I suppose I came to Chris Wickham’s Medieval Europe with the wrong expectations. It’s tempting to see history as the deeds of men and women, related by chroniclers. I do not mean necessarily the deeds of kings and queens, but those of knights, townsmen or common peasants. In the writing of Chris Wickham, all these individuals are merely units to be aggregated to envisage the the economic and the sociological trends of the age.
This makes for rather dry reading – even if the subject is ambitious and fascinating. For the author’s aim is nothing less than a complete overview of the history of Europe’s Middle Ages. His argument focuses on the divide between the Roman South and the Barbarian North throughout the period – and even up to the 18th century. He points to centralised government power and reliable taxation as hallmarks of Roman influence, and he talks length about the Visigoths in Spain and the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires in the East as continuing the Roman tradition.
But despite all of Wickham’s study and learning, the book remains a rather difficult read. The use of primary sources is scarce, there is no chronological table for the reader’s reference, and the author never refers to the plates with images which appear in the book (making me suspect that these were inserted by a publisher in a haphazard manner as tangentially related to the subject matter, rather than designed as an integral part of the book).
If you are reading about the middle ages for pleasure, I would highly recommend Christopher de Hamel’s book on medieval manuscripts instead. Reach for Wickham’s book only if you are determined to plough through a lot of facts with only socioeconomic theories holding them together. Or, alternately, if you just want to see that lovely cover on your bookshelf.