Sunday, February 28, 2010

Susan Wise Bauer's "The History of the Medieval World"

Susan Wise Bauer is the best-selling author of the Story of the World series for elementary students, author of The Art of the Public Grovel, The Well-Educated Mind, The History of the Ancient World and The History of the Medieval World, and the co-author of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. She is a faculty member in English at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, where she teaches writing and literature.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade and reported the following:
It’s impossible to write a world history. I didn’t realize this when I decided to write one. In fact, I got all the way through the first volume (The History of the Ancient World) and halfway through the second before I figured out just how impossible it was. All of these little countries were arising, each with their own separate written history, and there seemed to be no way to pull all the narratives together into one.

After writing six hundred thousand words, I was completely submerged in stories and couldn’t see my way out. Finally a friend pointed me in the right direction: “Forget that you’re writing the history of the whole world,” he said, “and instead write the story you find.”

I’m not exactly sure how he meant me to take that Zen-like advice, but that’s when I saw how to finish the book. Instead of writing “The History Of The Entire World And All The Countries Therein,” I had to find the one thread that seemed to run the strongest through that history and follow it. So I didn’t write the history of the medieval world; I wrote the history of how medieval kings and generals used religion to get what they wanted--and of how their subjects let them get away with it.

This turned out to be a good strong thread. It pulled together a lot of gaping seams in the narrative, and it allowed me to decide what events (and people) to ignore. It united the narratives of east and west, and even connected them with the pre-Columbian Americas. It also allowed me to chop that huge bloated narrative down to a trim, readable (I hope) 250,000 words.

I love page 99 in The History of the Medieval World because it shows how religion--not just Christianity and Islam, but religion-- pervaded medieval statebuilding. It’s the last page of Chapter Fourteen, “The Gupta Decline,” which chronicles the fading of the Gupta empire of India between 415 and 480. The page begins in the middle of a sentence, which starts, “Theraveda Buddhism, dominant in India, taught that
reasoning, mindfulness, and concentration would lead the mind to enlightenment; in slight contrast, Mayahana Buddhism, which tended to dominate the Chinese experience, stressed prayer, faith, divine revelation, emotion.

With its greater emphasis on reasoning and thought, Theravada Buddhism placed a higher value on the monastic existence, which allowed the believer to put all of his energies into study and meditation. Certainly Theravada Buddhism gave no help to an army officer or minor king who wanted to conquer an empire. It was diametrically opposed to earthly conquest, and rather than binding its adherents together under one flag, it encouraged them to live side by side while seeking individual enlightenment.

Which is exactly what the landscape of India in the fifth century reflected. Perhaps Theravada Buddhism helped to produce the patchwork profile of India; or perhaps the Indian patchwork made the country particularly suited to Theravada Buddhism. Either way, the result was the same. All across the Indian countryside, kingdoms existed side by side: each pursuing its own individual goals, none of them dominating the rest.
Learn more about the book and author at Susan Wise Bauer's blog and website.

--Marshal Zeringue