Isaac Asimov, long renowned for his writing in the areas of science and science fiction, revealed a new string to his bow in 1965 with the publication of THE GREEKS. This, the first of Asimov’s histories, was widely acclaimed by reviewers (one of them termed it “sparkling as Greek wine”) and in due course was followed by nine other volumes, each illuminating another aspect of the long history of lands of the Mediterranean and Western Europe. Each book in its time has been welcomed by reviewers and readers alike and the total have earned for Dr. Asimov a new reputation as a teller of history.
In THE SHAPING OF FRANCE, the author turns his attention to France, picking up where THE DARK AGES left off and showing the other side of the picture painted in THE SHAPING OF ENGLAND. The book begins with the death of Louis the Do-Nothing, important only because he was the last of the Carolingians who had dominated French history for so long. The book ends in 1453 with the close of the Hundred Years War and covers a host of strong personalities, Hugh Capet, William of Normandy, Philip II, Joan of Arc—and major events—the Crusades, the Battle of Agincourt, the Babylonian Captivity.
This was a period when kings and Popes and aristocracy reigned supreme and the people were only beginning to gain the organization and weaponry necessary to challenge them. They were active, exciting times and Isaac Asimov recounts them with all the verve they call for.
This sequel to The Dark Ages is Asimov’s last Houghton-Mifflin book on European history. His remaining four books in the series would be on American history.
This is really a shame; as with The Shaping of England, which discusses several of the same centuries from a point of view situated on the opposite side of the Channel, my biggest gripe here is that there’s no sequel. Nor are there any books on Spanish history, German history, Italian history (modern Italy), Scandinavian history, Eastern European history, the Renaissance—let alone India, China, Japan, Africa, or any other part of the world.
Of course, this isn’t entirely Asimov’s fault. For one thing, he grew up in a world and time when “history” meant “European history and its traditional precursors.” And although the series is well-written and a critical success, it never did terribly well financially and Houghton-Mifflin lost interest in it. I think part of the problem here is that the school curricula in the United States tend to get children to learn about Rome and Greece and America but not in between. This was certainly the case a generation ago when Asimov was writing and I was in school, but although my children are learning more history than I did at their age, this is largely by virtue of learning non-European history as I never did. The Middle Ages still get short shrift. In any event, the earliest books in the history series did well indeed but the return on investment must have shrunk as Asimov departed from the times that dominated the schoolroom and library shelves.
In this book, we get French history from the tenth through the fifteen centuries, ending in 1453 with the end of the Hundred Years War and the fall of Constantinople. Much of the same period is covered, as I say, by The Shaping of England and much of the rest (from the English perspective) in Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, Volume Two, since Shakespeare wrote eight plays dealing with the period. It’s a good book and does the job well—but I cannot read it without a certain sadness anyway, because there is nothing comparable that follows it.