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 And the more up-to-date and less liberal views of European history which have superseded his are in their own way just as self-indulgent.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 to that of cathedrals and schools on the continent. And this transference from core to periphery is what the book is about.
Between about 1000 and 1250, a set of institutions, ideas, and people spread outward rapidly and ruthlessly from a very restricted area of Western Europe: a triangle with points at Rome (or Monte Cassino), Cologne, and, say, Nantes in Brittany would enclose it comfortably. The expansion went as far as Jerusalem in the east, Lapland in the north, and Tipperary in the west, which is, by our standards, a long way. The means of transmission were partly invasion and conquest, partly imitation, partly through mission and indoctrination—it made little difference how, since everywhere the result was much the same: a roughly uniform pattern of society, consisting of a “feudal aristocracy” or baronage, a militant Latin clergy, innumerable new free villages of peasant settlers, and a network of privileged towns and traders.
There are no reliable figures for the migration of peasants and townsmen from the “Old West” outwards, but the calculations of Walter Kuhn1 suggest a 5 percent rate of movement from west to east in twelfth-and thirteenth-century Germany, and a total of some 200,000 migrating peasants during the twelfth century. Movement from north to south in Spain over the same period was apparently similar, and in all regions the reproductive rate of settlers was notoriously high. The new people consolidated a new order. Every other social form had to adapt or go under, or disappear: the Islamic civilization of Spain, the Anglo-Saxons, Slavs, Balts, and Byzantines all underwent the same heavy-handed treatment according to a blueprint derived directly or indirectly from the one original triangle.
It was this act of reduplication that “made” what Professor Bartlett rather airily calls “Europe,” not unlike a Brussels official projecting his or her political fantasies on to the map. But one of Bartlett’s points is that the people responsible were like the Euro-fanatics of our own time, in that they were a small but avid minority with similar habits of mind, common prejudices, and a shared sense of superiority over everything extratriangular—my clumsy phrase, not his.
For Bartlett, it wasn’t the content or the nature of what they took with them that counts, but the fact that they did so. This made them different. The main point to note about feudal conventions, Latin Church discipline, peasant freedom, and burgher privilege is simply their “reproducibility.” These kinds of behavior bred fast, and they bred best when in conjunction. The trail-blazers are the knights and the clerks, who had their reasons for not staying at home. Among these, Bartlett emphasizes the current catch-all hypothesis that a restrictive inheritance system developed in the Western triangle around the year 1000. Lands that had formerly been shared between heirs tended to be granted as “benefices” or “fiefs” and then descend to a smaller group of inheritors or to a single eldest son.
The best known example is still that of the too numerous sons of Tancred of Hauteville in Normandy, who conquered much of Southern Italy in the 1040s rather than waiting landless at home; but for Tancred’s heirs the inheritance would have been too small under any system. The rush of second sons from Normandy to England after 1066 is more typical, as is, in the following century, the movement from England to Scotland. The pioneering knights and clerks would summon varying numbers of peasant settlers and would-be gentry and fat burghers either by general written invitation (as when the duke Henry issued a call for settlers in Lübeck in 1159), or by employing professional settler-agents (locatores), or by using personal contacts. They thus created societies which endured more or less in proportion to the support from back home the colonizers had. Not very long, that is, in the inland parts of Byzantium (conquered by the westerners in 1204) or Palestine, but for a very long time in Prussia and East Germany.
The migration might be set off by land hunger in overpopulated areas (Flanders in the twelfth century appears to have been a case in point, with its receding coastline and saturated urban centers and congested suburbs) or by famine (there was at least one a generation in Western Europe in this period) or by increasing seignorial exploitation (evident in southern England and some parts of the Rhineland from the 1150s onward). But we get a general impression of migration and settlement beyond the frontiers as the answer to a long and varied list of problems in the old Western societies.
