Western Civilization: A Concise History Volume 1
Copyright Year: 2019
Last Update: 2020
Publisher: Portland Community College
Conditions of Use
The text is very comprehensive in terms of the number of civilizations and cultures covered. In fact, I wonder if even a 16-week semester would suffice to cover them. It is gratifying to see a fairly detailed chapter on Islamic civilization. The... read more
The text is very comprehensive in terms of the number of civilizations and cultures covered. In fact, I wonder if even a 16-week semester would suffice to cover them. It is gratifying to see a fairly detailed chapter on Islamic civilization. The text is also quite comprehensive in its survey of political and military events. Empires like those of the ancient Hittites receive more coverage than would be typical in a Western Civilization survey. However, to little attention is given to artistic, literary, and cultural life in general. Brief thumbnail sketches of topics like Greek art and drama just don't go far enough. The lives of ancient women are mentioned in a number of places, but without enough detail. The orientation of the text is clearly from the top on down, with an emphasis on dynasties, rulers, and their wars and conquests. One example is the list of Egyptian rulers and their accomplishments, which are important, to be sure, but daily life, while mentioned in various cultures, is given too little attention, as are topics like the construction of the pyramids. One example is the statement that slaves probably didn't build the pyramids of Giza, which is accurate, but substantially more information than that is now available regarding the lives of workers. Another example is how the rise of Hebrew monotheism receives a fair summary, but almost entirely from biblical texts, without much reference to archaeology. The lack of even short excerpts from key primary documents is also a problem, as is the need for more maps.
The text was quite accurate in most regards, though the statement in the introduction about most histories of Western Civilization starting with the Greeks doesn't match my experience. I don't think I have ever seen a text which doesn't begin with Neolithic events and then moves to Mesopotamian civilizations. Recent archaeology also should be reflected more often in the text. For example, the work at Gobleki Tepe in Turkey has challenged traditional explanations of how the rise of farming and civilization arose in sequence. Another problem area was the description of the life of Jesus as having been miraculous based on statements of some gospels. The earliest gospel, that of Mark, does not include any of the legends of the nativity, and historians don't describe events like the visitation and annunciation as historical. The statement that the young Jesus showed great aptitude for theology is likewise not historically responsible. We really know nothing of Jesus' early life. The author would do well to consult the work of the Jesus Seminar, whose founder, Dr. Robert Funk, has estimated that 18% of the sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospels is accurate. The problematic nature of the gospels as historical sources needs some attention in the text.
There is a need to incorporate recent archaeological evidence and the work of other social sciences in order to bring the text truly up to date. One example is the area of Biblical archaeology, which has challenged the traditional explanation of the rise of Hebrew monotheism in interesting ways, most importantly the notion that Yahweh was worshiped with Asherah as a consort. These discoveries are now decades old. I also think the text needs a substantial increase in the coverage of gender and class, with more attention paid to the daily lives and contributions of women, workers, and slavery.
I found no problems with the clarity and style of the text, and especially appreciated the lack of jargon.
Although I have problems with the degree to which the text centers historical events from a ruling class perspective, I must agree that the approach is consistent. I would recommend much more of a "people's history" approach.
Sections of the text could easily be assigned in smaller sections without losing a sense of clear organization. Chapter subheadings are clear and there are rarely more than 3-4 pages assigned to each subheading.
Topics are generally listed clearly; the chronology works well. However, I think the text would more effective with blocks of primary documents to break up the narrative. More charts and maps would also relieve the flow of one page full of text after another. Images are critical to a students' grasp of major themes, not just one the flow of events.
I was pleased with the easy interface of mostly maps in the text, though at least one map lacked a key to the expansion of an empire.
Grammar and style are generally not a problem, and the book seems to be at an appropriate level for college readers. However, a few sentences could raise problems, such as this one from page 204: "Christianity united self-understood "Western Civilization" just as Roman culture had a few centuries earlier."
The text's problems with cultural relevance do not stem from dismissive or insensitive references, but much more from its default perspective: that of male rulers (with exceptions of course) and how history is grouped around their actions.
Despite some shortcomings, the author certainly deserves praise for a highly readable and accurate survey of a vast period of history.
