The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950–1350
The best-selling History of Europe written in the early 1930s by H.A.L. Fisher (to alleviate the tedium of being head of an Oxford college) began with the sentence, “We Europeans are the children of Hellas”—and went on through nearly two thousand years summarizing and judging the “trend of events” by standards of rationality and civility at that time usually associated with the Ancient Greeks. Europe didn’t come out so well at the end, but Fisher believed that a tradition of decency derived from antiquity was still there, in places, and that this was what made the continent worth bothering about; not Hitler. Few would agree with him now; many would like to. And the more up-to-date and less liberal views of European history which have superseded his are in their own way just as self-indulgent.
The emphasis on technological innovation as a peculiar European attribute is one example. “We Europeans” prospered, it is often said, because we broke through the constraints of ancient mechanics and the inhibitions of literary culture at an early date and started making crankshafts and suchlike in the early Middle Ages. Or as the Marxists-not-ashamed-of-Marx maintain, we underwent a transition from “feudal” to “early capitalist” society sooner than the rest of the world, and so went to the head of the March of Progress. Or the commercial revolution of this century, or that century, inspired us to a frenzy of profiteering and a sail-assisted intrusion into the wider world.
The popularity (or at any rate currency) of such explanations, rather grossly linking or confusing European civilization with European world hegemony, suggests that our sentimental ties with Hellas are no longer as strong as they were. The classical tradition is sometimes seen as a stifling, anti-innovative, archaic burden in all its post-Hellenic manifestations, Christian, scholastic, or neo-pagan. In the minds of the rougher sorts of historian, it is merely the mantra of the would-be mandarins of the West, the clerks and courtiers who suppressed the dynamic, “authentic” Europe for centuries. Peasant craft, plebeian know-how, and the applied mechanics of the underdog made Europe great, so it has been claimed—if it wasn’t the arrival of possessive individualism, or the clock.
It is all very confusing. How pleasant therefore, to read a new and relatively uncomplicated account of how Europe became a distinctive cultural force. Professor Bartlett once wrote engagingly about Gerald of Wales, the eccentric would-be archbishop of the twelfth century who tried to move the world from the windswept promontory of St. David’s. He now teaches on the no-less-windswept promontory of St. Andrews, Scotland, where the ruin of a majestic cathedral bears witness to the triumph of French fashion in adverse circumstances, even in the sad state of decay attributable to a later infection of presbyterianism from Geneva. St. Andrews is a citadel which once meant something utterly alien to the Pictish province over which it loomed; a manifestation of power, intellect, and art imported from far away, and set up to a level of importance equal…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.