The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack



The Middle Ages


After the Plague by Simon Doubleday

This Great Courses work spends about 25% of its length describing the Black Death and the rest looking at parts of Europe afterwards. There’s an effort made to connect the evolution of culture, literature, religion, and the economy to the trauma of the Black Death. Parts are very powerful, such as the exploration of the grief medieval parents felt when they lost a child. (This is especially important because there was a popular—if idiotic—idea in the historiography a hundred years ago that medieval parents couldn’t have loved their children like modern parents do because the high child mortality rates would have made it impossible to function if they had.) Overall, I was pleased with the breadth of Doubleday’s look at medieval society, but I didn’t really feel like he brought anything new to the table.

The Restoration of Rome by Peter Heather

Heather takes a look at the attempts by various leaders in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages to reestablish imperial power in the west. He examines the reigns of Theoderic, Justinian, Charlemagne and several of his heirs, and finally a series of popes whom he argues were the most successful at recreating the empire. It’s an interesting book which at the very least shows how important the concept of empire continued to be in the Middle Ages. For me, it was Heather’s account of the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire—rooted in Frankish customs that divided inheritance among all sons—that was most interesting. This is a long book, but worthwhile.

In Alpha Order by Author

The Black Death by Dorsey Armstrong

In the middle of the fourteenth century, Europe was devastated by a plague which has come to be called the Black Death. It killed at least fifty percent of the population. Dorsey Armstrong’s Great Courses book on the subject is the single best account I have ever encountered on the subject. She takes her time with the subject matter, starting with the many theories on what diseases the Black Death might have been composed on (and modern scholars think it was almost certainly more than one—bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic plagues, with a sprinkling of hemorrhagic fever and anthrax). She also traces how the plague spread in different waves across the continent, looks at communities that were devastated, and then takes the time to explore the plague’s impact on the economy, religion, literature and art, the social order, and more. This is a great way to educate yourself on the most devastating plague to ever strike the western world.

Medieval Myths and Mysteries by Dorsey Armstrong

This is one of the most delightful Great Courses books I’ve yet listened to. At its essence, Armstrong picks up a bunch of images from the Middle Ages that have filtered down to our modern society and explores both the modern story and the actual medieval roots. Some are about famous figures—Robin Hood and King Arthur. Others are about magical creatures like the Questing Beast. Still others are about events like the Black Death or institutions like the Templars. And at each point your understanding of the people who lived during the Middle Ages will grow, your understanding of how stories come into existence will evolve, and your appreciation of this rich and wondrous period of our history will expand.

Years that Changed History: 1215 by Dorsey Armstrong

I love history books that connect events happening in one part of the world with another, even if the only connection is that they are occurring at the same time. That’s what Dorsey Armstrong does here. She takes snapshots around the world 1215 to show how fundamental change was happening everywhere: Magna Carta, the Fourth Lateran Council, Genghis Kahn, Japan, Africa, and North America. It’s a delightful little set of lectures.

The Sea Wolves by Lars Brownworth

Brownworth provides a quick and informative overview of the Vikings—mostly focused on their raiding and conquest outside of Scandinavia. It’s got chapters on France, England, Russia, Byzantium and Ireland. It also deals with settlement in Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland. Overall, it paints a picture of a hardy expansionist people. If you’re interested in the Vikings, this is a nice introduction.

Charlemagne by Philip Dailander

Charlemagne gets mentioned in every Western Civilizations I course mostly because of the Carolingian Renaissance. This Great Courses text will show you that his impact was much broader than his important educational and administrative reforms. His military conquests are actually only a small part of the text. There’s a lot of emphasis on his administration, his diplomacy, his economy, and of course, his claiming of the imperial title. There’s also a couple of lectures on his impact and legacy. This book is well worthwhile for anyone interested in one of Europe’s greatest kings.

The Life and Legacy of Muhammad by Maria Dakake

This short Great Courses book on Muhammad and very early Islam is a great supplement to the quick coverage this subject matter usually gets in surveys of the medieval world or the origins of Western Civilization. Muhammad was obviously a fascinating man but important moments in his life like the first revelations from the Angel Gabriel, the move to Medina, the return to Mecca, and the succession after he passed away, are usually painted in quick brush strokes that fail to help the reader understand the intricacies of what was happening around him. The succession of Abu Bakr after Muhammad’s death illustrates this point quite well. It’s usually presented as the faithful gathering to pray and elect a successor. And yet, this succession was decided while Muhammad’s family was burying the prophet and one of the main contenders to succeed him, Ali, was not even present. And some of the actions Abu Bakr took next (like confiscating the prophet’s wealth to distribute to the poor instead of letting it be inherited by his family) certainly looks like an attempt to suppress the ability of Ali to challenge his rule. Details like these enrich history and let us see a little bit behind the simplistic curtain that popular histories often draw over complicated events.

