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Brightening Up the Dark Ages

Death and Life in the Tenth Century

by Eleanor Duckett
University of Michigan, 359 pp., $8.50

The Other Conquest

by John Julius Norwich
Harper & Row, 355 pp., $6.95

The Making of the Christian West, 980-1140

by Georges Duby
Skira (distributed in US by World Publishing Co.), 214, 71 color plates, 40 black and white photographs pp., $21.50

The emergence of Western Europe as an identifiable society in world history is a theme that remains popular with medieval historians, and especially for those writing, as all other authors are, for the interested general reader. It is one that they like to discuss in biological metaphors—life, death, growth, decay. Hence the many books on the birth, or the making, of Europe, the Middle Ages, the Christian West. About the main stages of the process there is general agreement. As the authority of the western Roman empire withered away, so power passed to the leaders of the Germanic peoples who, from the fifth century, took root in the European provinces. Of these peoples, those who established themselves most permanently and imposed themselves most successfully on their neighbors were the Franks, who settled most thickly between the Rhine and the Loire. In the eighth century they were ruled by a dynasty which produced one king of heroic stature, Charlemagne. He was not only a conqueror. He gave the peoples under his rule a fair measure of public order, which was certainly greater than most of them had previously enjoyed. He exercised authority with a degree of Christian responsibility, he expressed his will in legislative and administrative acts intended to apply to all his dominions; under his patronage and that of the clergy of his court there was a revival in things of the mind: education, literature, the conservation of some of the inheritance of the past.

These achievements were impermanent. The Carolingian Empire disintegrated because of civil war between Charlemagne’s grandsons, and their descendants after them, and because of renewed invasions not only by Saracens, but, even more terrible, by Magyars and Norsemen. Feudal institutions, in this age though not in all, promoted disunity rather than order. So there followed in the late ninth and early tenth century, a fragmentation of the Carolingians’ work. The tenth century can be presented in stark contrast to the ages that preceded and followed it, to the comparative unity and order of the Carolingian period on the one hand, and on the other the new growth of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a growth more solidly founded than the Carolingian on a rising population, the revival of longdistance trade in bulk commodities, the growth of towns and higher education, the settlement of some of the invaders in Hungary, Normandy, and parts of the British Isles. The tenth century has been seen as a slough of despond between the peaks of eighth and twelfth-century achievement, for which historians have devised suitably drab and depressing names—the true Dark Age, the Age of Iron, the Age of Lead.

No period of as much as a hundred years can be labeled in any meaningful way. Certainly the tenth century was marked more than many others by destruction, confusion, and retrogression. But it was also a century of monastic revival, which saw the foundation of Cluny and the work of John of Gorze and Gerard of Brogne; Professors Duckett and Duby both write admirably on these matters. It saw the kings of Wessex, by their conquest of the Danelaw, become kings of England. It saw the establishment of an effective ruling house in Germany, which made its power felt in Italy and among the Slavs who were its eastern neighbors. It saw Byzantium abandon its centuries-long defense against Islam and pass successfully to the attack. Under the Macedonian Emperors it was an age of cultural achievement, in which the law was recodified and missions sent among the Slavs. It was a century which, as Professor Lopez has stressed, provided many signs of the spreading of Christianity, the decline of slavery, an extension of both external and internal colonization, as well as the proliferation of small, local units of organization, in which there was more hope for the future than in the brittle unity of the Carolingian empire. The literature of the tenth century shows that all men then living did not view it as a bleak age. Like all other centuries it contained, to use the terms of Professor Duckett’s title, elements of both death and life.

Miss Duckett does not write of Europe as a whole, nor about underlying conditions like its economy, institutions, or social structure. Her book falls into two parts, and in the first and slightly shorter of the two she is concerned with the German kings of the tenth century, and especially with Otto I and his grandson. She uses an elaborate metaphor of the passing seasons to discuss this royal line from the winter of Arnulf and Conrad to the high summer of Otto III. The harvest, the subject of the second part of the book, is seen as including literature, learning, and religion.

