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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