Essential Knowledge: Part VI

One of the challenges that arises when trying to list the things an educated man should know about the past is that the past keeps happening. By that I mean we keep expanding what we know about the past and updating our views about what is important. It used to be that the period after the fall of Rome was the Dark Ages, meaning that nothing much happened that anyone needed to know. Now, the early Middle Ages gets a lot of attention because it helps explain why the West came to dominate the world.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire used to be thought of as a collapse of civilization, leaving a great void into which swarmed barbarians. Out of the rubble, the people of Europe slowly rebuilt civilization into what we think of as the Middle Ages. The reality is the fall of Rome was a process. Roman rule was replaced by something else, something local and indigenous. A good way to start thinking about this is with The End of Empire: Attila the Hun & the Fall of Rome.

The first significant, post Roman, population to cast a shadow on our time are the Franks, who can probably be credited with the Christianisation of Europe. That’s debatable, but they played a large role in spreading the new religion. The Franks also gave us an important legal tradition. Frankish law was overwhelmingly concerned with the protection of individuals and less concerned with protecting the interests of the state, a sharp departure from Roman legal tradition, which was focused on the state.

The required reading when it comes to the Franks is Gregory of Tours. If you want something a bit easier to read, then this is a pretty good book for the casual reader. It’s short and covers the important bits. Reading up on Germanic tribes almost always means references to the Goths. While they did not leave much of an impression on the West, beyond the name, this is an interesting book on them that is worth reading. Of course, you cannot know the history of Europe without knowing about Charlemagne. This is the best book I’ve read on the subject.

Once you get to Charlemagne, you get to his British analog, King Offa and the history of Britain. For the general reader, this is a great book on the topic. Free of endless footnotes and scholarly jargon, it covers the material and makes it fun. This is a great time to introduce an excellent podcast. The British History Podcast done by an American lawyer, if you can believe it, is well done and entertaining. He plans to carry on until the present, but he does a great job with the early, post-Roman history of Britain.

The text most commonly used for learning about the Vikings is the Gwyn Jones History of the Vikings, but it is more than a little dry. It was written when acquiring knowledge was supposed to be painful. It does cover everything, without the PC claptrap you get from modern histories of the Norse. A more readable book that is good for an airplane ride is The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings. The truth is, the Norse were not all that interesting, but their impact on the West was very interesting. They changed Britain and northern Europe in very important ways.

In a similar way, the Mongols are not all that interesting as a civilization, but their impact on the world is interesting. Like the Norse, they also did some outlandish things, that still characterize them to this day. Everyone has heard of Genghis Khan so it is a good idea to know something about him and the Mongols. I know of no book that is as good as the Dan Carlin podcast on the Mongols. For $10 you get more than twenty hours of great entertainment and a great lesson in history.

It is impossible to know anything about the history of the West without knowing the history of the Catholic Church. In Part II of this series I suggested Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity, but for a history of the Catholic Church that is specific to this period, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization is a great read. If you are more ambitious, you can take on the three volume The Founding of Christendom: A History of Christendom, but it is a bit of a slog, unless you are a faithful Christian with a strong interest in the subject.

Of course, you cannot study the history of the Church without learning about The Crusades. A pretty good podcast is on iTunes conveniently called The History of the Crusades. Strangely, there are not a lot of good books on the subject. Most are multicultural nonsense polemics against the Church. The best book I’ve read on the subject is The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land. It is a big book that covers a lot, but it is free of the nonsense and it is written to be read.

One of the most important events in the medieval period is the Hundred Years War, because it is the first flicker of nationalism in the West. The idea of a nation that transcends tribal identity was born in the war between the English and the French from 1337 to 1453. The start of the war featured multi-ethnic armies, led by kings, facing one another in what is now France. At the end, it was Frenchman versus English, two nations at war. The best book on the subject is The Hundred Years War by Desmod Seward.

