Medieval Europe
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Medieval Europe

Chris Wickham

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Medieval Europe

Chris Wickham

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A spirited history of the changes that transformed Europe during the 1, 000-year span of the Middle Ages: "A dazzling race through a complex millennium."— Publishers Weekly The millennium between the breakup of the western Roman Empire and the Reformation was a long and hugely transformative period—one not easily chronicled within the scope of a few hundred pages. Yet distinguished historian Chris Wickham has taken up the challenge in this landmark book, and he succeeds in producing the most riveting account of medieval Europe in a generation. Tracking the entire sweep of the Middle Ages across Europe, Wickham focuses on important changes century by century, including such pivotal crises and moments as the fall of the western Roman Empire, Charlemagne's reforms, the feudal revolution, the challenge of heresy, the destruction of the Byzantine Empire, the rebuilding of late medieval states, and the appalling devastation of the Black Death. He provides illuminating vignettes that underscore how shifting social, economic, and political circumstances affected individual lives and international events—and offers both a new conception of Europe's medieval period and a provocative revision of exactly how and why the Middle Ages matter. "Far-ranging, fluent, and thoughtful—of considerable interest to students of history writ large, and not just of Europe."— Kirkus Reviews, (starred review) Includes maps and illustrations

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A new look at the middle ages
This book is about change. What we call the medieval period, or the middle ages, lasted a thousand years, from 500 to 1500; and Europe, which is the subject of this book, was a very different place at the end of this period from what it had been at the beginning. The Roman empire dominated the start of the period, unifying half of Europe but dividing it sharply from the other half; a millennium later, Europe had taken the complicated shape it has kept since, with a majority of the independent states of the present recognisable in some form or other. My aim in the book is to show how this change, and many others, happened, and how far they are important. But it is not focused on outcomes. Many writers about the middle ages have been preoccupied with the origins of those ‘nation’-states, or with other aspects of what they see as ‘modernity’, and for them it is these outcomes which give meaning to the period. This for me is seriously mistaken. History is not teleological: that is to say, historical development does not go to; it goes from. Furthermore, as far as I am concerned, the medieval period, full of energy as it was, is interesting in and for itself; it does not need to be validated by any subsequent developments. I hope that this book will make that interest clear.
This does not, however, mean that medieval European history simply consisted of swirling patterns of events, which had no structure at all except as part of some randomly selected millennium. Far from it. The middle ages had some clearly marked moments of change; it is these which give form to the period. The fall of the Roman empire in the west in the fifth century, the crisis of the eastern empire when it confronted the rise of Islam in the seventh, the forcefulness of the Carolingian experiment in very large-scale moralised government in the late eighth and ninth, the expansion of Christianity in northern and eastern Europe in (especially) the tenth, the radical decentralisation of political power in the west in the eleventh, the demographic and economic expansion of the tenth to thirteenth, the reconstruction of political and religious power in the west in the twelfth and thirteenth, the eclipse of Byzantium in the same period, the Black Death and the development of state structures in the fourteenth, and the emergence of a wider popular engagement with the public sphere in the late fourteenth and fifteenth: these are in my view those major moments of change, and they have a chapter each in this book. Linking all of these turning points was a set of structural developments: among others, the retreat and reinvention of concepts of public power, the shift in the balance of the resources of political systems from taxation to landowning and back again, the changing impact of the use of writing on political culture, and the growth in the second half of the middle ages of formalised and bounded patterns of local power and identity, which transformed the ways rulers and the people they ruled dealt with each other. These will be at the centre of this book too. A book of this length cannot delve into the microhistory of societies or cultures in any detail, nor, for that matter, provide detailed country-by-country narratives of events. This is an interpretation of the middle ages, not a textbook account – there are anyway many of the latter, many of them excellent, and they do not need to be added to.1 I have, certainly, in every chapter set out brief accounts of political action, so as to give contexts to my arguments, especially for readers who are coming to the medieval period for the first time. But my intention is to concentrate on the moments of change and the overarching structures, to show what, in my view, most characterised the medieval period and makes it interesting; and they are the basic underpinnings of what follows.
