14 February 2010

The History of the Medieval World

The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First CrusadeAfter being pleasantly surprised by Susan Wise Bauer's The History of the Ancient World, I was happy for the chance to read her new book, The History of the Medieval World. And I felt a lot the same way about this one that I did the first. This is very readable history. But I still had to skip those pesky Romans since they dominated the first bit of the book (well, by this time it was the Roman Empire).

What makes this series unique is that it's entirely chronological. I love that aspect and I think it's worth reading solely because of that and the readability.

But I do have some reservations. The main one is that no one, obviously, can be an expert on all of world history, so sometimes the books feel a bit like someone compiling information from other sources. It's not perfect, but what you get here is quite good. This will certainly be a good option for history for my children when they are in high school.

I had some specific concerns about this book. I wasn't too bothered by the way Islam was handled (although I would have written some things differently). A search through the bibliography shows a number of sources about Islam, which is good.

But I was disappointed by the coverage of Central Asia, especially regarding the Turkic people. The bibliography only has a few sources about Central Asia, and after checking the notes, only one book was used almost exclusively for most of the chapters. That book is Empire of the Steppes by Rene Grousset. It's an excellent book in many ways, but it's also 70 years old and somewhat dated. At the very least, some newer sources ought to have been consulted. David Christian's newer A History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia was listed, but there was only one reference to it. Other references to the Turks were from books about India or about the Kurds or specifically about Turkey.

As a result, some of the terminology about Central Asia was dated. The Amu Darya was always called the Oxus, which was what the Greeks and Romans called it, not what the people of Central Asia called it (calling it the Amu Darya is an anachronism, of course, but at least it's a name that's used in Central Asia; Oxus never was). But more importantly, the distinction between the Turkic and Turkish people was never made clear (the only use of the word Turkic was in the reference from Christian's book; all references from Grousset used Turkish). The word Turkish is used today to refer to the people of the country of Turkey. Turkic is used for all the people who speak Turkic languages. Throughout most of the period covered in this book, Turkic would have been a better and clearer term since the Turks hadn't spread as far as Turkey till the end of the book, and they included people whose descendents are not Turkish.

Finally, I felt that the Turks were described from an outsider's view. They lived across the Oxus, they harassed the Persians and the Chinese, they "arrived" in Europe, they only were influential as mercenaries. It's hard to learn about their history except from other cultures, but I thought their impact on history could have been told differently.

I know most people don't care about Central Asia, but that's one reason why I think it's important to get details about Central Asia right. The Turkic people have a long and fascinating history, and they cover a huge swath of Asia from Siberia to Turkey. Their story is one worth telling, even briefly. They're more than just nomads harassing the civilized world. Even a few more words from another source would have been better.


  1. It's neat to get an opinion about an area that not many people know about, thanks. Did you submit this to SWB's list of reviews?

  2. I ought to, since I read it early for them.