Catch me on the Media-Eval Podcast.

Source: Media-eval.

During the last week of August, I had the great pleasure of speaking to fellow medievalist Sarah Ifft Decker, host and show runner of the podcast Media-eval. Media-eval is a podcast about the Middle Ages in popular culture, but our conversation took a slightly different path.

Instead of talking about a movie or a TV show, we talked about what it is like to be a public medievalist while also being a working medievalist in academia. What are the challenges of straddling these sometimes diametrically opposed worlds? What are the benefits? How do we develop our voices in the public square while at the same time staying true to our ideals as scholars?

Click here to listen to our conversation on Soundcloud. You will also find Media-eval wherever you get your podcasts.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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How to Drain the Middle Ages of All Its Color, or a Review of The Lawless Land by Boyd and Beth Morrison

Hroznata was a powerful man in medieval Bohemia who also was very pious. On two occasions, he made a vow to go on a crusade but he broke them both. As penance, he founded a monastery. Used to having his way, he tried to interfere with the daily running of it, but the only thing he managed to do was to piss off the monks so that when he was captured and held for ransom, they stalled the payment and he died in prison.

A pawn in the political game played by her father, Princess Ingeborg of Norway married Duke Erik of Sweden when she was 11 years old and he was 30. At age 15, she gave birth to a son, Magnus, and a year later to a daughter, Eufemia. Duke Erik was a man of ambitions, who together with his brother Valdemar rebelled against their older brother Birger, the king of Sweden. A peace offering was made in the late fall of 1317 when King Birger invited Erik and Valdemar to a feast at Nyköping Castle. In the middle of the party, Erik and Valdemar were thrown into prison where they died–possibly of starvation–in early 1318. Now a seventeen-year old widow with two children alone in a hostile environment, Ingeborg joined her late husband’s allies and together they deposed King Birger and sent him into exile. They executed Birger’s son and heir to the throne, and made Ingeborg and Duke Erik’s son, Magnus, king instead. At the age of 19, Duchess Ingeborg was the legal guardian of her three-year old son and in his name, she ruled the largest kingdom in medieval Europe, reaching from Finland in the east to Greenland in the west.

The lives of Hroznata and Ingeborg are only two examples of why the Middle Ages are so fascinating. Both of these stories are true, and both of them would be good plots for historical fiction if they were not. Writing historical fiction set in the Middle Ages is a big task. As an author, your imagination needs to be vivid enough to trump reality, and you also need to have the capacity to inhabit a cultural and psychological universe different from your own.

Two people who decided to tackle the Middle Ages through historical fiction are the siblings Boyd and Beth Morrison who have co-written the novel The Lawless Land (Head of Zeus 2022). Boyd is a New York Times bestselling author of thrillers and Beth is the Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

The Lawless Land is the story of Gerald Fox, a knight without a lord who is on a quest to restore his family name and ancestral estate. In his pursuit, he meets Isabel, a young maiden on the run from her own wedding and who harbors more than one secret.

The novel is set in 1351, at the very end of the first wave of the Bubonic plague across Europe, also known as the Black Death (1347–1351). The setting is England and France on both sides of the English Channel.

Even though the novel is set in the late Middle Ages, the only thing that makes it medieval is because it says so. Gerald Fox is a man who has lost faith in his faith after having seen one too many battles. By making Fox into a battle-weary atheist, the authors have given themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card because by removing religion from the mix, they didn’t have to wrap their heads around the one thing that made medieval Europe tick: Christianity.

Christianity, or Latin Christendom to be precise, was the umbrella under which everything took place in the Middle Ages. The agricultural year was organized around the saints’ feasts, politics and piety were so closely intertwined there is no point in trying to separate them, agnostics and atheists did not exist, relics were big business, and royalty and nobility secured their place in heaven by donating and founding chapels, monasteries, and churches. Latin Christendom drove inventions in science, art, literature, and fashion. Latin Christendom was the reason why there were two legal systems in medieval Europe: Canon Law, or the law of the Church, and secular law. Latin Christendom was the reason why Jews and Muslims were discriminated against and tolerated at the same time. Latin Christendom is what gave medieval culture a mystical bent.

The book’s idea of what is Europe is outdated. The map at the beginning of the book is called “Europe 1351” but shows only France, northeast Italy, and southern England, even though medieval Europe reached all the way east to Ukraine, north to the Arctic, and south to Spain and Greece. No borders are visible on this map, which robs the reader of the knowledge that half of what we think of as France at this time was English, the other half consisted of regions more or less under the French king’s sovereignty, and that Turin and Genoa were powerful city-state republics with large hinterlands. For reasons unknown, the detailed map of southeast England is called “Canterbury” even though what is shown is the county of Kent with Calais added on the other side of the English Channel.

