Medieval Europe
Chris Wickham
Yale University Press
352pp, 32 colour illustrations
Hardback, £25 ($35)

Historians of Europe generally agree that the Middle Ages begin around AD 500 with the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. They are less unanimous as to when the Middle Ages end. In art, Giotto (1266-1337) is the last medieval painter, and the first Renaissance painter. The eyes of his figures reflect the first gleam of the individuality that Jacob Burckhardt called modern 'egoism'. But in both religion and state formation, the watershed comes much later, in the late 1500s with the Reformation. And relics of medieval laws and governance endure well into the Early Modern era – until 1789 in France, and 1832 in Britain. The Oxford historian Chris Wickham identifies the Middle Ages as the millennium between the sack of Rome and the rise of Luther. This folds the Italian Renaissance into the 'Late Middle Ages', as one of several phenomena that made possible the Europe of nation states and complex exchanges.

We meet the usual suspects in Medieval Europe – tyrannical lords, oppressed peasants, scholarly monks, ambitious princes, and the chronic handicaps of a small market economy and the Black Death. We also cannot avoid the familiar geo-graphy of medieval Europe, a terrain of vast forests, poor communications and foreshortened horizons, in which the memory of the riverine borders of the Roman Empire along the Rhine and Danube seem to have shaped political life as much as the behaviour of living leaders. But Wickham's evidence is subtle, his style is a masterpiece of conversation and compression, and his findings are admirable in both their clarity and their attention to local nuances.

The first five centuries of Wickham's Middle Ages involve the 'reinvention of the public world' along Roman lines, most importantly in the Carolingian period. The second five centuries, in which the memory of Rome fades and the new forms of Latin Europe arise, break into two parts. The first is the era of the 'feudal revolution'; Wickham provides a useful survey of the debates around the term 'feudalism', and a 'carefully defined' working definition that justifies its continued use. In this period of about 350 years, states and laws cohere into 'local, cellular politics', literacy extends beyond the monastery, and workable tax systems and communication networks sustain a growing population and economy. The second is the period from the poor harvests, which preceded the Black Death, (1346) to the Reformation.

This last period, Wickham admits, is usually described as one of 'crisis, or anxiety, or the Renaissance, or a sense that the continent was, somehow, waiting for the Reformation and European global conquest'. History being a matter of selective hindsight, some of these perceptions are unavoidable. Wickham allows that the Black Death, the Hundred Years' War, and the Great Schism of the Papacy were 'serious enough' to justify the interpretation of civilisational 'crisis', and a loss of the gains of the '13th-century consolidation process'. But this was not, Wickham argues, 'an age of systemic crisis for political power'.

In this last phase, political systems continued to gain 'territorial coherence and fiscal strength'. Economic growth slowed, but did not reverse. In politics and economics, Europe still capitalised on the '13th-century consolidation process'. All this created societies which allowed 'engagement', and that, Wickham believes, was the seed of modern political participation. Wickham notes that the death of half of the population through plague, famine and war is believed to have raised the bargaining power of workers as well as increasing the amount of available land for peasants.

Medieval Europe is a remarkably detailed and readable book and, at only 250 pages in length, it is, unlike the Middle Ages, both brief and clear.
Dominic Green

 

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