Sunday, January 29, 2017
The History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer
After reading Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World, I continued on by reading The History of the Medieval World. I’m sure I will also read, The History of the Renaissance World at some point soon.
I enjoy reading her history books because, although long, they are relatively quick snippets of historical happenings as she jumps from country to country. This gives the reader a chance to see what else is going on “meanwhile, back on the farm,” so to speak.
The only thing I struggle over is the fact that this summary will take me FOREVER!. I write these so that I don’t forget the material that I spent weeks reading. I know writing it up is a good exercise, but it’s a little like eating broccoli. Good for me, but hard to swallow.
So here goes.
The book opens on Constantine and his conversion to Christianity. The extent to which his faith was genuine can be debated, but politically, “he saw in Christianity a new and fascinating way of understanding the world, and in Christians a mode of what Roman citizens might be, bound together by loyalty that transcended but did not destroy their local allegiances.” (p. 7) Christianity would be the glue that would hold the disparate empire together. However, like all totalitarian rulers, Constantine would only be able to hold the empire together through the force of his will. His sons waited in the wings to grab power and Persia watched for an opportunity to attack.
Meanwhile, in the East, the Han dynasty fell and the Jin took its place. However it couldn’t hold onto the “Mandate of Heaven” for long. The north fell to barbarian tribes, while the East remained in Jin control longer. Yet it was unstable. During this time, Buddhism increased in influence with the population.
After the death of Constantine, as expected, his three sons battled for power. Eventually, his second son Constantius prevailed, yet he was eventually forced to share power with his cousin, Julian. Upon the death of Constantius, Julian assumed full control. He renounced Christ and tried to return the Empire to its former glory by returning to the Roman religion. After dying in a battle with the Persians, he position went to Jovian. He returned the empire to Christianity, but he was a weak leader and left no heir.
Eventually co-emperors Valentinian and his brother Valens rule the empire, but repeated attacks and loses to the surrounding barbarian nations weaken the divided empire. After the death of Valens, Theodosius takes over in the East. He tries to enforce one “catholic” church. By making the Goths allies instead of enemies he buys a time of peace. However, he has only papered over the real differences between the peoples. After killing a power rival out of Britain, a Spaniard named Magnus Maximus, and marrying the sister of Valentinian II, Theodosius assumes the head of the entire empire. He also finds he has to subject himself to a very powerful church and must ban any act of worship to the old Roman gods.
Upon the death of Theodosius, his young sons (ages 18 and 10) take the helm, each one taking half. However, they are only the puppets of powerful generals, Stilcho in the West and Rufinus in the East. After killing Rufinus, Stilcho crosses paths with the powerful Eutropius who eventually banishes Stilcho from any position of power in the East. The Empire has officially turned against itself.
The Western half of the Roman Empire begins to crumble as the Vandals move all the way in and sack Rome. The echoes of this debacle would be felt all the way in North Africa where a monk named Augustine writes Confessions and City of God based on Rome’s fall. Meanwhile, in the East, Theodosius II and the church struggle with theological issues, barely even registering the calamity on the other side.
While the West becomes slowly taken completely over by the barbarians, the Huns are amassing power to the North. Eventually the sister of the emperor agrees to marry Attila the Hun in order to make space for peace. But before Honoria can can marry him, Attila attacks Italy, defeating the Western emperor. Eventually the Pope make a peace with Attila, effectively ending the Huns opportunity for nationhood. Attila goes on to marry another woman and dies the night of the ceremony, leaving an enormous power vacuum.
In order to strengthen the East, the emperor tried to enforce an orthodoxy on the people in opposition to the Roman pope. In Persia, they too believe more orthodoxy will help cement their power. Therefore they turn to the persecution of Christians, Jews, and Armenians for political reasons.
