Western Civilization: A Concise History Volume 2
Copyright Year: 2019
Last Update: 2020
Publisher: Portland Community College
Conditions of Use
The author justifiably states in the series introduction that for any survey of a 10,000 year history, “‘balance’ is in the eye of the reader,” leaving any author of such a work open to criticism from reviewers. Overall, I found that the text... read more
The author justifiably states in the series introduction that for any survey of a 10,000 year history, “‘balance’ is in the eye of the reader,” leaving any author of such a work open to criticism from reviewers. Overall, I found that the text satisfactorily covers major themes and events in western history that typically appear in current textbooks on the West, with the welcome addition of additional underrepresented topics and regions.
Many current textbooks on this subject begin with a critical self-reflection on the very concept of “Western Civilization,” a necessary exercise to prevent anachronism and to guide students through a critical assessment of inherited assumptions and stereotypes. Brooks’ series introduction provides a clear explanation of the historiographic issues to the concept of “the West.” His chapters build on this critique by de-centering western Europe from the historical narrative. One passage from the chapter on European expansion is a fitting example: “Europe was not a particularly important place, in the context of global empires…” (98). Like other competing titles such as "The West in the World," "The World and the West," or "The West in the Wider World," Brooks’ volume revises narrow definitions of "the West" to include underrepresented civilizations in the Baltic, Middle East, and Central Asia. These sections contain clear explanations of why these regions are essential to the story of “western” history (see e.g., chapters on the high and late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and era of European conquest). Each of these sections usually also include commentary on revisionist debates, providing a welcome opportunity to engage students in discussions of historiography.
The content in many ways reflects prevailing consensus within the field about historiographic debates. Comments throughout the chapters explicitly challenge persistent stereotypes, such as the claims of commercial and cultural stagnation during the “Dark Ages” or the “progress narrative” based on alleged inherent European superiority. The text’s interpretations reflect the contributions of social history, women’s and gender history, and cultural histories focused on Mediterranean religious coexistence. The chapter on the reformation (tellingly titled “Reformations,” plural), for example, completely eschews the title of the “Protestant Reformation,” and instead introduces students to historians’ nuanced portrayal of a multiplicity of reformations.
As the previous sections indicate, Brooks’ text reflects current prevailing approaches towards western history. Given the enormous scope of the 3-volume text, however, instructors will undoubtedly find sections reflecting outdated research. The section on the Black Death, for example, claims that “historians still debate” what disease ultimately caused the pandemic, although the interdisciplinary field of Black Death studies has shown through decade-old biological and archaeological research that it was the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It should be noted that the author presents the text as a living resource, and the author invites corrections from readers.
The text is written in accessible prose. Since the author embraces a revisionist approach to western history, which largely rejects triumphal progress narratives, the text must depend on other devices to organize and drive the narrative. Chapters focus on key transitional periods (the crises of the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformations), broken down into thematic concerns. The author’s prose is effective at logically linking together the sections to show cause and effect (e.g., patronage and Renaissance culture) or reveal underrepresented narratives (e.g., women in medieval Europe).
The text uses consistent terminology and is largely consistent in its stated aims in the series introduction.
As the author acknowledges, history courses on this topic will vary in many respects. Some are structured on the quarter system instead of the semester system; some colleges break Western history down into two versus three courses, with great variation in the start and end dates of each period; and some universities may move farther away from the “western history” model entirely. The advantage of this free open resource three-volume text is that it can be easily assigned in smaller parts, depending on the individual circumstances of the class.
In addition to chronological divisions, the text is also broken down by historical era (e.g., the High Middle Ages) and thematic focus (e.g., the emergency of cities, medieval women, monasticism). In general, chapters do not overtly depend on previous chapters for the reader's full comprehension of the material.
The organization of the text is generally logical and clear, following common divisions and periodization of other textbooks, with some exceptions. For example, one chapter in volume two is confusingly titled “Politics in the Renaissance Era,” despite coming on the heels of a chapter on the Renaissance that did address Italian politics. “Politics in the Renaissance Era” instead seems to be a grab bag gathering place for topics that perhaps did not fit well elsewhere, such as the so-called “gunpowder revolution,” seven hundred years of developments from the Holy Roman Empire, the emergency of Ottoman and Safavid empires, and the Middle Eastern economy.
Each volume of the series contains the same series introduction. Each chapter includes a clear introduction section and a concluding summary that reiterates important themes. The chapters are broken down into many thematic sections (some only a few paragraphs long), each with a clearly visible heading and appropriate section titles. These should aid with easy navigation of the text, although a glossary and index are much needed. Visuals include maps (e.g., e.g., spread of Black Death; crusader routes; Mongol empire) and images (Joan of Arc, Cosimo Medici, Martin Luther).
