Monday, July 11, 2016

A history that is not quite a history

Because I'll running long miles on trails these days, I wanted a really long audiobook. And I found one. Susan Wise Bauer's The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade turned out to have little to recommend it, besides being 22 hours and 45 minutes long in the audio version.

Let's start with her title. Bauer chose, intelligently, to recognize that there was more to the past than Europe. This volume attempts to chronicle kingdoms in China, India, Korea, Japan, Indonesia and even the Americas. Good for her. We and our forebears live in a big world.

But the term "medieval" has a precise English meaning: "middle ages." It derives from the Latin medium aevum and is used by historians exclusively to point to events of the years 500 CE to 1500 CE in Europe. It was first used in 1827 according to the Merriam Webster dictionary. This contrast between the title and areas actually alluded to makes extent of the book's coverage feel like an afterthought.

But further, I question whether what Bauer has written is really "history." Instead, what we have here is a long, fairly artful, stringing together of tales of kings, "great men" and a few women. When I read history, I expect an attempt to tell me at least a little of why we find "the past is a foreign country" -- not just a string of anecdotes and stories. Sure, mastering any deeper knowledge of any of these eras and episodes is a tough job, but that is what worthwhile historical writing attempts.

Still I did read it, by ear. And the stories had their moments. Our rulers might take a lesson from the failure of the northern Chinese ruler Fu Jian to conquer southern China in 382. Despite importing Confucian scholarship and enforcing Chinese norms, he could not win an empire that took root:

... his empire was held together by the sword and each war of conquest strained the existing government a little bit more. "You have had so many wars lately," one of his advisors had warned him before the invasion of the Jin, "that your people are becoming dissatisfied, and hate the very idea of fighting." Once defeated, Fu Jian began to lose territories to rebellion and revolt, one at time. ...

Permanent war and conquest most often only weakens its perpetrators. Take note, Ms. Hillary.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

Wars destroy life and wealth. They never have positive outcomes. You'd think our leaders would have figured this out by now.