Book Review: The History of the Medieval World

Susan Wise Bauer is the author of, among other things, the continually relevant book The Art of the Public Grovel, which I’ve been meaning to review in this space.

I was lucky enough to be able to read her new book, The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, before its release.

The History of the Medieval World is the second in a series (of what will be four books) that began with The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome.

When I read The History of the Ancient World, I thought it would be a nice refresher of ancient history; what I didn’t anticipate was that I would be continually shocked by how much I didn’t know, how fun it would be to read about the aspects of ancient history where my gaps were greatest (hello, India and China), and what an enjoyable guide Bauer would be.  The History of the Medieval World was similarly embarrassing (but in a nice way); I was once again reminded about how little I knew of non-Western history, and was very glad to have Bauer as my teacher.

The series works this way: Bauer presents a chapter or two on one area of the world (say, the Byzantine Empire; or, as she prefers to refer to it, and which I quite like, Byzantium); the subsequent chapters will go to a different area of the world (China, India, etc.) at roughly the same time period.  So, you get a sense of what’s going on at roughly the same time.  I wasn’t sure how well it would work when I opened the first book; but I think it’s roughly the same kind of mental difficulty that’s presented by a novel that has a few story lines with different characters going on at once. 

What I like:
Bauer’s writing style.
  She transmits an amazing amount of knowledge with just the right dash of dry humor.  Reading this and the previous book in the series is like nothing so much as reliving lectures given by my favorite history professor in college.

The maps and timelines.  Oh, my goodness, the maps.  They’re clear, they’re informative, and — most important of all in a book this size — they’re everywhere.  There are also timelines at the end of many chapters, which help keep various parts of the world in perspective.  For instance, Chapter 1 discusses the Roman Empire and Chapter 2 discusses the rise of the Jin in China; so, the timeline at the end of Chapter 2 shows the rulers and major events of Rome on the left and China on the right, so that you can see what’s going on at the same time.  Extremely helpful.

Aspects of the book to consider:
As with the previous book in the series, The History of the Medieval World is driven by personalities.  This isn’t necessarily a history series for someone looking for daily life in various world cultures; it’s a survey of leaders: the good, the bad, and the interesting.  This can mean that…

Stuff gets left out.  It’s unavoidable that a survey of world history that takes up less than 700 pages of prose is going to leave things out.  You’re not going to get a lot of art (or other “culture”) in this book.  One of the more disappointing aspects is that, because of space, and perhaps because of the lack of written history and/or records of leaders with interesting personalities, you’re not going to read a lot about sub-Saharan Africa or the Americas.  (The tradeoff is that you will find the history of the Korean peninsula fascinating, and will find yourself skipping ahead to see when you’ll next read about it.)

It’s denseI’m not going to lie: if you don’t know your medieval Chinese history, you may find yourself going over those chapters slowly; you may find yourself flipping back and forth to maps and timelines.  This is not going to be the 700 quickest pages of your life.  But they are nevertheless quite enjoyable.

Not enough recommendations.  This is perhaps my own personal complaint, and one I felt with the previous book.  There were topics I liked so much that I would have loved a recommendation of another (preferably non-scholarly) book to delve into a bit further.  (So, if I wanted to read more about British kings of the 900s, I’d like Bauer’s recommendation without having to see what the footnotes could bring me.)  But that’s a pretty minor complaint.

So, I recommend this book.  It’s about the least painless way to get a good overview of world history you could find, and I really wish I’d had something like this as a history textbook when I was in high school.