I picked up The Middle Ages by Morris Bishop after reading Juliet Barker’s Agincourt and Conquest. I was looking for a general history of Medieval Europe and it seemed to fit the bill. It turned out that this book wasn’t exactly what I thought it was but it was exactly what I needed.
The Middle Ages is not a chronological history of the Middle Ages. It doesn’t tell what happened when; it doesn’t list Kings and nobles or follow the various wars and campaigns of Medieval Europe. Instead it tells the story of life in the Middle Ages. It explores the roles of the nobility, the serf, the knight, the clergy, the businessman, and the artist and what life was like for each. With good humor and wit, Bishop tells the reader what it was like to live during the Middle Ages and how life changed through the era.
“…the Middle Ages bequeathed to its son, modernity, a richer inheritance than it had received at birth”
Bishop holds that the Middle Ages weren’t as dark as some would have us believe and his book illustrates that well. He shows that were accomplishments in the arts, architecture, and education. Comfort was brought to the daily life and the seeds of the industrialism and capitalism were planted as were those of socialism and communism. As he concludes, the Middle Ages paved the way for the Renaissance that was to come. He also puts the violence Middle Ages in perspective with our times; he shows us that while the Middle Ages may have had “tortures, judicial mutilations, blindings, (and) beheadings” our modern age has “air-bombings, genocides, and the starvation of peoples.”
The Middle Ages isn’t a long book; in print version it comes in at 277 pages, but it is a wonderful and informative book. It is a great starting point for learning about the Middle Ages and Medieval Europe. Other specialized books will tell you what happened during the Middle Ages and when it happened, but this book is a social history that gives you a background in what the Middle Ages were like for those who lived it and what the roles of each part of society were. As I read it, I found myself wishing I would have found it before I read Agincourt and Conquest. It was a fascinating read. Despite being originally published in 1968 it holds up well because Bishops storytelling, humor, and wit keep the reader engaged and interested. For that reason and because of how useful it is at introducing one to the Middle Ages it is a five star read.