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What Is to Be Done about Medieval History?

Quantitative History

edited by D.K. Rowney, edited by J.Q. Graham
Dorsey Press, 488 pp., $5.95

French Rural History

by Marc Bloch
California, 258 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Approaches to the History of Spain

by Jaime Vicens Vives
California, 189 pp., $6.50

Political History

by G.R. Elton
Basic Books, 184 pp., $5.95

Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne

by François Louis Ganshof
Brown University Press, 191 pp., $7.50

Masters, Princes and Merchants

by John W. Baldwin
Princeton, 2 vols, 343 and 287 pp., $22.50 (the set)

The Twelfth Century Renaissance in this review, are listed in footnotes at the appropriate places)

by Christopher Brooke
Harcourt, Brace & World, 216 pp., $2.95 (other recent books on medieval history, discussed more briefly (paper)

What are we to do about medieval history? No serious person would question its importance. What is nearest to us in time is not necessarily most relevant. The traditional Europe of our history books—the Europe of Napoleon and Bismarck, even the Europe of Hitler and Mussolini—is as dead as that of Charles the Great or Frederick Barbarossa, and we may disabuse our minds of the illusion that there is any immediate profit, from the point of view of contemporary affairs, in studying the deflated celebrities of the day before yesterday.

People treat the recent past as though it were the den from which the lion that is going to devour them is going to spring. In reality it nearly always jumps out unobserved from behind their backs. They might be better equipped to meet contemporary developments if (as Herbert Butterfield once observed) “they had studied in ancient history the deeper processes that political bodies have been observed to undergo over long periods.” For anyone who believes in the “relevance” or actuality of history, there is less to be gained, in the present world, from scrutinizing anxiously the origins of the Second World War than from studying Caesar and the Roman revolution, a revolution which may be paralleled sooner than we think in our own society.

Much the same may be said of medieval history. Those of us who study it do so not because it is medieval, but because we believe that knowledge of immediate causes and contemporary events may blind, and not illuminate, unless it is counter-balanced by a deeper understanding of the continuity of history and its underlying currents. Indeed, the very concept of “the Middle Ages” is misleading (as well as doubtfully valid), in so far as it cuts them off as a remote and separate period which has little bearing on our lives and fortunes. In reality, this was not only the time when the foundations of European civilization, as it exists today in east and west, were being laid; it was also the time when some of our stubbornest beliefs and prejudices took root, as well as ideals we would fight and die for. If (as I once wrote) we understood it better, not as medieval history, but as modern history—very modern history, in the sense that all history which means anything is contemporary history—we might understand ourselves better, as well as our problems and potentialities.

And yet no one surveying the scene today—particularly no one with the interests of medieval history at heart—can be entirely satisfied with the present state of medieval studies. During the past ten or a dozen years a great ferment has been going on in the historical world—a ferment expressed in the search for a new and more sophisticated methodology. Like all previous revolutions in historical thought and practice it has proceeded by absorbing and assimilating the achievements of cognate sciences. The first great advance of historical science in the seventeenth century was inspired by the principles of biblical criticism, the second in the nineteenth century by the methods of classical philology. The third, in our own time, draws on the example of the social sciences, and a very useful sample of its methods and results, at least so far as American historiography is concerned, has been put together by D. K. Rowney and J. Q. Graham. 1 It is an histoire mathématisante, as contrasted with the traditional histoire historisante or histoire événementielle, and its fundamental characteristic is quantification—that is, measuring and counting the incidence of various types of phenomena and comparing the quantities so obtained.

It is surely a significant fact that this “new history,” as it is sometimes called, originated in the field of medieval studies. It was the response of a generation of great medievalists, led by Marc Bloch, to the dissatisfaction they felt with the current state of their craft. Bloch in the 1920s became disenchanted with facts per se and with the descriptive history which was all most historians aspired to. He lost patience with minute investigations of no apparent relevance and with local studies unrelated to broader historical problems. The turning point came in 1931 with the publication of his greatest work, Les Caractères originaux de l’histoire rurale française; and it is a very great boon that an English translation of this classic has now been made available, together with a selection of Bloch’s papers on Land and Work in Medieval Europe, in a paperback edition.2

The publication of Bloch’s book marked the start of a movement of renewal which has gone on without break to the present day. It marked also a stage in his cooperation with the great French specialist on sixteenth-century history, Lucien Febvre; and the journal Annales, which Bloch and Febvre together edited, became a manifesto of their revolt against an outworn and outmoded methodology. Its impact was immense, outside as well as inside France. For a whole generation, from 1930 to 1960, the “school” of the Annales exerted a dominating influence. In particular, it shaped the mind and attitude of the great Spanish medievalist, Jaime Vicens Vives, “Spain’s first truly modern historian,” whose Approaches to the History of Spain—short, incisive, and pregnant with original ideas—is another seminal work worthy in every way of comparison with Bloch’s French Rural History.3

Bloch, Febvre, Vicens were the prophets of a generation in revolt against the debilitating effects of political history, of the fetish of “documents and nothing but the documents,” of the illusion that all the historian has to do is to uncover the “facts” of history and leave them to speak for themselves without the intrusion of hypothesis or theory. It would be tempting to quote at length from their programmatic statements. They should be made basic reading for all historians, for they go to the heart of the historian’s business, pointing the way out of the dilemma which has confronted historians ever since, half a century ago, the edifice erected by nineteenth-century scientific history began to crumble under the blows of German historicism.

It is true, and has often been said, that neither Bloch nor Febvre evolved a consistent philosophy of history. I doubt whether either would have cared. For Bloch what was important was not to take up a theoretical position, but to set a practical example by writing the sort of history in which he believed, working out the details of the new goals, and elaborating a methodology to put them into effect.