Meanwhile, over in the barely civilized lands of England, Ireland, and Scotland, the Irish tribes are united by Niall. At the same time, a Roman slave named Patrick escapes captivity. But he returns to Ireland, bringing with him the Christian message. In Britain, Vortigern struggles to hold onto power and invites the Angle and Saxon tribes to help him fight against the Picts. Britain will never be the same again. Eventually a leader named Ambrosias Aurelianus will give birth to the Arthurian legends.
Over on the continent, the Western Roman Empire officially disintegrates due to multiple barbarian attacks. In a crushing, and ignominious end, the last emperor is kidnapped and not replaced. It is there that St. Benedict leads a very devout group of followers. The Eastern half is not faring well either. They have tried to maintain the fiction that they still are a Roman Empire, but it is increasingly in the hands of barbarian leaders. Finally, the East loses all contact with the West. Justin and his nephew Justinian rise to power with the support of the “Blue” fans.
While the West is ruled by various barbarian tribes, these people groups battle to make themselves powerful nations. Clovis rises to the top of the Frankish king candidates. “From 509 until his death, Clovis ruled from his new capital, Paris, as the first Christian king of the Franks, the first law-giving king of the Franks, the first king of all the Franks. His descendants, taking their name from the legendary warrior Merovech, would occupy the throne for the nest two centuries as the Merovingian dynasty — the first royal dynasty of the Franks.” (p. 175)
Justinian involves himself in a very controversial marriage an actress and ex-hooker. She is a newly converted Christian and together, they work to reform the complex laws that have evolved in the East. On the authority of Christ, they expel heretics and try to purify the faith. They seek to revive the old Roman Empire. He is able to have some success wresting old lands from the barbarians, but plagues, intrigues, and the Persians trouble him at home. Upon his death, his incompetent and possible mad nephew, Justin II takes over.
While China is the most advanced civilization in the Far East, the 3 kingdoms of Korea engaged in continuous battles for supremacy on the peninsula. Japan, meanwhile, starts to unify, tentatively accepting Buddhism, following the Chinese example, and creates a “Mandate of Heaven” of their own. Over in China, the short-lived Sui dynasty finally manages to unite China. They reinforce the Great wall and build the Grand Canal. As they try to take advantage of Korean infighting, they suffer defeat. Eventually the Tang dynasty replaces the Sui.
Clovis’s kingdom splits in 3 upon his death. This leads to constant war between the areas. Finally, 3 “mayors” are given the power in each region, all allegedly under a central king. But this ruler is largely ignored and impotent.
Because the tribes in the West are largely Christian, the Pope still has influence. He sends Christian missionaries to Britain, bringing the unifying presence of a religion and civilization to the land still under control of battling tribes. It is here that Saint Augustine works to spread the gospel message.
Now called the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern half of the old Roman empire appears on the verge of collapse as their neighbors to the North invade time and again. Yet in a miraculous series of events, the Byzantines are saved and their enemy the Persians weakened.
Over in a little noticed part of the world, Muhammed is born in Mecca. His religious visions lead to persecution and he fled to Medina. Eventually his religion becomes entwined with a political formation. He and his followers conquer the disbelieving Mecca. Upon his death, Abu Bakr led the fight for all of Arabia and against the weakened Persians. They threaten Byzantium as well. In addition, they take over Jerusalem. This rapid expansion tests the new faith and their ability to govern. They have difficulty remaining united. A struggle begins over the succession of new ruler between the Shi’ite and the Sunni divisions. Once they finally coalesce around a competent ruler they take North Africa as well. But the prize is Byzantium, whom they are unable to completely defeat.
After taking North Africa, the Muslims move up into Hispania, taking it from the Visigoths who ruled there. Eventually the Frankish Charles Martel defeats their march North and Eastward throughout the rest of the continent.
Meanwhile, Byzantium is in the midst of yet another theological fight. By destroying and condemning all icons, they pick a fight with Rome. This eventually leads to the Papacy gaining the Papal States as an independent entity.