Bartlett marshals the details of this reproductive urge with assurance and clarity. We are whisked from the bogs of Ireland to the heaths of Pomerania and the plateaus of New Castile with telling concordances between details of land tenure, municipal regulation, and linguistic innovation. For example, the names used by the upper classes in Scotland, Mecklenburg, Bohemia, and Spain are shown by Bartlett to change over the period between 1100 and 1300 in much the same ways. The town laws of Spain, Eastern Germany, England, and Scotland, whether wholly new or renewed, reflect the same concerns, to attract and consolidate immigration, and so they tend to resemble one another. For Bartlett, the infinite variations of tenure between Flemish settlers in Wales, Germans in Prussia, and English villagers in Ireland are less significant than the common concern with raising grain production and “taming” hostile natives.
Bartlett is not one of those sociologists who distills all his data from secondary sources. He really knows “the documents of settlement and enfranchisement,” as I can testify, having had the misfortune to trawl through a few of them. His system of annotation is cavalier: end notes, not numbered but attached to key phrases reprinted in sequence, so as to be not unusable, but extremely tiresome; nevertheless, the research is impressive and the references to further reading are useful.
Perhaps the simplicity of his thesis has made the organization of the material a bit easier. And to some extent, the simple thesis eats up the complicated ones. What of the agrarian revolution (implicit in the adoption of larger ploughs with curved shares, new grains, new crop rotations, and more metal-shod tools), the demographic revolution (involved in the estimated doubling of Western populations in the period 1000–1250), and the technological revolution (evident in the spread of water mills, both tidal and river-driven, windmills, heavy warmachinery, metallurgy, and glass manufacture, and triumphant above all in the great cathedrals)? All become for Bartlett the handmaidens of “reproducibility,” rather than the motors of social change within long-established societies. The claims of leftist historians, that they can detect processes of social evolution within the societies dominated by colonists, processes that explain the domination, are not so much eaten as left on one side of the plate.
Bartlett also cuts down to size the claims to universal validity made by the medieval expansionists themselves for their faith and institutions. Wherever they acted on this universal assumption, they provoked ethnic division, racism, and native reaction. Many examples could be found of such negative responses before 1300, including the German rejection of the Wend or subject Slav, the vigorous anti-Teuton prejudice of Polish and Czech clerics, and the deteriorating relations between Spaniard, Moor, and Jew—and they greatly increase thereafter. Whether Italians or Russians expressed their detestation of Germans more eloquently in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is a nice question for lovers of diatribe. The price of what Montesquieu and Tocqueville called “the Ancient Constitution of Europe” a constitution they identified in the similar ancien régime institutions prevalent from Galway Bay to Poland, was the discord that still prevails. In Ireland, for example, nowhere was the intention to reform, crush, and degrade the natives and their ways more overt, since Irish parliaments were apt to express the cultural prejudices of the settlers rather forcibly.
“The killing of Englishmen and Irishmen requires different modes of punishment,” went the Statute of 1297, which was imposed by the Anglo-Norman-Irish settlers to protect themselves against the “wild Irish,” and reproduced the policy (and the language) of William the Conqueror’s Normans against the English two centuries earlier. From the mid-thirteenth century, settlers summoned at law could refuse to answer a case “on the grounds that the plaintiff was Irish”: “Exceptions of Irishry” it was called. At times, English kings were asked to extend all the benefits and curses of Common Law to the native Irish, but they never did: the settlers wanted to keep “wild men” out of their own courts, even while they sometimes used the parallel Irish laws to their own advantage.
What emerged was an island divided between a brash, culturally supreme group that couldn’t live up to its claims and an increasingly vigorous native tradition. But even here, the settlers’ colony survived, and over most of the continent similar settlements held the ground won before 1300, even if they had to resort to “ethnic cleansing” to do so. Spain is the most obvious example. The Jewish and Islamic communities were annexed on easy terms, gradually reclassified as dangerous and demoralizing, and finally expelled.
So that is what Europe is: not quite what we thought, apparently. After Bartlett’s treatment, the significant landmarks of European history, and much of the old geography, are more questionable. I find it most refreshing, up to a point, but cannot help suspecting that there is something not quite right about it.