By modern standards, perhaps, Bloch was not a “scientific” historian; in his day, after all, the new methods of quantification were still in their infancy. But, it has been well said, “even the reports on his research were discourses upon method.” With Vicens Vives, a younger man (he was born in 1910, Bloch in 1886, Febvre in 1878), we are in a new generation. Vicens saw his book quite specifically as a “contribution to the methodology of the future,” and emphasized the importance of “precise quantifiable data” and “statistical method” as “our primary instrument.” Statistics, he said, are “essential for the determination of values, fortunes and mentalities”; unless history is “approached through a minute analysis of prices, salaries, political trends and cultural tendencies, it is possible to understand nothing.”

But Bloch was executed by the Germans in 1944, Febvre died in 1956, and Vicens in 1960. What has happened since then to their influence on medieval studies? The answer, if my rather desultory reading is a fair index, is that medievalists in general have beaten a retreat. Bloch’s ideas, sometimes all too mechanically applied, are still effective in his chosen field of medieval agrarian history, but even here they are less a seminal force than the framework of a rather narrow specialism. Elsewhere, what is most apparent is a reversion to older models. Since 1960 not only has the influence of the Annales waned, but we have seen the beginnings of a determined and self-conscious counterrevolution.

Among the counterrevolutionaries few have been more outspoken than G. R. Elton, a historian well-known for his work on early Tudor government. It was Elton who, only a few months ago, denounced the search for new methods as “whoring after false gods.” In his two new books he returns with undiminished ardor to the fray.4

No one would deny that these books contain a solid layer of common sense, for Elton, with all his phobias, is too shrewd and experienced a historian for anything he says to be negligible. If he were simply telling the apprentice historian (to whom his volume on the sources of English history between 1200 and 1640 is primarily addressed) that he will not get far unless he knows and respects his materials, I should have much sympathy with his arguments. But I fear this is not all. The very title of his book, Political History, labels it as a manifesto of the counterrevolution, a point-by-point reply to Vicens Vives’s withering remark that “political history…cannot contribute anything new.” As for his book on English historical records, though it includes a rather perfunctory and condescending chapter on “non-documentary sources,” it is really a justification of what Vicens calls “pure philology, the myth of the document,” a reassertion of the techniques of documentary criticism elaborated in the nineteenth century, and an affirmation of their ability to provide a reconstruction of the past that is “true, or at least on the road to truth.”

Elton’s creed is very simple. We should return to the paths marked out by our forefathers. “The documents remain paramount”; “the written record dominates.” It is a plea which is particularly attractive to medievalists, because their basic problem is the paucity of their sources. How can they apply the sophisticated techniques of quantification if (as Elton never ceases to reiterate) the requisite data simply do not exist?

Jean Marczewski, the foremost French expert on the subject, seems to postulate that quantitative history cannot be carried back, with any degree of assurance, beyond 1660.5 If the impressive statistical apparatus assembled by Huguette and Pierre Chaunu on the trade of Seville in the sixteenth century (to name only a single example) is anything to go by, Marczewski’s view may be pessimistic.6 But even if statistical material is there in abundance in the archives of the fifteenth, fourteenth, or even thirteenth centuries, this is no consolation for the historian concerned with the trade (let us say) of tenth-century Amalfi or the agriculture of ninth-century Picardy. The essential difference between the modern and the medieval historian is that the former is oppressed by a superabundance, the latter by a drastic shortage of quantifiable evidence. And the essential problem for the medievalist is how to write history under these conditions.

What is the way out of the dilemma? There are, it seems, three paths, and a sample of recently published work will serve to illustrate them. The first, particularly applicable in those periods (roughly down to 1200) where all the narrative and documentary sources have been made available, is to extract the last ounce from the existing evidence by meticulous criticism and analysis. It may be directed, as in Mr. Scholz’s edition and translation of two Carolingian chronicles,7 at establishing a spotless text, at reconciling apparent discrepancies, and at checking the writer’s statements by confrontation with other sources. Or it may be directed, not at the narrative sources, with their inherent subjective bias (the purpose of the Frankish annals, Mr. Scholz points out, “was obviously to influence public opinion and to convey to posterity the Carolingian version of Carolingian history”), but at the legal and administrative documents which are often said to provide an objective record of governmental activity. This is the basis of Professor Ganshof’s book, itself the outcome of a long series of still more meticulous studies of individual texts and documents.8

  1. 1

    Quantitative History, edited by D. K. Rowney and J. Q. Graham. Dorsey Press, 488 pp., $5.95.

  2. 2

    French Rural History, by Marc Bloch. University of California Press, 258 pp., $2.95; Land and Work in Medieval Europe: Selected Papers by Marc Bloch. Harper Torchbooks, 260 pp., $1.95.

  3. 3

    Approaches to the History of Spain, by Jaime Vicens Vives. University of California Press, 189 pp., $6.50.

  4. 4

    Political History, by G. R. Elton. Basic Books, 184 pp., $5.95; England: 1200-1640, by G. R. Elton. Cornell University Press, 255 pp., $6.95.

  5. 5

    Introduction à l’histoire quantitative, by Jean Marczewski. Droz, 185 pp., N.F. 32.00.

  6. 6

    Seville et l’Atlantique, by Huguette and Pierre Chaunu. Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N., 8 vols.

  7. 7

    Carolingian Chronicles, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz, with Barbara Rogers. University of Michigan Press, 235 pp., $8.50.

  8. 8

    Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne, by François Louis Ganshof. Brown University Press, 191 pp., $7.50.

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