The comprehensiveness of this work is somewhat uneven. Some topics, such as ancient Sumeria and the Greeks resemble similar treatments in other concise editions. Other topics, such as the medieval religion, medieval state building, and the... read more
The comprehensiveness of this work is somewhat uneven. Some topics, such as ancient Sumeria and the Greeks resemble similar treatments in other concise editions. Other topics, such as the medieval religion, medieval state building, and the defining features of Germanic and Celtic cultures are noticeably weak or absent. The author acknowledged that his background in the history of political theory influenced his focus on political history. He acknowledges the book’s lack of coverage of topics related to gender, social relations, and cultural development. One way to appreciate Brooks’ contribution is that it constitutes an initial edition, ready for emendations and improvements. Although it has been traditional to provide an index in paper textbooks, it seems less necessary in an electronic source that one can easily search. Nevertheless, a glossary with hyperlinks to somewhat specialized terms, such as a redistributive economy, would be a benefit for many students.
Any textbook that covers the scope of material included in these volumes will have a few inaccuracies, or it will offer explanations that cause a specialist to cringe. Nevertheless, Brooks’ treatment of complex historical developments, such as the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, not only was lucid and brief but also demonstrated familiarity with recent works on the subject. On a few topics, this mastery of the material was not as evident, especially in matters medieval: the use of Latin was not confined to written communications between intellectuals in Europe during the Middle Ages; scholars across Europe continued to speak Latin into the early modern period. Similarly, the only impact of the Fourth Crusade was not the weakening of Byzantium; the Venetians carved out a trade empire that lasted for centuries.
One of the strengths of OER textbooks is that the author can allow derivative publications with acknowledgement. This volume provides a much-needed OER textbook for survey courses in European History. Similar to most texts in this genre, this concise history begins in the ancient Near East, where the first agricultural revolution or farming package transformed human material and social conditions. It then proceeds from the dawn of civilization around 3,500 BCE to cover Ancient Greece and Rome before covering medieval and early modern Europe in volume 2. Because the presentation of material in these volumes resembles the standard canon for Western Civilization textbooks, it is likely to attract supporters who seek to transform this first edition into an even stronger revision.
In some regards the terminology used is quite clear. For example, the section on the early Middle Ages refers to the Church of Rome as “the Latin Church,” and it explains why the term “Catholic” is not necessarily appropriate for this period. Overall, the writing is generally clear and efficient in its coverage of the material. However, in some passages the language could be clearer, more formal, more concise, and more precise. In some passages typos, such as “sword” instead of “sworn,” and poor word choices undermine the professional presentation of the material. In others, references to customs and traditions as “things” (the word appears 42 times in volume 1) or to wars among the Hellenistic successor states as “feuding” are ripe for editorial revision. In still other instances, the language is just a little too colloquial: “huge” and “hugely” make a combined 46 appearances in volume 1. Finally, the text refers to medieval peasants as "farmers," a term that is somewhat anachronistic for the period.
Although the coverage of the ancient world was fairly robust, coverage of early medieval Europe was too cursory. This uneven coverage limited the continuity of the analysis. For example, the text mentioned the importance of bureaucracy in maintaining political stability in the ancient world but failed to note the significance of its development within medieval Europe in general or in Anglo-Saxon England or in the Ottonian empire in particular. While Anglo-Saxon history has arguably occupied too large a position in previous accounts of Western Civilization, the diminution to just two paragraphs appears to be an over-correction, especially to this English medievalist. When one considers that the textbook is essentially an introduction to European history, it is hard to understand why the Mongol Empire, fascinating as it is, receives more attention than the Anglo-Saxon or Ottonian states.
The chapter headings and foci are excellent. The tripartite division of the volumes makes lots of sense, even though most Western Civilization courses have two parts, one modern and one pre-modern. It seems that if one is going to employ this tripartite division of periods that the divisions would fall along the lines of ancient, medieval, and modern. Given that the early Middle Ages functioned as a sort of crucible for European Civilization that fused the Greco-Roman, barbarian, and Christian customs and traditions, it would make sense to begin volume 2 there instead of the period around 1000 when that medieval culture started to transform into a civilization.
The organizational structure of this Western Civilization textbook is in some ways superior to many of the more elaborate textbooks. The chapters on the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate, for example, address these entities over the course of several centuries without interrupting their development to focus on other polities. Consequently, the narrative and analysis remain unbroken in contrast to some books that jump back and forth between the Byzantines, the Muslims, and the barbarian successor states during the Middle Ages. With that back and forth approach, students often lose some of the continuity of the Byzantines and the Muslims. Brooks’ organizational structure makes especial sense for those courses that have only one class on the Caliphate and another on Byzantium.
The PDF version of the textbook worked very well. It integrated easily into our institution’s learning management system (LMS). Students were able to access it without issues.
