The Medieval Review 12.10.26

Noble, Thomas F.X. and John Van Engen. European Transformations: The Long Twelfth Century. Notre Dame Conferences in Medieval Studies. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 576. . . $65.00. ISBN: 978-0-268-03610-2.

Reviewed by:

R.I. Moore
Newcastle University
rimoore3@gmail.com

In 1977 Robert Benson and Giles Constable convened a conference at Harvard to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Charles Homer Haskins's The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Its proceedings, published as Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century, has itself become a classic, and in turn its celebration at Notre Dame in 2006 has given us the volume now under review. [1] It should be said, before we embark on the carping that is the reviewer's duty and delight, that it is fully worthy of its predecessors, both of which are still in print. Noble and Van Engen have assembled a remarkably distinguished team of contributors and the quality of the eighteen chapters is uniformly high. Almost all should be at or pretty near the top of any introductory reading list on their topics, as well as providing succinct and stimulating updates for those already in the game, who will also find the exhaustive notes an invaluable bibliographical resource.

As Noble explains in a thoughtful introduction, the vision of the editors goes well beyond to reconsider both the periodization-­how long was it?--and the characterization appropriate to western Europe in the twelfth century (Byzantium is mentioned only in passing, and only one chapter focusses, in part, on the Muslim world). The concept of transformation came into use in the 1980s, deployed by the proponents of "late antiquity" in place of the idea of the fall or end of the ancient world. Its employment here was directly inspired by a volume of essays specifically devoted to this period, Johann P. Arnason and Björn Wittrock's Eurasian Transformations, Tenth to Thirteenth Centuries, [2] to which several contributors refer. As Noble remarks transformation "connotes change without denying continuity (and) suggests that there were significant differences between conditions existing at both ends of a span of time without pointing to a place, time, event or cause that somehow effected that difference..." (10). It would be a pity, however, if the term's main virtue were thought to lie merely in allowing us thus to escape the hazard of saying anything at all, or, as Noble puts it, to "avoid all the historiographical baggage carried by 'renaissance' and perhaps by 'reform' as well" (and he might have added, one or two other "r" words deployed at one time or another by incautious synthesizers of these years) without confronting the question how to relate whatever particular set of changes any of us may be concerned with to all the others so evidently under way at the same time. For Arnason and Wittrock "Transformation" means, briefly, "a set of interlinked changes in economy, society and culture amounting to a transformation of the quality and conditions of social and political life" (my emphasis) and, in a phrase important to them, "involving a deep-seated cultural crystallization." It deserves better than to become (as longue duree has done) a mere catch-phrase emptied of specific meaning, and Noble and Van Engen have accepted the challenge its use implies to broaden the discussion well beyond learning, thought and spirituality in pursuit of "a sense of the social and cultural dynamics peculiar to that era" (22). Van Engen sets the scene with a rich and wide­ ranging discussion of change and its sources in the twelfth century, proceeding from an incisive analysis of the historiography, which suggests that success in acknowledging the diversity and long-term significance of change in that crowded and tumultuous age has been achieved at the expense of coherence. He does full justice in the process to all those "r" words, adding for good measure three of his own, reason, reading and revolt, with whose aid he brings order to chaos, suggesting that the resolution of the conflict between custom on the one hand and reform under the banner of reason on the other was not victory but synthesis. [3]

That state formation is central to Transformation as conceived by Arnason and Wittrock both accounts for the most substantial difference of emphasis between this volume and its predecessors, and enables it to play much more of the role of the conventional textbook, apart from narrative. The still insufficiently familiar creation of new states in Northern and East Central Europe is addressed directly and authoritatively by Sverre Bagge and Piotr Górecki respectively, while a powerful group of chapters illuminates various aspects of it in the dramatic changes that overtook the older polities. John Gillingh provides a scintillating account of the transformation of Anglo-Norman England through the eyes of William of Malmesbury. Dominique Barthélmy reprises his defense of the "old school" of Marc Bloch's generation and before against the novelties of Georges Duby's, and refreshes it with a characteristically trenchant argument that the French chivalry which began to be written up in the second half of the eleventh century was mainly a device to uphold noble and military prestige and values against a rising bourgeoisie. Adam Kosto sharply recasts Iberian history in the context of Richard Bulliet's expansion of Islamo-Christian civilization, de-emphasizing the frontier and firmly rejecting the representation of the region as a passive recipient of French culture. Maureen C. Miller, in something of a tour de force, shows how the mobilization of the papacy by what, despite her best efforts, we still have to call "reform" was essential to the legitimation of the new political formations that transformed the peninsula, both north and south. Her essay is complemented by Hannah Vollrath's reminder that the participants in the great crises of Sutri in 1046, Canossa in 1077 and Rome in 1111 acted on what they considered their own prerogatives, without taking account of the views and intentions of their antagonists, and indeed often without knowing what they might be. Legal development, of course, was central to state formation, as it was to Haskins for his renaissance. In a notably lucid and accessible essay Anders Winroth confirms the main thrust of the story developed in Haskins's wake while observing, especially by drawing attention to developments in procedure, that the outcomes were not quite so uniformly beneficent as that tradition took for granted.