As in all her books, Professor Duckett writes with close knowledge of the historical and literary sources, and this latest work is written directly from these sources, which give it true authority. It also gives the historical part a particular character. Historians writing in the tenth century concerned themselves with top people and great events, invasion, rebellion, and natural disaster. They were not concerned with the common round of ordinary people, nor with how they were governed, nor with the impersonal forces which shaped their lives. So neither is Professor Duckett. She fixes her attention on the politics, diplomacy, and campaigns of the German kings, and since these kings were active in many lands besides their own, so the scene kaleidoscopically changes from Germany, to France, to Lorraine, to Burgundy, to Italy, to the Slav lands east of the Elbe, and her pages are thickly strewn with the proper names of the Roberts and Henries, Berengars, Alberics, and Ottos who took part. The history, because it follows the narrative sources so closely and uses no others, stays always on the surface. Things happen in rapid succession, though we do not always know why. Some of these happenings, like the quest of the German kings for the office of Emperor, or their relations with the Papacy, Byzantium, or the rulers of the Slavs, are part of historic developments that preceded and succeeded the tenth century and need being put into perspective. They are not put into perspective here.

The historical part of the book has the same quality throughout; the second is more varied. The three longest chapters are each on a literary form, history, verse, and drama. Some of the discussion is about the careers of particular writers, a Liutprand of Cremona, for example, or it may be about a writer’s whole work, or the summary of some particular work, or of some main episode recounted in that work, like the conflicts about the succession to the archbishopric of Rheims, as told by Richer and Flodoard. Sometimes the summarizing of literary works is pursued at length. A précis is given of eight poems by Hrotsvitha and six of her plays. As a result the sixteen pages devoted to this literary nun, who took the comedies of Terence as her model, not to portray, as he did, “the foul lewdness of lascivious women, but to make known to the world the noble chastity of holy virgins,” are the most given to any tenth-century character. In some ways this is an odd allocation of space. There is, for example, a chapter on the harvest of learning, but it contains almost nothing on Gerbert the scholar. Elsewhere we are told about his career, especially at Rheims, but there is no discussion of the intellectual equipment which made him the most erudite man of his age. Everything in this part of the book is illustrated by paraphrase and quotation. The only chapter that suffers from the lack of such illustration is that on art. Verbal description of manuscript illumination or of the bronze doors of Hildesheim makes for arid reading. The author should have been allowed a few pictures.

Certainly the Professor works hard to give her writing color—almost too hard. She will not use one word where four will do; she has some turns of phrase which make her English as strange as some of the Latin of the tenth-century writers whose works she knows so well. She is less likely to write, “He paid his servant in Bavaria” than “to that servant of his he made rich payment of money in Bavarian land.” Her vocabulary can be strangely inappropriate to her theme. Of the Magyars, those barbarous mounted archers whose devastating raids reduced whole provinces to abject terror, she has this to say: “They fought for their living; in time they came to delight in the skill through which their arrows found each its victim, in the lively satisfaction of a nomad life which gave them far more than their fathers had known.” When rape or seduction are in the offing, the same coy circumlocution is always ready: “he sought her company.” And of John XII, Pope before he was twenty, famous for his exploits in bed and in the hunting field, she remarks “he was no true father of the Church.” For a comparable wrenching apart of life and language one must return to Bishop Creighton on the Borgias. At such times she seems to miss the flavor of the age, but this is not the most important aspect of the book. Very few writers have taken the tenth century as their subject, and fewer still have made themselves masters of the sources as Professor Duckett has done. For this reason, she will have the gratitude of students and general readers alike.

Lord Norwich presents a strong contrast to the professor. He is not the scholar Miss Duckett is (he points this out himself in his agreeably modest preface), but his gifts as a writer are beyond doubt. His father, Duff Cooper, before he was ennobled for his services to the state, was a gifted historian, and the son, after an up-bringing which included Eton, New College, and the Foreign Service, has like Harold Nicolson before him, resigned as a diplomat to concentrate on his writing. For his first book he has chosen one of the most spectacular episodes which went to the making of Europe. In the tenth century Norsemen settled in northern France and throve there. During the last forty years of the eleventh century, Normans from the duchy passed to fresh conquests. At the same time, as some of them were conquering the kingdom of England, their kinsmen were conquering the Moslem-held island of Sicily, which in 1130 became another Norman kingdom. And, by taking part in the First Crusade, Normans from Southern Italy conquered in Syria a principality centered on Antioch.

