Five Reflections on World History

I recently finished all three volumes of Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the World (Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance) and I’m surprised at how much it has moved me and pushed me to think about history in new and deeper ways than I had previously. In lieu of some kind of deep essay, which I don’t think I have the energy or depth to accomplish at the moment, I wanted to share five reflections from my experience. 

1. History Demands Context: It does a great disservice to drop in on slices of history and try to comprehend them on their own. Each part of history is connected to what came before it and then what came before that. As a high school teacher, when I look at information and try to identify what’s important and necessary for my students to grasp, it often means I synthesize and simplify very complex and detailed movements and events for them. Just a short reading of Byzantine history and the machinations of the court of Constantinople can make someone’s eyes roll and think, “I get it, sons constantly rebelled, wives schemed, generals were untrustworthy, empires clashed, mercenaries were hired, etc – why is it important to read about it all? It’s so redundant.” This complaint can easily be laid upon these books.

These three volumes of history identify the major centers of power/people/trade in these historical eras and track their rise, fall, and developments over their pages. This means that there is an avalanche of details on warriors, tribes, kings, popes, bishops, empires, revolutions, battles, mergers, and treaties. Despite this overwhelming amount of detail, that can feel superfluous at the outset, when I committed to trying to understand these details from the beginning and how they are intimately connected to each other in a long chain, I approached historical moments that had previously been simplified for me with new and fresh perspective.

For example, I’ve tried understanding the Holy Roman Empire most of my life, but it’s never quite made sense to me. I remember in my AP European History course learning a lot about it and grasping the basics, but never understanding where it came from or why it existed at all. Coming at it this time with the context of the fall of the Roman empire, the feuding of tribes/kingdoms in Europe, the political maneuverings of the Papacy to maintain power/wealth/existence, the founding of Charlemagne’s kingdom, the breakup of the Empire, the jockeying for power and authority among kingdoms…it all made so much more sense than before.

In other words, summary obscures important context, breaking off vital chains every event is tied in with. The more I committed to trying to understand not just a broad history of the world, but a deeper one, the more you feel the weight of how decisions made in the ancient, medieval, and renaissance world are still chained to us today.

2. World History is Extremely Predictable & Unpredictable: It’s impossible to do a broad and deep reading of history without recognizing consistent patterns. In this way, history seems incredibly predictable. Here are just a few examples.
  • When power is passed through blood line, there will inevitably be major disputes over the heir, failure to produce heirs, families claiming equal share, and sons fighting over their inheritance.
  • Successful generals are double-edge swords – for they bring your country victory, but there popularity makes them immediately a threat to the throne.
  • Electing a king who was the best warrior by a small group of people keeps out a lot of incompetence but is often a recipe for civil war.
  • Loosely affiliated tribes will see the rise of a warrior to unite them and when the warrior dies, their identity will often die with them.
  • Fighting civil-wars will inevitably make your empire/kingdom open to external threats
  • The insularity and insecurity of dynasty causing suspicion, purges, violence toward ruling families, possible contenders, generals, administrators, robbing empires of the possible best
  • Hiring mercenaries to bolster your army is essentially hiring a future opponent to the throne
  • Even the Most Invincible Empires Crumble in Time. I’m amazed at how often, whether it is a European, African, Middle Eastern, or Asian empire – what once seemed an impossible enemy to defeat, is eventually overcome. Reading of the spread of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Kahan and later under Tamerlane can feel like they were invincible, and their winnings would never be challenged by the cities and states they absolutely devastated. In the very next paragraph (see predictable) their empire crumbles as their descendants fight over the remnants to varying levels of success, until another invincible empire rises to challenge them.
Despite how easy it might be to foresee the power struggles and cycles of history involved in empires and kingdoms, there is an unpredictable element to history. Here are a few examples:
  • Key figures and leaders who were leading wars, movements, or holding together kingdomsdie at inopportune moments stalling movements and causing great chaos.
  • Extreme weather changes cause droughts, destroys cities, swamps armadas, causes migrations, and swallows armies. Who saw the Great Famine of the 14th century coming?
  • Diseases can spread and become epidemics at random. Who saw the Black Death of the 14th century coming?
  • New migrations and sweeping empires can arrive at a moments notice? Alexander and his armies, the Persians, the Islamic empire, Charlemagne, and the great Mongol Horde of the 13th century – who can predict when tribes will fizzle, or when they will coalesce into new and unbeatable empires?
3. The Reference to the Divine for Authority and Unity is a Two-Edged Sword: Whether it is the Christian Pope declaring a Holy Roman Empire, the Chinese Song empire claiming the heavenly mandate, or the Islamic Empire with Allah behind them, claiming divine sources for your authority and unity in your empire is a two-edged sword. It can obviously unite loosely affiliated people with a common identity and inspire in-depth dedication. However, that dedication can be turned around as soon as it’s perceived you have gone against the divine or usurped it for personal reasons. In the Chinese example, an empire that was winning used the heavenly mandate to justify their authority. The downside is that as soon as they began losing any battles, it could be interpreted that they had lost their heavenly mandate and no longer had authority.