To complain of omission from so large and comprehensive a volume as this would be unrealistic as well as ungrateful, but in an ideal world another chapter could have explored the common presumption that no transformation of underlying political structures and conditions comparable with these would be found in imperial Germany. Karl Leyser and Tim Reuter, for instance, might not have been so sure. Its absence, however, underlines how much we need a unified analysis of economic, social and cultural change in the macro-region comprising the Rhineland, Flanders and Champagne. That its position at the intersection of three distinct and very different historiographies has for so long inhibited such treatment is an anomaly underscored by this collection, for in its terms there is at least a prima facie case for suspecting that Transformation was experienced here no less profoundly and perhaps more suddenly even than in northern Italy. If anyone is capable of so daunting a synthesis it would be David Nicholas, and indeed his superb overview of the urban revolution in this volume is distinguished by its ability to transcend conventional national categories and provide an analytical framework, in the contrasting and changing relations between "Lords, Markets and Communities," for a sophisticated comparative discussion. Together with Paul Freedman's crisp and masterly discussion of "Peasants, the Seignurial Regime and Serfdom," it provides-­in the middle of the boat as it were--the engine-room of social analysis for the entire volume.

Material life and mental horizons are brought together by Olivia Remie Constable's subtle juxtaposition of the export of iron, timber and weapons to the Muslim world and the growth of fears about Islam, especially as it arose from assimilation between Muslims and Christians around the Mediterranean, and as it was expressed in demands for distinctive clothing, culminating in the closing canons of Lateran IV, while Anna Sapir Abulafia offers a parallel and impressively comprehensive survey of relations between Christians and Jews. Both are careful to avoid simplistic conclusions, but it is fair to comment that both point more in the direction of clerical protectionism and intellectual innovation than of traditional and/or popular hostility as a source of change, and that sympathizers with Mary Douglas's understanding of unacknowledged dependency as a source of pollution anxieties will find something here to chew on.

