Jay T. Lees

title.none: Rosenwein, A Short History of the Middle Ages (Jay T. Lees)

identifier.other: baj9928.0212.016 02.12.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jay T. Lees, University of Northern Iowa,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Rosenwein, Barbara H. A Short History of the Middle Ages. Broadview Press, 2002. Pp. 219. $34.95. ISBN: 1-55111-290-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.12.16

Rosenwein, Barbara H. A Short History of the Middle Ages. Broadview Press, 2002. Pp. 219. $34.95. ISBN: 1-55111-290-6.

Reviewed by:

Jay T. Lees
University of Northern Iowa

A Short History of the Middle Ages will probably be considered by readers of this review for possible use as a textbook in a survey course on the Middle Ages, and I will review it as such. Unfortunately, the word textbook usually serves warning that a less than absorbing reading experience lies in the offing. However, at the beginning of A Short History of the Middle Ages, Barbara Rosenwein promises that "[i]t is meant to be an easy pass through a dense thicket" (11). That it is, and a gratifying one, as well. Rosenwein talks to "you, the reader," with whom she creates a comfortable relationship, maintained and built upon throughout the book. While she does not engage the reader with the idiosyncratic and delightful editorial asides of a Warren Hollister, through her ability to wear her learning lightly and tell her story with humor, drama, and grace, she has produced a worthy rival of the former's Medieval Europe: A Short History.

Rosenwein modestly says that she has organized her material so as to present it in chronological fashion, giving the impression that the reader will move across a straightforward, linear plane. Indeed, on one level, this is precisely what she delivers in eight chronologically arranged chapters going from c. 300 to c. 1500. However, within and between those chapters her approach is ever so much more complex. Her presentation is firmly non-Eurocentric. France, England, Germany, and Italy are not given center stage in a drama where other regions appear fleetingly from the wings. Instead, in chapter after chapter, Rosenwein focuses attention on Byzantium and Islam with generous glances at places like Hungary, Spain, and Russia, to name a few. For much of the book, western Europe is a backwater meant to be understood in relation to the powers around it. Thus, however much she follows a chronological line, Rosenwein's real interest is in comparing these many different societies and in explaining their similarities, differences and interactions. To accomplish this difficult task, she has carefully chosen details that not only illustrate the unique developments of one area of the medieval world but also allow for engaging comparisons with other areas. For example, toward the end of the book, Rosenwein captures the spirit of the Italian Renaissance by placing her readers in Florence looking at Donatello's David, "strikingly young, self-absorbed and utterly nude apart from his boots." Very quickly she moves us to Leonardo's fresco of Duke Ludovico il Moro of Milan praying with his wife and children and painted on the wall opposite the Last Supper. From here we attend one of Ludovico's lavish banquets, replete with golden serving accessories representing the Colosseum and Rome itself and a demeaning depiction of the Ottoman sultan. In a flash, we move to the Ottoman court where we now see the world through the eyes of Mehmed II, whose Burgundian tapestries of the deeds of Alexander the Great are then compared to Donatello's David (196-98). This example, more detailed than I've presented here, is typical of Rosenwein's attempt to get her readers to see the past from different vantage points.

It is with her presentation of the art of the Middle Ages, that Rosenwein is most successful. While the political events move past the reader at necessarily breakneck speed, the pace slows when artistic developments are considered. Textbooks designed for history survey courses today fairly drip with colorful illustrations, but often one suspects that this has more to do with marketing than pedagogy. This is most definitely not the case with A Short History of the Middle Ages. Not a single of its many illustrations fills space gratuitously. Rosenwein takes full advantage of the fact that her readers will come closest to dealing with a primary source when they look at a work of art. So in describing paintings, sculptures, and buildings, she allows her writing to shift to a lower gear and signals the reader to slow down with her. Look, she says, at the Saint Mark of the Coronation Gospels (c. 800): "Here is a somber, utterly corporeal evangelist. He sits between mountains, with tinted sky above, light playing on his face. Were it not for his halo he would be simply a man with a scroll. The colors are soft; the drapery subdued" (p. 80). Can one compare this to any earlier art? Rosenwein tells the reader to turn back to the beginning of the book and look at pictures of wall paintings from Pompeii. In a single paragraph, she has the reader not only really thinking about a work of art but comparing it to works from different times and places. And the art is used to illuminate the society that produced it. Understand, for example, that the Carolingians were "admirers and imitators of Christian Rome," says Rosenwein, then look at their art. (As an aside, I was puzzled by the fact that any number of art works are reproduced twice in the book, once in color, once in black-and- white, with no explanation. Perhaps, the black-and-whites could be dropped and a little more text added.)

Rosenwein also slows her pace when dealing with literature and music. Although these media are more difficult than the visual arts to present in a textbook, she nicely uses these to highlight political developments. For example, she shows how the standardization of Roman melodies for the Mass and the Divine Office in Charlemagne's time was used as a tool of royal policy (77).

Another strength of this book is Rosenwein's use of maps. There are many and they are extremely well integrated with the text. Virtually any place name mentioned by the author can be found on a map, and here again, Rosenwein does an excellent job of not only referring to single maps but nudging the reader to compare one map with another. Thus, we get a map of Tours in the seventh century and then almost one hundred pages later another of Tours in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. By comparing them, the reader has a wonderful illustration of Rosenwein's comments on the growth of towns (30-1, 116-17). Or, on a larger scale, she helps the reader to understand Byzantine expansion in the tenth century by asking for a comparison of maps showing that empire in c. 917 and c. 700 (40, 64-5).

Occasionally, I found myself questioning the choice of illustrative detail, particularly in the first chapter which covers the period c. 300 to c. 600. St. Augustine, for example, is introduced with the comment that "he may well have inspired the massacre of sixty people in a nearby city" (20). Even if this is the case, is it the first thing we want students to know about St. Augustine? (One may note that Mohammed, who is dealt with at much greater length, is spoken of only as "repudiating the Jews" (48); the massacre of Jews at Medina goes unmentioned.) Some illustrative quotes may have little resonance with students. Rosenwein uses St. Perpetua, for example, to highlight Christian commitment by quoting her statement that she is a Christian the same way that a vase is a vase (20). The power of the quote comes from knowing Perpetua's story, too briefly referred to by Rosenwein to have much impact.

But these are minor criticisms. One can only praise Rosenwein for having made a long story short but never dull. Teachers of medieval survey courses should definitely consider this book. If it has a drawback, it is that Rosenwein sets the bar pretty high. Should a teacher cover all the ground in a single semester that is covered in this book? Or would one rather have a more traditional textbook focused on western Europe that ends well before this book? Before answering these questions, one would do well to read A Short History of the Middle Ages.