History of the Renaissance World

I just finished The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer. The subtitle is From the rediscovery of Aristotle to the conquest of Constantinople, which means it’s about what most people would call the Middle Ages.

The major subject
The major subject

It’s a weird mixture of new and old style history. It’s worldwide, so you get fairly good coverage of China and India, and sporadic chapters on Africa and Native America. But it’s also all about personalities– almost nothing about culture, literature, technology, economics.  Which means it’s mostly stories about kings.

Condensed into one worldwide narrative, the story of human monarchy gets distilled to its essence: it sucked.  Srsly, all over the world, it worked about the same way, and that was “badly”.  The whole theoretical advantage of monarchy is that it avoids succession disputes.  Only it doesn’t– no matter how sacredly the king vows that his successor shall be his well-beloved son, some cousin or uncle or general or duke is likely to object once the old man is laid out.  Plus, of course, a new king is often a child, or at best inexperienced and dominated by his elders; very often this becomes institutionalized in some way.

Japan in this period provides a nice example. It became customary for the emperor to abdicate in favor of an infant relative– becoming the Cloistered Emperor, a position where he could wield the power while the child did all the onerous ceremonies. Only the military took over the actual administration of the country, producing the shogunate.  Only the shogunate was hereditary, so there was a problem of infant shoguns… no problem, an older relative became the shikken, the shogun’s protector.  For a time all four levels of this ridiculous hierarchy perpetuated themselves. (Nor did this prevent the country from being fragmented between senior and junior lines of the imperial family.)

If you did get a strong king, that often just meant that he had the resources available to spend his entire reign at war, or that he was enough of a sociopath to stop rivals before they could get going– usually by murdering them.

Elective monarchies in theory could choose only strong candidates, but of course the electors normally had little interest in electing anyone who would restrain their own freedom.

The other theme in the book is the ever-broadening idea of the crusade. It didn’t exactly start off as a noble idea, but it steadily worsened, soon being used against heretics and then anyone the Pope had a quarrel with.  The last chilling echo of the crusades was the Pope’s blessing of the Portuguese slave trade. For all that, the crusades, like all of the Papacy’s secular schemes, were a self-defeating failure. The popes, like certain right-wing politicians, just never understood the difference between how they thought the world should work and how it did work. They constantly overreached, never learned from their mistakes, and eventually destroyed what unity the church had.

The multiculturalism of the book is refreshing, but also jarring– you’ll bounce from France to China to Sri Lanka to Egypt to Africa, in chapters that are only a few pages long. This makes longer-term stories (like the papal schism or the Hundred Years war) hard to follow. Plus it’s still Eurocentric: there are 54 chapters on Europe and the Middle east, 32 on India, China, and points east, and just 8 on everywhere else.  And because of the focus on kings, regions only appear once they have some royal history– so e.g. Scandinavia doesn’t get any coverage till chapter 86.  The chapters on Mexico and Peru are barely worth having.

I have some quibbles over names. Bauer mixes pinyin and Wade-Giles for no good reason. She insists on calling France “Western Francia” until the realm of Philip II, which is weird.  (If it’s to underline that the king in Paris had little control over the territory until that time, that’s no less true of the kings of Germany.)  She also uses English names for all the European kings– this is traditional, but with the short chapters it would be a lot easier to keep the kings apart if the local names were used.

I didn’t know it when I picked it up, but the book is the third in an ongoing world history. I can about 3/4-heartedly recommend it.  It’s very readable, and presents quick, vivid portraits of a slew of kings, queens, and hangers-on. And the worldwide focus means that at least some of the stories will be new to you.  But it has almost no interest in culture; you get very little about how these nations differed, or what anyone below the elite was doing, or about any non-kingly story that was going on: what scholasticism actually taught, courtly love, early capitalism, what the alchemists were doing, the windmill revolution, how exactly the Central Asian nomads adapted to ruling China, how the Arab scientific mindset stalled, how military tactics evolved.  And even stories it focuses on, such as the English-French wars, are often better told elsewhere.  Still, it’s a fun and fast read.