Reviews for ‘Year of Wonders,’ by Geraldine Brooks, ‘The Early Middle Ages’ and ‘The Black Death’ by the Great Courses

The Early Middle Ages, by Phillip Daileader


This was the third in the Great Courses trifecta about the Middle Ages, produced by the Great Courses. It covers everything from the Fall of Rome, to the Rise of the Islamic states from Arabia to Spain, to the Vikings, to the Goths/Ostrogoths/Visigoths, to the Carolingians. It also covers cultural developments, such as how the Medieval Church developed out of the cultural context of Roman/Greek Philosophy and Pagan traditions, the various religious purges, as well as quick autobiography of important saints like Augustus. This even explained the birth and spread of the Feudal system in Europe (the feudal system of lords and vassals and knights was how the Carolingians controlled their empire, so everywhere the Carolingians conquored, the Feudal system spread.).

I enjoyed this, though it wasn’t perfect.

This focused a LOT on the Carolingians, to the point that it seemed like 60% of this lecture series was purely about them/the cultural context of their era.

I think it needed to cover the Byzantines more.

Also, I think the lecture series baited the lead. The lecture series ended with explaining why Rome fell and the Middle Ages beginning, instead of beginning with it. Simply put, small pox, measles and the bubonic plague caused the collapse of the Roman empire and created a power vacuum which let the French/German/Arab/Vikings to rise to prominence. The last lecture explained that fact, not the first lecture. Also, the lecture series never really went into the details of that cultural collapse. I think this lecture series should have covered it in detail, because it seems important.

I think I read the trifecta in the wrong order. I would have enjoyed reading this first, then the ‘High Middle Ages’ then ‘The Late Middle Ages.’

The Black Death


After finishing that last lecture series, I noted how it failed to mention the influence of the Black Death and the various plagues at all. I had this lecture series in my library, so I broke it out and started listening.

The Black Death was the world’s most deadliest plague. During the 1300’s, it killed 50+% of the population of Europe, and it’s believed that it killed similar numbers of people throughout Asia, Persia, and everywhere else it struck. This lecture series covered the Black Death in particular, but not the other various plagues and pestilinces which struck Europe (the Julian Plague, the plague of Augsustinian…). It discusses how various communities reacted to the sudden collapse of society, from Paris to Genoa to even a tiny town like Wolshum in England. It discusses how people rebuilt in the aftermath. It’s even believed that the Black Death was a prime cause of Protestantism, due to Catholicism’s failure to prevent it.

I enjoyed this, and frankly after listening to this I’m stunned by the trifeca of the ‘Early Middle Ages,’ ‘High Middle Ages’ and ‘Late Middle Ages’ completely failed to discuss this topic at all. You’d think that having half the population of Europe dying would be important, but those lectures failed to mention it. In retrospect, I have to dock them points for being inaccurate.

A Year of Wonders


This is a Historical Novel about the year of the Plague in Eyam. I picked this up to read in response to this book being mentioned in the audiobook lectures I just finished and reviewed above.

It’s of a more Literary persuasion, however I felt it did a good job of bringing to life the daily life of 1666 England. It covered everything from the interplay between Catholicism/Mainstream Anglicanism/Puritanism, to witchcraft persecutions targetted at wise women, flagellantism, to the law of mining lead, to the actual historical events of when Eyam was put under mandatory quarentine. It brought the daily life of premodern times to life.

Not all is rosy. I wasn’t left feeling connected to the protagonist. Reading this book, it seemed like a series of events strung together, each excuses to show of the author’s research about a different aspect of life in Eyam. Now, as a man who likes reading nonfiction books, I liked this a lot. However it might not be everyone’s taste. (Examples would be: ‘in this chapter we’re talking about how you mine lead.’ ‘in this chapter we discuss witchcraft.’ ‘in this chapter, we discuss flagellantism.’ ‘in this chapter we discuss the conflicts between Puritans and Anglicans.’) I felt these could have been integrated more holistically throughout, instead of being quite so ‘adventure of the week’ like.

I think the main cause of my detachment from the text is because the audiobook narrator approached the book with a flat affect. This was told from the first person POV, written down in a diary, so it should have felt personal. However, the narrator’s flat affect stripped the emotion out of the deaths of hundreds of people.

Finally, I need to mention that a lot of reviews I read about this book complain that the last 1/6th of the book are bad. Most cite the fact that the characters behave in ways uncharacteristic of them. I disagree, I thought the end of the book was well done. What other people complain as characters acting uncharacteristically, I’d call character growth.

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