Few books are almost universally considered to be the pre-eminent work on their subject, even fewer hold the distinction for decades. Nothing less can be said, however, of The Making of the Middle Ages, the first of eleven books by former University of Oxford professor R. W. Southern. The book describes the rise of Western Europe from the late 10th to the early 13th century. Initially published in 1953, it was translated into 27 languages and appeared in editions as late as 2008.
Many of Southern’s insights reflect an ability to place himself within his subject and view the world through the eyes of its people. Commenting on the universal desire for liberty and its emergence in medieval Europe, for example, Southern poignantly wrote, “What men feared and resented in serfdom was not its subordination, but its arbitrariness.”
The staggering depth of his knowledge of his subject and of his sources allowed him to identify people, writings, events and trends that would seem obscure and insignificant to an author of less exhaustive, discriminating and robust scholarship. But Southern was able to combine them into a compelling narrative of the appearance of Western European civilization as we know it.