Although the number of grammatical errors was fairly small, the prose periodically borders on wordy or unclear forms of expression. A more thorough editing could improve the quality of the prose quite a bit.
Since the 1980s introductory courses in European history often address the racist and imperialist assumptions that initially fashioned the concept of Western Civilization. Brooks addresses this unfortunate legacy in the first dozen pages of volume 1. Similarly, his treatment of the rise and influence of Islam begins with an explanation of the similarities between Islam and Christianity and with a brief accounting of the West’s indebtedness to Islamic scholars during the Middle Ages. In addition, Brooks pointed out that his own background in intellectual political history has limited his ability to address cultural history and gender relations adequately. Admitting that his treatment of these issues might fall short for some readers, he has given permission to use this work as a foundation for derivative works according to OER guidelines.
The text includes an introduction and thirteen chapters covering the history of Western Civilization from the Origins of civilization in Mesopotamia through the era of the Viking invasions in Western Europe. The introduction frames the... read more
The text includes an introduction and thirteen chapters covering the history of Western Civilization from the Origins of civilization in Mesopotamia through the era of the Viking invasions in Western Europe. The introduction frames the entirety of the text as if the reader were going to use all three volumes. This introduction highlights the issue of where the study of western civilization came from and why it is still relevant, while also pointing out the ways in which the text seeks to put Europe into context by acknowledging contributions, contacts, and influences from an area that extends well beyond “the west.” Perhaps the most interesting statement in the introduction is the examination of why Western Civilization even exists as a field of study, relating it to the era in which it first appeared (the 20th c.) as a distinct set of textbooks and courses in American universities. Chapters cover Mesopotamia, Egypt, The Bronze and Iron Age civilizations of the Near East, Greek and Roman civilizations, the advent of Christianity, the early Byzantine Empire, the advent and early spread of Islam, and the kingdoms of Early Medieval Europe. As the title indicates, the text is concise. It is also primarily focused on political and intellectual history, with occasional forays into economic, religious, and women’s history. There is no index or glossary for this text.
The content of this text appears to be accurate and in-line with the narrative of published works on this subject, which usually begin with early hominids and the rise of agriculture, though some subjects are treated with more detail than others. One example that shows that this material is up to date is the reference to recent changes in our understanding of early hominids, for instance. Errors mentioned by a reviewer of the first edition have been corrected in the February 2020 edition. Since this is a concise history, some topics necessarily are treated in very short form. As with all survey texts, the story is presented a bit too much as a narrative with most of the questions already answered, and little references to sources, but this is more a problem of the genre of survey textbooks than with this textbook in particular. A bibliography or indications for further reading would help to flesh out the sense that the information in the text is well researched (which it appears to be) and provide the message more clearly to students that works such as this are based on research, not just a retelling of static, uninterpreted facts.
The reading level is appropriate for entry-level college students and the material is consistent with the subject areas typically covered in the beginning portion of the survey course. In order to use this text in a semester-based course, a portion of Volume 2 would also be necessary. It is clear that the author has made some attempt to bring in new scholarship where relevant and on a limited basis. This is not usually something that is done on a large scale except with major revisions to traditional Western Civilization texts every few years. Here, the author has already completed one revision since the original publication of the text a year or so ago.
The language is clear and accessible. Students are introduced to new terms and concepts in ways that make meanings clear. Highlighting terms that are likely to be unfamiliar, or providing a vocabulary list at the end of each chapter might increase this accessibility further, but the text itself does provide good cues.
The text is consistent in terminology, focus, and framework. Chapters follow similar patterns as the text moves through its chronological narrative.
The organizational structure is built on a chronological narrative that would make taking chapters out of order somewhat nonsensical. That being said, if an instructor was teaching a version of the course where certain topics were not included or that extended beyond the end of the text, it would be fairly easy to take chapters out or add some from the next volume to achieve the desired coverage. At the chapter level, more subheadings would be helpful.
The sequencing is logical and consistent with other introductory texts in the field, though occasionally the flow within a section is a bit disrupted. For instance, in the section on Egypt, the political chronology of the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom is divorced from the discussion of continuity (mostly cultural) that follows in a way that some historians might find less than optimal.
The selection of maps and photographs is well chosen to illustrate the chapters, though a few more illustrations would be welcome. While these maps and photos are clearly labeled, citation of sources for each item clearly visible in the descriptive text with the titles would be welcome. Right now the citation list appears at the end of each chapter which makes it less integral and less visible to students who need to learn about proper citation both in OER and for other formats. Providing some statistical or data visualization items could expand the usefulness of the text for explaining to students the different methods of historical analysis available to historians.
