So yes, it’s all very well for me to say how pernicious ancient textbooks in new editions are; and very interesting to hear others providing a counter-example in the form of Judith Bennett’s revision of Warren Hollister’s old one. But, seeing the deficiency from a way off I wondered what else was out there, and grabbed myself an evaluation copy of this, Medieval Worlds: a introduction to European history 300-1492 by Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz and Richard Gerberding, very largely because of how much I enjoyed Richard Gerberding’s other work I recently met and wondering how that would lend itself to teaching students to read sources. And it’s good, I think, though not necessarily what I might have expected.
The book has impressive ambitions, but they don’t include teaching students to read sources in a nuanced way. The sources do however stand well forward and are read by the authors very carefully, so the exemplary value is there. More than that, however, this a is a book with a mission:
The European Middle Ages themselves are, of course, fixed in the past, but their study continues to evolve. Not only do today’s scholars continually discover new things about the Middle Ages, but they also, in reflecting on the problems and attitudes of our own times, pose new problems and ask new questions. This book was written both to include the best research in traditional medieval topics and to explore those elements of medieval society that reflect the changed interests of our times. For instance, as Europeans and Americans now wrestle with ideas of what makes a person American or European, so too have recent scholars explored the medieval origins of ethnic identity, asking what made a man or a woman a Roman, a Visigoth, a Briton, a Spaniard, or a Pole.
Recent scholarship is greatly concerned with cultural and social history, exploring medieval marriage, children, families, and demographic history. These inquiries have produced a picture of the Middle Ages that is much more complex and much more exciting than once thought. We find that medieval societies varied greatly by time and place, and that medieval Europe was not its own closed world but quite open to outside influences. This book presents this richer, deeper, and broader view of medieval life. You will find women presented as an integral part of medieval society rather than as a fascinating afterthought. You will find that the geographical boundaries of medieval Europe presented here reflect the integral part played by societies once thought to have been outsiders. For instance, the treatment of the tenth century moves beyond the traditional focus on the disintegrating Carolingian Empire to show the vital new societies emerging in Scandinavia, Germany, eastern Europe and Rusland, the Balkans, Italy, and Spain. We cover much political history, but this is politics conceived in light of recent scholarship, that is, not as battles, dates, or deeds of kings and popes, but as the way societies in various times and places organised themselves for concerted organisation.
History is, at its base, the study of change set in time, and we expect that the chronological organisation of this text will give you the structure you will need should you decide to explore various topics in medieval history more fully later. To help you see how a clear understanding of medieval history anchors itself firmly in time we have included timelines and chronological lists of rulers at the back of the book. To help you understand medieval people themselves, we have included special features in each chapter where the people of each period speak for themselves (Medieval Voices) or where we describe a contemporary individual in some detail (Medieval Portraits).
I’ve quoted at such length here (this is pp. xv-xvi) partly because I’d have had to say a lot of the description of the arrangement and contents in my own words otherwise, and there were some perfectly good ones here, but mainly because it’s a clear description of what they think needs teaching and how they think it should be done. So the question is how far do they deliver, and I think the fair answer is ‘most of the way’. The Medieval Portraits, by and large, I think, contribute little, except in as much as individuals are otherwise fairly sparse in the narrative and maybe without them the whole thing would become impersonal; this trick, done as text boxes once or twice a chapter, certainly stops that even if it rarely relates as directly to the text as the anchors therein seem to suggest. I would still have cheerfully given all these spaces up to the other such ‘extra’, Medieval Voices, which is where Gerberding’s particular skills could perhaps have borne more fruit. They are more or less played straight, however, a short illustration from a key source, often long enough to distract but not enough to explain their own importance. I guess it’s hard to choose these things but I had imagined more of a compromise towards sourcebook than they actually attempt.
On the other hand, what they do cover is immense. They start with general concepts like ‘Time’ and ‘Space’, framing a world-view (pp. 3-7, 11-13). Then, despite claiming 300-1492 as a timespan, they actually start by setting up Rome as a Republic and then Empire in at least as much detail as anything else gets in their somewhat sweeping range (pp. 18-26). On the other hand, only in Spain does the text really get as far as 1492, everywhere else shading off into a fairly indistinct late medieval era after about 1380. Political narrative is always very thin, so distinguishing one half-century from another becomes problematic at this end; with the Hundred Years War, the beginnings of the Renaissance, universities and voyages of discovery and colonisation (the Portuguese down the African coast) already in progress by book end, it is therefore hard to distinguish 1400 from 1500 in their terms perhaps, though I’m not sure this is really fair on the period.
