Sorry for the lame title of this post, but how else is one supposed to introduce the insanity that is writing a history of the world…that’s right, the whole world. Susan Wise Bauer’s second installment in her history of the entire world, published little more than a week ago, is called The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, and it begins where the first book in the series The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome wraps up.
Let me, first, say a word about the genre of a world history book/series. For a historian, this undertaking is their Super Bowl, the World Series, and March Madness all rolled into one. Imagine for one moment what it means to try and write a history of the entire world – including all sections of the globe, covering all time for as long as written history (and a little before) has existed!
Because we are already discussing the challenge presented by the task of writing a history of the whole world, I want to organize my review of Bauer’s The History of the Medieval World (HMW) with a short list of weaknesses. While it’s not the most flattering way to start a review, it is helpful here because the weaknesses in Bauer’s HMW are those that will inevitably exist in any attempt to write a history of the whole world. Perhaps the best thing I can say for Bauer’s HMW is that those are the only real weaknesses that I find. And you will see that the things I appreciate most about the book relates to how well she handles these unique challenges.
For instance, due to the massiveness that is this genre, you will always end up leaving people, places, and things out in order to actually finish the project. Bauer doesn’t just cover Western Civilization here, but many readers will be, for the first time, introduced to Korean Kingships, Chinese Dynasties, Indian Rajas, and much more. So, do not read this book looking for the final word on any person, place, or period. Instead, think of Bauer as a gracious host introducing you to a myriad of guests at an international dinner party. Her job is to make the introduction in such a way as to pique your interest in the other guests at the party so that you’ll decide to get to know them on your own. In this, Bauer excels. Not only will you discover the names and dates of important battles, but you’ll also hear how the victorious king had a daughter that made life difficult on him due to her unhappiness with her wimpy husband. A wimpy husband who happened to rule an adjacent kingdom with which peace was established through an arranged marriage of said princess! With Bauer, you quickly realize that history is not the story of demi-gods whose only job is to conquer other demi-gods, but that it is a story of humanity…ugly warts and all.
Another weakness in the genre of world history texts is the pressure to settle on a theme or overarching great idea that helps explain and tie together this massive amount of information. Most historians, sadly, avoid this altogether. This almost always results in two things that, in my opinion, are unacceptable when it comes to history: a boring read and the misconception that history is a hodge-podge of unrelated peoples, places, and ideas. It gives the impression that humanity is not coming or going. It’s all discontinuity and chaos.
I am happy to say that Bauer manages to avoid both of these problems. HMW is not boring. Sure, there will be moments when she is tracing a little known and insignificant kingdom in Southern India that you may yawn or blink out for a moment on. History is not all epic battles, so we can expect some domestic, tamed details here and there. But what Bauer does well, and what gives meaning to those slightly less interesting parts, is to trace a shared story of humanity. As you may guess from her subtitle, the relationship between Faith and Politics is the great idea that she works with to bring some order out of chaos.
Now, you may disagree with some of her conclusions. Perhaps you will argue that Constantine had less or more influence over the Council of Nicaea than Bauer suggests, or perhaps you won’t buy her argument that Clovis was merely a second Constantine, using religion for political stability. Again, our genre does not lend itself to nuance. I often found myself saying something like, “I’m not sure if she believes more that the religion of King X shaped his politics or vice versa, or a little of both, or to what degree.” This is to be expected. What we CAN see from Bauer’s presentation is that, YES, these two: politics and religion, have had a precarious and unfathomably important relationship. If one could understand the fullness of how man has sought to be master of faith or be mastered by faith, then one would understand humanity. Think about it for a moment…especially in our current political and religious climate, is there a more important global issue that the relationship between religion and politics? I don’t think so, especially as we understand that so many other important issues (poverty, etc) flow directly out of these two arenas.
As a Christian, I pray that our world leaders, pastors, and people in the pews would read Bauer’s works. What if we had a fuller understanding of the history of this relationship between faith and politics? The Church needs that. I believe the governments of the world need it. Much more could be said about how the Church today should interact with the governments of the world, but this is not the place to start that conversation.
I want to end, simply by giving a wholehearted endorsement of this series. Start at the beginning. I am sure that your thinking will be enriched by the process. I own both of the available volumes and plan to buy the forthcoming volumes as well. In fact, I would encourage you to find out more about Susan Wise Bauer as she has much wisdom to share not only regarding history, but education (such as resources put out by her publishing company Peacehill Press and her books on classical education published by Norton) and the current important issue of today’s political figures and their less than stellar private lives, for instance here.
So…get to reading.