Peter Sarris’s splendid new book is a defiant act of intellectual imperialism. Under the triumphant banner of ‘The Oxford History of Medieval Europe’ it annexes four academic kingdoms: Rome, the early Middle Ages, Byzantium, and early Islam. The achievement is impressive, not least for its remarkable concision: nine chapters across 370 pages weld together sixty-nine separate sections, each elegantly conceived as a brief essay. This structure (dully presented on the contents page in tiresome textbook style: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, etc) gives Sarris the flexibility to balance the breadth of his treatment with the demands of detail. Indeed, in many ways, this book is a celebration of the essay as a means of rapidly and efficiently presenting information and ideas. There is room for economic analysis (2.5 ‘Continuity and Discontinuity in the Post-Roman Economy’), geo-politics (5.2 ‘The West Eurasian Steppe in the Mid-Sixth Century’), and good, solid narrative (4.3 ‘The Roman Response under Anastasius and Justin’).
The pitfalls of writing a political history of Europe from AD 500 to 700 are all too obvious. Traditional accounts are shaped by a great deal of rising, declining and falling along with a fair share of crisis, struggle, and consolidation. Sarris perhaps follows these conventional contours rather too willingly