Other than that, however, it’s hard to say there’s a definite bias of coverage. Byzantium does rather sit on its own rather than joining in the fun, even when Eastern Europe is in play where its tendrils should be ever-present, but it gets a lot of space all the same. Eastern Europe gets rather more attention, even, and Islam is adequately treated, at least by my lights. Furthermore the authors certainly deliver on gender balance; women represent a good proportion of the Medieval Portraits and are frequently discussed in the main text, perhaps not every chapter but often and with attention. Likewise, the authors absolutely deliver on their social history agenda. As with Julia Smith’s Europe after Rome it is deemed almost impossible to produce an adequate political account in the space available (which is more than it seems: the book is on very thin paper, and unexpectedly heavy until you find that it runs to 612 pages without being much wider than any normal octavo academic monograph), but the result is not a softening of the narrative, but a very clear and hard-nosed account of social phenomena. Also as with Julia Smith’s book, this has mainly been achieved by an exquisite care over inclusion; an awful lot is omitted here that I could never have borne to exclude, but that, if it had stayed in the book, would have made it twice the size. Although I wonder, since the criteria of inclusion are so much tied to the Zeitgeist of medieval studies as they currently perceive it, whether this book will age well, right now it seems fairly right-on to me.
Some attempt to compensate for this lack of names and dates is of course provided at the back, in the form of the ruler-lists and chronology (pp. 537-562; pp. 563-584 are a thorough and up-to-date per-chapter bibliography and pp. 585-612 a comprehensive index, further recommendations). The chronology, which is separated into three columns for political, religious and cultural phenomena, is interesting as an exercise but could, in this compressed format, have included much more. As it is, it functions mainly as a look-up table to position events mentioned in the main text, which may I suppose be a valid way to do it but compares badly to the ruler lists because they are fabulously comprehensive. I would have wished dearly, had I been able to influence the authors, to see the Fatimid Caliphs added too, whereas we only get the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid ones, and perhaps also the Mongol Khans; there are enough free half-pages that they could have been accommodated. Otherwise though, everyone’s here, and one of the things that will make me glad to have this is having somewhere more accessible than the otherwise tempting Wikipedia to check regnal dates that I’ve forgotten like an idiot. That said, typoes and mistakes, which elsewhere plague the book in the manner of mild and intermittent acne only, here stand out like ugly blackheads and suggest poor proof-reading. It may not have been obvious, for example, that Charles the Fat had been given the same date ranges for both pre-imperial and imperial rules, but it should have been immediately apparent that Louis IV of France had somehow been given the regnal dates that belonged to Philip IV, repeated in their proper place on the facing page. This is a pity, as these tables and lists are where accuracy of data matters most in a book otherwise so sparing with numbers and names.
On the other hand, a final word of praise ought to be reserved for the maps. The illustrations, though frequent, fail rather to inspire because of the low-grade greyscale standard of reproduction. It’s difficult to get excited about something so riotously colourful as a Franco-Saxon illuminated manuscript or the Mosque of Córdoba when they’re thus levelled downwards. But the maps are just as frequent, and also sharp, clear and helpful. My personal taste would have been to have more extraneous data on them, because for me the joy of maps is often not the things one is being directed to, whose vague location and relation one probably already knew, but the things you’d never realised were near them, or far from them, or on completely different river that links it to somewhere else you know about. (It is of course very easy to make false associations like this when you haven’t mapped so much that it becomes impossible to read except with a computer, so I may not be helping myself by indulging this mania.) As with the text, the authors and their cartographers (who were not always producing for this volume, but whose works have been chosen very carefully from others where not so, so that you wouldn’t know without reading the credits) have resisted this temptation, and as a result the maps rapidly convey what they’re supposed to and probably support the text better than most of the other intrusions with which the authors disturb it.
So in summary, I think this book is a fashionable one, and so may date badly, but it represents a fashion in which I definitely feel bred, of telling social history as hard not soft, and bringing out the explanatory value of social developments rather than the effects of Great Men and other tenets of Old History. I think it will serve a student who uses it well, as long as (unfortunately) they don’t rely on the ruler lists and chronology too much, and that most people could read it and be well-informed, though they might not want to pay £37 for a paperback even if it does have 600 very thin pages. It has its problems, typoes and the odd piece of unreconstructed schoolbook history, as we’ve noted already, and its illustrations are lacklustre and some of its extras rather too extraneous, but with those reservations expressed and quickly left behind, the upsides are clarity, determined adherence to agendas of balance and inclusion that are straightforward and easy to endorse, and a range and spread not available in many other textbooks I’ve met. So I have no problems recommending this one.