Turning Points in Middle Eastern History by Eamon Gearon

Let’s be clear about this—this collection of lectures is both well written and very interesting, but it also seems to be misnamed. First off, it begins with Mohammad and focuses very much on the growth of Islam as a political (and religious) force. Nothing that happens before Mohammad is even mentioned. It also covers events that happen in North Africa, Spain, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, areas that we do not classically think of as the Middle East. This led me to think that what Gearon was really writing was a history of Islam, but it’s truly that either as it doesn’t cover important events that brought Islam further around the globe.

The focus is also very heavily on the Middle Ages, and as such I thought was very light on the twentieth century. I would have liked to see an analysis of the ousting of the Shah of Iran and the resulting Hostage Crisis and radicalization of that country. The two Persian Gulf Wars also would have made interesting material. And I could go on. So this is a highly informative book about Islam in the Middle East, North Africa, and neighboring regions that would seriously benefit from an addendum that covers the region since World War I. This was a great start, but I feel it ended prematurely.

Ireland: A History from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day by Paul Johnson

This a quick history of the complex struggle for Irish independence—a subject I do not know as much about as I would like to. It starts with a swift overview of Ireland and England in the Middle Ages which showed what I considered to be a moment or two of clear English bias by the author. For example, Johnson states that the introduction of English law benefited everyone in Ireland—an assertion many would argue with. The Irish had a well-developed legal system that was complicated but governed their affairs well into the period of English conquest. It was remarkably different than the English justice system, but that does not mean that many were not well-served by it. The English system was administered by the English and biased in favor of English (and later Protestant) subjects. It’s hard to say with a straight face that all the Irish benefited from the transition to the new legal system.

Similarly, I felt that Johnson went out of his way to justify the slaughter of Irish garrisons and civilian populations by Cromwell—beyond simply setting a context that this sort of behavior happened elsewhere as well. It worries me when I see bias like this in the areas I know about, because it makes me wonder what I’m missing in the areas I’m ignorant regarding.

That being said, this is quick passage through the early modern and modern efforts of many Irish to gain independence. It shows how the forces of nationalism found support among both Catholics and Protestants before being increasingly divided over the issue of union. It also showed how England fumbled many opportunities to improve this situation. The Land Law issues (first stealing almost all the land in Ireland from Catholics and then the efforts to restore the land to Catholics) was among the most interesting to me.

1066: The Year That Changed Everything by Jennifer Paxton

This short entry in the Great Courses series provides a nice tight account of William’s famous conquest of England. The narrative is fairly conservative/traditional in covering the actual conquest. If you know a lot about the Conquest and the political situation in England, Normandy and the Viking territories of the north, then this account will likely be too short for you. I found the greatest value in Paxton’s analysis of the importance and impact of the Conquest for later generations and wish she had spent more time on it. Overall, this is well worth the three hours it takes to listen to it—especially if you have little knowledge of how the Normans came to rule England.

The Story of Medieval England by Jennifer Paxton

This is an excellent overview of the history of England from the days of the Romans to the triumph of Henry Tudor. I have read a lot of these histories and am always pleased when a new one teaches me something. While it mostly tracks political history, it also deals with social, cultural, and literary developments. The problem with a brief survey like this is that you don’t get a lot of depth. For example, Paxton embraces the traditional Shakespearian narrative of evil King Richard murdering the princes in the tower, and while she mentions that not everyone agrees with this interpretation, she doesn’t go into any of the reasons that support the counter narrative that Henry Tudor was their killer. But to her credit, she does then point out that Henry killed all of the other possible claimants to the English throne—apparently without recognizing that this strengthens the case against him and weakens her.

But little annoyances like this aside, this is a really good overview that everyone interested in English history should enjoy.

The History of Spain by Joyce E. Salisbury

I’ve been very interested in the history of Spain since my Freshman year in college when I took a course on the Reconquista and Salisbury does a wonderful job of detailing the history of this fascinating peninsula from the earliest human peoples to the modern day. Her lectures are engaging and informative and the course moves very quickly. If you have an interest in Spain, this is a great place to flesh out your understanding of its history.