God and Reason in the Middle Ages and At the Dawn of Modernity: Biology, Culture, and Material Life in Europe after the Year 1000. (Reviews).
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. x + 397 pp. $64.95. (cl), $22.95. (pbk). ISBN: 0-521-80279-2 (cl), 0-521-00337-7 (pbk).
David Levine. At the Dawn of Modernity: Biology Culture, and Material Life in Europe after the Year 1000
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. viii + 431 pp. $45. ISBN: 0-520-22058-7.
Despite marked differences in coverage, these two books share three common features. Both locate the beginnings of modernity in the high Middle Ages. Both summarize existing literature for general readers. And both marginalize the Renaissance. That said, Edward Grant succeeds far better than David Levine in achieving his objectives.
A distinguished historian of medieval science, Grant foregrounds intellectual history, arguing that high medieval scholastics initiated the first Age of Reason, their systematic appeals to rational norms engendering the "deep-rooted scientific temperament" (2) critical to the early modern Age of Reason. Unlike later scientists and philosophes, Grant concedes, scholastics saw God as the boundary reason could not cross. However, they viewed reason and God as related since revelation could be rationally analyzed and explained. When, how, and why was medieval thought rationalized? Between 1100 and 1500, and in the universities. Grant does not fully answer his third question, although aspects of his own analysis, and strategies absent from it, might have helped.
After surveying the breakthrough to rationalism by the end of the twelfth century and the reception of Greco-Arabic science and philosophy, Grant devotes three chapters to the rationalization of logic, natural philosophy, and theology. He discusses medicine and law in passing but these three topics are pivotal. In each, Grant does his target audience a great service. Organizing his material topically and avoiding jargon, he quotes examples in translation and shows clearly how they illustrate the goals of logicians, natural philosophers, and theologians and why they Found them important. Before concluding, Grant considers how the Middle Ages became the "Dark Ages."
Logic is as basic to his thesis as it was to university education. Its study greatly enhanced precise reasoning, giving scholastics sharp tools to apply to other subjects. Although without emphasizing the point, Grant shows high medieval logic growing increasingly post-Aristotelian, reflecting the scholastics' ability to surpass received authority. Likewise, although he calls them Aristotelians, he shows natural philosophers abandoning some Peripatetic explanations. Aside from the distinction between God's absolute and ordained powers, which enabled them to imagine possible worlds different from the one Aristotle described, theology did not influence natural philosophers. From logic, inter alia, they acquired the ability to think rigorously about counterfactuals and to engage in thought-experiments on such non-Aristotelian themes as infinity within the creation and the vacuum. Theologians borrowed heavily from both logic and natural philosophy, which Grant documents in Franciscan, Augustinian, Dominican, and secular masters alike. Here, he notes, we should recognize that whatever a scholastic's epistemology, he perforce had to master logic and large chunks of Aristotle's corpus before advancing to theology.
This is a point where Grant could have addressed the Why? more fully, with the aid of comparative history. Byzantium possessed the entire Greek corpus and the Muslims did creative things with it. Why, then, did western Europe outpace these sister civilizations so decisively in science and philosophy? Grant observes that the university was a western invention and that it was a legal corporation but without pursuing the implications of these facts in a cross-cultural examination of educational patronage, theological training, and academic freedom. The tolerance of divergent schools of thought operating side by side at the universities and the very ability to critique and challenge authority basic to the scholastic enterprise are related to Europe's institutionalization and financing of higher education.
On the "Dark Ages" canard, Grant acknowledges that it arose in the Renaissance and Reformation but emphasizes the backlash of the Galileo affair and the post-scholastic philosophies of the seventeenth century as determinative. And, despite the labors of recent historians of science, popular media still stigmatize the Middle Ages; hence, Grant concludes, his book was needed. Whether readers think he takes his argument too far, or not far enough, Grant's chapters on logic, natural philosophy, and theology remain extremely valuable.
