Anyone who has devoted time to the study of history knows that textbooks have two basic features. There is the narrative of events, usually highlighting “great deeds” in a compact story line. Then there is the analysis of patterns, delving abstractly into economic and social trends that provide the cultural arena for the deeds.
We do need to understand the environment of course. The problem is that the passages about cultural patterns too often seem so abstruse and detached that only the most dedicated reader plows though them; they are bypassed by everyone who wants to get back to the “important material”. Occasionally, even the authors themselves appear bored with these necessities, wedging them into sections or chapters as if they were intruders. Who can remember the endless stream of painters, writers, and musicians in these obligatory art/culture portions of many a “Western Civ” book? Yet who has not encountered them?
In an attempt to address these concerns some texts have opted for an extreme solution. They have made social patterns their core and pushed narratives into the shadows. This is hardly ideal, because impersonal data lists bore students and leave them unaware of the flow of events.
The problem is that without sufficient background in cultural values, a beginner may find a narrative incomprehensible. Perhaps even worse, he may attach to the events of the past modern values which often simply do not apply.
These stories provide what I hope will be an effective solution to this dilemma. They are designed to assist the student of European history by using fictional episodes to underscore concepts or patterns unique to or characteristic of various periods. My premise is “a story is a metaphor for reality”. Concepts wrapped in entertaining packages become more vivid and more useful.
It is true that in a number of places some events or concepts have been simplified or streamlined in order to focus on broader issues. Greater precision requires extensive exposition that would have lengthened each story and rendered it less attractive as assigned reading. If deemed necessary, these oversights can be clarified in the classroom.
There are questions for discussion accompanying each episode. They are meant to spur the reader to think about the values of an historical period and to contrast them with his or her own.
If history is, as Napoleon allegedly commented, “a fable agreed upon”, then all historians are storytellers. This collection contains a large dose of fiction designed to sweeten the bitter medicine in many texts.