The McGuffin of the story is an expensive manuscript that was “saved” from destruction during the sack of Constantinople in 1204; the story does not divulge that Constantinople was sacked as part of the Fourth Crusade, when Latin Christians turned on Greek Christians and wreaked such havoc on the city that it did not recover until the Ottoman Turks conquered it in 1453 and breathed new life into it. In other words, the priceless manuscript was saved from being destroyed by the very people who saved it. Moreover, this manuscript is an heirloom of Isabel’s family because they didn’t want to give it up to a monastery, a logic that runs counter to how a medieval person would have thought. If there was an opportunity to donate a priceless manuscript to a monastery, they would have done so. Such donations were used as evidence of largess on behalf of the nobility and also as payment for prayers in the afterlife, an integral aspect of medieval culture and psychology.

The medieval world that comes across in The Lawless Land is without the color, absurdity, religiosity, mysticism, and bawdy sense of humor that permeated the medieval world. The characters are stiff, the plot is predictable, the ideas of what is and was Europe are outdated, the ideas of what it meant to donate objects to a monastery and indeed join a monastery display Protestant prejudices against holy objects and religious institutions of what is today Catholicism. What matters in historical fiction is not only that the authors get the facts straight; they also need to capture the essence of the time period.

On its dust jacket, The Lawless Land is given an endorsement by Lee Child, which makes sense. The Lawless Land is written like a thriller, and it reads like one. Change the year from 1351 to 2022 and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. So, if you are looking for Jack Reacher in the fourteenth century, this is the book for you. If you are looking for historical fiction set in the medieval world, I suggest you move along.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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The Age that Never Existed. How Museum Bureaucrats Created the Viking Age.

As Robert Egger’s epic The Northman hits the movie screens today, the eternally intriguing Viking Age is once again in the spotlight. Based on a story from Gesta Danorum by Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus (1160–1220), The Northman follows a man named Amleth on his journey for vengeance after his uncle murdered his father and married his mother.

Dubbed by its publicity campaign as the most accurate Viking movie ever made, The Northman shows the Viking North in all its cold, damp, dark, and messy glory. It taps into the strong sense of honor and vengeance-based vendettas that make stories like Njal’s Saga such a compelling read.

Scandinavia of the Viking Age was a fascinating world and a vibrant high culture. A sophisticated oral-based legal system, technically-advanced poetry made up on the spot, beautiful craftsmanship, state-of-the-art ship building, worldwide travels, rune stones where art and literacy (or perhaps better said, runacy) meet, and a religion that straddled the natural and supernatural and bent gender roles out of shape.

The Vikings attract such attention because we can project onto them our own anxieties and beliefs. Apart from the brief messages left behind on the runestones that litter the Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish countrysides, the Vikings left no writings behind. Everything we know comes from people who met them, or people who wrote about them centuries after they were gone. Because the Vikings do not have a historical voice of their own, we can make them say and do whatever we want them to.

The most striking example of molding the Vikings into an image in which we can reflect ourselves are the Vikings themselves. Why? Because the Vikings never existed. And the Viking Age never happened.

Historical time periods are at the foundation of all history writing. Historical time periods are the sine qua non of history. The historical time periods of western history are based on the Julian and Gregorian calendars, invented in Rome and medieval Europe, respectively. Based on how these calendars divide up time, intellectuals and historians across the centuries have identified what they believed were important historical events, and from these events, they organized the past into historical time periods. For example, the Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages because during the Renaissance they were in the middle of the time of the Renaissance writers and Antiquity, and by Antiquity these writers meant Rome. The Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages because the one thousand years they lasted were considered to be of lesser value and interest than what came before and after.

A time period begins and ends with turning points. Scholars decide what those turning points are. This is not to say that all time periods are made up out of the blue and have no connection to events in the past, but a time period begins and ends depending on what scholars deem to be important.

In traditional history writing, the turning points were precise. The Roman Empire in the west ended in 476 CE when chieftain Odoacer deposed the western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus and declared himself king instead of emperor. The Middle Ages ended in 1492 when Christopher Columbus reached present-day Bahamas. Or in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittemberg. Or in the fourteenth-century when Petrarc discovered the letters of Roman consul Cicero. Wait… I’m confused…

Today, scholars have mostly abandoned the idea that time periods begin and end on a dime. Instead, we acknowledge that there are transition periods when one type of society morphs into another. This is why different scholars can study Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages and still talk about the same time period. It all depends on what questions the scholars want answered.