Similarly, the Thirty Years War is one of those great events that still casts a shadow today. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in European history and arguably began the process of de-Christianization in Europe. It also gave us the Peace of Westphalia, which established concepts like national sovereignty, balance of power diplomacy and the prohibition against intervening in the domestic affairs of other states. The definitive book on the subject is C. V. Wedgewood’s The Thirty Years War.

Finishing up, it is a good time to mention the History of Germany podcast. It is the only podcast I know of that covers the early history of German tribes. Like the British History Podcast, it covers much more than this period, but it is one of the few that bothers with early Germanic history. If you really prefer to get your history via audio, this series is supposed to be one of the best. The Great Courses series is mostly for adults, who want to learn something about the topic, so they are excellent introductory resources.

40 thoughts on “Essential Knowledge: Part VI

  1. As alternatives to the British History podcast for those who can’t stand the snarky, John Stewart-style leftism of that show’s host (I can’t), there’s The History of England podcast or the History of English podcast (which covers a lot of early German tribal history, too).

    Thomas Madden’s Concise History of the Crusades is accessible and fun to read. It’s refreshingly free of the ethnomasochistic moralizing that as you say characterizes so much of the scholarship on the Crusades. He’s a professor from Saint Louis University, so he’s credentialed if that’s important to you. Here’s a sample.

  2. After reading this Volume of Essential Knowledge, and the recommended readings by Commenters, I feel like I am entering a graduate level history course. And what is most striking is recalling that most elementary history courses don’t even touch on many of these areas except in the most rudimentary ways. Thank you Zman and all you who have provided great references for further learning.

  3. “Strangely, there are not a lot of good books on the subject [the crusades]. Most are multicultural nonsense polemics against the Church.”

    I woud say that the best history of the crusades is Stephen Runciman’s three volume “History of the Crusades”:

    Volume One: The First Crusade and the Foundations of the Kingdom of Jerusalem;

    Volume Two: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East, 1100-1187

    Volume Three: The Kingdom of Acre, and the later Crusades.

    Completed in the early 1950’s, it is a straightforward account of the crusading movement that remains in print and widely read today.

    I’d also recommend “The Crusades: A Reader,” a sourcebook, not a history. It is unavoidably “multicultural” (as well as “multitemporal”), since a full sense of the Crusades, from contemporaries, requires hearing not only from Latins, but from Byzantines, Arabs and Jews. Runciman’s history is great for the scope of its story. But it’s also enlightening to hear from those who lived through it.

  4. “Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford, is a fascinating book about the Genghis Kahn and the Mongol Nation, which was the largest empire ever. This book will correct your perceived, conventional wisdom about Genghis Kahn. For instance, he had a respect for learning not often found in history, and his treatment of women was far ahead of his time:he made the women around him leaders. But he couldn’t do much about the actions of the inept men who followed him after his death. His reputation suffered from the historians in the places he had conquered – don’t buy his reputation, read this book.

  5. Did some research about some of these recommendations and they all appear stellar. I can personally vouch for Dan Carlin’s series on the Mongols which avoided any revisionism and gives an eye opening account of how they almost conquered most of the known world.

    Someone here in the comments mentioned Rodney Stark’s work which I’ve read and can recommend.

    You mention Paul Johnson, whose name I’ve heard in classical Christian circles. What other works of his do you recommend?

    • Paul Johnson has written many books on various histories, including “The History of the Jews” and “The History of the Twentieth Century”. The latter I have read, and it sets an interesting groundwork by discussing the political, social, and psychological underpinnings of late 19th Century thought and its impact in the Belle Epoque and beyond. I was gobsmacked to see how much those influences were so integral to early 20th century events. It was almost scary.

      N.B. Paul Johnson is an English Catholic and so his writings reflect those influences. I recommend him highly.

  6. An awesome book on the Crusades I read a few years ago was Rodney Stark’s “God’s Battalions: The Case or the Crusades.

    Stark, a sociologist by background, has written a number of excellent works on how Christianity as shaped the rise of the West.

    • Stark’s is an apologist’s book on the Crusades. Not that there is anything wrong with that–there are countless books that are condemnations of the Crusades, so something in the opposite direction is worthy.

