The Worlds of Medieval Europe

The Worlds of Medieval Europe

The Worlds of Medieval Europe

The Worlds of Medieval Europe

Synopsis

The Worlds of Medieval Europe updates and revises traditional textbook representations of the Middle Ages by balancing the conventional focus on political affairs, especially those of northern Europe, with equally detailed attention to medieval society as it developed in the Mediterranean. The result is a nuanced portrayal of a multifarious western world that was sharply divided between its northern and southern aspects. By also integrating the histories of the Islamic and Byzantine world into the main narrative, the text brings new life to the continuum of interaction--social, cultural, and intellectual, as well as commercial--that existed among all three societies. In addition, it describes ways in which the medieval Latin West attempted to understand the unified and rational structure of the human cosmos, which they believed existed beneath the observable diversity and disorder of the world. This effort to re-create a human ordering of "unity through diversity" provides an essential key to understanding medieval Europe and the ways in which it regarded and reacted to the worlds around it. The Worlds of Medieval Europe is an ideal text for undergraduate courses in medieval history, Western civilization, the history of Christianity, and Muslim-Christian relations. It also serves as an excellent supplement for courses on the history of a specific country in the medieval period, the history of medieval art, or the history of the European economy.

Excerpt

The Roman Empire of the first and second centuries A. D. comprised the largest, wealthiest, most diverse, and most stable society of the ancient world. No other ancient empire—not the Assyrian, not the Persian, not the Athenian— had succeeded on such a scale at holding together in harmony so many peoples, faiths, and traditions. Historians commonly describe these two centuries as the period of the Pax Romana (“the Roman Peace”), an age when a strong central government engineered and maintained the social stability that allowed people to prosper. The sheer vastness of the empire was astonishing: It stretched over three thousand miles from west to east, from the Strait of Gibraltar to the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and reached northward to Hadrian's Wall, a fortification built in A. D. 122 to protect Roman Britain from the Picts of Scotland, and southward to the upper edge of the Sahara. Within this vast territory lived as many as fifty to sixty million people.

The prosperity of those centuries came at a high cost. Rome's rise to power was the result of military might, after all, and long centuries of warfare had preceded “the Roman peace. ” In the bloody Punic Wars of the third century B. C. Rome defeated Carthage, its main rival for control of the western and central Mediterranean, before turning its eyes aggressively eastward and subduing the weakened Greek states left over from the collapse of Alexander the Great's empire. But soon after it had conquered the known world, the Roman state went to war against itself: Civil wars raged for well over a century as various factions struggled not only to control the new superstate but to reshape it according to opposing principles. Some factions favored preserving the decentralized administrative practices of the early Republic, while others, such as the faction led by Julius Caesar, championed a strong centralized authority; some favored a rigid aristocratic authoritarianism, while others promoted a more radically democratic society. These long wars ended in a bizarre compromise. The empire of the Pax Romana period was a thoroughly centralized state that delegated most of its day-to-day authority to local officials; and it was a decidedly hierarchical society, almost obsessive in its concern to define every individual's social and legal classification; and yet it remained a remarkably fluid world in which a family could rise from slavery to aristocratic status in as few as three generations.

Two factors did the most to shape the Roman world and foster its remarkable vitality and stability: the Mediterranean Sea and the Roman army.

THE GEOGRAPHY OF EMPIRE

The Roman world, like the medieval world that succeeded it, was centered on the Mediterranean. The sea provided food, of course, but more importantly it . . .

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