You think you know all there is to know about history? Ideas and Adventure, 1200 to 1700 may just change your mind. It’s an excellent overview of the highlights of history from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Unlike traditional history books, though, besides mentioning some of the major historical occurrences such as the Black Plague, the Hundred Years’ War, and the schism that formed the Protestant Church, the late Sonia Seherr-Thoss’s book also covers important cultural contributions that continue to shape our world today. Each section of the book discussing a particular century concludes with several pages of brilliant color photographs of architecture and art related to that century, making the book as pleasing to the eye as it is stimulating to the intellect.
The book presents fascinating facts about the various centuries that you likely were never taught in high school or college history classes. This was an especially appealing aspect of the book to me. For instance, in the chapter on the thirteenth century, the author explains where that the modern word “bank” derives from the Italian money lenders’ practice of storing “their cash in a bench (in banco).” This century was when, trivia buffs, the “padded, rigid collar” for horses was invented “so that a horse could pull equipment without being strangled.”
Ideas and Adventures is an overview of a specific crucial historical time span and, as such, has both strong points and weaknesses inherent to this type of historical presentation. On the plus side, the reader gets a taste of the people, architecture, music, culture, and art that was considered the best of each century, and which has stood the test of time and is still thought of today as being vitally important and/or beautiful. On the negative side, it’s only a taste. If you want to learn more about specific centuries in greater detail, it’s probably better if you buy or get at the library books written solely about whatever century you’re intrigued by. Then, this book might not be for you, except as a secondary source, or to get you headed in the certain direction of research which might interest you the most.
Judging the book as an overview and realizing it’s not possible to fully cover material completely and deal with as many highlights, I would say that it is a captivatingly written account that never bores you with dull, dry writing. The writing is lively, and history is brought to life. Where else, within the covers of a single volume, would one learn both that Do-It-Yourself books had their origins in China in the 1500s, or that Puritans in England “claimed that dice were made of witches’ bones and cards were cut from their skin”? Now, THAT’s history that is truly interesting to read about and would help enliven the typical high school textbook and hold students’ attention better than the usual fare they’re cursed with.
History is, by its definition, in the past, but it has lessons to teach us today. We should, as the expression goes, learn from the past so we won’t be condemned to repeat it. Also, the great masterpieces of the past, which are mentioned in the book - ranging from the Taj Mahal to the art of Leonardo da Vinci and the sculpture of Michelangelo - remain awe-inspiring examples of what man is, at his best, capable of creating. History is in the past, but it is not a dead thing, though it can perhaps seem so in the hands of a less capable author. It is living, and through archeology and new interpretations of its aspects, we discover new information every year about the past.
How else to explain the fact that every year new books about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War are published? With the passing of every year, we discover something new related to art, for instance, like that Michelangelo included in the frescoes he painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel parts of the human anatomy. There will always be an audience for a well-written history book, and Ideas and Adventure, 1200 to 1700 is definitely one of the best overviews of history you’ll ever read. It’s worth checking out for the stunning color photos alone. If you’ve ever been bored to the point of tears in a history class, this is the type of book that you wished for.