“The Collapse and Recovery of Europe, AD 476-1648” by Jack L. Schwartzwald (McFarland Books, 2015)


The complete collapse of the Roman Empire changed the western world forever. It was a tabula rasa of sorts, as the societies of the former Roman Empire had the opportunity to start anew and redefine the way their society existed. And this is essentially what happened for the next 1200 years through trial and error, with numerous new rulers, and many deaths along the way. The end result was the more stable nation state during the thriving Renaissance.

In The Collapse and Recovery of Europe, Jack L. Schwartzwald, author of The Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome, moves into the next arena of history, tackling this important period in history that was pivotal in creating and defining Europe as a union of individual and eventual nation states. You’ll notice there is no mention anywhere of the poorly and incorrectly named “dark ages,” implying that the beginning of these twelve centuries was a time of stagnation and a return to “primitive” times, when in reality important foundation blocks were being laid, paving the way for the rebirth of science, art and culture of the renaissance.

The book is divided into three parts and periods, the first covering the glorious time of Byzantium in “City of the World’s Desire,” encompassing a millennium of a minor empire that still considered itself continuing the glory that was Rome, when in reality it was a melting pot of various cultures, including Greeks, the growing Christian faith and flock, as well as Asiatic influences from the East. But as Byzantium was basking in the shadow of its paternal Rome, it too eventually succumbed to foreign invasion and overthrow.

In the second part, “City of God,” Schwartzwald covers the birth and explosion of the church and Catholic faith in Western Europe, as it sought to convert the people to God and create a heaven on Earth in the same thriving glory that was Rome, but as those high up in the faith — the popes and cardinals to name a few – fought for ideals they believed to be true to the faith, derision and schism grew, leading to fracturing and fighting and wars. The Middle Ages ended with the ultimate of struggles in the Hundred Years’ War.

The final part, “City of Man,” leads off with the end of the Hundred Years’ War and concludes with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Here Schwartzwald focuses on the development and birth of the nation state which was deemed the final healthy successor to the idea that was Rome. As with the previous parts, the author focuses on the political and militaristic history of the period, but in a way that keeps the reader fully engrossed. Provided at the end of each section are “Societal Achievements,” highlighting the great strides that were made.

The Collapse and Recovery of Europe, as with Schwartzwald’s previous book, is a very approachable and readable volume, be the reader a student or merely someone interested in the period. Since the author is covering a vast amount of time, some 1200 years, he cannot be comprehensive with the history telling, but he is thorough with many sections covering the political and militaristic events and occasions in a succinct way that doesn’t bog the reader down with too many details; coupled with numerous pictures – many in color – it makes for a very pleasant reading experience. These sectional divisions also help to break up the overwhelming amount of history into digestible chunks so that the reader can read the book one section at a time, or engorge on a larger amount of history that is still well and clearly divided to make it more comprehensible. The result is an impressive history book covering a large amount of time that is made very accessible and readable for any fan or person interested in the period.

Originally written on June 1, 2015 ©Alex C. Telander.

First published in the San Francisco Book Review.

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“Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles” by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins, 2015)

Waterloo
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The Battle of Waterloo is one of the most documented events in history; it’s also one of those times in history that’s very close to Bernard Cornwell’s heart. The bestselling author is known for his medieval historical fiction and is definitely a master of the genre, but now, for the first time, Cornwell has created a work of nonfiction in Waterloo.

The subtitle encapsulates the book: the history of four days, three armies, and three battles. The book is divided into relatively short but riveting chapters, each ending with a selection of photos and artwork – in color where available – making Waterloo a wonderfully illustrated edition for any history buff. Cornwell spends little time with the first two battles, Ligny and Quatre-Bras, providing a detailed step-by-step report of the battles in Cornwell’s talented way, and using detailed formation maps to make things clear for the reader.

The last third of the book is dedicated to the battle of Waterloo and perhaps what makes the book so fascinating is how much Cornwell uses from letters and diaries and other primary sources that give the book life, taking the reader back to the historic time.

