Top positive review
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Possibly the best history book ever published
on 29 April 2005
'The best history book ever'? A rather extravagant claim I admit, and impossible to substantiate, but this is truly a superb book for anyone with even the slightest interest in history. It has two main advantages:
1) It covers 1,000 years in barely 100 pages for less than 10 pounds. You could read it in an afternoon
2) It covers the entire sweep of European and Middle Eastern history together, so that every major event can be seen in its context
The main body of the book consists of political maps - the same basic map every time - showing the medieval world at roughly 30-year intervals. Turn the pages fast enough and empires rise and fall like a cartoon show (quite a long show in the case of the Byzantine Empire). The book also pauses occasionally to show the growth of the major religions, trade and population.
But an unexpected bonus comes with the writing. McEvedy writes with informal clarity and a deft use of language that makes every paragraph engaging and brings the story to life in a way quite unlike most history books (the Kwarizm Shah, he writes, "fell back to rest against the teeth of the Mongolian dragon"; "the King of France was a lunatic, the Duke of Burgundy open-minded about his loyalties and the French nobility as confused as ever about the difference between tournaments and tactics"). Reading him is a pleasure.
The book is substantially updated from earlier editions, justifying the addition of 'New' to the title. Some more subtle analysis has been added, without significantly boosting the word count. The population graphs are also new, so owners of 20-year old editions should consider upgrading.
Two gripes: firstly, 1980s editions excluded Iceland, northern Norway and the fringes of Arabia, explaining that including them would compress the crucial central area for the sake of a few backwaters. These areas have been included now, and it shows that the original judgement was correct.
Secondly, the book fails to mention the Great Schism of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople, which is one of the defining moments of medieval Christianity. But it's still easily worth five stars.