  7. My introduction to the 30 years War was Grey Eminence: A Study in Religion and Politics is a book by Aldous Huxley published in 1941. It is a biography of François Leclerc du Tremblay, the French monk who served as advisor to Cardinal de Richelieu.

    I found it well written, fascinating and a worthwhile read.

  8. I can’t help but think, the dirt people of the west have been subject to a never-ending stream of tyrannical potentates, rulers and dictators, that kings, dictators, and potentate, do what all politically powerful do, be rulers, like being a hammer, the world looks like a nail to you.
    The Declaration of Independence is a pivotal point in that long history, it is a totally unprecedented departure from the status quo. For the first time the dirt people claimed with all legitimate audacity Holy Sovereignty, that each dirt person was in effect his own king and the ground under his feet was is his kingdom, (referred to as ones providence of Liberty, and self determination, and just as the kings and nobles, claimed God’s will as the determinator of that audacity). A wholly unacceptable condition, for how can the kings and potentates have jurisdiction over the dirt people if God so ordained dirt people are sovereigns?
    Kings, potentates, dictators, politisions, the whole lot of them despise competition.
    So instead of a Hundred Years War against other potentates, kings, and dictator’s, the worlds power elite have turned towards the dirt people and have waged a Hundred Years War against the tiny sovereign nation states of each dirt persons kingdom of liberty and self determination, because they despise the competition.

    • Doug, you are absolutely, 100% spot on Man! The Declaration was “totally unprecedented.”

      And those words so eloquently written, weaved as a symphony of man’s yearnings from ages past, and is a compendium of sentiment penned by wise men at a time and place who were inspired by God.

      And those who consider themselves better than Dirt People forget God’s Word, and I am certain they know it, because Satan knows his maker well, which says as in the Parable of the Rich Fool, 47 “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. Luke 12:47-48 NIV

      Fools like George Soros, Hillary Clinton and others too numerous to list here are so full of themselves, so greedy for wealth and power, that they forget the beauty of life, the majesty of our Creator, and the wonder of his creation … man being the crowning jewel in this mystery. Not perfect, but with free will, and the opportunity to produce, grow and enrich the world, or not.

      • Well that just is what it has come down to again, it as you say about free will, the war is about whether the dirt people have free will verses who and what is to control the dirt people as to deny dirt people fee will. Everything is revolving around that, The paradigm is the dirt people are beginning to not care what the clouds say or think. That zeitgeist is on the threshold of becoming a force of nature.
        So lets see, through history, whoever the ruling “elites” are, they have a nasty habit of exercising their free will to deny the dirt peoples their free free will. Mmmm.
        As we see daily, it’s tough for the elites, they don’t like us dirt people giving them the finger and defying that diktat. Sucks to be them. In the larger scope, it’s too late, they have already lost the impetus of power. It is a subtle thing, wicked hard to define. Lot of dirt people have had enough of this cloud people crap.
        I love history, but after reading many important pieces of it, I’ve had a change of view. It is far better to be part of that history. Even better is understanding a paradigm is taking place. That history we all refer to and try to understand, is getting a new upgrade in the clouds/dirt people department. I believe a profound pivotal turn in the ruled verses the ruler is taking place. It will change the world and create a new age.

        Think about that and the context of implications you and I understand each other. Where is this form of solidarity leading. Consider the latent motive power, the audacity, think cascading preference, of consent, it’s primal legitimacy, the righteous nature of it, how faith abounds, of providence. There’s something in the wind.
        Much has been sown, the reaping is consequences coming due.

  9. The Hundred Years War is kind of like the war of northern aggression, aka American Civil War, I think the aggressors who waged them, never really stopped waging that war of tyranny, they just went non violent for periods of time. And the circular nature of history is coming back around. The specific actors have changed, and the methods and tools of projecting and imposing power, but the essential premise of imposing tyranny never changes.

  10. Just an odd random midnight thought: What are the odds that a randomly chosen member of our meritocratic royalty would have read a single book in your Friday essential knowledge series?

