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The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change, 950-1350.

Robert Bartlett has a remarkable story to tell; and he does so remarkably. The story is the "making of Europe," the process whereby an unusually expansive society - that of former Carolingian Europe - carried out its self-appointed task of spreading out over the face of the earth. This, Europeans accomplished with the use of what the author calls "blueprints" for the domination of the natural and social environment, a peculiar blend of techniques and technology that proved exceptionally effective in the settlement and transformation of a wide variety of cultures. Perhaps the single most striking revelation of Bartlett's wide-ranging work is the similarity of European expansion regardless of which direction and what differing terrains this people moved into - the literate Muslim Mediterranean, the oral heathen east, the literate and Christian North. Bartlett analyses local variations, but the common themes dominate: the Irish, Christian long before the conversion of these now domineering Franks, submitted to much the same transformation under this "European" rule as did Muslims and Slavs. Everywhere we find vigorous colonizers of all sorts - warriors, traders, churchmen and peasants - whose formula for success included military and agricultural technology, the extensive use of charters and coinage, a disciplined and administrative church, and, back home, an intellectual and commercial "core region" that generated the necessary social energy to fuel the outposts of this expansion.

In a book of monumental proportions, Bartlett has filled in the detail of a picture that medieval historians have long asserted. Between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries, a culture that first began in Frankish Europe, spread out from a base of France, Northern Italy and Western Germany, and systematically conquered and (re)settled regions from Southwest Spain and Mediterranean islands to the Dead Sea rift, from the Irish valleys and the Norse fjords to the Eastern reaches of the Baltic Sea. And although many scholars have studied the (often meager) details and generalized about the overall patterns in military and political terms, no previous work has assembled the sources and systematically described and analyzed the phenomenon of European expansion in social and cultural terms the way Bartlett has. The average medievalist (not to mention the non-specialist) now has no further excuse for ignoring this vital aspect of European history. Indeed, as Bartlett argues in his introductory and concluding passages, it is the tale of Europeanization - "the making" of Europe.

This story starts appropriately with the warrior aristocracy, the shock troops of Europeanization - their horses, their armor and weapons, but most of all their castles. This last piece of technology, far more than the aggressive weapons of conquest, became the symbol of colonization: from these castles and fortifications this new culture sank deep roots, transforming the landscape and social structure. Behind this material transformation Bartlett delineates the spirit of aggressive, ambitious, grasping dominion that spurred it on to shores so distant that one Balkan aristocrat asked in amazement: "We wonder greatly what you are seeking in this land, and why you came here to conquer lands from such a distant country" (p. 44). Treating not only the methods, but the self-image of these conquerors, Bartlett presents a highly energetic, a strenuous aristocracy, which transformed the traditional predatory mentality of tribal warrior chiefs into a new forward-looking, revenue-seeking, entrepreneurial, one. These men "anticipated an expansionary future," often giving away "prospective, speculative or anticipatory grants and titles." Like William the Conqueror, one of the first and greatest practitioners of this form of conquest, the new ruler handed out parcels of land to be further entrusted down the social scale in committed but not yet realized units of organization, domination and revenue.

The next step in Bartlett's tale may surprise some traditional medievalists. He does not move from here to the Church or the towns, those two major centers of cultural and commercial organization, but rather to the countryside, where he finds one of Europe's more recent and more novel phenomena: the chartered, free peasant. We find, accompanying the conquerors, not merely the (expected) administrators and soldiers intent on milking the conquered people for all they were worth, but peasants, intent on applying new techniques of landholding, labor, and social organization - the heavy plough and its oxen and horse teams, the water and windmills, cash crops and market transports - to transform the landscape. These men were not at all the typical, conservative, risk-averse, peasant of sociological lore and common observation. As one Welshman noted in grudging admiration about the Flemings: "They are a brave and sturdy people, mortal enemies of the Welsh, with whom they engage in endless conflict; a people skilled at working in wool, experienced in trade, ready to face any effort or danger at land or sea in the pursuit of gain; according to the demands of time and place quick to turn to the plough or to arms; a brave and fortunate people" (p. 116).