The introductions to the 3-volume series contains multiple grammatical errors that distract from the text. Other chapters of the volumes, however, seemed more thoroughly proofread for errors.
Cultural relevance is a real strength of this text. As stated in previous sections, the text’s commitment to a revisionist narrative that de-centers western Europe comes through not just in the introduction, but throughout the individual chapters. This is evident, for example, in the text’s coverage of the crusades, its analysis of Muslim contributions to commercial and cultural renaissances in the Mideast and Europe, its attention to the political, cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity within Mediterranean and Middle Eastern societies, and through cultural comparisons between European states and other global empires.
I would recommend using this text in combination with supplemental texts that can deepen students' comprehension of individual regions, give voice to individual lives (outside the realm of political history), and target thematic issues specific to each instructor's syllabus.
While the text covers a significant span of time it does not give critical depth and context to significant events. One example is the lack of focus on the political background prior to and during the Reformation. This is a significant omission... read more
While the text covers a significant span of time it does not give critical depth and context to significant events. One example is the lack of focus on the political background prior to and during the Reformation. This is a significant omission and one that robs the historical record of depth and accuracy. Additionally, the text does not contain an index or glossary, making it difficult to reference specific locations.
The content of this text is somewhat accurate. Accuracy suffers when broad, general statements are made in place of specific details regarding individuals or events. For example, a statement in chapter 7 regarding Martin Luther states, “He suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety that led him to become monk, the traditional solution to an identity crisis as of the early modern period.” This statement is not a completely accurate portrayal of Luther’s experiences as a young man and no further information is given. Statements such as this are frequently made throughout the text and do not adequately provide the information necessary to understand the individuals or events presented.
The text is easily edited and updated.
Although the author states his intention to provide a text for history students with little to no prior history coursework, there are historical references that are not generally known and for which no context or explanation are provided.
The text is consistent in structure and terminology.
The text is easily divisible by chapters and subheadings within chapters.
The material in the text is not presented in the most logical order. Essential background information is given near the end of the section and would have been valuable to understanding the events presented at the beginning of the section.
The text is easily downloaded as a PDF.
The text contains frequent punctuation errors and occasional grammar errors. These errors disrupt and confuse the flow of narrative.
The text is culturally appropriate and respectful.
This text provides a basic framework for a Western Civilization course, but an instructor would need to address its grammar and content issues, as well as other issues mentioned above, before assigning chapters to students.
The text is comprehensive and manages to cover in at least some detail all the topics one would expect in a Western Civ survey—partly this is achieved through the three-volume format. read more
The text is comprehensive and manages to cover in at least some detail all the topics one would expect in a Western Civ survey—partly this is achieved through the three-volume format.
The accuracy of the text is a two-fold issue. On the issue of basic facts as part of a story within the larger chapter, say the discussion of Urban II’s preaching of what became the First Crusade in 1095 (volume 2, chapter 1), the text is generally accurate.
Regarding the details and sometimes the basic features of institutions, systems, and peoples, the results are more mixed. Volume 1 chapter 12, “The Fall of Rome,” makes liberal use of the terms “Germans” and “Celts” even though historians have been agreed for some decades now that these are inventions and misunderstandings of 19th-century historians.
In volume 1 chapter 15 “Early Medieval Europe,” the seven sacraments of Catholicism are presented in a straightforward manner, except for the fact that marriage in early medieval Europe was not yet considered a sacrament. The “feudal system” is presented as a messy, though still very real, thing (this is not so much of an issue as historians remain divided on the usefulness of the term, English-language historians often discarding it completely while German historians tend to grudgingly accept it).
Volume 2, chapter 11 “Trade Empires and Early Capitalism,” presents a straightforward description of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, and crucially points out that slavery is often misunderstood in North America because most slaves were sent to the Caribbean (pg. 165). Further on the text discusses the uniquely racial character of Trans Atlantic Slavery, and argues that racial theories were created to justify the trade, and that ‘the whole idea of human “race” is largely derived from the Slave Trade—biologically, “race” is nothing more than a handful of unimportant cosmetic differences between people, but thanks to the history of the enslavement of Africas, Europeans…led the charge in describing “race” as some kind of fundamental human category…” (pp. 167-168). Current scholarship, such as that by Geraldine Heng, has strongly argued, not always uncontroversially, that “race” was largely invented in the Middle Ages and that racial theory was created before the TransAtlantic Slave Trade began.