  11. Thanks for these Essential Knowledge posts. I love all the reading suggestions. Sadly, I find that many times I have to suggest them to my library. They don’t have Gregory of Tours? That should be required.

  12. In my opinion there are two concepts that have allowed and, dare I say, caused Western Civilisation.

    The first is monotheism. Before monotheism we had polytheism. The whole concept of God is wrapped around the idea that God sets the rules which govern the reality of the universe. Multiple Gods create multiple versions of reality. It is monotheism that paved the way for the idea of one truth and one reality and, in turn, the pursuit of scientific truth.

    The second is the idea of free will which completely contradicts the idea of fatalism. With fatalism everything is “written” and there is nothing anyone can do to change their fate. Fatalism straightjacketed the human spirit. “Free will” liberated it and allowed civilisation to flourish.

  13. Thanks for the recommendations. A book on English history I enjoyed was The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris. A fluid writer with a great dry sense of humor, Morris gives the reader a thorough discussion of his sources and how he uses them. A really interesting true life game of thrones complete with a lesson in historiography. Morris also wrote a great history on Edward I.

  14. Not a book recommendation, but I’ve found comfortable Bluetooth headphones to be life changing. I can put audiobook or lecture on my phone and then take care of the baby or cook or clean without a cord getting in my way. Since I’m devoid of adult conversation for eighteen hours a day, this has improved my quality of life a lot. The intellectual stimulation is great.

  15. I would caution you not to overlook publications and media produced by non-English speaking historians and writers. Language is one of the basic aspects of human existence that constructs how we think and how we express the world around us. Please don’t limit the historical world-view, and especially world history, to only the English speaking peoples perspective.

    From the German perspective, I would recommend “Die Deutschen”, an excellent mini-series produced in 2008. Unfortunately it does not come with English subtitles. For those who can read German, if you can find it still, “Die Ersten Deutschen” by S. Fischer-Fabian is a very good book on German history.

    For Die Deutschen series, you can select subtitles and auto-translate in YouTube. While the translation is not exact, and often completely wrong, it’s close enough to get the major points and a good sense of what is being described.

  16. Thank your for your earlier book recommendations. I am about a third of the way into Kagan’s “The Peloponnesian War”. One of the best written histories I’ve read (and I was a History major).

  17. There is a definite lack of understanding of the greater Christian-Muslim conflicts that played out over a millennium.

    This guy argues that the initial Muslim onslaught brought down the classical Mediterranean world and dropped Europe into the Dark Ages.

    It took the Christians 770 to retake the Iberian Iberian Peninsula . In Eastern Europe there were similar struggles against Muslim armies. The Ottomans made it to the gates of Vienna several times and only the great charge by the Polish army saved the city in 1683. Greece itself has only been free of Muslim rule since 1829.

    All this history has been effectively memory-holed in the West. Instead our elites act all confused and surprised when Muslims want to conquer and convert by the sword.

    • Why are current leaders in EU and US (pre-Trump) destroying their own countries by opening borders and inviting floods of Muslims to invade? Is there evidence of this behavior by Western leaders in past Muslim attempts to overcome Europe?

      • The Caliphate and the Marxists and the ideology of both their goals of advancement of absolute power over the human race have many parallels.
        I believe they both take advantage of the other’s methods and employ similar tactics. The invasions are a very useful tool, both employ useful dupes, both use crisis and chaos as a social engineering tool to develop a system of political and social power suitable to creating order which usurps the target culture and nations.

        • Both want a world free of borders and nationalities. The Muslims just want it under the sway of an Islamic caliphate. The naivete of the Marxist West is that they think they can control the outcome once they set things in motion.

          • Dutch I tell people the same thing. These modern day Liberals think that when it’s time to contain the spread of that “cancer” that it’ll come easy. We’ll all be enveloped on the inside by its encroachment and wishing we were on the outside if they don’t come to their senses right quick.

          • It’s the current version of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact – aimed at us instead of (or as well as) Poland.

      • During the last big Ottoman invasion in 1683, the Eastern Europeans seemed to recognize the threat and put aside their differences. But Louis XIV certainly took advantage of the invasion of Austria to stab other European powers in the back to gain territory, Like modern Europeans, he just ignored all their talk of establishing a European Caliphate and used them as an ally.