Few, if any, grammatical errors of significance are present.
Within the confines of the topic of Western Civilization, which is necessarily focused on Western Europe, this text appears to be mostly inclusive. The author makes a clear statement in the introduction that he has expanded coverage of areas that interacted with and influenced Europe, as well as looking in later volumes at the impact (both positive and negative) European expansion had upon the world in a larger sense. He also states that he has attempted to expand his coverage of women in history, though this is still in a somewhat imperfect state given the brevity of the text and the focus on mostly political and intellectual history. See the sections on Rome for an example of this, where scholarship has revealed more about women and gender in Roman society, but the text here has only limited coverage of this kind of information.
The chapters covered in this first volume are well-organized and the major topics are addressed but sometimes without sufficient space (more in "Consistency" section). I was especially happy to the ancient world given several chapters instead of... read more
The chapters covered in this first volume are well-organized and the major topics are addressed but sometimes without sufficient space (more in "Consistency" section). I was especially happy to the ancient world given several chapters instead of just 2-3 chapters as many books do. Since the book is apparently marketed in three parts, I think it's important to provide an index for each part. Certain institutions or programs may use only volume 1, for example, and there is no index for it.
Most sections I found to be accurate but there were a few errors, some more troubling than others. Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not worship the same god as the Introduction claims. There are substantial differences -- Trinitarian God vs. Allah is One, Deity of Christ, etc. -- to the extent that devout believers of each faith would bristle at the notion that they worship the same god. If the intent was to inform students that the three 3 largest monotheistic faiths have much in common due to their Abrahamic heritage, then that needs to be said. Claiming they all worship the same god is a gross simplification and requires far too much "cleaning up" from the professor to my mind. Either this needs to be removed or given a fuller treatment with far more nuance. The explanation regarding the Trinity is also a bit muddy and it felt like the author was not quite sure how to explain it. I also find using terms like "party line" to discuss a religious dogma to be in poor state and this risks giving students an overly politicized view of religion. Of course, religion and politics mixed often in that time period, but again I thought nuance was lacking here. Overall the sections on religion need the most work. Another area that needs more nuance is the so-called "Dark Ages" and the long since worn out characterization of the Germanic tribes are barbarians. The author appears to be aware of this by continually putting it "barbarians" in quotes and then explaining it in one paragraph. The term, however, should be replaced by the actual names of the tribes for their distinctions to be noted. They were not one homogenous group. There's no reason to perpetuate the Roman stereotype of them. Note it and move on to addressing them by name. A colleague of mine has read it as well and made some additional observations I'd like to highlight. The sections involving Latin terms also need to be cleaned up a bit. "Coloni" are not slaves but colonists. Most Coloni were "veterani" or their descendants who were settled in conquered provinces to secure Roman power. They kept the peace and were given land as incentive for military service. They were by definition free Roman citizens, in contrast to the rustici or nativi who were non-citizens and often suffered under early forms of serfdom. A few topics deserve more treatment, in particular the time between the Arab Conquest and the Crusades. More should be said of the Carolingians, the Holy Roman Empire, etc.
I think it's relevant and appears like it would be easy to update. I don't know if the author is a Wikipedia writer but at times it reads very similar to Wiki entries and makes use of Wiki Commons media/images. I don't not say this as a criticism necessarily. If anything, such a relationship makes updating even more streamlined. I will include these next remarks here because of the relationship to Wikipedia. I considered placing them in the first section as well. I would greatly appreciate a section "For Further Reading" so that the reliance on Wiki would be mitigated a bit. Considering that nearly every professor I know tells his/her students to not rely too much on Wiki, it's important that the book provide additional sources.
See some of my comments above, but overall I think it is well-written for an early Undergraduate textbook. I would like a bit more precision and nuance on certain topics (some addressed above) but the overall prose is lucid and accessible. I think this is written in a more readable prose for Freshman than the vast majority of textbooks.
Terminology is fine so far as I could tell. I do think the framework needs to tweaked some (see comments above about the time periods between the Arabic Conquest and the Crusades). I think more should also be said of a few ancient events like Late Bronze Age Collapse and the Peloponnesian War. That said, I greatly appreciated the space devoted to the ANE, Greece, and Rome.
No issues here. The headings are intuitive and provide a generally fair amount of reading for each section. Easily digestible for undergrads.