Originally written on June 4, 2015 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Waterloo from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“The Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome: A Brief History” by Jack L. Schwartzwald (McFarland & Company, Inc. (2014)

The Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome
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When it comes to reading text books, or primers on particular subjects, the key really is that the writing keep the reader’s interest, otherwise their mind is likely to wander and/or become bored with the subject matter they are reading about. Thankfully, Jack L. Schwartzwald’s brief history on the ancient Near East, Greece and Rome has an interesting and engaging voice that grabs the reader’s attention right from the beginning and keeps them going for the whole book.

This “brief history” is still a good 190-odd pages of informational text, along with an extensive bibliography and thorough index, giving the reader quick references at their fingertips. For those readers looking to read it cover to cover, the book is divided into three chapters: “The Cradle of Civilization: The Ancient Near East,’ “The Cradle of Western Civilization: Ancient Greece,” and “The Cradle of the Nation-State: Ancient Rome.” While it seems like heavy reading to digest the entire book with just three chapter breaks, especially on this none too easy subject, each chapter is subdivided into sections with titles to allow for breaks and digestion of the material. The shortest chapter is the first one at 30 pages, which is sad since it is such an import period in history that led to the foundation and creation of so much that came after, nevertheless it is clear that while Schwartzwald knows plenty about the ancient Near East, it is ancient Greece and Rome where he dedicates his true knowledge.

The history telling is straightforward, with lots of names and dates throughout the text, as the author lays out the history and events and happenings in succinct paragraphs. There is not a lot of discussion or synthesis here, as this is a “brief history” after all and nothing more. Schwartzwald is giving you the quick history of these times and places so that you can speedily digest and understand it. If you are looking for further, deeper material, that is what the bibliography is for. But in this way the book also serves as an excellent reference tool, along with the index, so that if the reader is tackling something in depth but wants a quick refresher on a specific period in the ancient Near East, Greece or Rome, this book does the job well.

What is perhaps surprising about the book is that it is all text, with not a single picture, table, graphic or depiction of a graphic source. While again it is a “brief history” and meant for a quick and thorough reading of the time period, one would expect maybe a photo or two, a Roman statue or Greek piece of architecture, or even Hammurabi’s code of laws; something to break up the text and help make it all the more real for the reader. Nevertheless, the book does its job of providing a “brief history” of the ancient Near East, Greece and Rome, where the reader will not become lost and overwhelmed by too much, but able to digest everything in titled sections. It is an ideal book for someone taking an ancient history class and looking to get a feel for the history they are about to learn about, or for the average reader wanting to learn more about the period, but not having to absorb a heavy and overwhelming tome. The people, dates and events in the book are all laid out in chronological order, allowing the reader to take it all in swiftly and comprehensively.

Originally written on September 11, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Ancient Near East, Greece and Rome from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

History of the Ancient World  Oxford History of Ancient Egypt  History of Britain

“The History of the Renaissance World” by Susan Wise Bauer (Norton, 2013)

The History of the Renaissance World
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To many the renaissance was a time of rebirth and growth that began sometime around the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, ushering in a whole new era of scientific development and the advancement of knowledge. But after completing her History of the Medieval World, Susan Wise Bauer begins her History of the Renaissance correctly in the early twelfth century beginning with the rediscovery of Aristotle and ending in the mid fifteenth century with the conquest of Constantinople.

The detailed book is divided into five sections: “Renaissances,” “Invasions, Heresies, and Uprisings,” “Catastrophes,” “Regroupings,” “Endings.” Just as she did with The History o f the Ancient World and The History of the Medieval World, Bauer takes the reader on a fantastic whirlwind tour of the world, presenting a detailed history from specific periods of these various cultures, how they were interacting and engaging with each other, and what developments occurred and when and how they influenced the nations of the world. Where she can, Bauer uses timelines, photos, pictures and any other sources that will help the reader along.

Just as with her previous books in this series, The History of the Renaissance World is an ideal historical reference that can be enjoyed as a normal book, read from beginning to ending, taking the reader across the globe over three centuries of complex history, or used as a quick reference guide thanks to the concise contents listing and lengthy index, allowing readers to get to a specific historical event in time in seconds. This is a worthy volume to add to one’s collection and is perfect for the student or scholar wanting a handy reference manual for the period, or for the history aficionado who simply wishes to learn more about the renaissance and when it truly began.