In both the documents concerned with their active recruitment by the aristocracy, and those detailing the defense of their interests in the new colony and back "home," Bartlett finds a world of negotiation, calculation, contract, and profit. His conquering lords illustrate quite exactly that transformation Duby described in The Early Growth of the European Economy, from the rather brutal mentality of tribal warriors - "plunder-and-distribute" - to the more systematic approach of exploit-and-spend.(1) As the archbishop of Magdeborg wrote about the formerly pagan, but now Christianized Juteborg: "Hence out of love of Christianity, we strive for the safety and advantage of all those who have entered this province or may wish to come with no less zeal for income than for our own advantage" (p. 123). As the author notes, these lords preceded by over three centuries the Renaissance merchants of Italy with whom economic historians normally associated deeds "in the name of God and profit."

These new European aristocracies, these merchant magnates, made systematic use of some key new developments of the core culture: extensive concessions of "rights and liberties" to their commoners. They regularly granted to their manual laborers, both rural and urban, charters of freedom, bundles of rights, and exemptions from the intrusion of their own will into the lives of their social inferiors. Bartlett traces these ubiquitous liberties in their more concrete forms: exemptions from seigneurial justice, exactions, and customs; and finds in them that contractual, commercial mentality that elite and commoner now shared. This is a social world of explicitly established rules, or incentives, of exchanges of anticipated income, of mutual profit. Peasants who are part of this bargain are free, franci; and their free villages are a fundamental unit of the expanding European landscape.

The author then turns to the towns, where we find the culmination of both the freedom and prosperity of this new colonialism. These frontier cultural centers produced the most extreme developments in the culture clash and fusion that marked the European expansion - the most vigorous profit-taking, the most articulated communities of law and administration, the most far-flung networks of communication and exchange. Here too we find the height of ecclesiastical activity, the centers of new orders, those increasingly streamlined organizations which, trained with discipline and imagination in the Universities of the core, served as the culture-bearers of Europe. Offering a justification for conquest (crusades), a cult (relics and Catholic rites), an order (Roman pontifical, bureaucratic), and ideology (universal salvation), they made a name for themselves among the people of the world: the nomen christianum.

The author then explores the social dynamic of this expansion as a clash between peoples - colonizers and colonized - at the frontiers of Latin Europe, and characterizes the terrain of this violent yet productive encounter in terms of four key themes: language, law, power, and blood (chapters 8-9). Throughout these thoughtful discussions, the reader gets a sense of the complexity of both the process and results of these encounters, the hostility and repugnance expressed on both sides for various aspects of the "other" as well as the grudging admiration for, imitation and adoption of the traits of that same "other."

Language was a particularly powerful, if porous, source of identity: that of the conqueror carrying much of the freight of domination, that of the conquered, the weight of usage. Thus the frontiers of Europe were filled with bi- and tri-lingual inhabitants at many social levels who engaged in constant linguistic borrowing in all directions. Despite (or because of) this linguistic miscegenation, language became identified in the later Middle-Ages with a clash between peoples, with conquered peoples using their native language in nascent forms of political separatism and even nationalism. The author's look at law and the church offer equally valuable insights into the ambiguous nature of "native" reaction to the European advance: here we find elements of a "universalist" sentiment fueling the colonizing process, in which natives, as long as they are willing to play by the new rules, are welcome to join the new society/religion. This occurred not only on an individual scale, but sometimes, and not necessarily intendedly, on the scale of an entire people. Bartlett traces the clear stages whereby the Scots defended their culture by Europeanizing - the biblical names, the coinage and charters, the trading towns, the Roman church.

But like so much in the medieval centuries from 950-1350, the long-range developments tending towards strife and stratification gained the upper hand; and Bartlett's tale of life on the periphery ends on a familiar note - an invidious and discordant culture, filled with mutual hatreds and scapegoating and dreams of vengeance. This centuries-long tide of hardening and heightening social distinctions, which in the core region played out in terms of Jews and heretics and commoners, at the periphery took on the garb of ethnic and social clashes, generating racist attitudes on the part of native and colonists alike. In a passage redolent with the cultural paradoxes of European culture, an educated, urban, Czech, possibly a notary, vented his spleen by invoking an imagined "good old days" when Germans were mutilated and hung up by the foot, when Czech princes killed them at will or forced them to eat their own ears. The irony could not be more striking. The Czech's view of the Germans - insidious traitors, secret rebels against their own natural servitude, destroyers of healthy society, invisible oppressers - is almost exactly the accusation that, for more centuries to come than passed, the Europeans and specifically the Germans, would systematically level against the Jews.