They are logical and clear other than the last chapter or two on Islam and the Early Middle Ages which feels rushed (see comments above)
Layout, pixelation, etc. are all well done.
No major issues.
It's inclusive. A bit more on women/gender throughout would be helpful. The section on women in Egypt was great to see but so short. Much more could said there and in other regions and times. See also my previous comments on religion.
My other major concern is that there is a lack of primary source citations. Many expensive texts include text-boxes or something similar to address this. Others include an entirely separate book. Considering cost, the latter is a bad option, of course. Good instructors will no doubt supplement this book with primary sources, but I would like to see more sources cited in the text to demonstrate how vibrant, exciting, and relevant history is. For example, when I discuss women in Egypt, I discuss letters from the worker's village at Deir el-Medina from two women to each other. One essentially states she has nothing to wear for the social function that week, so she wants to borrow something from the letter recipient. My students get a good laugh at that! More significantly, that conversation allows us to discuss literacy rates and gender. Did these women know how to write or have access to scribes somehow if not? Both options have interesting implications for their treatment in Egyptian society. I say all this as one example how vital including primary sources is to make history come alive. The book is well-written but needs more of this for history to come alive, which I find is often an uphill battle in Civ classes, as many students come into the class after a poor experience with history class in high school (IE, boring). Finally, I'd like to note that there is a good chance my department adopts this book. It does a nice job overall. My comments above are made in hopes of improving it further.
The text covers the main ideas and areas of the subject well. However, it lacks an index, glossary, and bibliography. The addition of a bibliography (or at least some suggested readings connected with each chapter) would be most helpful for... read more
The text covers the main ideas and areas of the subject well. However, it lacks an index, glossary, and bibliography. The addition of a bibliography (or at least some suggested readings connected with each chapter) would be most helpful for undergraduates.
The text is generally accurate. However, some sections are stronger than others. The chapters on the Roman republic and empire are particularly strong and even handed. The chapter on Islam, however, glosses over key events (such as the murder of Uthman and the events at Karbala) which were crucial in the creation of the division between Sunnism and Shiism. There are also some minor factual oversights which could use editing - Abbasid era scholars did pioneering work in optics and refraction but did not develop telescopes; the letter which Pope Gregory sent to missionaries in Anglo-Saxon England did not go to Bede but to Augustine of Canterbury; Solon was by all accounts an archon and not (unlike Draco before him or Peisistratus afterwards) a tyrant. Of greater concern is that, on occasion, the author makes unnecessary polemical statements. The most egregious of these is his repeated assertion that many Western Civilization textbooks begin with Greece. Most widely used textbooks, however, begin with Mesopotamia and Egypt just as this one does, so this is misguided. This otherwise very useful text is also occasionally marred by diction which is overly informal. A textbook such as this needs to both present material in an engaging fashion (which this does) and to offer students a strong example of scholarly prose.
The book incorporates recent scholarship though its citation of it is uneven. Here again a bibliography of some sort would be most helpful.
The text explains most technical terms very clearly and makes appropriate use of etymologies in its explanations.
As noted above the use of terminology is consistent.
The text is divided into clearly defined chapters which would facilitate classroom use.
Most of the book is well organized. It could use a bit of tightening up in a few areas, though. For example, it discusses the Mycenean Civilization in two different sections when it would be clearer to keep it all together.
The interface works well. It is also easy to download the text in a PDF format.
The text is grammatically correct though the diction is at times too informal.
The text is inclusive.
This textbook clearly is the product of great effort and is generally well-organized and presented. As mentioned above, it could benefit from some minor editing for accuracy, diction and, on occasion, organizational clarity and would be improved by the inclusion of a bibliography or suggested reading list as well as an index. It is a strong attempt to offer a survey of a broad period and would be of use particularly in the community college environment.
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1: The Origins of Civilization
- Chapter 2: Mesopotamia
- Chapter 3: Egypt
- Chapter 4: The Bronze Age and the Iron Age
- Chapter 5: The Archaic Age of Greece
- Chapter 6: Persia and the Greek Wars
- Chapter 7: The Classical Age of Greece
- Chapter 8: The Hellenistic Era
- Chapter 9: The Roman Republic
- Chapter 10: The Roman Empire
- Chapter 11: The Late Empire and Christianity
- Chapter 12: The Fall of Rome
- Chapter 13: Byzantium
- Chapter 14: Islam and the Caliphates
- Chapter 15: Early Medieval Europe
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