Originally written on March 24, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The History of the Renaissance World from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

The History of the Ancient World  The History of the Medieval World

“Britain Begins” by Barry Cunliffe (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Britain Begins
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The settling of the islands that would one day come to be known as Great Britain is one of the most fascinating times of history, as so much of what would become Western Europe was shaped and formed by these early periods and yet it is also one of the lesser known periods of history. But thanks to numerous advancements and discoveries made in the fields of archaeology and genetics, Barry Cunliffe brings readers the new definitive text on the founding of a nation, people and culture.

Cunliffe is a renowned British professor who has specialized in archaeology and is known for his excellent history books on early Britain and Europe, including The Ancient Celts, Facing the Ocean and Between the Oceans. In Britain Begins, he takes readers far back, starting with the myths and ancestors of Britain and then leading into shortly after the end of the last ice age, when the freezing waters retreated and Britain became an island once again. He then takes the reader down a detailed and fascinating history road addressing who the ancient Britons were, the settling of the Celts, on through the Roman invasion and ruling period, up to the Anglo-Saxon and then Norman invasions.

It is rare to see a book that ends with the battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror, but this is not just any history book. Scholars and fans of the history will both delight in owning Britain Begins with its detailed text, numerous photos and illustrations lending visual proof and answers to a period that up until now has remained relatively unknown.

Originally written on March 24, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Britain Begins from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Round About the Earth” by Joyce E. Chaplin (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

Round About the Earth
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There have been many books written about the notorious explorers from history, like Columbus, Magellan, Cook and even Darwin.  There are also now a fair number of people who can make the claim that they have circumnavigated this globe.  Joyce E. Chaplin presents readers with the first full history on those who have traveled around the world and told their story.

Divided into sections, Chaplin presents the series of historical tales starting with Magellan, giving the ups and downs of the journey.  She points out that it wasn’t until the twentieth century that these round-the-world trips actually returned to their starting point with most of the crew still alive.  All the greats make it into this book, such as Francis Drake, William Dampier, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and James Cook.  When sea travel became safer, people like Charles Darwin made the journey, as well as some notable women like Lady Brassey.

With the advent of encompassing railroad travel and exotic cruise ships, round the world journeys became much more achievable and common for a lot of people.  And with the advent of the space race, a new concept of circumnavigating the globe came into play, with an elite few achieving it.  Chaplin has fun exploring these many journeys and why people seem driven to accomplish it.  While her writing can get a little dry and long-winded at points, Round About the Earth still represents an interesting foray into this unique group of travelers.

Originally written on February 11, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Round About the Earth from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Europe Before Rome: A Site-by-Site Tour of the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages” by T. Douglas Price (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Europe Before Rome
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T. Douglas Price is Weinstein Professor of European Archaeology Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Honorary Professor in the Department of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Aarhus, and is the author of Images of the Past, Europe’s First Farmers and Principles of ArchaeologyEurope Before Rome is a site by site exploration of a number of stone, bronze and iron age sites throughout Europe.

Europe Before Rome begins with a history lesson on early hominids leading up to the prehistoric period and into the stone age.  Price uses a number of sites for specific evidence, explaining some of the importance of these sites, but never going into too much detail.  After this introductory chapter, there are main chapters on “The Creative Explosion,” “The First Farmers,” “Bronze Age Warriors” and “Centers of Power, Weapons of Iron”; photos are provided, as well as diagrams where possible.

Ultimately, Europe Before Rome is more of a text book on these many different sites.  Price reveals the important discoveries of many of the sites, but not really in any detail on what affect these artifacts have had on history and their importance.

Originally written on March 14, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Europe Before Rome from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages” by Guy Halsall (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Worlds of Arthur
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One thing we will never be certain of is whether or not King Arthur actually lived.  There are literally hundreds of books, TV series, documentaries, movies, papers and journals on the subject and life of King Arthur.  There are also hundreds of historical fiction novels about him.  There are also a number of secondary sources recorded from various times during the Middle Ages that talk of Arthur, and his time, his battles, his life.  But we still don’t know how true any of these documents are, and whether there really was a large-scale Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain.

