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Off to a Good Start


The territorial extent of the recently enlarged European Union (EU) is astonishingly similar to that of medieval Catholic Christendom. Apart from one or two obvious exceptions, such as Greece (EU but never Catholic) and Switzerland (Catholic in the Middle Ages but not EU), the geography of the one is the geography of the other. The Catholic West Slavs and Hungarians are in, the Orthodox East Slavs are out. France, Germany, and northern Italy form a preponderant core, surrounded by a zone of sometimes less fully integrated peripheries like Britain and Scandinavia. Charlemagne would have recognized this geography, centered as it is on his old stamping grounds around Brussels and Strasbourg.

Is this coincidence anything other than coincidence? Do the existence of a territorial unit in the late Middle Ages that included Estonia but excluded Russia, included Slovenia but excluded Serbia, included Sicily and Spain but excluded Muslim North Africa, and the existence of a territorial unit today that draws its lines of exclusion at precisely the same points have real historical significance? Is the Catholic Christendom of the Middle Ages in any sense a precursor of the Europe of today?

The great French medievalist Jacques Le Goff answers with an emphatic “yes.” Having chosen to write a book called The Birth of Europe for his own series “The Making of Europe,” he would be unlikely to reply otherwise (there are indeed few historians who choose to stress the irrelevance of the period they study to the modern world). Le Goff is not reticent: “This book is directly relevant to the present European situation…it sets out to illustrate the thesis that it was in the Middle Ages that Europe first appeared and took shape….”

For a continent to “appear and take shape” is perhaps worth comment. Most of the continents of the world have a self-evident quality: North and South America, Africa, Australasia—all are large landmasses surrounded or virtually surrounded by salt water. The odd ones out are Europe and Asia. If one were to apply the same criterion to define a continent that applies in the other cases, there would be no Europe or Asia, simply the continent called Eurasia, encompassing the vast plains, valleys, and mountains between Korea and La Coruña. As the Mongols demonstrated very memorably in the thirteenth century, there are no insuperable barriers to prevent a horseman from riding from China to Poland. “Europe” and “Asia” are obviously not natural facts but cultural constructions, invented, indeed, as a pair of contrasting polarities.

It was the Greeks of the fifth century BC who needed and created this duality. Facing invasion by their huge eastern neighbor, the Persian Empire, ancient Greek intellectuals elaborated the opposition between Europeans, meaning “us,” and Asiatics, meaning “them.” Herodotus, “the father of history,” makes it clear in the opening words of his work that this “clash of civilizations” is his theme, while Aristotle, distinguishing the spirited European from the clever but servile Asiatic, could serve as a prologue to any history of Western Orientalism. Le Goff sums up these ancient but still vigorous clichés in the following words:

The Europeans were courageous but aggressive and bellicose, while the Asiatics were wise and cultivated but peace-loving to the point of lacking initiative. Europeans were committed to liberty, for which they were prepared to fight and even die…. Asiatics, on the other hand, were content to accept servitude in exchange for prosperity and tranquillity.

These Greek concepts of “Europe” and “European” did not immediately have much impact. The rise of a Roman Empire encompassing the entire shore of the Mediterranean, and, therefore, some of the richest and most habitable parts not only of Europe but also of Asia and Africa, meant that these terms were relatively pale and insignificant compared with that of “Roman.” Civis Romanus sum—“I am a Roman citizen”—that was a proud boast. No one claimed to be a European. Nor did the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire before the Germanic attacks in the fifth century immediately change this situation.

There continued to be strong cultural currents across the Mediterranean: Christian monasticism arose in Egypt but soon made its way to Ireland, while the great theological works of the Greek Church Fathers were quickly translated into Latin to make them comprehensible to the educated churchmen of Europe and Africa (meaning at this time northwest Africa, the home of Augustine and many other leaders of the early Church). It was the rise of Islam and the amazing series of conquests which followed that broke the unity of this Mediterranean world. In the century after Muhammed’s death in 632, Muslim armies established new regimes in Roman territory and beyond, conquering Jerusalem in 638 and Alexandria, the great center of Greek culture at this time, soon after. Eventually Spain and China saw victorious Muslim armies arrive at their doors simultaneously.

