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Born Yesterday

The Birth of Europe

by Robert S. Lopez
M.Evans & Co., 442 pp., $15.00

The Middle Ages is a term of convenience. It denotes an epoch which lay between two others more familiar to our educated ancestors: on the one hand the ancient world, on whose literature their education had been founded, and, on the other, that immediate past of which they and their elders had direct experience. In between lay the dark centuries of barbarism and religion—the Middle Ages. Yet these centuries were not just a middle; there was also an end and a beginning. The end was that of the undivided Roman Empire as it had existed during the first three christian centuries. And when in the fifth century A.D. imperial rule collapsed in the western provinces, then the peoples of those provinces, no longer part of the larger unity of the empire, went their own way. Whatever the divisions which then existed and which still exist among them, these western Europeans had in common enough traditions, beliefs, values, and forms of expression and organization to become a new unit among the world’s peoples and civilizations.

In recent years the character of the Middle Ages as an era in which a new civilized entity was born and grew up has been abundantly recognized in historical writing, some of the best of it by American scholars. This ranges from highly efficient textbooks designed to meet the needs of university students to analytical studies seeking to identify the principal elements which went into the formation of western Europe and to demonstrate the process by which they synthesized into a distinctive form of civilization. Among such works we have Christopher Dawson’s Making of Europe, Moss’s Birth of the Middle Ages, Southern’s Making of the Middle Ages, and now Professor Lopez uses for his title the one remaining combination of this particular set of words: The Birth of Europe.

THIS IS NOT a textbook offering systematic information; the author modestly dislaims the ability to write such a book. Nor is it, as has been claimed on its behalf, “a synthesis…which neglects no part of the full picture.” In order to elucidate the character of western Europe in the Middle Ages and, after a false start, its sustained growth into the society which in more modern times imposed itself on the world outside, the author has made a selection from the whole range of available material, and much of the interest and importance of the book derives from what he has decided to include and to emphasize.

It is a work of analysis and interpretation, and few scholars, if any, can be better qualified than Professor Lopez to attempt such a task. His publishers recommend him as the editor of a book of translated documents on medieval Mediterranean trade and as the author of a slim pamphlet, again of translated documents with the briefest of commentaries, on the character of the tenth century. In this, as in other matters, they do their author less than justice. Professor Lopez has earned the right to generalize by an active lifetime of detailed research. During the past thirtyfive years this distinguished Genoese scholar (with a Spanish name) who lives and works in America, has published the results of his work in articles, some of them famous among students and colleagues, in Italian, French, and English. The Birth of Europe was first published in French five years ago as part of a series, Destins du Monde. It fully earns its place in a collection directed by Febvre and Braudel and which includes Morazé’s Les Bourgeois Conquérants.

A word on the publishers. They are at great pains to advertise the book; why on earth don’t they treat it with more respect? What is the use of having fine illustrations (even if they are sometimes married at gunpoint to the text) if they allow that text to be disfigured by dozens—yes, dozens—of misprints which even the most cursory proofreading could have removed. And the Index! Two examples of its quality must suffice. It surprisingly lists Henry IV (France) and Henry V (France). Inspection of the relevant pages shows these to be the Emperors Henry IV and V (both Germany). It does not list Suger; in the book Suger is not only mentioned but is discussed. The same carelessness extends into the lists of rulers given in an appendix, which is, incidentally, the happiest of hunting grounds for connoisseurs of royal cognomina. Kings are not only the Great and the Good. There are Sancho the Fierce and Alfonso the Slobberer; Boleslav the Brave, the Modest, the Curly, the Wry-Mouthed.

Like some of the medieval work to whose formal symmetry he refers, Lopez’s own book is based on a rule of three. It is a study of three principle aspects—the economic, the cultural, and the political—of a tripartite society, organized in three books, each corresponding to a main stage of European development between the fourth and the fourteenth centuries. These stages are familiar enough. First, western Europe descended from the standards and achievements of the ancient world. The Romanized population could not maintain them and their new barbarian masters could not reach up to them. “A dull combination of Roman senility and German immaturity” brought a declining population to a level of life which was immeasurably poorer. In its material aspect it was marked by “insufficiency of men and means, contraction of production, difficulties of distribution, low levels of consumption.” It was an age of cultural retrogression. Neither the barbarians nor the Romans, clogged as they were with a dead past, were capable of real literature or learning. The achievements of the Carolingians did not mark a permanent recovery. Their Empire was a frail, sickly giant which did not long survive. Like the Caliphate of the Ommayyads, the Byzantium of Justinian and Heraclius, the China of T’ang, the Carolingian Age was a false dawn, soon extinguished by renewed barbarian attacks and, in the ninth century, by a second dark age. But then came the second stage, this time of revival and growth. In the tenth century darkness was lifting and a true dawn was at hand. There was new life based on a rising population, embodied not in kingdoms and empires but in smaller, local units. Opportunities existed for individuals, and associations of individuals, unhampered by government restrictions. With recovery in the agrarian world came the extension of trade and the entry into European society of the merchant, as someone who mattered. “The demographic revolution became an agricultural revolution and that in turn became a commercial revolution. Catholic Europe passed from the rear to the lead in world development.” At the same time there was an intellectual and artistic renaissance, in philosophy, in literature, and in building. In the spheres of war, diplomacy, and administration kings began to overcome the forces of localism and to make their contribution to the building of Europe.

