A thorough survey of the European continent in the time between antiquity and modernity.
Traditionally, the Middle Ages are said to begin with the fall of Rome. As to the period’s end, some have placed it as late as the arrival of Columbus to Hispaniola, some a century before. Wickham (Medieval History/Univ. of Oxford), author of the excellent survey The Inheritance of Rome (2009), has little interest in precisely setting the dates or connecting modern outcomes to past causes. “History is not teleological: that is to say, historical development does not go to; it goes from,” he writes. What it goes from is a time when the Roman Empire splintered into smaller, more local states that would occasionally be gathered into later efforts at empire—the one of Charlemagne, for instance, namesake of an era whose leaders “presided over the largest-scale attempt to rethink politics in the whole of the middle ages.” There were advantages to smallness and localism; the Saxons, for instance, were difficult to subdue “because they were not a unitary people,” whereas post-Saxon England, more unified in that sense, was relatively easy to rule, “cohesive and densely governed.” Along the way, Wickham examines modern misunderstandings, particularly about medieval politics. Though many systems were parliamentary in name, he observes, parliaments tended to serve the monarch and not the people, though the people were many—as he notes, most medieval people were bound to subsistence agriculture, the peasantry as polity. In keeping with his earlier work, the Roman Empire is a constant reference for both Wickham and the people themselves; as he writes, “one thing which remained constant throughout the middle ages was the importance of the old Roman imperial frontier.” In a very real way, teleology aside, the modern world is framed by the divisions within and limits of Rome, whose influence, Wickham chronicles, was felt in other ways far beyond the time of the last emperor.
Far-ranging, fluent, and thoughtful—of considerable interest to students of history writ large, and not just of Europe.