4. The Crusades are Even Worse Than We Let On: There is much debate about the Christian crusades. I for one, don’t know many Christians who defend them whole, most just reference that the idea of defending themselves against an encroaching Muslim empire is just – but what it became wasn’t. To most who have studied them, their obvious faults and failures are probably pretty well-known so I won’t reflect on that part here. What struck me most this go around, is how the concept of “crusade” evolved and changed over time. This was much more depressing to me than I have ever reflected on before. Let me give you a brief overview of what I mean.

The First Crusade is called by Pope Urban II for Christian Warriors to protect against the Turkish lordship over the Holy Land and possibly Byzantium. Those who die in battle will find immediate remission of sins. Christianity calls for crusade and to crusade is to retake Christian lands, kill non-Christians, and secure power. This is the original purpose and idea. Watch the development:
  • 1095/6: Holy Land Crusade - Fight non-Christians to take back Holy Lands and protect Christian kingdoms… (although many of these ended up as Christians vs Christians) sins will be forgiven…
  • 1095: Reconquista Crusade (in Spain) - Fight non-Christians to take Muslim land and protect Christian kingdoms…sins will be forgiven…
  • 1147: Wendish Crusade – Fight non-Christians living on Christian lands to protect Christian kingdoms…sins will be forgiven…
  • 1209: Albigensian Crusade – Fight orthodox Christians harboring Christian heretics on Christians lands to protect Christian kingdoms…sins will be forgiven…property can be kept… (as a consequence to trying to end this crusade and keep this heresy out, a Council of Toulouse in 1229 established a formal appointed committee to hunt out heresy among priests and laypeople – an Inquisition.)
  • 1213: Crusade Against King John of England – Fight orthodox Christian King on Christian lands for defying the order of the Pope…sins will be forgiven…
  • 1452: “Perpetual Slavery” Crusade: The papal bull Dum Diversas (and confirmed three years later in Romanus Pontifex) gives King Alfonso of Portugal the papal seal for the enslavement of the West Africans as an extension of crusade.
In 350 years, the logic of crusade went from a holy war against non-Christians to protect Constantinople and reclaim Jerusalem to the capture and sale of West Africans for the glory of God. “crusade had become another name for war; and its participants were more likely than not to die at the hands of their fellow believers.” By the fourth crusade, the crusaders never made it to the Holy Land, instead they sacked, looted, murdered, and took over Constantinople itself “But self-service had been a part of the crusading impulse since Bohemund’s refusal to give up Antioch. The rot that had set in after the First Crusade had eaten through to the surface; when a crusade offered power, the chance to grasp a kingdom would always trump the cause of Christ.”

5. Endings are the Seeds of New Beginnings: Looking back over the ancient world, medieval world, and renaissance world covered in these three volumes – what seems like the end of the world (fall of Rome, Mongol invasions, black plague, fall of Constantinople) always contains the seeds of a new beginning. The sheer greed and corruption displayed in the crusades (and many other areas of the church) sowed the seeds for a reckoning in the Reformation. The religious wars that followed sowed seeds of an Enlightenment and Revolutionary period that are impossibly tied to the endings that came before. Bauer writes about the Fall of Constantinople, 

“The conquest was the beginning of many other things: the Muslim advance into the west; a wave of Greek thought, moving westward as Byzantine scholars fled from Constantinople into the courts of Europe; the seeds of new nations; the roots of new wars. But endings were easier to see than beginnings.”

Even now as we examine unpredictable losses of our season of Covid (which is still not over) it’s easy to see the things that are ending. I can confidently predict though that it will also be the beginning of something new. I pray to God that I may be part of shaping that something new for the glory of Christ.