Guy Halsall is in the minority, and he admits this up front, in his introduction to Worlds of Arthur.  He has taught at universities in London and York, and has specialized in the Merovingian Period (c. 450- c.750), but has also written about a lot of other subjects from the period, including death and burial, age and gender, violence and warfare, and barbarian migrations.  He is also not a believer in King Arthur.  He believes, from his study of the sources and archaeology, that such a person never existed.  He also doesn’t believe that the supposed large-scale Anglo-Saxon migrations of the mid-fifth century were as large-scale as thought, and in fact began much earlier.

Worlds of Arthur is divided into four parts. The first consists of Halsall discussing the various secondary source that mention or reference Arthur and the period.  The second part is about the archaeology of the period and what it states.  In the third part Halsall goes into detail on these sources and linking with the archaeology to show that they actually tell very little about Arthur and whether he existed or not.  Finally, in the fourth section Halsall lays out his theories and researching about how and why Arthur never really existed and the events we have come to think we know about the period that aren’t completely true.

Halsall is thorough and detailed in his discussions, using his experience and knowledge of the Merovingian period and the subjects mentioned above, but he also seems to rely a little too much on this, and not on the history and archaeology of Britain itself, as well as what its peoples left.  It is nevertheless a worthy debate in the story of King Arthur that is well worth the read and deserves to be heard and accepted, even if it is in the minority.

Originally written on April 27, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Worlds of Arthur from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

Battle for Britain  Death of King Arthur  Winter King

“King Arthur’s Battle for Britain” by Eric Walmsley (Matador, 2013)

King Arthur's Battle for Britain
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The legend of King Arthur is known in some form to most people, and has had so much literature written about that it’s quite astonishing.  The real man likely lived sometime in the fifth century, but within hundred years of the man’s death – whenever it actually was – people began writing about him over the centuries and up to the present day.  Not just biographies and supposed factual historical accounts, but plenty of fiction and historical fiction speculating on the period and what sort of man King Arthur truly was.  In reality, it’s very unlikely he was ever actually an official king, but more of a great general for the Britons.

In King Arthur’s Battle for Britain, Erik Walmsley provides an accounting on Arthurs twelve battles pulling from sources like Nennius and Gildas, as well as many others be they short accountings or pieces of poetry.  He also creates the scene and story with each battle, adding description and action, but also providing geographic detail and photos, as well as a brief history of the region.  The book begins with introductory chapters on Arthur, who the man might’ve been, as well as the evidence that speaks for him, then a dedicated chapter for each battle with maps showing likely locations.

The one failing with King Arthur’s Battle for Britain is that as great of a story as Walmsley tells, he doesn’t cite his sources so readers aren’t sure what primary or secondary source he is getting certain information from, or whether he’s just adding his own fiction to create a stronger scene.  Eric Walmsley is not a medieval historian, but he has researched this period and the sources for this book.  While what he posits in King Arthur’s Battle for Britain needs to be taken with a grain of salt, it is nevertheless a plausible explanation for events recorded in these unconfirmed secondary Arthurian sources and who the man known as Arthur might have truly been like.

Originally written on March 16, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of King Arthur’s Battle for Britain from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948” by Madeleine Albright (Harper, 2012)

Prague Winter
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In this moving true story of Madeleine Albright’s past as a child growing up in Europe, readers get to experience her discoveries of her history through her words, many of them a shock to her, especially with her Jewish heritage.  In a way, Prague Winter is a voyage of discovery and with Albright’s clear and honest writing style, readers are swept away by her prose.

This is the harsh story of a world that now seems unfamiliar to us, when a rising Germany controlled by a vicious dictator saw the fate of human existence in black and white, where only the white were allowed to survive in Hitler’s mind.  As a child growing up in what was then Czechoslovakia, it is a heart-wrenching story in some ways, as Albright tells it with skill and drama, mounting the tension that was very real, as she and her family left their home country for England.  But stories continued to unfold of what was happening back in their native nation.

Albright has clearly done a lot of research for this book, not just on her own family, but on the history and sources of the period, along with many photos from that time, it presents a thorough picture of this part of Europe during World War II and the rise of the Fuhrer.  It is also an insight into the culture of the Czechs, a people who do not bow down lightly and whose patriotism and culture is everything to them.  In some ways, Prague Winter reads like a powerful history book that would make great reading for any high school or college student wanting to learn more about the period; and at the same time it is a poignant biography of these people and of this child that was shaped into the incredible woman that she was to become.

Originally written on March 17, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Prague Winter from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.