As has already been mentioned, writing is perhaps the most important aspect of being a historian. It is through writing that historians are able to share their ideas with others. For this reason, the historian must be able to communicate clearly and in a way that makes people want to listen to his story. If a historian does not have both of these abilities, all of the detective work he put into gathering and analyzing the clues will have been for nothing.
To write well one must first have a good grasp of the basics of writing. First and foremost among these are, of course, spelling and grammar. Someone who frequently misspells words, especially words that are very common or that are important to the topic he is writing about, is not someone that people want to read. Similarly, people do not want to listen to someone who cannot speak or write with correct grammar. Both of these are fundamental, which means basic but important, aspects of writing well.
Another of these basic aspects of writing well is having a large and growing vocabulary. Words are the way human beings express their thoughts and desires. Without words we would not be able to do things either great or small, from something as simple as asking for a glass of water to something as big as discussing the meaning of life. The more words you know, then, the more thoughts you can have. The less words you know, the less thoughts you are capable of having. Being able to find the right word for the right situation is an important part of writing well.
Mastering all of these basics of writing, including spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, applies to writing well on any topic, whether that topic is history or science, mathematics, literature, or your favorite sport. In addition to these basics, there are writing skills that apply specifically to history as well.
Because the historian is both a detective and a storyteller, he has to find a balance between these two roles. The historian has to be able to tell a story that is both interesting and informative. The historian has to be able to educate as well as entertain. Nobody wants to read a dry list of dates and names. At the same time, a historian must not be so interested in telling a good story that he forgets the facts and starts to write fiction instead. An example will help us understand the sort of writing we want to avoid. We will then look at an example that strikes a perfect balance between entertainment and education.
First, here is a short sentence describing an event from history:
Charlemagne was crowed Roman emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day of 800.
While this works as an entry on a timeline, a tool a historian uses to keep track of when events happened, this would make a terrible paragraph in a book or an essay. Imagine if learning history was just reading a bunch of paragraphs like this one!
Now, here is the description of the same event given by a historian:
Charlemagne lingered in [Rome] until Christmas Day. He went to morning mass, knelt for prayers, and as he began to get to his feet, [Pope] Leo III came forward and put a gold crown on his head. The crowd, which had been coached, cheered: “Long life and victory to Charles, the most pious Augustus, the great, peace-loving Emperor, crowned by God!” He had been crowned imperator et augustus, two titles that belonged to the emperor of Rome…1
Notice that instead of just listing the facts Bauer has given us a narrative, or story, of the event. She has also provided us with details about where the crowning took place, which pope crowned Charlemagne, and the reaction of the people present. We get a better idea of what happened from reading this narrative and it keeps our attention. You should also notice that Bauer does not give her own opinion about whether what Pope Leo did was right or wrong. This is called impartiality. Being impartial means not picking sides in a fight. Although we are allowed to have opinions, historians should be as impartial as possible when presenting their stories. We should try to be as fair as we can to the people we are writing about and present the truth to the best of our ability.
Good writing in any subject is writing that includes correct spelling and grammar. Good writing also demonstrates a large vocabulary and the use of thinking skills by the writer. In history, this means doing the research well and presenting our research in a way that is both interesting and informative. It also means keeping an open mind and avoiding being unfair to the people we are writing about. In short, good writing is writing that effectively communicates well thought out ideas. This is the sort of writing we should strive to produce when we write about history.
1. In a paragraph, identify some of the qualities of good writing. Use your own words.
2. Now, write another paragraph identifying some of the aspects of good writing that are especially important in history. Use your own words.
1 Susan Wise Bauer, History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 393.
In her series of books on the history of the world (of which series this is the third entry) Bauer has taken quite a large task upon herself. To trace out the entire history of the world from the very earliest civilizations through to the present day would be a great challenge for even the most erudite of historians. Unfortunately, the tremendous size of this task shows through too often in the product to make it either interesting or useful. I have read all three volumes thus far and have noticed the same problems in each of them, problems which seem have seemed to intensify as the series continues. Two of these issues are especially important as they do the most to inhibit this series from being as instructive as it might be otherwise.
First, no one, including Bauer, can possibly be an expert in all of the fields of history covered in all of these volumes. Bauer discusses the history of ancient Korea, medieval China, the civilization of the Maya, the beginning of Greek philosophy, etc. These are huge fields in which various experts have spent their entire lives and barely scratched the surface of what could potentially be known about each of them. While Bauer’s own lack of expertise in all of these fields cannot be held against her — again, this is a huge swathe of human knowledge we are talking about here — it often feels as if we are getting such a basic overview that we are being presented with little more than timeline, only with a little bit — a very little bit — more detail.
Even within a single volume, the attempt to include the entire history of the world creates a disjointed feel which pervades the entire book. While it is interesting to see what was happening in various parts of the world simultaneously, the jumping from place to place which occurs at the close of each chapter makes it almost impossible to follow a narrative of events.
This is perhaps the greatest problem with this series. The flow of history, especially the history of ideas, is altogether lost, which means the entire purpose of learning history is ignored altogether. History is not the mere assembly of events in order. It is the search for meaning in that order. As another historian has pointed out, if aliens had watched the entire Battle of Hastings from above and taken copious notes while doing so, they might be able to give a play-by-play of each event within the battle. But a schoolchild who can repeat “William the Conqueror, 1066” ultimately knows more about the battle; he has linked it to a culture, a tradition, a meaning. That is precisely what this book, and the others in this series, fails to do.
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.
Sometime around the turn of the century, one of his [Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid] merchants paid a gold dinar [Arab coin] into the hands of a Scandinavian trader, who took it north and used it to buy goods from an Anglo-Saxon merchant, who sailed home with the coin and landed at a port in the English kingdom of Mercia. Mercia, which by this point had expanded to cover a good bit of the southeast of England, was under the rule of King Offa, a Christian monarch…
Once in Mercia, the merchant used the coin to buy a night’s lodging from an innkeeper, who later that year used it to pay the king’s tax-collector. And so it came into the hands of Off’s silversmith, who was mulling over the designs for the next year’s English coinage. He liked the pretty patterns on al-Rashid’s gold dinar and decided to copy them. The following year, the coins of the English monarch were minted with “OFFA REX” written on one side and, the Arabic words for “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet” on the other. The silversmith, of course, had no idea what the words said; “OFFA REX” is written right side up, but the Arabic letters are all upside down.
Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, p. 397
The people are numerous and happy; they have not to register their households, or attend to any magistrates and their rules; only those who cultivate the royal land have to pay (a portion of) the grain from it. If they want to go, they go; if they want to stay on, they stay. The king governs without decapitation or (other) corporal punishments. Criminals are simply fined, lightly or heavily, according to the circumstances (of each case). Even in cases of repeated attempts at wicked rebellion, they only have their right hands cut off. The king’s body-guards and attendants all have salaries. Throughout the whole country the people do not kill any living creature, nor drink intoxicating liquor, nor eat onions or garlic.
Faxian (circa 400-412), quoted in Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, p. 26