While Grant, an eminent contributor to the scholarship he summarizes, is superbly placed to do so, the same is not true of Levine. An economic and social historian of Tudor-Stuart England, he approaches his task as an amateur medievalist. It shows. Levine's modernization time-frame is 1000-1348 and the decisive shifts occurred not in intellectual history but in social, political, technological, and, to a lesser extent, economic history. Levine poses as a revisionist. He rejects sweeping theories for prejudging the evidence. Micro-history offers nothing but a bricolage of bits and pieces. He dismisses both theories of revolutionary change and the notion that, prior to Europe's mass industrialization, it was a static traditional society whose history lacked events. Modernization theorists and Marxists alike he attacks for hyper-abstraction and single-factor analyses. But, while denouncing these approaches, Levine buys into some of them. Thus, despite some useful passages in his book, it is frequently marred by social-science jargon, self-contradiction, factual error, the omission of pertinent data, and the misappropriation of the findings of other scholars.
Half of Levine's book treats modernization from the top down, that is, the feudal and military revolutions, which involve a revolution in land tenure and inheritance law and the enserfment of agrarian workers, and the bureaucratization of government (the modernization theorists' "state formation") complete with literate and numerate record-keeping. These developments coincided with the Gregorian reform -- extending through the pontificate of Innocent III -- which, for Levine, both de-monasticized and Christianized Europe. In this opening salvo, the reader sees immediately the methodomachia haunting Levine's book. His most bizarre assertion concerns the de-monasticizing of the church, despite the (unmentioned) proliferation of monastic foundations and new orders after 1000. In Levine's hands, thumbnail sketches of atypical figures produce generalizable data, the legislation of rulers is equivalent to its acceptance and internalization by the ruled, material conflicting with his claims is ignored (primogeniture did not sweep away other medieval inheritance systems), while things distinct (feudalism and manorialism) are conflated. As for the misuse of scholarship, Levine presents Susan Reynolds as advocating feudalization and Michael Sheehan as supporting the notion that servile or dependent persons enjoyed free choice of marriage partners. The only truly salvageable material in this part of the book is Levine's excellent delineation of the function of feudalism in Germany as compared with England and France.
Wishing to grant equal time to history from the bottom up, Levine surveys the same processes from a peasant perspective in the book's second half. This redundant plan yields slim pickings, for two reasons. First, much of his evidence comes from English local studies (the bricolage of micro-history). Without acknowledging English exceptionalism, Levine generalizes these findings. Second, information on peasant life is notoriously scanty and indirect. In the absence of data, Levine not only overgeneralizes but also underinterprets material that might offer better explanations. For instance, Europe's internal colonization and the growth of towns and trade gave peasants wider options and altered the preclusive peasant-lord construction of economic relations, as Levine presents it. Manhandling previous scholarship, Levine here treats analyses of Carolingian manorial records as describing peasant life several centuries later, and cites inquisitorial reconstructions of Montaillard testimony and Christine de Pizan as sources for northern European peasant attitudes toward sex and marriage.
Levine includes a final chapter on the Black Death, ending the first phase of modernization and launching its successor. Feudalism waned, Levine argues, equating this trend with the emancipation of serfs but ignoring the strategies enabling lords to retain and capitalize on their exploitation of agriculture. The fear of death coupled with the crisis of authority in the church engendered anti-papalism, heresy, pogroms, the simultaneous internalizing and externalizing of religion -- all allegedly new phenomena -- leading in turn to Martin Luther, the first modern man, on whom Levine cites Heiko Oberman's Luther biography.
This summary sounds like a caricature of Levine's book, but it is not. Rather, Levine's book is a caricature of the history it purports to recount. For one can argue strongly for a novus ordo rerum in the centuries after 1000, in a broad-gauged alternative to Grant's focused approach. It has already been done, by an author unknown to Levine: R. I. Moore, The First European Revolution, c. 970-1215 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). Although his time-frame is shorter than Levine's, Moore covers many of the same themes in an account rich in pertinent concrete detail, wide-ranging in geographical and comparative sweep, inclusive both of intellectual history and of subaltern groups, and lucid and economical in exposition. Further, Moore sees the new society emerging by the thirteenth century as the seedbed of the ancien regime. In this respect, his dating of the next coherent post-medieval age corresponds with Grant's while illuminating better than Levine the profound ambiguities surrounding the concepts of "modernization " and "early modern Europe."
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|Author:||Colish, Marcia L.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2002|
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