Which brings us to the Vikings.

History is considered to have begun in a region of Europe when Latin literacy is introduced. For Scandinavia this happened around the eleventh century. The combination of the introduction of Latin literacy, the introduction of Christianity, and the early formation of kingdoms rather than chieftancies is enough of a convergence of turning points to say that the eleventh century is when Scandinavian history, and also the Middle Ages began.

Before the Middle Ages in Scandinavia was the Iron Age. The Iron Age is not a historical time period; it belongs to archaeology. The Iron Age is the final stage of the prehistoric time periods known as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. The Iron Age in Scandinavia lasted between 500 BCE and 1050 CE. The Scandinavian Iron Age can be divided into subperiods: the Early Iron Age, which consists of the pre-Roman Iron Age and the Roman Iron Age, and the Later Iron Age, which consists of the Vendel Age and the Viking Age.

In the nineteenth century, when archaeology and history became professionalized and museums were invented, bureaucrats needed to label and categorize all the artifacts that became part of the collections housed in these new museums. At the same time, during the course of the nineteenth century, a change in the masculine ideal took place in Scandinavia.

As demonstrated by Anna Lihammer and Ted Hesselbom in their book Vikingen. En historia om 1800-talets manlighet (Historiska Media, 2021), in moving away from the emotionally oriented masculinity of the eighteenth century with its wigs, powdered faces, and high heels, a new type of masculinity was found in the Icelandic and Norse sagas, one of physical strength, honor, and endurance. This new type of ideal man was given the name “Viking,” after the part-time job of raiding and trading that some men participated in during the later years of the Iron Age. In the 1870s, when museums began cataloguing the archaeological finds dated to the late Iron Age, what they saw were artifacts from a high culture that stood out. They named this time period after the new type of ideal man. Thus, the Viking Age was born with a life span from 800 to 1050 CE.

Helmet excavated at Vendel, Sweden. Source: Wikipedia.

The Viking Age as a distinct time period ran into problems pretty quickly. In 1881, elaborate and rich graves were discovered in the village of Vendel, near Uppsala north of Stockholm in Sweden. What the archaeologists found at Vendel were massive ships graves with swords, helmets, shields, horses, drinking vessels, and board games, to name a few of the many fantastic artifacts.

However, the graves at Vendel were dated to between 550 and 800 CE, that is to say, they predated the Viking Age. But since the Viking Age already existed and instead of extending the Viking Age further into the past, yet another time period was invented: the Vendel Age.

Because of the similarities between the two, there is reason to argue that the Vendel Age and the Viking Age could have been consolidated into one and the same time period.

Here you might say that the Vendel Age and the Viking Age should be different time periods because the Vikings had ships with sails and they used those ships to go abroad and loot, trade, and be hired as mercenaries. Just look at what happened in England!

Yes, but, there is evidence in Scandinavia of close connections with the European continent and the British Isles well before either the Vendel Age or the Viking Age. Artifacts have shown that men from Scandinavia enlisted with the Roman army as early as the 4th century CE. Archaeological similarities show connections between early medieval England and Vendel Age Sweden. And then there is the eternal puzzle of Beowulf, considered the quintessential Old English poem but which takes place in Sweden and Denmark of the Vendel Age (also known as the Late Germanic Iron Age in Danish archaeology). Excavations at Uppåkra, today in southern Sweden but during the Vendel and Viking Ages part of the Danish realm, further reinforce the Vendel Age as a high culture with extensive international contacts.

If the beginning of the Viking Age is in flux, so is the end. In their teaching materials for grade schools, the Swedish National Museum dates the end of the Viking Age to c. 1100, thus pushing the transition to the Middle Ages another 50 years into the future. What we see here is how definitive dates have been replaced by transition periods. There is even a case to be made that the Viking Age ended in the thirteenth century when Iceland became part of the kingdom of Norway and the Icelandic Free State came to an end.

To further demonstrate how the Viking Age never existed, in European and North American history writing the Viking Age is considered part of the Middle Ages. This makes sense from the European point of view because the Vikings appear in the historical sources of medieval Byzantium, England, France, Ireland, Germany, and Spain. Interpreting the Vikings within a medieval context makes sense when you study how these societies reacted to the Scandinavian presence. But to say that the Viking Age in Scandinavia was medieval and that it lasted between 793 (the raid on Lindisfarne in England) and 1066 (the battle of Hastings, also in England) is to apply an interpretation and periodization to a region where none of this has any relevance.

