Constantine’s presence at the Council of Nicaea, the causes of the Hundred Years’ War, the controversial writings of William of Ockham: if these historical gems of Western civilization have lost their luster (and relevance) to ourselves and our contemporaries, perhaps it is time that we all slow down to remember our shared history.
The beauty of medieval history recently caught my attention, slowing me down, through a recent job offer. Having recently earned a graduate degree in philosophy, I decided to pursue a vocation in teaching (typical story for a humanities graduate!). While I intended to teach music (my undergraduate degree was in piano performance), religion (I went to a Catholic seminary) and philosophy (I compromised my eyesight while reading Kant’s massive Critiques), the headmaster at my new job asked me to teach medieval history. “Medieval history?!” I said in surprise. I haven’t touched the topic since my high school AP history exam. Six years out of high school, I now found myself in desperate need of a crash course in medieval history. Hollister’s A Short History (8th ed.) was a God-send.
A textbook, disguised as a thin paperback, A Short History covers the history of Europe from the Roman Empire in AD 200 to the late medieval period of AD 1500 – all within 375 pages, peppered with useful maps, timelines and photographs. It is organized into three parts: part one is a chronological narration of the early medieval period; part two describes the high middle ages through topical sections; part three briefly describes the transition of Europe into the early modern or Renaissance period.
Skimming over the table of contents of this book, the reader may ask if this massive period of time (over a millennium!) can be covered adequately within three-hundred pages. But the reader must rest assure. Hollister accomplishes his task, giving a concise narrative of (predominantly Western) European history, with such command of the material that he makes historical exegesis seem easy. He takes into account religious, cultural, and intellectual currents in addition to the prominent economic and political factors of historical events. This is accomplished with a lucid historical narrative. Take the following excerpt, a conclusion to chapter 11 (“New Paths to God: Monks, Friars, and Religious Rebels”):
“The pattern of religious reform in the High Middle Ages is one of ebb and flow. A reform movement is launched with high enthusiasm and lofty purpose; it galvanizes society for a time and then succumbs gradually to complacency and gives way to a new and different wave of reform. But with the passing of the High Middle Ages, one can detect a gradual waning of spiritual vigor in orthodox Catholicism. The frontiers were closing as the fourteenth century dawned. Western political power was at an end in Constantinople and the Holy Land, and the Spanish reconquest had stalled. The economic boom was giving way to an epoch of depression, declining population, peasants’ rebellions, and debilitating wars. And until the time of the Protestant Reformation, no new religious order was to attain the immense social impact of the thirteenth-century Franciscans and Dominicans…” (p. 224).
Hollister’s summaries are generously used throughout the text as a guide for his readers. Students of any level will appreciate Hollister’s treatment of a millennium of historical material, a treatment which is concise yet prudently supplemented by fascinating and humorous details. In discussing medieval university life, Hollister pulls excerpts from a correspondence between a father and son. The son describes the rigors of student life in Paris and ends his letter by asking his father for financial support. In reply the father writes, “I have recently learned that you live dissolutely, preferring play to work, and strumming your guitar while others are at their studies” (pp. 295 – 296). Hollister writes, “The letters of medieval students to their parents or guardians have a curiously modern ring.”
As a person of faith and an amateur academic, I find Hollister’s treatment of Christianity (and Faith, in general) surprisingly fair, free from the vicious prejudices of many modern scholars. Indeed, it seems that prejudice against Christianity is the only acceptable prejudice in contemporary academia and culture. Hollister approaches religion of medieval Europe with a view of its own internal developments and of its contributions (either directly or indirectly) to the quality of life and the cultural and political achievements of medieval men and women. He describes how religious thinkers, from Benedictine monks to giants such as Thomas Aquinas with his Summa Theologiae, both preserved classical thought and built upon it, thus bringing humankind’s intellectual patrimony to the advances of modern science and the subsequent syntheses of faith and reason. (Chapter 14 is dedicated to medieval intellectual currents, including the debates between Aristotelianism and Platonism and science and faith.) At the same time, Hollister is not shy to point out the failures of medieval Popes in the moral and spiritual realms, nor does he hide absurd religious impulses such as the fatal “Children’s Crusade.” His inclusion of these historical facts is free from an overly condemnatory tone; he merely points out that these events happened in that particular cultural milieu. Furthermore, his treatment of religious figures (including Jewish and Islamic intellectuals) is always generous, verging on praise.
Modern academics of any stripe will also appreciate Hollister’s inclusion of women in his historical narrative. Covered in his text are the various statuses of women in different centuries and cultures. He discusses their roles in medieval society, from peasant farmers to royal aristocracies. Queens, saints, and women soldiers are all mentioned – many of them in their own biographical sketches which are scattered throughout the text like pleasant surprises. One section covers St. Joan of Arc, another Blanche of Castile, even the little-known Roswitha of Gandersheim is given the spotlight. Readers particularly interested in women studies will find Hollister’s annotated bibliography of Part 2 to be a rich resource of primary and secondary materials. The ninth edition of the text, edited by Judith Bennett, includes a more thorough coverage of medieval women. (I read the eighth edition.)
Reading A Short History was anything but boring. It was well worth the time to slow down to recall the great thinkers, leaders, nations and peoples who have shaped our modern world. Indeed, this is Hollister’s overarching purpose of his historical survey: Hollister wants to illuminate to his readers the fact that modern society in the West was born out of medieval Europe. The parliamentary system, nation-states, relations between Church and State, the university, modern science… all of these are products of the ingenuity and spirit of medieval men and women. Whatever his connections and conclusions and wherever his historical narrative turns, Hollister guides the reader enjoyably through the ebb and flow of medieval history. And along the way, as the master professor that he was, Hollister challenges us to think about the facts, review the events, and ponder over medieval history’s influence upon our present lives.
Review Submitted by: Edward A. David, Teacher at Trinity School in Meadow View
Rating: Must Read