My list of moments of change also presents a different storyline from that which appears, whether explicitly or implicitly, in all too many other accounts of the European middle ages. A very common narrative, even today, sees Europe emerging from degradation with the eleventh-century ‘Gregorian reform’, from ignorance with the ‘twelfth-century Renaissance’, from poverty with Flemish cloth-making and Venetian shipping, from political weakness with the (nation-)state-building of Henry II and Edward I in England, Philip II and Louis IX in France, Alfonso VI and Ferdinand III in Castile, to reach its apex in the ‘high medieval’ twelfth and thirteenth centuries with crusades, chivalry, gothic cathedrals, papal monarchy, the university of Paris and the Champagne fairs; by contrast, the post-1350 period sees a ‘waning’, with plague, war, schism and cultural insecurity, until humanism and radical church reform sort matters out again. That narrative will not be found in this book. It misrepresents the late middle ages, and excludes the early middle ages and Byzantium entirely; furthermore, far too much of it is a product of that desire to make the medieval period, at least after 1050, ‘really’ part of modernity, which I have already criticised. It is also the hidden heir of the old desire for history to provide moral lessons, periods to admire, heroes and villains, which historians say they have got beyond but often have not.
That moralism, for many, derives from the word ‘medieval’ itself. The word has a curious history; it was a negative word from the start, and has often remained one. From the Roman republic onwards, people regularly referred to themselves as ‘modern’ – moderni in Latin – and to forebears as antiqui, ‘ancient’. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, a handful of intellectuals, whom we call humanists, began to restrict the word ‘ancient’ to the classical writers of the Roman empire and its predecessors, whom they saw as their true forebears, with the supposedly inferior writers of the intervening millennium relegated to what was increasingly, by the seventeenth century, called the ‘middle age’, the medium aevum, hence ‘medieval’. This usage was picked up above all in the nineteenth century, and it then spread to everything else: ‘medieval’ government, the economy, the church, and so on, to be set against the concept, also nineteenth-century, of the Renaissance, when ‘modern’ history supposedly started.2 The medieval period could thus be seen as a random invention, a confidence trick perpetrated on the future by a few scholars. But it has become a powerful image, as more and more layers of ‘modernity’ have built up.
Once history-writing became more professionalised, from the 1880s onwards, and period specialisms developed, the medieval past began to gain a more positive image too. Some of it was somewhat defensive, as for example in the claims of scholars of different medieval centuries for ‘renaissances’ of their own, which might legitimate their period in the eyes of contemptuous moderns, the ‘twelfth-century Renaissance’ again, or the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’. Some of it was very enthusiastic and sometimes fervent, as Catholic historians extolled the religious purity of the middle ages, or nationalist historians focused on the always-medieval roots of the always-superior identity of their own countries. The medieval period, a long time ago and in some places poorly documented, becomes here the imagined origin of any number of twentieth-century desires, and as fictional as the rhetoric of any humanist. But there was also a century and more of hard empirical work, which has allowed the complexity and fascination of the medieval millennium to be recognised, more and more clearly. Medieval historians often owe more to the preoccupations of nationalist historiography than they realise; it is still true that English historians are more prone to see the growth of the English state as a central theme – the first nation-state in Europe, a mark of English exceptionalism – and the Germans worry at the Sonderweg, the ‘special path’ that prevented such a state forming in their country; whereas Italian historians regard the break-up of the kingdom of Italy with equanimity, because it meant autonomy for Italy’s cities, and thus the civic culture which brought with it the (to them very Italian) Renaissance.3 But the depth and complexity of medieval scholarship by now is sufficiently great that there are also alternatives to these views, and we can get around them more easily.
