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This book is volume 4 in the 11 volume Story of Civilization by Will (and later Ariel) Durant. It covers the approximately 750 years from the fall of Rome through the very beginnings of the Renaissance in the areas encompassing Eastern and Western Europe (including Russia), the Middle East and Northern Africa. It does not cover events in eastern Asia (China, India, Mongolia and other related areas) although it is clear about the influence of those regions on the development of what we now think of as Western Civilization.
The book is very long (the Audible version is more than 61 hours in length) and the breadth of things covered is simply staggering including the early development of Christianity, early Judaic and Islamic civilizations, the Byzantine world, Feudalism, Chivalry, the Crusades, the development of the Catholic Church, the regional structuring of Eastern and Western Europe into what are now the counties of Europe, the influence of Jewish and Islamic culture on Western culture, the rise of Papal power over secular, the Medieval philosophers, the reopening of education to the populace and the rise of what Mr Durant refers to as the Era of Reason. Along the way we are treated to a virtual smorgasbord of information.
Here we learn the origin of many of our common use English words (for example, dollar, grocer, credit, debit, cash, wedding, Latin Quarter and many, many more), we meet the saint and sinners of The Dark Ages, the origins of Medieval banking, the origins of some current city names and a wealth of other information. Along the way we not only are presented with new information but often we find that much that we already knew was wrong. For me, one of the very instructive parts of the book was the description of Feudal Society and here I learned that much that is current common knowledge about the rights and obligations of Barons, Knights, merchants and serfs was, in fact, wrong. Here also we see how and why Feudalism lost its hold on Europe and how the cities and the merchants grabbed and held power, slowing reducing the influence and power of the Feudal Lords, including the monarchs.
While I personally found parts of the book hard to get through I found other parts simply fascinating and often found myself listening to this book with the same interest and zeal as I might listen to a best selling thriller. Some stories, like that of Abelard and Heloise, simply break the heart. Others, like that of Dante, are inspiring and often humorous and the most important thing I learned from this book is that things were often not as I thought them to be. This book, written more than 60 years ago, was like a breath of fresh air clearing out the cobwebs of misinformation I had stored in my mind.
The book is narrated by Stefan Rudnicki and I was at first disappointed that it was not narrated by Grover Gardner, as the previous volume was. However Mr Rudnicki did a wonderful job and, because parts of the book are in Latin, German and Italian (with translations into English), I found myself appreciative that Mr Rudnicki was able to speak the languages in question so well. His voice and pronunciation seemed to perfectly fit the material.
In summary this volume is simply wonderful and, although you may find parts boring, as I did, you will likely find parts enthralling and very, very informative. If you have an interest in the period which we sometimes refer to as the Dark Ages (and which Mr Durant makes clear was really a bridge into the Renaissance) you should not go wrong with this book.
18 of 18 people found this review helpful
This book is my favorite book I've listened to all year. Most books I listen to are because I want to find our place in the universe and how we got where we are. This book does that better than any book I've listened to this year.
The author ties the pieces of the history covered together as a coherent whole. The period of time covered is from about 330 AD (Constantin's son) to about 1315 (Dante), and makes the listener understand how the events led to the making of Modern Europe and explains how we get where we are thus adding to my understanding about our place in the universe.
Most books that mention the Islamic Civilizations from 650 AD to 1300 just give comic book like characterizations. This book does not. He tells the story by first telling the story of the early Christian Church in ways which the reader can understand. I had earlier read an audible book called "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years". I couldn't follow it, too many 'isms' unless you're an expert. Durant is expert at stepping the reader through. One thing I always like to focus on is the development of the Trinity and how it is ultimately resolved. This book shed light on that for me, for example.
I learned even more about Christianity and what they believe in and why by listening to the sections on Islam and Judaism. The author explains by comparing and contrasting between the religions (including paganism), and explaining clearly while looking within a religion.
The author has a couple of narratives that he uses to tie the book together. Perfect order leads to no liberty, tolerance of others beliefs can not exist under absolute certainty, and the part can not understand the whole.
The second half of the book covers from Charlemagne to the Italian Renaissance, which compares and contrast the progress in Western Civilization with the Islamic Civilization. The author does step away from his formula that he used in his first two Volumes. He uses a chronological approach and looks at subsets of natural entities within Europe and is less thematic than he was in his first two volumes. This allows him to be redundant and tell the same story in different places allowing the listener to relearn what he probably didn't catch the first time.
He'll spend a long time on Peter Abelard (1140 AD) which leads to a long section on Thomas Aquinas. Both allow the crack of reason into the magistracy of Faith. Once reason is permitted the relationship between man and the church will change. The Islamic civilization (at this time period) allowed theology to trump philosophy. In the end, Christian Western Europe allowed philosophy to coexist and will ultimately lead to the "Age of Reason".
As I was listening to the second half, I realized that the main character who had not been properly introduced was Dante, but he kept being mentioned. During the story, I ended up buying "Dante's Inferno", because the author would always include Dante way before he was to pop up in the story as a main character, and talks about Dante's Comedy in the final hour of the book and why it is a summary of the whole "Age of Faith". (I also bought a cheap Historical Atlas in order to follow the places better).
People, in general, avoid this period of history because it can be complex and is often thought of has not relevant to today. They are wrong, and I would strongly recommend this book.
16 of 16 people found this review helpful
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A tour de force. This book covers a fascinating period of history. It does so in a tone and style that kept me gripped. I know this is a strange way to describe the eras of faith, but the rich subject matter combined with the excellence of reading kept me hooked throughout. 61 hours was not enough!
This 12 volume sequence of books by Will Durant is rich in content and extremely well put together. I categorise audio books into those I can listen to whilst working (computer programming) and those that must be reserved for non-invasive listening. These volumes definitely sit in the latter category, and are to be savoured. I found them particularly good when doing housework, commuting or merely lazing.
A book I will definitely re-listen at some point. Marvellous!
2 of 2 people found this review helpful