So what about the Vikings themselves? What time period would they say they lived in? Well, they wouldn’t have said that they lived during the Viking Age, that is for sure. They didn’t live during the Middle Ages, either. And they wouldn’t have called themselves Vikings. To be a “viking” is to travel abroad to raid and trade and come back with riches and a reputation that precedes you. For the people who lived in Iron Age Scandinavia, the word “viking” was a job description, and not the name of a people nor the name of an ideal type of masculinity.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Additional sources:
Anders Winroth, The Age of the Vikings (Princeton University Press, 2014).
Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020).
Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm. A History of the Vikings (Basic Books, 2020).
Cat Jarman, River Kings. A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavian to the Silk Roads (Pegasus Books, 2022).

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THE BRIGHT AGES by Gabriele & Perry, or What It Means to Be New.

It’s rare that there’s a buzz surrounding a book on medieval history written by two academic historians. It’s also rare that I get swept up in a book’s pre-publication hype. But The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry is the exception to both of those rules.

Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval history at Virginia Tech and David M. Perry is an academic adviser at University of Minnesota with a PhD in history and several freelance publications under his belt. Active on social media, Gabriele and Perry each have a substantial number of followers who are happy to participate in a major book launch, hence the buzz and the hype.

The Bright Ages is Gabriele and Perry’s contribution to the ongoing discussion about what the Middle Ages were really like. The Middle Ages was a time of violence, persecution, misogyny, and bigotry that we like to point at as a deterrent to make ourselves feel better about the violent, persecution-ridden, misogynistic, and bigoted times we live in. Or, we use the Middle Ages as inspiration for how to create an intolerant society in the present. But, as Gabriele and Perry demonstrate in their book, the Middle Ages are so much more than that.

The purpose of The Bright Ages is to wrest the Middle Ages out of the hands of political pundits and other unsavory characters and show that the Middle Ages were a time of sophistication, light, colors, complexity, and diversity, a purpose I agree with wholeheartedly.

Still, once I finished the book, it left me with a strange aftertaste. On the one hand, The Bright Ages is one of the best books I have ever read. On the other hand, I am flabbergasted by the liberties taken by the authors in order to make their point.

The Bright Ages is one of the best books I have ever read because of its beautiful prose, its clever storytelling, and for turning your expectations on their head at every twist and turn. The book opens beautifully with a description of Galla Placidia’s mausoleum, built c. 430 CE in Ravenna, Italy, and then seamlessly transitions into a discussion on the arbitrary nature of historical periodization. The life of Maimonides cleverly opens with Rambam’s brother David, a Jewish merchant from Spain living in exile in Egypt who sets sail for India to trade but never makes it there because his ship founders. By starting the story with David, Gabriele and Perry quickly establish the global inter-connectivity of the medieval world, where for the duration of the Middle Ages the center of the world economy was the Indian Ocean, not the Mediterranean or the Atlantic Ocean, which we tend to assume.

The term The Bright Ages serves three purposes in the book. First, it’s the book’s attention grabbing title, placed at the center of a gorgeous dust jacket wrapped around a beautifully bound book complete with a blind stamp on the front cover. Second, it’s the rhetorical device around which the entire argument revolves as the antonym of the Dark Ages. Third, the authors introduce it as a time period of its own.

According to Gabriele and Perry, the Bright Ages can be said to have lasted from the year 430, when Galla Placidia’s mausoleum is estimated to have been built, to 1321 when Dante Alighieri, of The Divine Comedy fame, died. During this time period, the authors argue, the Middle Ages were particularly bright, complex, diverse, and sophisticated. There are a couple of problems with this. First, the beginning and end of the Bright Ages are based on the Middle Ages in Italy, and apply only to the developments there. This in contrast to the book’s full title (The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe) which claims to be a new history for all of medieval Europe. Second, the time period from the fifth century to the fourteenth century is also known as the Early Middle Ages and the High Middle Ages, respectively, two subperiods of the Middle Ages that in traditional history writing are considered as, you guessed it, brighter, more complex, and more sophisticated than what came after, namely the late Middle Ages, in this book represented by the Black Death.