That solves one problem, then; but another appears. If we no longer imagine the middle ages to be a long dark period of random violence, ignorance and superstition, then what differentiates this time from before and after? The start of the period is to an extent easier, because it is conventionally attached to the political crises which came with the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century, hence the rough date of 500 for the ancient–medieval divide: whether or not one sees the Roman empire as somehow ‘better’ than the western successor states, the latter were certainly more fragmented, structurally weaker, economically simpler. The break is complicated by the long survival of the eastern Roman empire, which we now call Byzantium; as a result, in south-eastern Europe 500 is no dividing line at all. Indeed, the break even in the west only affected a handful of today’s European nations, France, Spain, Italy and southern Britain being the largest, for the Roman empire never extended to Ireland, Scandinavia, most of Germany or most of the Slavic-speaking countries. It is also complicated by the success of the last generation of historians in showing that there were strong continuities across the divide at 500, in cultural practices in particular – religious assumptions, the imagery of public power – which might make a ‘late late antiquity’ survive for a long time, for some to 800, for some to the eleventh century. Here the relationship between change and stability nuances the sharpness of the break when the empire broke up. But the half century either side of 500 still remains a convenient starting point, and, for me at least, a marker of strong change at too many levels to ignore.
The year 1500 (or, again, the half-century either side of it) is harder: less changed then, or, at least, the supposed markers of the beginning of the ‘modern’ period were not all particularly significant. The final fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was not so world-shattering, for that once-large empire was by now reduced to small scattered provinces in what is now Greece and Turkey, and anyway the Ottomans carried on Byzantine political structures pretty effectively. The ‘discovery’ of America by Columbus – or, better, the conquest of its major states by Spanish adventurers in the 1520s and 1530s – was certainly catastrophic for Americans, but its effect on Europe (outside Spain) took a long time to become substantial. The humanist movement that lies at the intellectual core of the Renaissance seems increasingly medieval in style. We are left with the Protestant Reformation, again above all in the 1520s–1530s (with a Catholic Counter-Reformation later in the century), as a religious and cultural shift which split western and central Europe into two and created two often opposing blocks, each with steadily diverging political and cultural practices, which still exist. That certainly was a major, and relatively sudden, break, even if it had little effect on the Orthodox Christianity of eastern Europe. If we regard the Reformation as the marker of the end of medieval Europe, however, then we start the middle ages with a political and economic crisis in an environment of cultural and religious continuities, and we end it with a cultural and religious crisis in an environment in which politics and economics remained much the same. There is an artificiality here, in the whole definition of the middle ages, which we cannot get away from.
This recognition, however, allows us to look again at the issue of how to deal with the middle ages as a single bounded unit. It would of course be possible to look for a better date than 1500 to end a study: maybe 1700, with scientific and financial revolutions; maybe 1800, with political and industrial revolutions. These dates have been canvassed plenty of times before. But that would be to make claims that one sort of change was paramount, at the expense of others; it would be to invent new boundaries, not to relativise them. The attraction of sticking to what we have is precisely that 500–1500 is an artificial span of time, in which changes can be tracked in different ways in different places, without them having to lead teleologically to some major event at the end, whether Reformation, revolution, industrialisation, or any other sign of ‘modernity’. And it must also be added, although I do not attempt the task here, that this can help wider comparison as well. Historians of Africa or India or China in our present millennium often criticise the ‘medieval’ label, because it seems to carry European baggage, and, most seriously, to assume a teleology of inevitable European supremacy, of a type which most historians now reject. But if its artificiality is recognised, the medieval European experience can be used comparatively, to be set against other experiences in a more neutral and thus useful way.4
Actually, ‘Europe’ is not a straightforward concept either. It is simply a peninsula of the Eurasian landmass, as Southeast Asia is.5 To the north-east, it is separated from the great Asian states by the forests of Russia and the emptiness of Siberia, but the steppe corridor south of that linked Asia and Europe for active horsemen in all periods, as the Huns, Bulgar Turks and Mongols showed in turn, and the steppe continued westwards from Ukraine into Hungary in the heart of Europe. And, most important, southern Europe is inseparable from the Mediterranean, and from economic connections, even when not political and cultural links, to the neighbouring regions of west Asia and north Africa in all periods. While the Roman empire lasted, the Mediterranean as a united sea was far more important as an object of study than was ‘Europe’, split as the latter was between the Roman state to the south and an ever-changing network of ‘barbarian’ peoples (as the Romans called them) to the north. This did not alter soon; the Christian religion and the technologies of post-Roman government hardly extended north of the old Roman frontier until after 950. By then, the Mediterranean was anyway beginning to revive as a trade hub, and was as important as northern exchange networks for the rest of the middle ages.6 And Europe was never a single political unit, and never has been since.
