The half-millennium or so that followed the division of the Carolingian empire in 843 AD was a time of profound social and political change in Europe. Kingdoms were established, new forms of law and theories of power were developed and military technology and tactics were revolutionised.
Relations between church and state were transformed. The emerging European states developed new cultural identities, while western Christendom as a whole also began to define and assert itself against the Islamic states in the Middle East and north Africa, and the ailing remnants of the Byzantine empire to the east.
By the middle of the 15th century, the various kingdoms of Europe were strong, wealthy, civilised and culturally sophisticated, albeit more or less perpetually violent, viciously intolerant and prone to disease. Trade flourished and some of the world’s greatest philosophers, artists and writers were at work in cities and universities across the continent.
This beautiful, bloody world is the subject of Hywel Williams’s smart illustrated history of Europe’s middle ages. It is a pleasant, erudite jumble of politics, military history, potted biography and cultural study, and it gives a rich flavour of medieval life. Williams’s text is both clear and detailed. He ranges from Plantagenet England, Robin Hood and Chaucer to Norman Sicily and Reconquista-era Spain. The numerous pictures and maps are large, bright and colourful.
Quercus publish lots of these illustrated histories (some years ago I co-authored one of them) and they know what they’re doing. To call this a coffee-table book would be unjust. It is an intelligent and attractive guide to Europe’s middle ages, quite satisfactory to the specialist, but just as accessible to a precocious teenager. It will make plenty of people very happy if they find it wrapped beneath the Christmas tree later this month.