The Birth of Europe
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.