The author concludes this study with an analytic overview of the phenomenon he has so vividly presented. It is here that he introduces the idea of a European "blueprint" whereby above all coinage and charters provide the technological means for social transformation. These are, the author points out, the exact opposite form of wealth from that of the earlier cultures of "direct predation." Instead of items with immediate intrinsic wealth - slaves, cattle, horses, in a pinch, furs and precious metals - these newer forms were profoundly abstract and impersonal. The charter is intrinsically useless, a dried out piece of sheep hide; the coin only marginally better. They both derive their value from what is written on them, from the way they "objectify social relationships," from the implied social contract that they communicate - i.e., that those who might prefer otherwise and have the power of force or possession to refuse, will nonetheless respect their inscribed promises. These "nuggets of social power . . . gave incarnation to the most abstract aspect of social relations: rights and claims." Operating with the same analytic force as the alphabet, these building blocks served as part of a grammar of social organization, creating supra-local legal communities - free towns and villages, religious orders, universities - all blueprints of remarkable independence and adaptability, not bound to but capable of dominating local conditions. Like the alphabet, they had a "minimum of information and a maximum of operational efficacy." Like the alphabet, they transformed the cultures in which they spread.

Like any large-scale study, the book has its flaws; and surely every specialist of a given region may detect errors and will probably disagree with the author about just how "uniform" the impact of Europeanization was in his or her given region. And yet, this latter issue is not so much a matter of fact as of emphasis; and here Bartlett's scope gives him the upper hand. It will not do to "pick" this book apart. In a more technical vein, however, the notes present a significant barrier to the book's use: following a bizarre format which leaves the page "free" of little numbers, the notational system forces readers to guess at what, beyond quotations, has been noted, and search the pages in back to find out if they were correct. Often enough, the notes are nonexistent (the "Great Apostasy" of 1260 [p.296, 382]) or inacceptably inadequate (the quote "Who made brothers unequal . . .?" [p. 50] deserves more than anonymous attribution, a manuscript reference, and no Latin text [p. 325]). The frustration created by such imprecise references hampers the book's use in precisely the realm it will make its longest and most lasting contribution: in educating fellow historians of the core about what exists at the periphery. This seems a high price to pay for rendering the page attractive to a general reader.

But the book is wonderful to read. Bartlett writes with the confidence of a master historian; his prose is lean and at times epigrammatic, his quotations both dense and apt, and even his occasional tangential historical argument a model of spare clarity. Despite covering some rather morally-loaded issues - modernization, racism, imperial colonialism, pluralism he traces a fine line between subtle irony and dry wit. As for the core of the study - the study of Europe's self-definition through its complex domination and absorption of its neighbors in the period from 950-1350 - the author dominates his material with a powerful, one might even say Norman, combination of intuitive strategy, analytic penetration and well-chosen assarts. Bartlett has colonized the documentation of the period and, in the process, Europeanized the Middle Ages. By so doing, he has above all pushed back the period in which we should think of the origins of modern European culture: it was in the "fertile confusion of post-Carolingian Europe" that the "making of [modern] Europe" began.

