The Middle Ages by Morris Bishop

13 February 2010

I love finishing a good book.  I feel like I am sitting in the warm sun, relaxed and happy (even in the middle of winter!)

This book is an overall history of the Middle Ages, with a few chapters in the beginning highlighting the main events, then subsequent chapters focusing on a certain part of life, like knights, laborers, education and literature, the church, and more.  The last chapter went through the events that serve as a bookmark for the end of the Middle Ages.

There is a helpful index in the back, and also a great timeline, which is very useful since the author would skip around a bit in time as he covered the different areas of life.

I loved the chapter on education and literature.  I skipped the chapter on art.  (Not because there was anything wrong with it; I just really wasn’t interested.  I’ll probably return to it one day.)  Castle life was not exactly how I had imagined it.  Reading about the noble’s clothing was quite interesting.  He discussed the Crusades; the good and the bad that came because of them.

The author’s style was wonderful.  He was very straight-forward and respectful, but he included witty personal observations once in a while that were priceless.  For example, after discussing daily life at a noble’s castle, he adds, “Privacy is one of the greatest of modern inventions.”  And at one point he laments, “There are so few good kings, so many bad kings!”

One quote I particularly liked:

“Such were some of the traits of the noble.  He was a bundle of paradoxes – a romantic lover and a libertine, a gallant knight and a bloodthirsty brute, a devout Christian and a flouter of the elements of morality.  But he shared his paradoxes with the rest of humanity.”

People are so much the same, no matter when or where they live.  Some people are principled, make good choices, and seek to help or further life in some way.  Others make different choices and act out of selfish or spiteful motives.

Bishop did an excellent job distinguishing between the ‘Dark Ages’, basically the first half of the Middle Ages, when the world was suffering after the collapse of the Roman Empire and hounded by roaming barbarian tribes, and the High Middle Ages, when life began to take on some order, European countries we know today were getting established, and scientific and intellectual pursuits were going strong.  The last chapter reconstructed the end of the Middle Ages, which happens to be a low note.  The Great Schism (lots of confusion and fighting in the Christian church), the plague, and the Hundred Years War did much to depress men’s spirits.  Bishop likens the Middle Ages to a man; beginning as helpless as an infant, growing and struggling to mature and accomplish new things, and finally growing old and somewhat helpless again.  But he then goes on to say:

“The comparison can be carried still further; the Middle Ages bequeathed to its son, modernity, a richer inheritance than it had received at birth.”

I highly recommend this book.  It is interesting and informative, a great overview of the Middle Ages.