Review: The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade

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

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a truly ambitious project on the part of Bauer: a history of the world over a period of approximately 800 years. It is quite a feat that she was able to condense this broad (both geographically and chronologically) swathe of history into less than 700 pages of readable, informative, and interesting narrative.

Unfortunately, it is this very broadness that leads to the two great faults of the book:

1. It is too often too broad to be useful. As the say goes, a jack of all trades is an expert of none, and that seems to be the case with Bauer. Her treatment of the area in which I have the most knowledge and experience (the history of Christianity, especially in the early Middle Ages) is deeply flawed. One outstanding example is her confusion (on page 122) of the Syriac Orthodox Church for the Assyrian Church of the East. Both groups broke from the imperial Church over disagreements with the christological definitions of Chalcedon, but they are at opposite ends of the spectrum of christologies. Confusing these two is something like an unpardonable sin for any theologian or, for that matter, anyone interested in the history of Christianity. This is only one example, but it is a major and glaring one.

2. If she must be broad, she must be broader. The book rotates between the Roman Empire, the Islamic empires, India, China, Korea, and Japan, with a few brief detours into other realms (pre-Columbian America, for instance, is finally mentioned in conjunction with the Viking expeditions to Vineland). Entirely unmentioned are the Sub-Saharan African empires of the era. Why she would discuss medieval Korea and Japan but not, for instance, the Ghana Empire, is beyond me. I don’t disagree with a Euro-centric approach to history (for reasons I have described elsewhere), but, in the grand scheme of things and especially if one is going to take a broad approach to the history of the world as she is ostensibly attempting to, to leave out any mention of the Sub-Saharan African kingdoms is beyond unreasonable. In very short and at a minimum, the identification of Sub-Saharan Africa with material wealth by medieval Europeans is a substantial contributing factor to the eventual colonization of Africa by European powers and the rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Surely this is of more significance than the extensive treatment Bauer gives to the squabbles of the various petty kingdoms and chieftains of the Korean peninsula. The only reason I can think of for Bauer’s attention to certain areas and complete inattention to others is potential book sales. Her book is far more likely to be translated into Korea and read by Koreans (in fact, it has been) than it is to be translated into any of the languages of Sub-Saharan Africa and read by the inhabitants of that region. If it is anything, Bauer’s book is perhaps a good case study in the incompatibility of capitalism and scholarship.

Unfortunately, I have no alternative to suggest. Aside from textbooks (and all textbooks are bad by definition) I know of no volume which is quite as ambitious as Bauer’s. In spite of my inability to propose an alternative, I nonetheless do not recommend Bauer’s book. Rather, I suggest that anyone interested in the history of this period throughout the world instead find a number of good books each of which focuses on some specific area of the world during this period. And don’t forget the Ghana.

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One comment

  1. I would be very curious to develop a better understanding of the mistake she makes in point one, and what is the truth of it? As a Copt, this split has always pained me. When I look at the doctrine, I must say, I'm not sure what is is we disagree about.

    You said “opposite ends of the spectrum of christologies.” The Coptic church believes that Christ was simultaneously divine and human. Is true of the Greek church as well?

    I'm embarrassingly uneducated about this. Your patience is most appreciated!

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