        • Donald Trump is a pretty sharp guy. Me thinks, in part, he is threatening to pull the US .mil out of NATO in order to leverage the mandarin’s of Brussels. Maybe like something along the lines of if your going to import a musloid army, well this country not squandering it’s treasure and the blood of it’s finest men again in another of a long line of clusterfucks of Europes own creation.

          The European “Uninon” hasn’t lessened the art of intrigue and castle/fiefdom politics the Continent has practiced through the centuries. It only shifted it to the moneyed power elites in Brussels. If anything it has given these usurpers and conspirators a convenient platform and devices to conspire along with access to money and it’s power on a scale of magnitude compared to the potentates of old.
          Like clockwork the circular nature of history being the West around again to another continental diaspora created be European elites that will get out of hand and unless outside help comes to the rescue of Europe and these fools running it, they will face another Gates of Vienna, that they themselves created, they may not be able to escape from.

  18. I see two dynamics through time, history is circular and the human terrain is always upstream of everything.
    The circular nature of history is a sequential overlapping hyperbola where each orbit overlaps the last to varying degrees, and with each circuit man forgets much but learns enough, or retains enough information and wisdom of the mistakes and enlightenments of the previous orbit that mankind is able to improve its lot, avoid some mistakes and pitfalls, and advance the various sciences and philosophies. (aka “those who forget the past take the dirt nap first axiom of patriarchal wisdom).

    The human terrain in it’s cultural form, comes in every color of the rainbow, theres good and bad like in everything, yet the inherent striving of self improvement, regardless of worst humans can think up and dish out, seeks the highest terrain. In that sense being the high ground, like how a mountain top spring is the origins of the largest rivers leading to the sea, that human terrain is upstream of everything. It is a convoluted path, with many twists and turns, making various stops and starts, regressions and advances. But overall the high ground of enlightenment of the human terrain gains a little more each orbit and advances, again regardless of the worst circumstances.

    I believe there are not only periods of dark and repressive cycles, but huge leaps in enlightenment, and each leap effects profound ripples in the continuum. Which in their effect have long lasting influence into the next cycle.
    To me a perfect example of this positive effect on history, the course of man and it’s high ground, is what W. Cleon Skousen called the 5000 Year Leap, exemplified in his assertion that for the first time in 5000 years of human history, dirt people not only figured out and understood what liberty is, they created Liberty. That it is such a profound event, that more people have and live in Liberty over the course of the history of America, than all of the peoples who have ever lived combined through 5000 years of recorded time, including the time in which America has existed.

    Now I’m just a regular dirt person, I have no claim to advanced knowledge or education, theory or philosophy, I’m just a average joe working stiff. But I can’t help but have this sneaky gut sense right now at least in America, we are at another pivotal overlap in the circular nature of the human race. By that I’m saying the last century and a half, for all it’s unprecedented bloodiness and scale of genocide, war, corruption and political/economic abuse of all that comes with that singular control over billions of dirt people, of those who have risen to hold a grip on the levers of power, are about to be confronted by a movement of dirt people who will sweep this tyranny aside and obtain a higher order of self determination and prosperity.

    I can’t describe how I know what is coming, all I can define is it is a primal power, a gestalt unlike anything that has happened in history. It is building, that none of us know it because it has such a nebulous and grass roots, or primal, nature, of rebellion. That these turnings always seem to come out of nowhere, the preverbal black swans.
    But it’s coming, and when it reaches it’s unknown unknown critical mass, nothing can deny it, nothing can stop it, it will sweep the old order of politics and the power of oligarchy aside like it never existed.

    It will make what happened, and leading up to 1776 look like a fart in a mitten.

  19. I enjoyed Hilaire Belloc’s The Crusades. It’s a readable, concise account devoid of anti-western nonsense. Covers the anarchic organization of a feudal army, the terrain of the campaign, and why the West was able to win where it won and why it lost where it lost.

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