Christianity, which had begun as an Asian religion in Palestine and had known an efflorescence in Africa, was a dominant faith only in Europe. This is why historians, and others, are sometimes tempted to regard “European” and “Christian” as close to being synonyms. It is with this Christian Europe that Le Goff’s book is concerned—or, to be precise, with its western half, since Byzantium, heir of the eastern Roman Empire, is explicitly excluded and even regarded as “a potential obstacle” to European unity. Hence in his book, as so often, “Europe” is used in a sense that excludes the Orthodox East (and excludes yet more conclusively the pagan Europe that was an important aspect of the continent down to the fourteenth century).

The author, Jacques Le Goff, now eighty, would describe himself proudly and rightly as the heir of the Annales tradition of history, which reorientated historical scholarship beginning in France in the 1920s and which subsequently changed the entire field of academic history, pushing it away from political and constitutional history toward a kind of historical anthropology. Le Goff’s own numerous publications, on topics such as conceptions of time, attitudes toward work, and the medieval imagination, form a large, impressive, and innovative body of work in this tradition.1 The Birth of Europe is rather different: it is a series of observations, sometimes brief, on a stream of topics in medieval history. Sometimes elementary information is supplied, sometimes assumed. Occasionally the theories of contemporary historians are given explicit treatment (usually courteous and approving). Subheadings abound, marking numerous discrete sections on topics large (“Courtly Love,” one page, “The Medieval King,” two pages) and less large (“Abelard and Heloise: Modern Intellectuals and Lovers,” half a page, “Philippe de Commynes, the European,” one paragraph). Do the fragments add up to the thesis “that it was in the Middle Ages that Europe first appeared”?

The Middle Ages, as conventionally defined, make up one thousand years of history. This is a long stretch by human standards, and it is hard to make sensible statements that apply to the whole millennium. Conventional textbook treatments distinguish an early, high, and late Middle Ages and even these long chunks of time (500– 1000, 1000–1300, 1300–1500) defy easy generalization. In the early Middle Ages there is the problem of what to make of Charlemagne’s empire, which, for a brief period around the year 800, was virtually coterminous with Western Christendom. His reign was marked by a consciously Christian ideological program, as well as by violent expansion against both pagan and Christian neighbors.

Le Goff condemns Charlemagne’s empire, calling it “the first example of a perverted Europe.” It was certainly not “the first true blueprint of Europe” because its vision was “nationalist”; it was the “first of a string of failed attempts to construct a Europe dominated by one people or one empire.” Among other protagonists of such projects “contrary to any true idea of Europe,” he includes (arguably) Charles V, (magnanimously for a Frenchman) Napoleon, and (unarguably) Hitler. Hence one can conclude that Le Goff’s “true Europe” can only result from the cooperation of states, not the dominance of one over the others.

The high Middle Ages of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries have often been viewed as the most creative and assured part of the medieval millennium and an old but much-read American survey is simply and endearingly titled The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries.2 Le Goff is not unhappy with this view. Half his book is devoted to the high Middle Ages and his chapter on the thirteenth century praises “The Successes of Thirteenth-Century Europe.” His selection of “successes” makes very clear what he values in “Europe.” There is “urban success,” producing “a Europe of town-dwellers.” These towns are centers of freedom and “a sign of historical progress.” He cites with approval the opinion of the great economic historian Robert Lopez: “In Europe the urban experience was, all in all, more intense, more diversified, more revolutionary and (dare I say it?) more democratic than anywhere else” (Lopez obviously did dare say it). Closely linked to urban success is “commercial success,” producing “a Europe of merchants.” International trade flourished, banking was born, while ecclesiastical attitudes toward commercial profit softened.

Another success story was that of the universities, new institutions of the thirteenth century staffed by members of a new profession (“the intellectuals of the Middle Ages” in Le Goff’s terms), who created and developed that distinctive intellectual style known as scholasticism. Le Goff makes bold claims for scholasticism: its “essential contributions…to European intellectual activity” have been critical thinking based on doubt, intellectual freedom, and the taste for order and clarity. Descartes is “a brilliant child of medieval scholasticism.” Perhaps Le Goff himself is another, for this strong assertion of the positive value of the critical urban intellectual ensconced in a great European commercial center surely endorses not only thirteenth-century scholastics but also the current denizens of the École Pratique des Hautes Études and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Le Goff’s institutional homes in Paris.