The misuse of the word Europe for a start. What is described in the book is the expansion of Latin Christendom and “Frankish” institutions, in the broad sense of the legal, social, and religious norms of the regions ruled at some time by descendants of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne, and of the norms that developed as his dynasty collapsed from 900 onwards, especially within the Monte Cassino-Nantes-Cologne triangle. At the time, the concept of Europe barely existed, and was certainly not applied to its expansion; it was thought of as a name for one quarter of the world variously bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the River Don or Volga, or the mountains somewhere beyond Macedonia inhabited by the descendants of Gog and Magog.2 There is no advantage in narrowing the term to apply to one dominant pattern of civilization at one period of time, especially when this expansion was doomed to continue far beyond the gates of Gog and Magog, and leave behind it an increasingly diverse and disunited Babel of cultures and states in the continent from which it originated. The ventures of the bishops and the barons and the boors and the burghers were momentous enough without the addition of an anachronistic title. Pedantic as it sounds, a more accurate title would have been The Expansion of Some Aspects of Western Europe in the Middle Ages.
And what about before 950? “Reproducibility” (to harp on one of the two monster words in Bartlett’s exemplary flow of lucid prose: the other being “jural”) was something the Romans were rather good at in their day, as we can tell from all those oyster binges on Hadrian’s Wall, and the tiny garrison amphitheater they left behind at Caerleon on Usk, in Wales, and the bridges still being used in northern Spain. Of course, they were not Europeans. Their outlook was Mediterranean; but still, they seem to have spread themselves just as widely as the medieval crusaders and colonists, and when we consider how much of the Frankish-feudal-Latinist culture was derived from the Romans, perhaps “reproducibility” is not such a distinctive European feature as we are led by Professor Bartlett to assume. Muslims seem to be rather good at it, too.
Bartlett’s idea makes sense as a general comment on how some civilizations thrive and on a particularly significant aspect of this one phase of Western Latin expansion; but it does not isolate a defining quality. The powerful image he gives of a process leading from diversity to uniformity, like that of the modern alphabet superseding the much more diverse and meaningful pictograms of older writing systems is fine, and it illustrates, “in a sense, what happened in medieval Europe,” as Bartlett puts it. But it illustrates more than that: the same process occurred, at times, in China, where they kept on using the pictogram. In Europe, not a very large continent, diversity seems as salient a feature as uniformity in all post-Roman periods.
Reasons of space, or cogency, seem to have dictated the fact that in this book there is not much about fragmentation and eccentricity. The Byzantine Empire and its Balkan hinterland, Kievan Russia, and Iceland seem for the most part to have missed Bartlett’s bus. We are shown how Franco-Latin dominance stirred up ethnic antagonism, and met with successful resistance by the Lithuanians and to some extent, by the Bohemians and Magyars; but the possibility that these reactions might be just as representative of Europe as the uniformities of the Franco-Latin triangle is not entertained.
And the bus runs to a rather strict timetable: all aboard for 1000 AD, or walk. And yet there were some remarkable episodes of cultural diffusion long before that date; hesitant, disjointed, and messy, no doubt, but the civilizations of the Irish, and the Anglo-Saxons, and the Visigoths, and the Carolingians also had their common elements, interconnections, and shared roots. They too were led by warriors and clerics; it is not clear that they were any less European than what came after just because they occupied less space.
However, I will not multiply objections to what must be the most stimulating and well-written reassessment of medieval Europe that has appeared for many years. Norman Cantor has recently assured America that medieval history is the history of the future, because the expanding complexity of peoples and ideas he associates with that period is itself the probable shape of the future, along with the search for a synthesis of all knowledge and a theory of theories. I suspect that Europe remains mystified by this assurance, which is difficult to verify within the space of one lifetime. The more down-to-earth task of interesting students in that history is seldom served by broad introductions such as The Making of Europe. Sir Richard Southern’s Making of the Middle Ages set a standard, forty years ago, which remains unchallenged; but if Mr. Bartlett’s rather too brisk and confident work were to reach the same sort of audience, it might have an equally enlivening effect.
October 21, 1993
W. Kuhn, “Die Siedlerzahlem der deutschen Ostsiedlung,” Studium Sociale, 1963, pp. 131–154. ↩
According to one of the many legends about these giants, Gog and Magog and their twenty-two nations or tribes were shut up by Alexander the Great behind an iron wall and a range of mountains through which they were sometimes glimpsed by the more adventurous travelers. ↩