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Monday, November 18, 2013

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

746 pages, W.W. Norton & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0393059755

The Medieval World, also known as the Middle Ages or Dark Ages, is often glossed over in “History of Civilization” or “World History” classes, which is a shame as there is a lot of really interesting history from the time of the decline of the Roman Empire until the Renaissance. In The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, Susan Wise Bauer presents a meaty overview of that time period that is both very thorough and often spiced with a little humor, as well. While there cannot be great depth in such a broad treatise, it is heavily foot & end noted for anyone who would like to study certain topics further. Chapters are relatively short with timelines of the various material covered at the end of each, so it is an easy book to pick up and read for a short time, then come back to later.

This book is, by far, one of the most readable history books that cover such a long period of time over such a wide area (the whole earth). Why, I hear you ask? Well then: the chapters average around 10 pages or so with each chapter covering a period of 20 to 50 years in a particular area (Western Europe, Middle East, India, Korea, Japan, China, etc.); each chapter is also relatively self-contained, as much as possible, within the context of a 600-page continuing narrative; and each chapter is fascinating to read, with a touch of the author’s humor thrown in to spice things up, something that is non-existent in dust-dry academic works. Each chapter furthermore has at least one map that covers the area being discussed in the chapter: every city, river, tribe, clan, state mentioned within the text is marked on the map.
This is a classic narrative history about kings, queens, popes, dukes, eunuchs, states, nations, wars, and so on; it doesn't spend any time talking about what it meant to be a young boy in Korea in 814 or marriage rites in Persia or bathing habits in France (Thank God). This book is a joy to read and the format makes for steady advances through the chapters. In each sitting one might read only one 10-page chapter, on the next snowy day ten or more can be digested with ease. Wise-Bauer’s style is, in turn, easy and friendly, witty and sharp; it is almost as if the author is on the other side of a table in a comfortable discussion over coffee. The History of the Medieval World has something for everyone from the casual reader (despite being a long book) to the more deeply read on the period.

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