The problems with the Bright Ages as a time period and how it connects to the book’s full title is further underlined by the geographical scope of the book. The Bright Ages claims to speak for all of medieval Europe, when, in fact, it is mainly focused on the Roman Empire in the west and its descendants. For example, on the only map in the book, Kiev is the only included “key location” east of the river Rhine and north of the rive Danube (in Ancient history known as limes, that is the border region of the Roman Empire in the northeast). On this map, the area between Aachen in the west (where Charlemagne was based) and Kiev in the east is a place where nothing happened.

Yes, the book does mention what is there, namely the Holy Roman Empire, Poland, and Hungary, but they do not give the Holy Roman Empire its own chapter, even though the Holy Roman Empire played a crucial part in the development of European society of the Middle Ages and served as a nexus in the connections between east and west. Instead, this part of medieval Europe is included in the book so that points can be made about other things, e.g., the controversial person of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the city states of northern Italy, and the Mongols. What is more, Bohemia is conspicuously absent from the account of the Mongolian presence on the European peninsula even though Bohemia was one of the very few who defeated the Mongols in battle.

Which brings us to the Vikings.

Any history of medieval Europe needs to include the Vikings, and The Bright Ages dedicates an entire chapter to them. To the authors credit, in addition to the more famous raids on England and France, the focus is here broadened to include the Scandinavians who traveled through Central Asia (this is why Kiev is included on the map, while, interestingly, the home region of the Rus who traveled there is not; the map cuts off north of Denmark).

There are several problems with the chapter on the Vikings. First, the authors date the Viking Age to 793–1066, a period that only carries significance in British history and is not related to the developments in medieval Scandinavia. Second, the authors oscillate between mentioning medieval Scandinavia as an afterthought and using the terms “Viking Age” and “medieval Scandinavia” as if they are interchangeable. They are not. (In Scandinavia, the Viking Age is a subperiod of the Iron Age, i.e., neither part of history nor the Middle Ages.) When the authors claim that “the Vikings seem to be a quintessential medieval phenomenon,” they are bending history to fit their narrative, something that becomes even more apparent when they also state that the Icelanders of the Icelandic Free State “loved democracy.” The Icelandic Free State was many things, but democracy it was not.

Which brings us to the Italian city states.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the city states of northern Italy, some of Ancient origin some of medieval, were economic, cultural, and political powerhouses. You can’t discuss the Middle Ages without also discussing the veritable explosion in urban life, and you can’t discuss medieval urban life without talking about the city states of northern Italy. Just as with the Vikings, the book dedicates an entire chapter to them. And just like the Vikings, the city states (Florence in particular) are credited with creating a society based on democracy. The authors do admit that this democracy was more similar to the democracy of Ancient Athens and Rome, that is based on an “elected oligarchy” rather than one-person-one-vote. But, medieval merchant and artisan guilds were not democratic organizations and they did not run their cities based on democratic principles. These were organizations with closely guarded memberships. Yes, their members were of what we today would call the middle class, and the middle class, according to how we explain the development of modern society, is the carrier of representative democracy. That does not mean you can apply this causality to the Middle Ages.

As The Bright Ages wraps up, it becomes clear that the claim to be a “new” history of medieval Europe has little bearing. Here, the authors place Dante in Galla Placidia’s mausoleum, which works as a narrative device but is ultimately fiction. To get there, the authors weave a tight tapestry where time is linear with a determined direction while exulting the importance of Dante in relation to the stars and the universe in the mausoleum’s ceiling. All of this put together creates an evocative blend of history as fiction within a Christian view of time and the male genius of the West at the center of the universe. It can’t get anymore old fashioned than that.

But in the end, this entire discussion on the merits and demerits of The Bright Ages is, as the saying goes, academic. The intended audience for this book is not Gabriele and Perry’s fellow historians such as myself. They wrote this book for the general public to combat the appropriation of the Middle Ages by those who wish to use it for their own nefarious purposes. For that, I applaud them, and I hope that as many people as possible get to read The Bright Ages.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Peter Wilson’s HEART OF EUROPE, or The Holy Roman Empire, the Central-European Colossus, Explained

Say “the Holy Roman Empire” and you are likely to get one of four responses.

The person you are speaking to thinks you are talking about the Roman Catholic Church.

The person thinks you mean the Roman Empire.

You get the knee-jerk reply, “It wasn’t holy, Roman, nor an empire,” the person most likely unaware that they are quoting French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire.

You get a blank stare.

The Holy Roman Empire is arguably the best kept out-in-the-open secret of pre-modern European history. Located at the center of the European continent, it was a dominating force in European politics, religion, and warfare for nearly one thousand years.