People did talk about Europe in the middle ages, certainly. The entourage of the Carolingians in the ninth century, the kings who ruled what is now France, Germany, the Low Countries and Italy, sometimes called their patrons lords of ‘Europe’, and so did their successors in the Ottonian Germany of the tenth century: they were posing their patrons as potential overlords of fairly vaguely characterised but wide lands, and ‘Europe’ was a good word for that. It survived throughout the middle ages in this rhetorical sense, alongside a basic geographical framing taken from antiquity, but it seldom – not never, but seldom – acted as the basis for any claimed identity.7 It is true that, steadily across the central middle ages, Christianity did spread to all of what are now called the European lands (Lithuania, then much larger than its present size, was the last polity whose rulers converted, in the late fourteenth century). This did not create a common European religious culture, however, for the northward expansions of Latin-based and Greek-based Christianities were two separate processes. Furthermore, the ever-changing border between Christian- and Muslim-ruled lands – with Christian rulers pushing south in thirteenth-century Spain, and Muslim rulers (the Ottomans) pushing north into the Balkans in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – meant that the neatness of a ‘Christian Europe’ (which anyway always excludes Europe’s numerous Jews) never matched reality, as it still does not. In a very general sense, as we shall see, the second half of our period does see Europe gaining some level of common development inside the framework of a variety of institutions and political practices, such as the network of bishoprics, or the use of writing in government, which linked Russia across to Portugal. This is not enough for us to see the continent as a single whole, all the same. It was too diverse. All claims to an essential European, and only European, unity are fictional even today, and in the middle ages they would have been fantastic. So: medieval Europe is simply a large differentiated space, seen across a long time period. It is also well enough documented to allow some quite nuanced study. This is not a romantic image at all, and is intended not to be. But this space and time holds some enthralling material all the same. It is my aim to give it shape.
A final warning here. There are two common approaches to the medieval centuries: to make medieval people ‘just like us’, only operating in a technologically simpler world of swords and horses and parchment and no central heating; and to make them immeasurably different from us, with value systems and categorisations of the world which are hard to grasp at all, which are often unpleasant to us, and which involve complex reconstruction to create a logic and a justification for them in their own terms. Each of these is in some ways accurate, but both, taken on their own, are traps. The first approach risks banality, or else the moralisation which results from disappointment, when medieval actors apparently fail to grasp what to us would have been obvious. The second risks moralisation too, but its alternative is too often collusion, even cuteness, with the historian-as-anthropologist focusing only on the fascination of the strange, sometimes on a very small scale indeed. I would rather try to embrace them both, in a wider historicising attempt to see how medieval people made choices in the political and economic environments they really had, and with the values they really possessed, making ‘their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted’.8 Marx, whose words these are, did not think that such an analysis involved collusion, and nor do I; but it does require understanding, of the various actors in a very different but not unrecognisable world. As all history requires; although it is indeed important to recognise that the 980s were genuinely strange, with values and a political logic which we have to make an imaginative effort to reconstruct, it is equally important to remember that the same is true of the 1980s.
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In the rest of this introductory chapter, I want to set out some basic parameters for how medieval society worked, which will themselves help to make sense of the different patterns of behaviou...

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