Moving on from the greatest of centuries, historians must grapple with some large interpretative problems, and indeed those writing about the later Middle Ages sometimes look like Laocoön and his sons being devoured by serpents. The rhetoric of decline—the Black Death, famine, war, and recession—snakes around their throats, while the clichés of the Renaissance entangle their ankles. One solution is to see Italy as different. Another is to embrace paradox: the disasters of the fourteenth century somehow cleared the way for the economic expansion of the fifteenth and sixteenth. The deaths of many meant the survivors were richer; or, as recently in the argument of the Glasgow-based medievalist Samuel Cohn, success in dealing with the Black Death created an atmosphere of confidence.3 While Le Goff, invoking the classic work of Johan Huizinga, first published in Dutch in 1919, insists on the accurate translation “Autumn of the Middle Ages,” eschewing the more disastrous-sounding “Waning of the Middle Ages,” the version long familiar in the Anglophone world, his own characterization of the late Middle Ages calls up something yet more extreme than waning: “a crisis in the general structures and growth of European society and also the catastrophic appearance of new misfortunes.”

It is clearly no simple matter to create a historical narrative that both describes the crises of the precarious world of the late Middle Ages and lets it mutate comprehensibly into the expansionary epoch that followed. It is this expansionary epoch, lasting from the late fifteenth to the nineteenth or twentieth century, that has given the words “Europe” and “European” the heavy significance they have. There has been global dominance only once in the history of human beings and that dominance has been exercised by Europeans or those of European descent over the rest of the world. It may now be coming to an end but it is a historical reality of major importance and naturally attracts attempts at explanation and analysis. Le Goff notes the way that, from the late fifteenth century, Christian Europe took a different path from the other Old World civilizations:

In the fifteenth century China was the most powerful, rich, and advanced country in the world. But it then remained closed within itself…the Muslim world lost the dynamism of its medieval period. Christian Europe, in contrast, acquired ideas and practices that were to ensure its incomparable expansion from the fifteenth century onward.


One of the books listed in the extensive bibliography to The Birth of Europe refers in its title to “the medieval foundations of Europe’s Sonderweg,” that is, its “special path.”4 This is a term more traditionally used of Germany’s supposed divergence from the norms of European development and, just as there are historians who deny the value of conceiving German history as following a special path, some question the degree to which Europe really was different. The “West is best” rhetoric of Robert Lopez could be criticized for being wrong as well as self-congratulatory. Most historical work, however, proceeds from the assumption that Europe was different (or else it would not have conquered the world) and seeks an explanation for that difference. Some go in for technological explanation, with ships and guns being the main exhibits, especially in the first phase of European expansion; others choose to stress aspects of European social or political structure, perhaps capitalism or individualism, depending on one’s ideological position; and there is still a tendency, first visible among the ancient Greeks, to put forward that hypothesis of a distinctive European mentality. The brave, freedom-loving, but sometimes anarchic Europeans of Aristotle’s philosophy have been loosed upon the world.

Global expansion obviously stimulated the growth of the concept and label “European”: it was what Spanish colonizers, French colonizers, English colonizers, etc., had in common. Yet the issue of European identity arose not only in the new colonial world but also within Europe, for the European colonizers of the modern period came from societies which had long histories of debate and conflict about who was included, who was a full member. It is a remarkable, and perhaps ominous, conjunction that the single year 1492 saw the beginning of European global expansion, the destruction, in Spain, of Europe’s largest Jewish community, and the annihilation of Granada, the last Muslim state in Western Europe. As Europeans strode out confidently onto the world stage, they simultaneously narrowed the definition of what it was to be European.

The question whether “European” means “Christian” has not only long been complicated by the existence of a relatively small but culturally and economically distinguished body of European Jews, but more recently has needed to be rephrased fundamentally in the wake of large-scale immigration into Europe of non-Christians, especially Muslims. The resulting crisis of identity is echoed in the debates during the last year over whether the European Community constitution should refer to Europe’s Christian heritage (the eventual answer was no) and whether the huge Muslim country of Turkey should be allowed to negotiate to join the Community (the answer will very likely be yes). Christianity is not dead in Europe, although it is doubtless less vociferous and less well funded than in the United States. Several continental countries preserve an obligatory tax to support their local churches and even in semipagan Britain, the queen is not only head of state but also head of the Church of England, albeit in a country where there are more Muslims than active Anglicans.