Barbara Newman remarks that when she entered graduate school in 1976 the twelfth century had only three women writers--and charitably refrains from adding that Haskins managed even a passing mention (or three, to be strictly fair) of only one of them. No prizes for guessing which one, or for what she rated the mentions. It should be added however, since the matter is of perennial interest though it has no direct bearing on Newman's thesis, that the identification of Hersende, the first prioress of Fontevraud, as the mother of Heloise is very far from secure: a background in Champagne seems much likelier. [4] For Newman Heloise represents one pole of a strikingly original argument in which, to summarize with a simplistic brashness far removed from the subtlety of its author, women entered the twelfth century as accomplished and independent humanistic scholars and left it as mystics and visionaries manipulated by men. As a discussion of women writers in religious life this is a rich and important survey in its own right. Placed alongside recent insights on the custody of memory, on the sacramental capacity of women, on mixed religious communities, their fate and demonization, [5] it is also something a good deal more than a straw in a wind which is blowing with rising force towards the unveiling of yet another twelfth-century transformation--and decidedly a negative one. Women did not benefit from the universal drive towards classification and stratification in every area of life and thought. It is easy to say after the event that Newman's essay, like several others, would have benefited greatly from the support of a chapter, gendered and regionally differentiated, on family structures, property rights and legal competencies. For John Marenbon the responsible contributors to Renaissance and Renewal appreciated, as Haskins had not, that the point about twelfth century "Philosophy and Theology" is that it is interesting as philosophy (that is, to philosophers now), and not merely--in the reviewer's unsympathetic paraphrase--as history. The full extent to which this is the case, however, is not yet apparent because, despite considerable progress in unearthing and publication of texts, most of the relevant material is not yet accessible to trained philosophers, due to the concentration of historians' attention on a few well-known figures. Rachel Fulton Brown, on the other hand, sees the conventional stress on "an increased emphasis on Christ in his humanity" (470) and on personal devotional experience in twelfth-century religiosity as owing too much to the nineteenth-century preoccupation with the historical Jesus, paying too little attention to its theological and still more its liturgical context, and underrating the centrality of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. Analogous changes in approaches to the divine effected by the impact on perception of the use and significance of seals may perhaps be detected in the highly original essay of Brigitte Bardos-Rezak by readers more capable than this one of penetrating the abstraction of her language. C. Stephen Jaeger, with refreshing lucidity and cogency, places John of Salisbury at the end of a humanistic tradition of philosophy and teaching with roots deep in the eleventh century and stretching back to the ninth, rather than as an exponent of the newly dominant scholastic style with which he had little sympathy. The place of this fine essay at the end of the volume reflects Van Engen's observation that Jaeger alone among recent scholars has posed "a direct challenge to the broader narrative argument" which (in line with Wittrock's conception of cultural crystallization) presents the twelfth century as a springtime of modernity (19-20). That the chronology of change implied thereby, pointing to the 1140s as a pivotal decade, is in harmony with that suggested above in respect of the position of women, and readily paralleled in other aspects of thought and government, suggests that Jaeger may not be crying in the wilderness, or at least that however we characterize it the "long twelfth century" did not lack its own discontinuities.

It is in the nature of any collection of this kind, on however generous a scale, that the very excellence of what is done should leave every reader feeling that her own particular perspective ought to have had a larger share of the goods on offer. This reviewer would heartily endorse the cri de coeur with which Nicholas concludes his essay, lamenting the chronic failure of medievalists as a tribe to grapple with the fact that all the achievements which this volume celebrates "are all concomitants of twelfth-century urbanization," (247) and therefore, he might have added, on the agrarian development on which urbanization itself depended. In that respect European Transformations, unlike the relevant volumes of the New Cambridge Medieval History, which Nicholas tactfully cites to support his point (258 n. 89) greatly improves on its predecessors, but there is still a long way to go. Nevertheless, this will remain an indispensable and frequently consulted companion for a much longer period than the publishers anticipate, to judge from the binding's uncertain grasp on the pages of the review copy. Since, moreover, they have provided no illustration beyond a single map the volume can be hailed as a bargain only in strictly intellectual terms. That it undoubtedly is, and a distinguished example of the collective endeavor without which we could hardly hope to keep pace with the headlong growth of knowledge. Whether it will succeed in precipitating the general reappraisal of the "long twelfth century" as a whole for which it implicitly calls may be another question. The follow-up for which we must hope, preferably in less than forty years, is at least one synthesis arising from it, from either of the editors or almost any of the contributors. There are many reasons for the continuing influence of Haskins's book despite its manifold imperfections. Not the least of them is that he wrote it all by himself.

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Notes:

1. Charles Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927); Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable, eds., with Carol D. Lanham, Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

2. Johann P. Arnason and Björn Wittrock, eds., Eurasian Transformations, Tenth to Thirteenth Centuries: Crystallisations, Divergences, Renaissances (Leiden: Brill 2004). The theory is elaborated by Wittrock, "Cultural Crystallizations in World History: the Age of Ecumenical Renaissances," 41-73.

3. It should be mentioned that the sectaries who denied infant baptism at Arras in 1025 (31) were not condemned, still less the first to be burned, as heretics: that honour belonged to the very different clerks arraigned at Orléans in 1022.

4. Newman, p. 396 n. 85; cf. Guy Lobrichon, Héloïse: L'amour et le savoir (Paris: Gallimard, 2005), 111-129, esp. 120-121.

5. I have in mind Patrick Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women's Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), Ch. 1; Anne E. Lester, Creating Cistercian Nuns: The Women's Religious Movement and Its Reform in Thirteenth-Century Champagne (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2011), esp. Chap. 1; and R.I. Moore, The War on Heresy (London and Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), esp. Chaps. 8-10, where it is suggested that the last may be seen as (among other things) a reaction against the evidently growing.