Book Review: A Short History of the Middle Ages

29 Jan

Rosenwein, Barbara H., A Short History of the Middle Ages. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press (2007). Pp. 219. ISBN: 9-781551-112909.

A week ago I went to a professional conference. I’ve mentioned before that I can never get heavy reading done in an airport or plane – I don’t have other books to refer to and even the act of keeping a notepad handy is difficult in that kind of cramped space. This book had been sitting on my shelf for a while. Clearly it’s an introductory work and I wanted to know if it is something which I might recommend to beginners.

That it is. Rosenwein has put together a well-written, copiously illustrated book vast in its scope, though not in depth. In it she covers Western Europe, the Eastern Empire and Islam from 300-1500 AD. The book is arranged chronologically into eight distinct periods.

  • Prelude: The Roman World Transformed (c.300-c.600)
  • The Emergence of Sibling Cultures (c.600-c.750)
  • Creating New identities (c.750-c.900)
  • Political Communities Reordered (c.900-c.1050)
  • The Expansion of Europe (c.1050-c.1150)
  • Institutionalizing Aspirations (c.1150-c.1250)
  • Discordant Harmonies (c.1150-c.1250)
  • Catastrophe and Creativity (c.1350-c.1500)
Within these periods Rosenwein touches on a wide variety of topics including political structures, power relationships, economic systems, trade and commerce, warfare, religion and various movements specific to periods such as crusading, heresy and inquisition, the Black Death, etc. What is most notable in this volume is just how broad of a brush she is able to use, yet retain some analysis which goes beyond the simple “what happened” to at least touch upon why.

This is truly an introductory book and should be one of the first things someone reads on the period. Do not expect an in depth treatment of any topic and there are some areas (for myself these were technology use and the role of women) which I expect individual readers will find insufficiently covered. However it does an excellent job of meeting its goal of being, “an easy pass through a dense thicket.” (11). The illustrations and maps are numerous and useful. Rosenwein footnotes though, as might be expected, these are not many and a suggested reading list is included at the end of each chapter.

I believe this is the type of introductory work which is highly useful. I found it interesting reading myself and believe it will help teach the casual reader something about the period while also serving as a starting point for those who are interested in beginning a more intensive study of Medieval History.

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Posted by on January 29, 2011 in Books


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