History With A Grain of Salt: Book III by Zeno Singer


historyZeno Singer’s History With A Grain of Salt: Book III, the Middle Ages is the third in a series of books that attempt to present history in narrative form. Singer’s aim is to deliver history as a series of interesting, and often, humorous stories, arguing that if one “tell[s] events in a humorous way with ‘a grain of salt’ or common sense, it lends a somewhat ironic tone to the story, and then the causal links between events become clear. All this contributes to easier memorizing and actually enjoying the otherwise ‘boring’ history and stories to which you are listening.” Singer’s project is ambitious, and this ambition is immediately evident in Book III. Singer begins with Attila the Hun and continues from there, attempting to hit all of the major events and figures of the Middle Ages, including the fall of the Roman Empire, the creation of Islam, the Crusades, the Vikings, Genghis Khan, the Inquisition, Marco Polo, the Great Schism, the Black Plague, and Joan of Arc.

Singer does manage to keep the reader interested in the stories he tells, despite some repetition, and his text would most likely be useful to a complete novice, a fact Singer acknowledges by subtitling his text, “For Young People Who Want Instant Answers.” More educated scholars will be perturbed by Singer’s odd syntax (at one point, he refers to the last Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus as “wearing two significant names”) and overuse of exclamation points, as well as his habit of lending credence to long-debunked stereotypes of the Middle Ages, such as his repeated references to the Dark Ages, a term that most modern scholars almost never use, and a light smattering of anti-Catholicism; his portrait of the medieval church is unflattering, to say the least, and shows almost none of the respect with which he treats Islam. Additionally, even though Singer acknowledges that the Inquisition was most active in the Early Modern Era, he still devotes a great deal of time to it in his text, along with brief references to witch hunts, almost exclusively an Early Modern, rather than medieval, phenomenon, both of which perpetuate a stereotype of the Middle Ages as a barbaric period, populated by savages without much to offer in terms of achievements. Nonetheless, Singer’s text moves quickly and provides an entertaining introduction to the time and could serve as a useful introduction to a complex and fascinating period of history.

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