Tuesday, 23 November 1999

George Holmes: The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe (1988)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1988
Review number: 396

This history, in tone somewhere between a popular and an academic exposition, divides Europe into two zones (north and Mediterranean) and the medieval period into three sections (500-900,900-1200,1200-1500). Each division is covered by a lengthy essay by a different author, making six in all, topped and tailed by short editorial commentaries.

The strength of the editing is indicated by the fact that there is no obvious stylistic change from one chapter to another; the writing is sufficiently uniform to be the work of a single writer. Rather than following political events, the emphasis is on developments on the social and economic fronts, to show the reader a broad outline of the way in which the ancient world transformed itself into the medieval and thence to the modern. English language medieval histories tend to concentrate on England and France; this one has more about Italy and Germany, making a refreshing change.

The illustrations are interesting and well selected - not just the standard pictures which are reproduced endlessly. It would be nice if a few more of them were in colour. There is a small problem with proof reading - in the genealogical table of the kings of Castile, for example, the date of death of Alfonso XI is given as 1350, while in the text a point is made of its being 1349 (he was the only major ruler to die in the massive plague epidemic of that year).

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