Rewriting history, example 1

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Sentence structure, paragraphing, cohesion—these are some of the things that Catherine and I focus on in our exercises for Europe in the Modern World.

As an example of how these techniques can liven up content, consider these paragraphs from a popular high school history book—McDougal and Little’s World History:

Frederick I was the first ruler to call his lands the Holy Roman Empire. However this region was actually a patchwork of feudal territories. His forceful personality and military skills enabled him to dominate the German princes, yet whenever he left the country, disorder returned. Following Otto’s example, Frederick repeatedly invaded the rich cities of Italy. His brutal tactics spurred Italian merchants to unite against him. He also angered the Pope, who joined the merchants in an alliance called the Lombard League.

In 1176, the foot soldiers of the Lombard League faced Frederick’s army of mounted knights at the Battle of Legnano. In an astonishing victory, the Italian foot soldiers used crossbows to defeat feudal knights for the first time in history. In 1177, Frederick made peace with the pope and returned to Germany. His defeat, though, had undermined his authority with the German princes. After he drowned in 1190, his empire fell to pieces.

When I first read this section, I found my attention wandering. Was it the content, somehow? Is a summary of the escapades and demise of a pivotal 11th century ruler really that dull?

Or is it possible that, simply by restructuring the two paragraphs—along with the 11 sentences they contain–we can bring out the underlying narrative and highlight what’s exciting?

In a day or two, I’ll post a possible rewrite. In the meantime, readers are welcome to submit their own suggestions as comments.

One thought on “Rewriting history, example 1

  1. I don’t really know anything about this historical period, so I am trying to draw all my information only from the paragraphs you gave us. I may have inadvertently distorted things in my rewrite.

    I may be dumbing it down too much, but I want to reframe the passage almost like a fairy tale with a moral to the story. I see two possibilities:
    a. Grandiose ruler declares his domain an empire with an inflated name, even though there is no enduring cohesion to his empire. He struggles to expand his rule, but is humiliated and gives up his fight. After his defeat, even his previous “empire” slips away.
    b. Not unlike David defeating Golaith, a plucky collection of foot soldiers who are marksmen with their weapons defeat mounted invaders in unprecedented fashion. Not only is the invading emperor forced to give up his repeated attacks, but he loses power even over his prior realm.

    If executed well, this morality play fairy tale approach does not necessarily have to be childish. Much of history is memorable when presented as a morality play (Don’t attempt a land invasion of Russia!). My attempt to tell the story of case (a) is presented below. I have only rewritten the first paragraph. The second paragraph fits this narrative unchanged.

    Just because one calls the area under one’s influence an empire does not mean that an enduring structure of any coherence has truly been established. Imperial ambitions do not necessarily an empire make. For example, Frederick I invented the term Holy Roman Empire to name the patchwork of feudal territories over which he ruled. When he was present and attentive, his forceful personality and military skills enabled him to dominate the German princes who were the royalty in these territories. Whenever he left the country, however—perhaps to attack neighboring regions—disorder would return. Following Otto’s example, Frederick repeatedly invaded the rich cities of Italy. His brutal tactics spurred Italian merchants to unite against him. He also angered the Pope, who joined the merchants in an alliance called the Lombard League.

    Notes:
    I think “invented” is a better verb than “coined,” because students are more familiar with it.

    I was tempted to include the rhetorical question “If the Pope and most Italians are against you, how Holy and Roman can your empire really claim to be?” in there somewhere.

    Dan K.

    Like

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