The Other Conquest is concerned with the first century of the Normans’ activities in southern Italy. The earliest Normans came as Pilgrims shortly before the year 1020. They stayed, and other followed, to make their fortune. Apulia and Calabria offered wide opportunities for adventurers who were prepared to think of no one but themselves. No single power was in control. There were Byzantine officials, Lombard dukes, cities prepared to go it alone. Some Christians worshipped in Latin, some in Greek, there were Moslems who worshipped in Arabic. The island of Sicily was wholly under Moslem rule. The first Normans were not organized under a single leader. They would serve anyone who would pay them and, as mercenaries, were perfectly ready to fight each other. But by the middle of the century some Norman leaders had become territorial lords, and one dominating figure had arisen among them: Robert Guiscard, one of the many sons of Tancred d’Hauteville who had left Normandy to try their luck in the South. In 1059 Guiscard was recognized by the Pope as Duke of Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily. In the next year the conquest of Sicily was begun, to be completed thirty years later. It was an enterprise in which the leadership increasingly passed into the hands of Robert’s brother, Roger, who is Lord Norwich’s real hero. It was he who consolidated the conquest, and it was his son who secured from one of the contestants of the disputed papal election of 1130 the grant of a royal title.

This success story, with its alliances, campaigns, and individual feats of arms, has all the ingredients of a first-rate narrative, and this is exactly what Lord Norwich provides. He has acquainted himself with the country and with the sources, even with what he calls with understandable feeling those “relentless hexameters” of William of Apulia. He provides a useful list of books and learned articles which he consulted, although he gives the minimum of attention to forms of organization—social, political, economic, ecclesiastical. His strength lies in telling a story, and in doing so he has trodden firmly in the footsteps of Amari and Chalandon. His book is everywhere decorated with well-turned phrases and enlivened by urbane and amusing comment; but these effects, which help to make his book extremely readable, are sometimes achieved by means that historians would consider barely legitimate.

He is always prepared to state, succinctly and without reservation, a chain of cause and effect, or an analysis of individual’s motives, of which in fact we know next to nothing. His reconstruction of the past is based on evidence of different degrees of credibility and value. Sometimes he draws attention to the defects of the evidence, sometimes he does not, with the result that fact and fiction can, unknown to the reader, be intermingled. He likes to make characters out of dimly known figures of the past, or, rather, to reduce them to a number of oversimplified characteristics. There is Pandulf of Capua, “Wolf of the Abruzzi,” a monster of cruelty and double-dealing; the Guiscard, genius, and rollicking extrovert; his son, Roger Borsa, here cast as Dopey; the Emperor Henry II, Henry the Holy as Lord Norwich insists on calling him, “hardly worthy of the canonization he was to receive…an honour conferred largely in recognition of the dismal chastity in which he lived with his wife Cunégonde of Luxemburg.” Well, there was a bit more to Henry than that, as there was no doubt to others he delineates with that sharpness and economy which is the hallmark of caricature.

For all that, the essentials of the history are there. When the author went to Sicily in 1961 he was astonished and excited by the medieval monuments he found there. He came home wishing to read more about the subject, but found that the book he needed had not yet been written in English. So he wrote his own, and whatever reservations academic historians may have about it, many future visitors to Sicily, including, perhaps, academic historians on holiday, will be grateful to him for it, and for the sequel he is writing.