Upon the death of Charles Martel, his successor Pippin and then Charlemagne make alliances with the Pope. This powerful entity leads to Charlemagne’s recognition as the Holy Roman Emperor, giving him dominion over the Italian Lombard lands. While over in the Eastern half, chaos reigns eventually giving way to the most ignoble outcome - a woman, Empress Irene, on the throne. When Bulgarians almost destroy Byzantium, they make an alliance with Charlemagne. But it is very weak.
At this time, the far-flung, far from united, Muslim Empire is divided into 3 components over power struggles and succession issues. It continues to fracture as the Sunni and Shi’ite divisions sharpen. The Shi’ites believe the ruler should be a direct descendant of Mohammed. In addition, the Turks rise to power to challenge the movement of the Islamic Empire.
Once again, another kingdom is split over succession issues, that of Charlemagne. His Frankish Empire is weakened when it is divided between his two sons. At this time, the Vikings come down from the North into the Eastern part of Europe where the Rus hold power. Eventually they also set their sights on Byzantium. The Eastern Frankish kingdom also battles Byzantium for control of the lands between them. The Bulgarians get into it too, asserting a different form of Christianity. This eventually leads to the Cyrillic alphabet as missionaries Cyril and his brother translate the Bible for the people to the north of Byzantium in an effort to secure their loyalties.
The Vikings are also moving South into Britain. Alfred the Great is able to battle them to a standstill, but it is clear that they will remain a permanent presence. Across the channel, the Franks decide to pacify the invading Vikings by giving them their own area to govern, Normandy. The Eastern Frankish Empire finally succumbs to the invading Germanic tribes. Eventually this area will become Germany. Alfred’s successors will eventually succeed in uniting Britain, but will lose the throne to the Scandinavians.
Over in the East, the Byzantines are battling with the northern Bulgarians. This nascent nation-state is trying to achieve a recognition of its status. They battle to a stalemate. The Vikings, settling in among the Rus people have taken on that identity. After converting to Christianity, they also begin to threaten the Byzantine Empire to their south.
In the Muslim world, the three areas have solidified into 3 distinct areas, Spain, Egypt/Northern Africa, and Arabia. In the middle of this, Persia begins to reassert itself leading to the fall of the Arabian Caliph. They would soon face an invading force in the Crusaders. Otto had come to power in the Holy Roman Empire. He had consolidated his power with the help of the Pope and together they called for a Crusade against the Islamic regime occupying the Holy Land. To the West, Hugh Capet came to power over the Frankish Kingdom. Modern dynasties began to take shape.
Back to the Western half of the old Roman Empire, Otto III, king of Germany, finds he no longer needs the Pope’s blessing. He ends up appointing his own, German Pope. This is met with anger from the Pro-Rome forces. There is much back and forth, determining who the Pope should be, but the local situation proves decisive. The Normans have infested Italy. The eventual German king dies, leaving a child as an heir. The Pope made common cause with the neighboring Normans and the Holy Roman Empire is split.
After years of trying to conquer England once and for all, the Normans of Denmark finally manage to steal the throne. However, they really just want to settle in the land and so through intermarriage, an Englishman, the last living son of Ethelred the Unready is poised to inherit the throne. Unfortunately, Edward the Confessor left no heir. His confidant Godwin manages to manipulate the situation to get his son Harold on the throne upon Edward’s death. Unfortunately, William of Normandy believes he has a claim as well. After defeating his brother, Harold turned to the invading Normans. He lost in the Battle of Hasting in 1066. The Vikings had found another way to the throne.
Meanwhile, far to the East, Byzantium is crumbling before the advancing Turks. While in the West, the King Henry IV is finding it difficult to remain at odds with the Pope. He is excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII. This ultimately leads to a humility pleading for mercy and repentance before he is allowed back into the fold. When the desperate East calls Henry IV for help to fight off the Normans in their small remaining territory in Southern Italy, Pope Urban calls for a Crusade. But the Crusaders don’t stop in Italy. Eventually they continue all the way to the Holy Land and capture Jerusalem after 2 years of fighting. These holy fighters eventually form a religious order. Like Constantine at the beginning, politics and the church remain intimately intertwined.