Picking up where the previous volume left off, Durant dedicates this volume to the Medieval world as focused through the lens of the Christian, Islamic, and Judaic worlds from 325-1300, or as he puts it, from Constantine to Dante.
As with the previous volumes, this one is broken into five parts. Part 1 deals with the rise of Byzantium 325-565, which includes the fall of Rome, Western Christianity during the centuries after by way of comparison, and the Arab conquest of the Persians. Part 2 covers Islam from 569-1258, from Mohammed to the approach of the Mongols. Part 3 is dedicated to the Jewish world 135-1300, from the creation of the Talmud past the Maimonidean War. Parts 4 and 5 deal with Western Christianity, with the 4th focusing on the so-called Dark Ages of 566-1095, and the 5th at the apex of Western Christendom from 1095-1300, aka the era of the early Crusades. Virtually everything in here is presented as the setup for the Renaissance, so it explains the transitions from Classical Greece and Rome to the Renaissance in that light. That alone makes it invaluable in terms of modern perspective. It also leaves the final episodes of the Medieval era for the next book, as the fall of Constantinople, the Hundred Years War, and the Black Death are all immediate catalysts for the Renaissance as much as the rediscovery of classic literature and rhetoric. Despite the sheer amount of abuses of the Church (above and beyond the Inquisition) and the number of heresies chronicled and/or eradicated in the scope of this volume, it’s not until the volume after next that we’ll arrive at the Reformation. Of course, had that happened earlier, the Renaissance would likely have unfolded completely differently than it did. Might be an interesting thought experiment to consider someday…
I think it’s no secret to anyone who follows this site that I’ve read a number of histories on the Middle Ages. It is my love, it is my passion; it is my means to escape the modern world for a time, and in the process remind myself of just how good I really have it no matter how stupid the world around me seems at times. As much as I enjoy history of any era, I had my eye targeted on this volume from the moment I began this series. And you know something? I learned a great deal. What’s more, what I already knew was offered up with a new perspective, so in a lot of ways it was like taking a completely fresh look at an an era I otherwise know so well. The reason has more to do with Durant’s presentation style. As with the previous volumes, it’s not just the names and dates. It’s not just royalty and battles. He covers the law of kingdoms, the development of Canon Law, societal hierarchies, power structures, politics (both secular and sacred), the philosophies, economy, ethics, chivalry, science, medicine, food supplies, literature, art, music, rituals, cultural milestones and shifts… everything you ever wanted to know about this era from every direction you could think to ask, and a few you might never have known about. The various sects of each of the big three Abrahamic religions, the feudal civil structure, the organization of the Church, the various dynasties and cultural invasions… it’s all here. For much of it, it’s probably some of the easiest presentation I’ve yet seen. It’s as though each chapter is a book of its own, and in many cases I’ve seen entire volumes devoted on what’s in a single chapter where the book in question was much longer and went into considerably less detail. This book excises the scholastic padding and just dishes it out straight, complete with commentaries that you won’t find in a modern history book. This in itself operates as a kind of history in its own right, offering insight into the time and place it was written. At the risk of repeating myself, as with the previous volumes, the details are there in abundance, sometimes far more than the reader may realize is necessary or think is warranted. None of it is pedantic, but a great deal of it could be classified as esoteric, especially by lay standards.
While the previous volumes are not necessary to appreciate this one, I find that there is no substitute for having that broader foundation when it comes to establishing the rise and fall of various people and organizations. Durant demonstrates that there is no simple cutoffs between eras. The fall of the Roman West didn’t happen overnight, and the Dark Ages weren’t quite so dark as people are often led to believe. The brutality of the Middle Ages was simply the way things were, and even then there were strides made towards the kind of civilization we have today. On that note, one of the things that I’ve always found astounding about this era is how much of our own modern world is built on Medieval foundations. We can see by comparison and contrast how far we’ve come and how far we still need to strive… or in some cases how far backwards we might have slid as corporations rise to power in our own time. The past may be an alien world with alien customs and core values, but the essence of humanity is still there. Where we take exception with something, we can see how far we’ve moved on the scale of progress and what still needs to be accomplished. I would argue this is the primary reason to read history. Without knowing where we’ve been, charting a course to where we’re going is meaningless, and I dare say the same holds true in reverse in some measure.