anglo-Saxon word for "heir to the throne" (516). A timeline is provided at the end of each chapter, listing rulers and the years of their reigns. Because political history is difficult to appreciate or understand without a knowledge of geography, the book also boasts ninety-nine maps and fifteen illustrations to set the stories in their physical context.

In a sense, the structure and emphases of the book follow the contours of the Old Testament historical books. The role of faith in the lives and decisions of leaders and soldiers is given full play. The narrative centers on the rise of states and rulers in various ways, dwells on the means and justification of authority, and identifies the political and religious priorities of kings and emperors. It describes revolutions, pivotal moments, and enduring outcomes with a lively simplicity or an amusing irony. For example, when describing the political maneuvers of the Gothic king against Constantinople, the author writes, "Unlike Odovacer [who was chopped in half], Theodoric had a spine" (146). In the story of Japanese imperial power, one reads that "the heavenly sovereign was no emperor, not in the sense of a Chinese or Byzantine or Persian emperor. He did not rule, as they did, controlling armies and laws. He shone, and in his light, power was dispersed to others….The sovereign himself needed merely to exist: a necessary, but passive, node of connection with the divine order" (410-11).

Despite its vast geographical scope, this well-written, thoroughly researched, and briskly paced book does not present a comprehensive history of the Middle Ages. For example, it does not discuss literature, art, music, technology, philosophy, architecture, or games, but these are beyond the scope of its intention. Rather, it is a book about political strategy and the use of religion to buttress imperial power. It covers famous events such as the conversion of Constantine, the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and the repentance of the German king at Canossa. It also deals with less famous but no less important events such as the defeat of the Byzantines by the Turks at Manzikert, the An Lu Shan rebellion in China, and the rise of Islam. It presents classic, linear history unsmeared by trendy theories so dear to the politically correct. Although a discussion of changing technology in warfare’such as weapons, siege machinery, or armor’would not have detracted from the subject matter, extended descriptions might have interfered with the brisk pace of the stories. In fairness, there is some discussion of the education enjoyed by key figures and direct reference to historical chronicles by name. This book, however, is not primarily concerned with intellectual history. It is a history of boots on the ground and leadership at the top, pulsing with ambition, glory and disaster, and therefore to be thoroughly enjoyed by all.

Friday, December 17th 2010

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