“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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“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

“Hild” by Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013)

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The beauty of the medieval historical novel Hild, by bestselling science fiction author Nicola Griffith is that it is a story about a woman who becomes a powerful and inspirational figure during the Middle Ages. The reason this is special is because most historical fiction novels of this nature, from the likes of Bernard Cornwell, Jack Whyte, and Ken Follett to name a few, feature leading male characters in all their books, with female characters playing a secondary, minor role.

Such is not the case with Hild, telling the story of a young girl who is full of life and determination, along with a certain special ability to predict what may happen and soon gains the ear and respect of Edwin of Northumbria in his effort to overthrow the Angles. The book follows her life, growing to become a powerful woman and eventually one of the pivotal figures of the period: Saint Hilda of Whitby.

Hild is a beautifully written novel that takes a little while to get going, but once the reader is fully engrossed in the character, Griffith doesn’t look to tell your average medieval historical novel of back to back action scenes and historic battles, but a moving story of people interacting and living through this tumultuous time and what they did to make a difference. And then of course, there is the captivating cover to draw any reader in.

Originally written on February 12, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“The Pagan Lord” by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins, 2014)

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Medieval historical fiction extraordinaire, Bernard Cornwell, is back with the next installment of the Saxon Tales. The Pagan Lord is the seventh in the series, with King Alfred gone and the land is on the eve of war between the Saxons ruled by Alfred’s son, Edward and Wessex; while in the north, the Danes led by the Viking Cnut Longsword looks to take more land.

Our hero, Uhtred, has had his ups and downs in the series, but now wishes to bring what men he can together and take back his inheritance in the distant north land of Bebbanburg, but he will have to fight his uncle and progeny to do that. The Christian faith is also growing in this place that will one day be called “Angeland,” and when Uhtred kills an important bishop, he finds those of the faith also warring against him.

The Pagan Lord pushes Uhtred to the very edge and beyond, bringing the reader along with him. It shows Cornwell doing what he does best, moving his characters around and pitting them against each other in magnificent battle scenes. No one Cornwell book is like the other, which is what makes him such a great writer.

Originally written on January 27, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Pagan Lord from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

Death of Kings  1356  Winter King

“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

“Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe” by Peter Heather (Oxford University Press, 2010)

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As time passes, more research is done, more artifacts and items are discovered, and more is known about the beginning of the Middle Ages, often know as the so-called “Dark Ages.”  The simple explanation that is spouted in most simple history books is the idea that when the Roman Empire fell, all of Western Europe regressed to barbarian savages and everything was lost, and it was not until around a thousand years later that this continent achieved a civilized status once more.  But as more study, archaeology, and discoveries are made, the idea of these “Dark Ages” is turning out to be a gross misnomer.  Thankfully, books like Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians are doing their part to strike the use of this term from the record.

Peter Heather, a professor of Medieval History at King’s College London, begins with an important recapping of the waning centuries of the Roman Empire, setting the stage with what was going on and why the giant machine came to a grinding, crumbling halt.  Heather then launches into a discussion on the birth of Europe and what exactly was going on, using thorough and up to date research.  The book is divided into eleven large chapters covering the big social groups of Europe including the Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Huns, and others.  It is commonly conceived that many of these groups moved in massive migration patterns easily around the continent, displacing other ethnic groups that were already there; new evidence and research, however, says otherwise; this is what Empires and Barbarians is about.

Heather spends many pages discussing and educating the reader on the migration patterns of these social groups, which were not in such large numbers as previously thought.  Heather never proclaims, but is a good historian with theories and suppositions on the evidence, going into detail that it was more likely these large groups weren’t displaced or killed, but joined up with the smaller invading social groups.  The result was a new ruling class, the best example of which is the Norman invasion (thanks to the Doomsday Book), that became a part of the society it was invading, not seeking to eradicate it so much as to rule over it and become part of its culture.

Empires and Barbarians is a thick and thorough history book on this important period in history, backed up with maps and a lengthy bibliography.  Peter Heather doesn’t hold back on what he thinks and has to say, but the key is to stick with it and you end up learning more about the early medieval world than you ever would’ve expected.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on June 28 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

If you liked this review, you might like:

History of the Medieval World Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages The Vikings Inheritance of Rome

“Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life” by Alison Weir (Ballantine Books, 2002)

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There are not many important women of the Middle Ages, but Eleanor of Aquitaine has to be the most prominent and important: wife to King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of Britain and Aquitaine, mother of King Richard the Lionheart and King John of Magna Carta fame.

Quite a few biographies have been written over the years of Eleanor of Aquitaine, but there has never been one so adherent to primary and secondary sources, to the extent that the scenes depicted veritably come to life before your very eyes.  The reader joys as Eleanor weds Louis and then Henry, but is much saddened at her imprisonment by Henry after her deception, and then admires her motherly love for her son Richard.

With some four hundred pages, including an index, bibliography, a collection of photos, as well ass notes on the chief sources, and extensive family trees; there is never a dull moment in this book.  Each page is packed with so many facts and details that if one were to skip a passage, they would soon become lost in the complex yet fully explained happenings of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally published on October 21st, 2002.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.