Great Courses: The Early Middle Ages: Part One, by Professor Philip Daileader
As someone who is particularly fond of the early middle ages despite its obscurity and the lack of historical source material , I found this course to be enjoyable. One of the strengths of the Great Courses as a whole is the way that they generally have able professors teaching about subjects they know and love in a way that skips out the boring parts and manages to provide genuine insight to listeners at a fraction of the cost of higher education. The fact that I review so many of these Great Courses is demonstration of their genuine excellence as a whole, as they are a very enjoyable and profitable way to pass the time while driving in a car. Be that as it may, this particular course shows the professor wrestling with some of the major issues of the time period between 300 and 1000 AD, or at least the first half of that period or so in this part, which contains twelve lectures and about six hours of listening time. Better yet, he manages to address these larger issues and controversies without taking time from the material that people want to hear about the peoples of Western Europe and the Levant from the time between Rome’s third century crisis and the rise of Islam.
The subject matter in this particular lecture is well chosen, and one could easily imagine that had the professor wanted to make this a three or four part lecture that even more material could be chosen. Given the constraints of time, though, it is worthwhile not to spend too much time bemoaning what was not chosen and to enjoy what was selected for these twelve lectures. The professor begins with a discussion of the long shadows of the late Roman Empire on the early Middle Ages and the controversy between those who call this period the dark ages and those who opt for the less fierce and more politically correct nomenclature of late antiquity. After this, he moves on to a discussion of Diocletian and the crisis of the third century that nearly brought Rome to its knees. A discussion of Constantine the Great follows, as does an interesting discussion about the relationship of Pagans and Christians in the fourth century focused on Julian the Apostate and his abortive efforts to revive classical paganism. A discussion of early monasticism in the Egyptian deserts follows, and then two lectures on Augustine and his outsized influence on Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages and beyond. A couple of lectures then follow about the stress of barbarian infiltration on the late Roman Empire that leads to the fall of the Western Roman Empire and a comparison in the survival of Roman culture and institutions in the kingdoms of the Franks and Goths on the one hand and the lack of survival of these elements in Arthur’s England. A lecture on the Byzantine Empire and one on the rise of Islam follow, giving the course as a whole a considerable interest and topicality for contemporary students of history.
There is much to appreciate about this course. The professor shows himself to take a mediating opinion between those writers who have a great deal of faith in divine providence and those who, like Gibbon, are far more harsh on Christianity. Without showing any evidence of any particularly strong religious belief, he manages to present a thoughtful and generally sympathetic view of the people of the world of the early Middle Ages that presents their struggles as well as their considerable achievements, although he appears not to be a particularly profound student of engineering history when he talks about the Hagia Sophia and its engineering excellence. With these caveats aside, the course is an enjoyable one and one wishes that the professor had the time to speak of far more aspects of the period than he does, as there are many elements of the period on a global scale, from the rise of Axum and medieval Ethiopia to the fall of the Han and the Middle Ages of China, Japan, India, and Central Asia, that would be of great interest to students of the Middle Ages with a global perspective. If one judges this book for what it is rather than it would it could be, it is still a worthy way to spend one’s time listening to audiobooks in the car.
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