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Book Review

The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade

History repeats itself. And some of its most fascinating patterns— the struggle for power, the intertwining of church and state, and the quest for nationhood—began in medieval times.

This narrative history of the crucial era between 312 and 1129 a.d. is laid out in five broad sections covering sweeping themes: Unity, Fractures, New Powers, States and Kingdoms, and Crusades. Within each section, brief, chapters focus on a distinct period of time, illustrated with maps and time lines. Major historical figures like Constantine, Augustine, Charlemagne, and Henry IV appear here as characters with noble motives and human weaknesses. Famous events such as the Sack of Rome become more than mere dates as we learn about the Visigoth leader Alaric and his many failed attempts to capture the respect of the Roman Empire and win his own state. Attila the Hun, it turns out, was first sent to Rome at age 12, as a peace ambassador.

This is the second volume of Bauer’s series that tells the stories of all peoples, from east to west and north to south. Bauer also includes the stories of the Persian, Indian, and Chinese dynasties that battled with and overlapped with the Romans and Byzantine empires. She draws parallels between these cultures and kingdoms, without losing sight of the detailed and specific history of each.

Bauer is particularly interested in the relationship between religion and power. Not only does she show how seemingly obscure theological debates in Christianity shaped world history forever, she does the same with Buddhism— arguing that the different strains of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism helped shape the political structure of India—and Thaoism, which moved from cult status to become the state religion of medieval China.