THIS PROCESS OF GROWTH continued from the tenth century into the thirteenth when it reached a zenith which is the third stage discussed in the book. In the life of the great cities, especially those of northern Italy, there was a dynamic spirit, marked by abundance, mobility, and speed. Not only were royal governments still more highly organized, but nations were emerging. And as Europeans explored Asia and conquered new areas of knowledge, so their horizons, both physical and mental, were widening. In the fourteenth century, at the very end of the time span covered in this book, there was renewed crisis, which is the subject of a short epilogue. Once again, as population slumped, so many things changed for the worse; but these were changes which Europe survived. “Her progress was hindered for a while, but the solid foundations laid by the commercial revolution of the Middle Ages proved firm enough to endure and support the huge impetus of the industrial revolution from the eighteenth century onward.”

Into this well-worked field of single volume histories of medieval Europe Professor Lopez brings a freshness of style and approach which enables him to make a distinctive contribution. He is a master of the crisp generalization, the epigrammatic phrase, the perceptive judgment. Most writers in English who offer a panoramic view of the Middle Ages do so, consciously or unconsciously, from a standpoint well to the northwest of the continent or, in the author’s phrase, “from the meridian of Greenwich.” For them the Mediterranean lands lie, as one well-known textbook puts it, “on the fringes of Europe.” It is therefore a refreshing contrast to read a historian who looks closely at southern Europe, and especially at Italy. He discusses, as any writer on the Middle Ages must, peasants and farming and agrarian society. But he has still more to say about trade, commercial organization, towns, and townsmen. He discusses not only the established powers who figure largest in the medieval records—landlords, bishops, monastic houses, kings and their households—but also those with whom the evidence makes it harder to get in touch—the masses, the women, the dissenters, and the heretics. His portrayal of the intellectual scene in the thirteenth century includes not only controversies among theologians and philosophers, but it includes as well physics, medicine, alchemy, and the extension of knowledge through travel and exploration.

Everywhere the emphasis is on economic change and on the pressures of powerful, impersonal forces. Many writers nowadays try to convey the character of things medieval through the medium of individuals, and by dwelling on certain aspects of their life and work. Lopez never uses individuals in this way. He is more concerned with massive phenomena like large-scale plague and deforestation and with the effects of population, climatic and technical change. And he never fails to remind us that these pressures affected not only Europe but the world beyond. All this makes for exciting statements of cause and effect, even if they sometimes have a flavor of hypothesis. There are times, as the generalization pile up, when the reader would welcome some supporting evidence and, when evidence is given, some indication of how well founded it is. How securely have scholars established, for example, that in the fourteenth century population simultaneously declined in Europe, Byzantium, Egypt, Persia, Turkestan, Mongolia, and China?

PROFESSOR LOPEZ is at once erudite and stimulating, yet even he cannot hope to please all the specialists all the time. There will be German scholars who will strongly disagree with his verdict that Barbarossa “let Germany go to pieces while vainly trying to reaffirm his position in Italy.” Students of English history will read with surprise that William the Conqueror “adjusted skillfully the advanced institutions of his duchy to the more primitive but solid framework of the Anglo-Saxon state,” and that he used in England “the dynamism of a fully developed and orderly feudal system.” These are verdicts which have an old-fashioned ring.

Important matters have had to be left out; the author himself draws attention to this in the final paragraph of his Preface. But his omissions go well beyond the individuals and battles he admits to there. A central feature of the Middle Ages, judged from any point of view, was the development of a body of ideas which assigned the Papacy a supremacy in the Roman Church, over clergy and laity alike, which was not only spiritual but legal and jurisdictional. Moreover, from the late eleventh century, these ideas were embodied in a code of law and were given institutional reality, so that until the Reformation part of the laws under which Europeans lived would not be the law of their fief, town, or kingdom, but the canon law of the Church, interpreted and administered in all countries alike in a hierarchy of Church courts, which culminated in a final court of appeal in Rome. All this plays a minor part in the book; and even when the Pope is mentioned, it is often in his capacity as an Italian territorial ruler. But in the world of catholic christianity the Pope was a world statesman whose authority, channeled through the legates, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the canon law and the courts christian, permeated all Europe. And the formidable challenge to the papal position mounted at the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, especially in the France of Philip the Fair, and the developments in political thought, organization, and action which lay behind that challenge, are just as important a turning point in the history of Europe as demographic change. These are matters of interpretation and emphasis on which the author is unlikely ever to change his mind, but they provide strong grounds for disagreeing with him.

Always the stress is on the material. He is given to telling medieval Europeans what they could or ought to have done if they had possessed our technical knowledge and materialistic viewpoint. If the landowners of the late Roman empire “had invested their revenues in trade, industry or finance, they could have set the whole economy moving.” The Capetian kings of France “ought to have resurrected a regular income tax system, the fundamental basis of both Roman and modern finance.” But since, given medieval conditions and ideas, there was never the slightest chance of these things happening, how useful are such comments? We can teach nothing to the world we have lost, though we can still, perhaps, learn.

IT IS THE SPIRITUAL and contemplative side of medieval life which is left in the background of this book. The achievements of the Church? These “were the proceeds of enormous investments in manpower and wealth…the Church borrowed from the lay world far more than its superfluity.” It is suggested that the urban growth of Beauvais was somehow stunted because too many of its resources were diverted into the building of an overambitious cathedral. Italian cities managed to do without this kind of luxury and therefore prospered. Well, it’s an idea. The kind of thing we do not learn from this book is why reluctant kings, unwilling to leave their kingdoms, nevertheless felt themselves obliged to go crusading, nor why a St. Bernard could play so dominating a part in the life of his day. But St. Bernard rates only three entries in the Index, fewer than Napoleon or Alexander the Great. St. Anselm has only one; so have Hitler and Karl Marx. And in a history of the Middle Ages, this is just a little odd.

Any reader can have his differences with the author and, at the same time, recognize this as a remarkable book by a fine scholar, based on deep and enviable erudition in many fields. It not only interprets; it sparkles with questions and hypotheses which challenge investigation and debate. And these are the lifeblood of historical studies.

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