Great Courses: The Early Middle Ages: Part Two, by Professor Philip Daileader
As someone who finds Charlemagne and the Vikings to be subjects of personal interest , there was much in this audiobook to appreciate. What was covered here was covered with a great deal of thoughtfulness and sensitivity and skill, and I definitely consider myself to be at least moderately interested in anything this professor would have to say or write about the Middle Ages. When one is listening to an audiobook, one wants to be informed but one also ones to listen to someone who gets his point across in a winsome and entertaining way, and that is certainly to be found here. The author even closes with a recap of what he introduced with, and that is a discussion of the viewpoints of some notable and famous historians who have pontificated on the history of the Middle Ages, most notably Edward Gibbon and a more obscure Belgian historian whose views have fared better. The author is particularly pointed in his critique of Gibbon’s mistaken view that Christianity weakened the Western Roman Empire and made it vulnerable to destruction, and any historian who is willing to give a fair shake to Christianity is always welcome here.
In terms of its contents, this particular audiobook manages to provide a great deal of interesting material, even if it is heavily slanted towards particular areas. Starting with the rise of the Carolingians, the professor then spends a lecture on Charlemagne along with lectures on Carolingian Christianity and the supposed Carolingian Renaissance based on the attempts of clerics during his time to raise the level of Latin understanding and recover as much as possible of the useful classical texts in achieving that aim. After this the author discusses the fury of the Northmen and the damage they inflicted on Western European society, with a particular look at France, the British Isles, as well as their explorations ranging from the Middle East to North America. A discussion of the collapse of the Carolingian Empire due to infighting follows before the author then discusses the resulting birth of France and Germany as nations and the differences in how these early nations fared during the last part of the early Middle Ages, with a fair amount of foreshadowing as to their distinct fates in the High Middle Ages. After this comes a discussion of England during the time of Alfred all the way to 1066, before the author turns to a lecture on what was going on in Muslim Spain through the fall of the Umayyads and the raise of the taifa states and the entrance of North African rulers to attempt to roll back gains by Christian kingdoms, another instance of foreshadowing. The professor then moves on to discuss Carolingian Europe as the gateway to the Middle Ages and looks at family life, the trial by ordeal, the rise of feudalism and the replacement of slavery by serfdom before looking at the long shadows of the early Middle Ages on contemporary life.
Although I greatly enjoyed this course, there is at least a little bit that I found lacking in this course. Although the book is about the early Middle Ages, the information is pretty heavily slanted towards Western Europe. Perhaps this is a matter of sources and the author’s interest in looking at what most people are interested in, but I must admit that I would have enjoyed it had the author given at least a bit more discussion to Eastern Europe (the author gives no discussion of the revival of Byzantine fortunes during the reign of the Macedonian dynasty, for example). Even so, what is included is certainly worthwhile and the author does give a detailed description of the role of the Vikings in aiding connection between Western Europe and the Middle East during the early Middle Ages, an area of economic history that few people may be aware of, unless they read a great deal about the subject or visited some of the Viking trade entrepots of the area like Saaremaa (a large island off the coast of mainland Estonia ). Likewise, the professor’s discussion of Al-Andalus is also interesting and a bit of a break from the norm as far as the history of the Middle Ages is concerned, so even though the author focuses on Western Europe, he at least appears interested in covering all of it, which is something to appreciate.
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