Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Medieval Times

I recently finished reading a couple of books that wound up complimenting each other pretty well. The first was Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered. I wanted to read a book about the middle ages and this one seemed well received. It's short and a quick read, but I didn't find it very enlightening. Part of the problem is that a lot of the book is dedicated to examining archaeological records, which can get really dry. My main problem with the book, however, is the author's assertion that the people of the middle ages shouldn't be considered less civilized than the Romans even though they were largely illiterate and their architectural, artistic, and engineering accomplishments paled in comparison to the Romans. I agree that these so-called barbarians have gotten something of a bad rap; their more civilized contemporaries and even their modern descendants were and are all to willing to commit acts of great brutality when it suits their purposes. That doesn't absolve them of their barbaric behavior, nor does it change the fact that they failed to achieve the level of sophistication of the Romans.

The second book, A Short History of Byzantium, is a condensed version of John Julius Norwich's three volume history of the Byzantine Empire. It covers the entire history of the Byzantine Empire, so it starts in roughly the same time period as the first book but continues all the way to the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century. It's a narrative, not an academic history, and Norwich is prone to making sensational statements without providing any real justification, but it's an interesting read. My only real complaint is that the condensed version goes for breadth instead of depth. It mentions ever single monarch to sit on the throne in Constantinople. Some of the lesser emperors only got a couple pages and the greats only got a chapter. It was difficult to follow all of the names as a casual reader. One of the few things that I remembered about the Byzantine Empire from history class was the great schism of 1054, so I naturally assumed it was a big deal. I was surprised to learn that it wasn't much different than one of the many previous doctrinal disputes between Rome and Constantinople. It's tempting to look at moments in history as sharp dividing lines where nothing in the world after that moment is the same as it was prior to it, but that's generally not how things happen.

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