It was in the Holy Roman Empire that the Roman Catholic Church faced its first major secular opposition through the Investiture Controversy. It was in the Holy Roman Empire that Martin Luther published his 95 Theses. It was in the Holy Roman Empire that Protestantism as a third branch of Christianity developed. It was because of decisions made in the Holy Roman Empire that Spain became an Empire in and of itself. The Holy Roman Empire is where the Thirty Years War, the most destructive military conflict on the European continent, second only to World War II, was fought. The Thirty Years War ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, negotiated and signed in the Holy Roman Empire, and which continues to influence international politics to this day. The Holy Roman Empire is the First Reich to Adolf Hitler’s Third.

And still so few have heard of it.

One reason for the obscurity of the Holy Roman Empire could be that it is notoriously difficult to define. Starting with when the Empire existed, there is consensus that it ended in 1806 when it was dissolved to prevent Napoleon Bonaparte from getting his hands on the Imperial title. But when did it begin? Some scholars say with Charlemagne (9th century), some with Otto I (10th century). When did the Empire get its name? No one really knows. What is the Empire’s name? Well, that depends.

Another reason for the Empire’s obscurity could be that the vocabulary we use today to explain geopolitical territories lacks the words to describe what the Empire was. In one way, Voltaire was right; the Holy Roman Empire was not holy, not Roman, and not an Empire. Granted, there was an Emperor who ruled over it, which by definition makes it an Empire. Furthermore, this Emperor claimed to be the successor of the Emperors of the actual Roman Empire. But when the Holy Roman Empire came into existence, Rome had been gone from the European continent for more than three hundred years.

Moreover, the territory the Holy Roman Emperor ruled consisted of a plethora of political and judicial entities–secular and clerical, alike–who all had a different relationship to the Emperor as a person and as a sovereign. To complicate matters further, the Emperor didn’t inherit his position; he was elected by an Electoral College. Whom these Electors elected depended as much on politics and alliances as it did on pedigree. The extent of the lands that the Emperor ruled depended on the person, meaning that depending on the martial prowess of the medieval Emperors or the family ties of the early-modern Emperors, the Holy Roman Empire stretched and contracted based on who was elected Emperor.

To avoid having to get into the intricacies of the Holy Roman Empire at any given time when discussing medieval and early-modern European history, “Germany” has become sort of a short-hand, which in one way is correct because the Empire did cover much of what is Germany today, and over time, it became formally known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. But it is also incorrect because the Holy Roman Empire included parts of what is today Austria, France, BeNeLux, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Italy.

Swedish historian Harald Gustafsson perhaps says it best when he describes the Holy Roman Empire as “a complicated entity that floated around the map of Central Europe for a thousand years.” (my transl.)

In an attempt to make sense of this complicated thing that floated around on a map and claimed to be something it was not, historian Peter H. Wilson wrote his book Heart of Europe (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020). Similar to the subject it tackles, the book is a colossus, clocking in on 1,008 pages (one page for each year the Empire existed?).

Instead of tracing the Empire’s history chronologically, Wilson comes at it thematically. Each chapter deals with one aspect of the Empire’s complicated existence. Still, the internal structure of each chapter is chronological so that once you get to the end of the book, you also get to the end of the Empire.

The thematic structure works well because it enables the reader to pick and choose what to read and delve deeper into. It also works well because where most histories of the Empire focus on its early-modern history, this approach gives ample room to discuss the Empire’s medieval history, without which the developments of the early-modern period would be difficult to understand (e.g., the explosiveness of the Reformation can only be fully understood if you are aware of the severity and the repercussions of the Investiture Controversy).

The problem with the thematic structure is that it becomes difficult to locate where specific turning points in the history of the Empire are explained. Same thing with terms of art, which in the case of the Empire’s government bureaucracy are numerous and often in German. The book contains a glossary and an index, but the glossary is quite short and the index quite long, which results in neither of them being particularly helpful. There is a chronology, but because the Empire existed for as long as it did, the chronology is 55 pages long and still only skims the surface.

The book contains several maps that chart the development of the Empire from its beginnings to its end, and present some of the many Leagues that formed as a result of shifting political, religious, and dynastic alliances over the centuries. The maps are detailed and meticulous, and provide a welcome visual aspect to the complicated internal structure of the Empire. Also included are the family trees of the most significant family groups and dynasties that dominated the position of Emperor in the Middle Ages and the Early-Modern Period.

Peter H. Wilson’s Heart of Europe is a much-needed deep dive into the complicated history of the Holy Roman Empire, the knowledge of which is crucial to the understanding of European history, from the Middle Ages until today.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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