By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Middle Ages study is often restricted to Europe. English, Scottish, Irish, and French history abound, but the rest of the world saw great change as well. A new Wondrium series reveals the world before the Renaissance—all of it.
The Middle Ages is known for figures like Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, and Leif Eriksson. Even when we think of the Black Death, we tend to think of its impact on Great Britain, France, and Italy. However, the Middle Ages obviously happened all over the world at the same time.
It was the era of Genghis Khan, of the Vikings reaching North America, of the spread of Islam, and of the construction of the famous Easter Island statues. Charlemagne reunited Northern Europe, while further East, the caliphate Harun al-Rashid founded the city of Baghdad.
How does such a wide-reaching series get developed? Rahima Ullah, Wondrium senior content developer, provided a behind-the-scenes look at The Middle Ages around the World and what went into building its world from the ground up.
“The Middle Ages is this long, extensive time period [and] most people will say, ‘Ok, it’s just focusing on Europe,’ but it’s such a huge time slot; so, there’s obviously other things going on around the globe,” Ullah said. “Some of these things have major effects on Europe as well, and vice-versa. It’s not that Europe is an isolated continent; it’s directly connected obviously to Asia and Africa and so there’s all sorts of trade and politics and so many things that happen on that front.”
In the Middle Ages, historic explorations were occurring from Europe to other parts of the globe, such as North America and Marco Polo’s journey to China. Additionally, many civilizations were thriving around the world at the time, including the Samoans and Tongans settling the Polynesian Islands in the South Pacific.
World history isn’t the only subject covered, though.
“What you’d really get out of this series beyond that is what else is going on in the world in terms of environment, economics, inventions and innovations, what sort of educational things are happening,” Ullah said. “Things like the potato being cultivated in the Andes, that’s something that has a major effect over history for a variety of reasons. [So does] gunpowder being developed in China.”
Real and Imagined Travel
Ullah said that one recurring theme of The Middle Ages around the World is the increasing connection of different people throughout the world. Thanks to a rise in boating and international trade, the world became more connected—for better or worse. One dramatic example of this is how, during the late Middle Ages, the Black Death spread around the world—first along the Silk Road and then by other means to more widespread territories.
“The overarching theme is that it’s looking at civilizations and the interconnectedness of civilizations,” Ullah said. “That could be through different lenses, whether it’s religion or science or environment or economics.”
This growing web around the globe is highlighted through one of Ullah’s favorite things about the series: travel diaries and travelogues. True tales of adventure to exotic lands became an entire genre of literature. Ironically, the most popular of them all was a complete fabrication: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.
“What he did was, he looked at everybody else’s travelogues and basically plagiarized and then exaggerated further,” she said. “Going further from that, though, what he played into were a lot of Europeans’ religious biases or fears of what the rest of the world might be like, describing other peoples in the world as ‘monstrous races’ and [showing] a bit of the beginnings of how these racist perspectives came about.
“That was really fascinating to learn about.”