Perhaps one of the most problematic chapters, particularly from the point of view of a medieval historian (as the reviewer is), is the volume 2 chapter 12, “The Scientific Revolution.” Statements such as “Medieval and early-modern Europeans had never developed an empirical scientific culture because the point of science had never been to discover the truth, but to describe it” (p. 172) are simply incorrect and present students and teachers with a very shaky foundation on which to study the period. Further on, there are statements such as that Francis Bacon invented the scientific method and “took the radical step of breaking even with the Renaissance obsession with ancient scholarship by arguing that ancient knowledge of the natural world was all but worthless and that scholars in the present should instead reconstruct their knowledge of the world based on empirical observation” (p. 174). This is inaccurate at virtually every level, beginning with the twin facts that the ‘scientific method’ was, as far as we know, “invented” by Ibn al-Haytham in the 11th century and either discovered or rediscovered by Roger Bacon in the 13th century. The first revision of ancient science had actually come during the Abbasid period, and Muslim, Christian, and Jewish medieval scientists had pushed far past the boundaries of ancient science by the early 1300s.
The relevance of the text is a complicated issue. As far as statements of fact, the text is solid, and in the frequent instances where, as a survey text must, complex movements are interpreted, students are given a point of view to explore or, depending on the instructor’s inclination, to challenge. In many chapters, however, there is relatively little to suggest the last fifteen years of scholarship on the issues, and little to suggest to students that the study of history is one of motion, one that is constantly in a state of tension, revision, and re-revision of interpretations over contested historical facts.
Clarity is not an issue—the writing style is both engaging and largely free from jargon, with terms being explained in the text.
The text is internally consistent—there is a single authorial voice and point of view throughout both volumes that translates into a unified whole. Repeating the introduction in each volume of the series helps to reinforce this single vision.
Although the text is arranged in PDFs across three parts, rather than two as is more common in Western Civ courses, nothing prevents picking and choosing different chapters as needed for the course. The chapters themselves all contain several sections indicated by subheadings. For example, volume 2 Chapter 1 “The Crusades and the High Middle Ages,” contains subheadings “The Crusades,” “The First Four Crusades,” “Consequences of the Crusades,” “The Northern Crusades and the Teutonic Knights,” “The Emergence of the High Middle Ages,” and so on, up to a total of fourteen subheadings across 20 pages.
The text’s organization is a straightforward chronology, within which there is some room for topical discussions. In volume 2 Chapter 11, for example, the chapter is situated within a broader chronology, but the topics themselves—“The Dutch” and “Britain and the Slave Trade” for example, are logical and keep the text moving.
The interface is clean, with no observable distortion of images or text in the entire document. There are on average 4-5 maps and images per chapter, drawn from open sources.
There were no grammatical errors that this reviewer could see.
The text seems to avoid problematic terminology for the most part. The discussion of, say the Indigenous Peoples in volume 2 chapter 6 “European Exploration and Conquest”, is largely from a “satellite” level. That is, the text largely remains descriptive rather than necessarily analytical, and generally maintains a European perspective. It would be up to the individual instructors who use this textbook to assemble primary sources that give a diverse set of perspectives and experiences. The introduction, which discusses the term "Western Civilization," its history and the author's approach, lays out problems and possibilities in a manner perhaps more restrained than is warranted, since the positive aspects of thinking on Western Civ were often, if not always, entwined with a white supremacist outlook and advocacy, and it would be good to discuss these moral and philosophical tensions in the introduction as well.
On the whole this three-volume series is a tremendous improvement on previous OER Western Civ textbooks. However, given the limitations described above, as well as the fact that it comes with no timelines, key terms, indices, glossaries, story lines, or primary sources, and few links to further resources, instructors will still have to do a tremendous amount of work to build a course around this textbook.
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1: The High Middle Ages
- Chapter 2: The Crises of the Middle Ages
- Chapter 3: The Renaissance
- Chapter 4: Politics in the Renaissance Era
- Chapter 5: European Exploration and Conquest
- Chapter 6: Reformations
- Chapter 7: Religious Wars
- Chapter 8: Absolutism
- Chapter 9: Trade Empires
- Chapter 10: The Scientific Revolution
- Chapter 11: The Enlightenment
- Chapter 12: The Society of Orders
- Chapter 13: The French Revolution
About the Book
Western Civilization: A Concise History is an Open Educational Resource textbook covering the history of Western Civilization from approximately 8,000 BCE to 2017 CE. It is available in three volumes covering the following time periods and topics:
- Volume 1: from the origins of civilization in Mesopotamia c. 8,000 BCE through the early Middle Ages in Europe c. 1,000 CE. Volume 1 covers topics including Mesopotamia,Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Islamic caliphates, and the early European Middle Ages.
- Volume 2: from the early Middle Ages to the French Revolution in 1789 CE. Volume 2covers topics including the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the European conquest of the Americas, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment.
- Volume 3: from the Napoleonic era to the recent past. Volume 3 covers topics including the Industrial Revolution, the politics of Europe in the nineteenth century, modern European imperialism, the world wars, fascism, Nazism, and the Holocaust, the postwar era, the Cold War, and recent developments in economics and politics.
About the Contributors
Dr. Christopher Brooks