The Verge by Patrick Wyman (Review)

Who Should Read This Book – Readers interested in history, especially the history of the transition from the medieval to the modern world.

What’s the Big Takeaway – The years from 1490-1530 were a huge confluence of factors, some due to gifted people and others due to luck, that changed the entire world.

And a Quote – “Rather than focusing on a single variable, like a particular innovation or resources, it (this book) points to a particularly eventful period: the four decades between 1490 and 1530. In this brief span, less than a single human’s lifetime, western Europe’s future metamorphosis from backwater to superpower became possible thanks to a series of convulsive transformation” (12).

Patrick Wyman’s Tides of History is one of my favorite podcasts. When I first discovered it, which was pretty early on, he was going back and forth between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the modern world (if I remember correctly). Mostly the focus was the rise of the modern world. Since then he’s been doing a long series on prehistory and the beginning of civilization. But this book grows out of that first series.

The fun thing about this book is that it reads like episodes of the podcast. Wyman begins his stories by placing the listener/reader in the shoes of someone living at the time. As I began to read each chapter, I heard Wyman’s voice speaking in my head (and he reads the audiobook himself, for those of you who like audiobooks).

Throughout the book he tells his story through the eyes of nine different figures from this period. A few of them are household names, such as Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther. Others are average people, the sort who do not often make it into history books, such as John Heritage and Altus Manutius. This is the strength of the book. Some histories center on the big name movers and shakers. Wyman includes them, but by including regular wool merchants and bankers he paints a picture of what life was like for regular folks.

Of course, I personally found some of the chapters on these regular folk a bit boring. But the argument of the book is that the shaping of the modern world was just as much influenced by thousands of normal people as by a few rulers and explorers. Bankers with their credit ledgers, printers in their shops and wool merchants with their flocks and growing businesses all made everything that happened possible.

Let’s use the reformer Martin Luther as an illustration. If you study church history, Luther looms large. His story is told with all the usual points – nailing the 95 these on the door, going to the Diet of Worms, translating the New Testament into German. But there were so many things going on in the background that made what Luther did possible. The invention of the printing press does often get mentioned. Sometimes you learn a little of the politics of electing a Holy Roman Emperor and how Luther had a powerful protector in Elector Frederick.

But Wyman’s book shows how all these figures intersect and impact each other. Jakob Fugger’s banking was connected to the selling indulgences that angered Luther so much. The shifts in capital impacted how peasants worked and what they expected, which helped lead to the Peasant Revolt. Columbus’ exploration and the Turks invasions in Eastern Europe and Charles V’s many wars.

The transition from the medieval/premodern world to the modern one is a favorite subject of mine to read on. This book is a brilliant, popular level entry that popular history fans will love.

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