The Central Middle Ages: Europe 950-1320.
Cambridge has its massive, multivolume Histories (such as the recently completed New Cambridge Medieval History). Oxford, in contrast, has relatively concise--if still multivolume--paperback Short History series. The present volume is the seventh to appear in what is anticipated to be a ten-volume history of Europe, from classical Greece through the end of the twentieth century. It is an anthology of articles by six scholars (plus an introduction and conclusion by the editor), covering western Europe's society, economy, politics, religion, intellectual developments, and interactions with the non-western world over a period of nearly four centuries. The coverage is by necessity broad rather than deep, and there is no effort (as there is in the Cambridge volumes) to provide a narrative of political events. The "politics" chapter by Bjorn Weiler (replacing the late Timothy Reuter) focuses almost entirely on the theory of kingship, rather than the deeds of individual kings, and on the nature of law and authority.
The theme of all the articles is that the central Middle Ages was a transformative period, one characterized by Daniel Power as a "period of momentous change" (p. 1). The population and the economy grew, Europe developed an urban culture, the organized church reformed itself, centralized governments became established, universities were born, and Europe began to influence its neighbours--often at the point of the sword. This approach is nothing surprising; all scholars working on the central Middle Ages take it for granted, and it is the normal way that the period is taught. The book does not set out to make any new arguments or interpretations. Rather, it pulls together the conclusions of recent scholarship (up through about 2003) for a synthetic overview of what are now considered the chief developments of the time.
The audience for the book, although not explicitly identified, seems to be advanced university students. It does not have the illustrations or the simplicity of a modern textbook, or the liveliness of tone expected in a book for a general audience, nor does it have the novel arguments and extensive footnotes one would expect in a book aimed at scholars. But it would be a very useful resource for a student beginning serious research on the period, one who wanted a convenient summary of modern thinking. The footnotes, although kept to a minimum, are supplemented by a wide-ranging discussion in the back of recommended further readings, most of them in English and weighted more toward Britain than the Continent. Some recent historiographic debates, such as that on the "mutations" of the year 1000, are briskly summarized. Maps, a timeline, and a glossary provide helpful guidance for the student.
Because the authors are all experts in their fields, the book also serves as a statement of how the field of medieval history stands at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Social and cultural history have clearly replaced national political history as a central concern. There has also been a conscious effort to get past overly simplistic models of medieval society. The "three orders of society" are rightly treated in Martin Aurell's chapter on society as an intellectual construct created by some early medieval thinkers, not an unproblematic description of human organization. Fiefs and manors are mentioned only in passing. Some terms such as "feudalism," once seen as the defining characteristic of the central Middle Ages, do not appear at all, although "courtly love" still makes a rather unconvincing cameo appearance.
The coverage of topics is, as is to be expected, somewhat uneven. Women appear only infrequently, which should have been remedied given the great many studies of medieval women's history which have appeared in the last decade or two. The chapter by David Nicholas on the economy is stronger on the urban and commercial economy than the rural economy, where he disputes the idea of an agricultural revolution, but offers little to replace it. Julia Barrow's chapter on religion gives much more attention to the popes and to bishops than to the monasteries, devotes only a few paragraphs to heresy, and only a few sentences to the friars, which seems especially anomalous given their importance in thirteenth-century religious life. Both Anna Abulafia, in her chapter on intellectual developments, and Nora Berend, in hers on the expansion of Latin Christendom, try to cover so many topics that at times their accounts become little more than lists of names and events.
But one can always quibble with what is or is not treated in a book like this, where four centuries are covered in only two hundred pages of text. Overall, the volume is a solid contribution to our understanding of this crucial period of the Middle Ages, and I for one intend to assign it to beginning graduate students.
Constance B. Bouchard
University of Akron
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|Author:||Bouchard, Constance B.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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