And yet, for all his contribution to our understanding of the European past, the author has done the reader a small, possibly significant disservice. This phrase, "the fertile confusion of post-Carolingian Europe" appears at a climactic moment of the author's final discussion (p. 311) and takes up a subject he invokes repeatedly throughout the book (deserving of its own listing in the index, p. 419). Early on he sets out the period as offering the key: "If it is to be convincing, our search for an explanation must isolate something distinctive about the knightly class of post-Carolingian Europe, something that stirred and moved the aristocracy of France and, later, Germany, in a way it had not been stirred and moved before"(p. 49). Yet despite a (fairly simplistic) discussion of "historical explanation" (pp. 18-23), he offers nothing of the sort. Promising explanation and identifying the West at the turn of the first Christian millennium as the point of origin, the author does not, finally, offer anything close to a causal analysis of our European culture which continues to amaze and dismay at the end of the second millennium. For all its alleged fertility, the post-Carolingian remains confusing in this book; it is the black box of the narrative. With the significant exception of a discussion of agnatic lineages and the aristocracy (pp. 49-51), Bartlett does not explore what happened then, nor does he cite any of the historians of the period - Richer, Glaber, Ademar, Thietmar, Dudo, the author of the Gesta episcoporum cameracensium. Like a number of other books that claim to be about the period starting in the mid-tenth century, this one really starts in the mid-eleventh century.

The title of the book is no accident. R. W. Southern's The Making of the Middle Ages, England's brilliant response to Bloch's La societe feodale, stands behind this work, which, at times, enters into a dramatic dialogue, confirming, reshaping, nuancing, reformulating the topics so masterfully evoked by its predecessor - e.g. the discussion of freedom and law (pp. 123-32).(2) But such an invocation, in the last analysis, overreaches. Bartlett's book is not so much about the "Making of Europe" as its spread, and unlike Southern he has little or nothing to say about the origins or generation of this culture of "blueprints." This lack is nowhere more visible than in his treatment of Christianity, which he defines in a perceptive but constricting way as "a rite and an obedience." This is a vision of a topdown Christendom as the papacy wished it had been. But post-millennial Latin Christendom was nothing if not bursting with energy, paradox, and scarcely contained brilliance and social force. Order, obedience, rite, were primarily byproducts, the partially successful attempts to harness a religion which spoke in so many ways and moved such large numbers of people from all levels of society to dramatic deeds - pilgrimage, crusade, conversion to religious life, mass penitential movements, "heresy," rebellion. "A rite and an observance" is a thin description of these phenomena.

Here the author's treatment of Christianity - unquestionably the key cultural player here - lags behind Southern's. Perhaps at Europe's frontiers, the contradictions of European society and its religious culture had been sufficiently disguised by the clash with a subject people, that Christianity failed to register in the same terms here as it manifested itself at the core. But it at least bears mention that the Christendom that generated Bartlett's Europe was marked, from its very origins in the post-Carolingian, by a dramatic change in the profile of the European commoners who began to organize and assert themselves aggressively, using and improving a wide range of technology in the process, that the contractual "solutions" Bartlett finds in operation on the newly-settled periphery represent the more advantageous "deals" that commoners were fighting hard for at the core (e.g., communes), that the list of franchises and exemptions he lists constitutes an inverted reflection of those complaints about seigneurial rule that mark the religious and social discourse of the core culture, and that just as frontier society became increasingly mired in stratification and strife, the papal inquisition and the national monarchies were perfecting techniques of persecution and scapegoating at the core, agents of precisely this social stratification. Any book that claims to tell the tale of "the Making of Europe" and does not speak of such matters has done its readers a disservice. The author concludes: "Europe, the initiator of one of the world's major processes of conquest, colonization and cultural transformation, was also the product of one" (p. 314). As a reference to the next phase of European expansion, that of the last half of this millennium, such a remark is well worth pondering; as a reference to the making of Europe in the period the book surveys, it is neither demonstrated nor likely.

In the final analysis, however, these may be conceptual quibbles. The work is an (only slightly flawed) masterpiece. It is for the historians of the central Middle Ages to make the rich and fertile connections between the world of the post-Carolingian - the analyses that R.I. Moore and Brian Stock, for example, have devoted to literacy and heresy - and the world of Europe's highly revealing, yet ultimately derivative, frontier. We can thank Robert Bartlett for the challenge to build such connections at the level of quality and insight with which he had made his reconstruction. The chunnel has been built from the periphery, time to dig the connecting passageways from the center.

Richard Landes Boston University


1. Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: Warriors and Peasants from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century trans. Howard B. Clarke (Ithaca, NY, 1974).

2. Richard W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (New Haven CT, 1953) pp. 107-110.
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Author:Landes, Robert
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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