Friday, March 5, 2010

The History of the Medieval World, by Susan Wise Bauer

This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.

I have been following Susan Wise Bauer and her writing for many years. The Well-Trained Mind is the foundation of the academic pursuits of my four children. The Well-Educated Mind saved my sanity as I coped with leaving my career for motherhood. The four volumes of The Story of the World series have made history one of the most exciting topics in our household.

About seven years ago, I heard Bauer give a lecture and I remember her saying, “History isn’t a subject. It is THE subject.” That sentiment may have led her to embark on the mammoth task of writing the history of the entire world in narrative form. The first volume, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, made me a better teacher of ancient history. I recently finished the second volume of the series, The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. I’ve been working on it since November, as I was allowed access to an online copy in exchange for a review on my blog.

Bauer begins her story of medieval times with Constantine’s Christianity and she ends with the Crusades of Christianity. The middle includes the stories of the Romans, the Ostrogoths, and the Vikings, among others. Throughout the 746-page narrative the reader is provided beautifully constructed maps that clearly show the boundaries of the various empires and therefore aid in the understanding of the historical events. The end of each chapter has a vertical timeline that summarizes the major events in the current chapter compared to the events in the previous chapter. This is a gift to the reader, as the timelines show what was occurring in one empire as compared to what was occurring in another empire. Illustrations included also enhance the reading and understanding of the history. The notes at the bottom of many of the pages provide explanatory notes that are delightfully different from the normal history text explanatory notes.

As well done as the technical details are, it is the masterful telling of history as a story that makes the book so remarkable. Bauer explains why the accounts of a certain event may not be as accurate as they should be by listing a historian’s possible bias and how that would affect the accounting of that event. As I read, I felt as if I was sitting in a history class with a most exciting professor. The writing is interesting, informative, and conversational. In the chapter on Japan between 884 and 940 Bauer explains, “Yozei was never imprisoned; his psychopathy took an occasional downward turn (he was reputedly responsible for at least two murders), but he seems to have been allowed to roam through the mountains on horseback, hunting and sleeping out and sometimes appearing without warning at the gates of one or another great landowner, demanding to be let in.” Bauer does not just give textbook-like facts; she provides reasons for why events occurred or men ruled: “This was exactly why he had appointed a pope who was both German and a blood relation.” And whether the medieval times were really funny or Bauer just chose to include all of the humorous events, the book has some downright hilarious parts, in a dark sort of way. Did you know that Maximinus Daia drank poison to kill himself, but it took four agonizingly painful days to die because he ate an enormous last meal right before he swallowed the poison?

I simply cannot fathom how Bauer possibly summarized the events of an entire historical period in a manner that is easy to understand and interesting at the same time. I had a sorry excuse for a history education in public school, and because of my college major, I did not have one single history class during my university studies. This history series has made the facts of my own history less regrettable because I am learning THE subject, and it is THE subject that helps me to understand not just the past, but also the present.

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