This vestigial Christian heritage in Europe leads back naturally to the question Le Goff poses—is modern Europe the heir of medieval Europe? This game of continuity and rupture is obviously partly governed by the purposes for which the question is asked. Nothing is more political than history. As the wry dissidents of Soviet Russia used to joke, regarding the constantly changing party line on the history of their movement and their country, “We are pretty certain about the future, it is the past that is always changing.” It is undeniable that many important features of the modern West do have roots in the Middle Ages. Notable examples from the world of institutions are universities, corporate towns, and representative assemblies. The present reviewer is writing these words in a university, St. Andrews, founded in the fifteenth century in a state which is ruled by a parliament created in the thirteenth century and headed by a monarch whose ancestry goes back to Alfred the Great in the eighth century (and beyond that to Woden).

Nevertheless, there are fissures in world history. No societies have ever enjoyed the standards of living and level of individual freedom attained in Western Europe and North America since World War II. There is no historical rule that says this situation must continue, or improve, or spread to the rest of the world, but it means that modern Westerners looking back to the pre-industrial past should recognize what they enjoy and what men and women of that time did not. Along with their great cultural achievements, the Middle Ages were marked by social inequalities, poverty, endless labor, authoritarianism, and a life expectancy fifty or sixty years less than our own. In the Middle Ages people were burned in Europe for their beliefs and people died in Europe of hunger. One of the influential books on pre-industrial demographic developments has the title The World We Have Lost.5 Some might add “and good riddance.” One can recognize, as Le Goff argues, that “the Middle Ages constituted a period of creativity, innovations, and extraordinary progress” without denying that it was the industrialization and secularization of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that truly transformed the Western world. We are on one side of a great historical divide, the Middle Ages on the other.

Of course, the modern history of Europe has been marked not only by long-term trends that have led toward immensely increased productive capacity, greater life expectancy, better health, freedom for women from the reproductive imperative, and the spread of democratic institutions, but also by the bloodiest wars ever experienced. It is in reaction to these catastrophes that the roots of the current project of European integration are to be found. The European Union is the direct successor of institutions established in the aftermath of the Second World War which were intended to link France and Germany in a bond so tight that they could never again destroy millions of each other’s young men. In that respect they have succeeded. There have been no wars between states in Western Europe for sixty years, an unprecedented occurrence. Yet national antagonisms and national identities survive. There is even a touch of nervous Gallocentrism in Le Goff’s comment on the diversity of languages that is such a pronounced feature of Europe:

The language problem remains one of the greatest difficulties in the construction of present-day Europe. However,…linguistic multiplicity is preferable by far to a single language that would not be rooted in any long cultural and political tradition, as would be the case if English or any other European language were to become the language of Europe.

For him, it seems, peace in Europe would perhaps lose some of its savor if the price included an Anglophone France (hard though that may be to imagine). Le Goff wants to have his France and his Europe too.

The writing of history has long been marked and limited by national perspectives; this is not simply a matter of which countries loom largest in the historian’s account (and even in Le Goff’s book “France” has more entries in the index than “Europe”) but it also affects the questions asked. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries German medieval historians were often dogged by the supposed failure of Germany to become a unitary modern state in the way that France did. Spanish historians are still debating the usefulness and the ideological implications of the traditional term Reconquista (“Reconquest”) to describe the conquest of the Muslim Iberian states by the Christian Iberian states in the Middle Ages; and virtually all medievalists working in the more populous and metropolitan parts of Europe produce a picture of medieval Europe in which the Celtic world, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe are invisible or are treated in the most perfunctory way.

If the advocates of the European Union want a history of Europe to go with their new political creation, as they obviously do, then it cannot be created by simple juxtaposition of the national histories of the member states. It will require a new perspective. This is what Le Goff is seeking. Eschewing the Europe of Charlemagne and Napoleon, stepping lightly around the long history of Christian oppression, endorsing the vitality of the Middle Ages that he loves and has illuminated so brightly, he has written a book that is a heartfelt plea for “the Europe of the future.” Whatever one’s own political views or, indeed, reservations, one can only salute this great figure of European history writing with his distinctive range and his full “commitment to the European endeavor.”

  1. 1

    For appreciations of Le Goff’s work see The Work of Jacques Le Goff and the Challenges of Medieval History, edited by Miri Rubin (Boydell Press, 1997).

  2. 2

    James J. Walsh (1907; reprinted by AMS Press, 1981).

  3. 3

    The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe (Arnold, 2002).

  4. 4

    Michael Mitterauer, Warum Europa?: Mittelalterliche Grundlagen eines Sonderwegs (Munich, 2003).

  5. 5

    By Peter Laslett (Scribner, 1965).

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