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In the medieval moment: the past is more than a set of events with an inevitable outcome. Historians must strive to capture it in all its fascinating strangeness, argues Chris Wickham, as he ponders the problems of writing about the Middle Ages.


When did the modern world begin? To Renaissance intellectuals, it was obvious, it was right then; and thinkers distinguished their own time as 'modern' in comparison with the ancient world which they saw themselves as reviving. The 1,000 years between were relegated to the 'middle', in a terminology that has stuck. But there have been plenty of other claims to the title. The French Revolution and the subsequent political and cultural changes of the early 19th century have been seen by a generation of French scholars to be the origin of 'modernity'; for similar reasons, though more economic in focus, the Industrial Revolution has seemed a key moment of change to British historians.

Medievalists, keen to avoid marginalisation, have sought to attach themselves to the grand narrative of modernity by claiming periods of reform and 'renaissance' as well. These have tended to focus on the 11th and 12th centuries when a number of major developments occurred that seemed to shift Europe's path decisively: papal reform; a wide-ranging movement of criticism of the cosy relationship between secular and ecclesiastical powers; a concentration of education and intellectual argument in new centres of study (the future universities) in Bologna and Paris; Christian religious aggression in Spain and Palestine; new forms of state-building in England and France, Castile and Sicily; a considerable rise in population; and the subjugation of the peasantry to a local aristocracy much more intent than before on control and exploitation at the village level - all these converge in what R.I. Moore has called 'The first European revolution', the title of his influential book of 2002. Moore was most interested in the last two or three of these developments, but all of them have come to be seen collectively as part of the moment in which the Middle Ages achieved its canonical form as a period of innovation and self-awareness that, far from being eclipsed by the 'renaissance' around 1500, led directly to it.

The classicist and popular historian Tom Holland, author of the best-selling Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, encapsulates this view marvellously in his most recent work Millennium: the End of the World and the Forging of Christendom, the new paperback edition of which is published next month. Holland opens with the humiliation of the Emperor Henry IV before Pope Gregory VII at Canossa in 1077 and ends with the bloodbath of the First Crusade in 1099. He sees these events as part of 'the road to modernity, [which] stretches clearly from the first Millennium onwards'. Holland, however, is most interested in the back-story to these moments of change, in the period beginning in the mid- 10th century and spanning the millennium, the training ground for Gregory and his reformist colleagues. Holland focuses on high politics, both secular and ecclesiastical, and uses the primary sources from the whole of Europe to create a compelling story, which ranges from Germany to Arab Spain, Egypt to Norway.

Writers such as Holland prove that serious history does not need to be boring - indeed, never has the period spanning the late 10th and early 11th centuries emerged, in all its confusion and happy degradation, quite so clearly into the limelight. I had certainly never noticed that Abbot Odo of Cluny was quite so graphic about masturbation, though I am not surprised to learn that he was against it; or that Adam of Bremen thought that Icelanders in the winter who rubbed their noses risked them snapping off, 'frozen mucus and all'. There is quite a lot about bodily functions in this book, all of it drawn from impeccable sources, which have been plundered before for duller and less colourful details. But there is also a large amount of bouncy narrative about political scheming and misadventure - from the disasters of the civil war in al-Andalus, Arab Spain, in the 1010s, to the improbable success of Gerbert of Aurillac, a political dealer and intellectual of non-noble origin who ended up, not dead or disgraced as most parvenus did in medieval politics, but as Pope Silvester II (999-1003).

The political figures of the time were clearly having fun, when events went well at least, and Holland makes us participate in that. He does not really offer us an explanation of the major changes he sets out at the start; he sees these as stemming from this endless flow of technicolour events, though he is probably right in that the extent to which these changes were revolutionary was invisible to anyone at the time. Holland goes for the good stories, if they are there in the sources, and does not pause all that much to consider the extent to which they might be true or false. But no matter: he makes the 10th and 11th centuries exciting (as they indeed are) and is, for the most part, true to them.

My problem with such interpretations of the Middle Ages is quite different; it is the suggestion that the grand narrative of modernity should start in the 11th century. I don't see Gregory VII being as revolutionary as that. It is true, he did push open the growing breach between church and secular power (though in the long run the papal judicial system of the mid-12th century was arguably more important in this than Gregory's mostly unsuccessful political interventions); but the wound was sewn up again by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the 16th century. Already by the late 14th century popes had lost and would never have again the sort of power that Gregory claimed and his most influential successors like Innocent III actually wielded.

Furthermore, the roots of modernity can be found in any period. Certainly the Carolingians can claim the sort of moral-political protagonism that Holland discusses for the papal reformers: the ninth century was full of intellectuals arguing about the proper conduct of politics, in some cases with greater intensity than even in the 12th century, justifying their own dubious behaviour, as intellectuals in politics always do, with considerable flair. And why stop there? The Visigoths in the seventh century had a similar political culture and self-image; and then we are back in the world of late Antiquity, without much of a break, at the political-cultural level at least. As an early medievalist, I am unconvinced by the idea that things were radically different from the late 11th century onwards - or that this constituted 'real historical development', rather than merely a series of events. The early Middle Ages itself is considerably complex: as Holland's own account of the 10th century suggests. There were changes later, some of them major (the development of local lordship, for example), but there were plenty of continuities too and both deserve study.

At heart, though, the problem for me is that I don't believe in teleology - the valuation of events by their outcomes. One can find the roots of the modern world in any and every century but they are only worth looking for if one is only interested in the idea of the modern world. If one is interested in the past, one must see it in its own terms, and understand its own intrinsic characteristics rather than awarding brownie points according to how forward-looking this or that historical development might appear retrospectively. From such a standpoint, the fifth, seventh, ninth, 11th, 13th centuries, are all equally worthy of study and of being seen in their own terms; by the same token, decades as recent as the 1980s can be appear as distant from us and in many ways as strange as that of the 980s.

I do not mean that the search for origins is without value; if one wants to analyse the causes of the Industrial Revolution, for example, one would expect to delve quite deeply into the past, yet in doing so, one will undoubtedly look only at the bits that lead to the outcome one is trying to explain. However, we should not make the mistake of imagining that these are the only aspects of that complex and strange past reality that deserve to be analysed. It is what makes it strange, how it worked and why, that seems to me to be the primary aim of writing history. Of course, once one has unravelled this, one can legitimately put the findings back together as a narrative. And one should. But one has to be true to the past as one does so, in so far as any of us can, and that means not looking at any part of it merely in terms of what it led to.

Holland's rich tapestry of violence and bad (or sometimes good) behaviour in and around 1000 is as real as is any account from later centuries and does not need to be forced into the straitjacket of the 'origins of modernity'. The Middle Ages do not have to be defended from their critics; they are simply very interesting.

Chris Wickham is Chichele Professor of Medieval History at the University of Oxford, and author of The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe From 400 to 1000 (Allen Lane, 2009).
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Title Annotation:TODAY'S HISTORY
Author:Wickham, Chris
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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