Thursday, February 24, 2011

On "The History of the Medieval World" by Susan Wise Bauer *****

In the second volume of this series, Bauer runs through the history of the world from the time of Constantine to the first Crusade. The unifying theme for much of the book is the use of religion for political ends. In the Arab world, the new religion of Islam becomes a force in building a world-ruling empire. In the European/Roman world, Christianity becomes the means of keeping united a vast empire of differing peoples. In China, the ancient glories of a former empire become the rallying point around which other cultures coalesce and challenge the Chinese empires themselves.

And yet, within these unifying ideas hold within them also the spark for unrest and division. Muslims split over who should succeed Muhammad. Europe splits over whether the Roman bishop should be in charge or whether the new capital of Constantinople is the real center of power, though these are countered as doctrinal differences--whether Christ was existent before his birth, whether idols can be used in worship, whether leavened or unleavened bread is to be used at mass.

The Far Eastern kingdoms come off slightly better in terms of the use of government. There, a man is often promoted to rulership because of his qualifications rather than his familial heritage, and where a particular dynasty falls, it is seen as the natural outcome of a family that has decayed morally and thus has lost the right to rule. But much of this too is a convenience by which one regime posits its superiority and right to rule over another.

I can't sum up 650 pages--and an entire world of history--in one short blog entry, so I won't even try. I'll simply note that Bauer's book seems a great reference resource--easily and enjoyably readable--and that I look forward to the volumes yet to be published.

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