These same academics are, in general, too much bound to written sources and make too little use of material remains. The series of books published by Skira is therefore to be welcomed. These volumes use works of art as the principal evidence, and are concerned with the underlying connections among art, ideas, and history. Fourteen volumes will cover European history from the tenth century to the twentieth, and Professor Duby’s volume is the first of this particular series (there is to be another on the ancient world). The book is magnificently illustrated. There are 71 plates in color and another 40 in black and white, each, with few exceptions, filling a page. A few fill a double page, like the superb blue cloak of the Emperor Henry II—the same who aroused Lord Norwich’s derision—with the heavenly bodies in gold and the lettering in red, from the diocesan museum in Bamberg. There are buildings, interiors and exteriors, sculptures, carvings in ivory and wood, painting, both frescoes and manuscript illustrations, from all parts of western Europe, including Spain and Scandinavia, from the tenth century to the twelfth. Nearly all these photographs, and their reproduction are of the highest possible technical standard.

The text, which occupies about a third of the book’s 200 pages, is by Professor Duby of Aix-Marseille. Although its arrangement seems unnecessarily complex, its theme is clearly set out. In the Carolingian age, he tells us, and down to the eleventh century, kings were the initiators and directors of major artistic enterprises. There was, furthermore, a close connection between this royal art and the heritage of classical antiquity. In the eleventh century the power of kings declined and the evolution of art was thus decisively affected. Power passed from kings to feudatories who, enriched by incomes increased by improved agricultural techniques, were the same patrons of art, although they did not follow their royal predecessors in supervising the activities of artists. These functions passed to the Church, and especially to the monks who were an increasingly important part of the Church.

The triumph of Cluny broke up diocesan authority at the same time as the growing insubordination of lords of castles broke up the authority of the royal officials. And in the realm of intellect and the arts “the conquests of Cluny paralleled those of feudalism.” With what effect on the art of the period? “Ecclesiastical art took shape in a world crushed and brutalized by the dominance of a warrior caste who, never having learned to read and write, were incapable of reasoning and responsive only to gestures, rites and symbols.” Artists no longer employed “the disciplined art language which reflected the teaching of the schools under the patronage of royalty. Put to the service of monasteries…in which it was hoped to solve the mystery of things by mental processes as remote from reality as the stuff of dreams, art was identified with an exploration of the invisible.”

Professor Duby is the most distinguished of living medievalists, especially in the field of economic history. This is evident from the opening pages of the book, where there is a masterly sketch of the human settlement, social organization, and economic activity which supported the art he is to discuss. There are other passages, especially those on the place in that primitive society of ritual of cultic gesture and symbolic art, which are distinguished by erudition and insight. But his exposition also raises serious difficulties. It seems chronologically insecure. All European monarchies did not grow weaker in the eleventh century and cede their power to feudatories. The Salian kings in Germany grew stronger in the first half of the eleventh century; in the second, the English monarchy was strengthened by the Norman conquest. As for the kings of the French, they were so weak in the tenth century that they could hardly be weaker in the eleventh.

He gives an excellent account of developing feudalism, but in many parts of Europe these developments had long preceded the eleventh century. Monasticism occupies a place of central importance in his discussion, but it is almost entirely based on Cluny. Beyond a passing mention, he has nothing to say of Citeaux, just as he has nothing of Abelard and the schools of Paris or of the rise of towns. The author may reply that he is concerned primarily with the eleventh century; but a quarter of the period given in his title lies in the twelfth, and so do a third of his illustrations.

His text is, in fact, loosely constructed, just as the plates are loosely connected with the headings under which they are grouped and with the notes which accompany them. Yet art history is a rigorous and highly technical subject, and its connection with ideas and social conditions is not easily established, at least not in any detailed or significant way. There are many specialists working in the field who include scholars of the highest international reputation. None is mentioned by Professor Duby, and the series provides neither notes nor bibliography. Yet if the objectives of the publishers are to be achieved, it must be in part on the basis of the specialists’ work. It remains to be seen whether any one writer will be able to make an effective survey of the whole middle ages in this way (Professor Duby is also the author of the other two medieval volumes in this series). Meanwhile there will be pioneering essays of a general kind, and we shall all be fortunate if they are half as stimulating as this one, and half as splendidly illustrated.

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