The Middle Ages: A Very Short Introduction

Cover of The Middle Ages: A Very Short Introduction.

A disappointing VSI book, this time around: light on substance, but heavy on the condescension. I’ll list a couple of things that annoyed me (lest I start thinking I liked the book) and then some things I learnt:


  • “Even the word Europe is far from fixed. I shall use it to describe the westernmost part of a vast continental mass […].” – or write about Europe? Or call it Western Europe? A vast continental mass my arse.
  • Uses so many words to say so little. I had hoped that a VSI book would be concise, and this is anything but. “In the course of the 14th century the religion born in Judaea, the offshoot of Judaism which for several centuries did not possess a name, became a growing and ultimately defining force—Christianity” – come on, really?
  • Uses “barbarians” without qualification or irony (though at least not a lot).


  • Urban centres and commerce are later than I thought: England and France in the 12th century, Bohemia in the 13th and in the Baltics in the 14th century.
  • Rennaissance people felt too high and mighty and so coined the term “Middle Ages” (gtfo Petrarch), and then the 19th century romantics rebelled against the 18th century enlightenment by celebrating the period (though also to go on with their whole nation state thing).
  • In the Domesday book (1086), about 10% of the recorded population are slaves, and slaves and serfs are a established feature throughout the period, obligated to work on command and highly restricted in their ability to travel.
  • Marriage tracks how far Christianity managed to take over culture, and how long it took to go from the Roman contract or the Germanic family enterprise to the religious/moral construct.
  • Courts accepting the testimony of women give us unusual and early information on everyday worries, especially as they relate to relationships. Also, guild widows were allowed to carry on with their husband’s work.
  • Monasteries took their wealth not only from being given estates, but also from holding on to them over the centuries without having to split them up for multiple sons over and over again. (Makes total sense, but I never thought about it that way.)