Alison Williams Lewin

title.none: Kleinschmidt, Understanding the Middle Ages (Alison Williams Lewin)

identifier.other: baj9928.0208.001 02.08.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alison Williams Lewin, St. Joseph's University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Kleinschmidt, Harald. Understanding the Middle Ages: The Transformation of Ideas and Attitudes in the Medieval World. London: Boydell Press, 2000. Pp. v, 401. 75.00. ISBN: 0-851-15770-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.08.01

Kleinschmidt, Harald. Understanding the Middle Ages: The Transformation of Ideas and Attitudes in the Medieval World. London: Boydell Press, 2000. Pp. v, 401. 75.00. ISBN: 0-851-15770-x.

Reviewed by:

Alison Williams Lewin
St. Joseph's University

Understanding the Middle Ages is an ambitious , wide- ranging work. The author is to be commended for leaving the safety of the specialized exhaustive monograph and venturing into the enormous world of conceptual history or, more accurately, the history of concepts. Does he succeed in his undertaking? Sometimes. Does he provide convincing evidence for his positions? Sometimes. For the most part, he methodically, even pedantically, dissects modes of conceptualization and attempts to show distinctions among them and changes over times within them. This approach leads often to statements of the obvious, or to the creation of straw men he can then destroy, but occasionally provides wonderful insights into medieval thought. Kleinschmidt says in his introduction that "Discussing and explaining all these concepts requires the knowledge of more than one author..."; the same might be said for reviewing this provocative, sometimes maddening, erudite, and expansive book. This is by no means a book for beginners; every scholar will find certain statements in it to question, even to dismiss outright. Does it, despite its many flaws, deserve your time? Maybe.

One of the strengths of the book are the author's many explicit definitions and statements of purpose. Thus he presents us with the concepts he has selected for examination, and lists the five criteria each must meet. They must: provide insight into the changeability of European culture; allow the differentiation of culture according to groups wherever applicable; describe the changing principal patterns of action; analyze the major changing normative frameworks for the maintenance of order; and set the main changing norms for communication as a form of interaction. (3) Kleinschmidt then, with self-awareness and care, explains how he will resolve the delicate problems of addressing change, defining Europe, and isolating "the Middle Ages". He acknowledges that change, interconnectedness, and internal inconsistencies are part and parcel of any culture, and that both continuity and transformation characterized his Europe in the Middle Ages.

From here, the author presents four large concepts, each divided into several subtopics. He begins with "Generalities", broken into: Experiences of Time, Conceptions of Space, The Body--Modes of Behaviour, Groups, and Men and Women. "Action" is broken down into Production and Distribution, War, and Thinking. "Interaction" appears as Communication in a Given Present, Commemorating the Past--World Historiography, and The Movement of Persons and Groups. Lastly, "Images of Order" bifurcates into The Old and the Young, and Rule and Representation.

The very first section certainly raises the reader's expectations about the work as a whole; Kleinschmidt's analysis of experiences of time is fascinating. He examines different ways of measuring time, different needs behind those different ways, the effects of the progress of time on human beings, and the intersection between the passage of time and perceptions of change. To this he adds the role of commerce, when contracts specified timeframes within which tasks would be completed and assigned penalties for failure to meet deadlines. A fascinating glimpse into the role of time occurs in a statute from Nuremberg in 1389, which stated that once all five councillors had assembled, "all councillors shall sit together for the period of two hours, regardless of whether they have work to do or not."( 27) Subsumed as it is within a general discussion of the imposition of hours of equal length and time limits on university lectures and sermons, however, this intriguing tidbit disappears, and we are left to speculate about its significance on our own.

By contrast, in the same section we have the odd statement that "Apart from the AD chronology, Antiquity bequeathed to the Middle Ages a framework of thought within which these experiences would oscillate between hope and fear towards the believed end of the world." (24) This statement is especially odd because the author himself makes the point quite forcefully later on in the book that the reintroduction of the Aristotelian concept of eternity could not square with the Christian vision of time (254/5). It was not antiquity, but Christianity that posited an end of the world--and it is surely stretching the span of antiquity to include the sixth-century scholar Dionysus Exiguus.

I don't mean to pick nits in raising these points; they are just examples of what I perceive to be the two fundamental flaws in this work: first, the insertion of statements without analysis and often even without specific evidence; and second, the naive or just plain mistaken interpretation or statement. To expand: in a turgid section on concepts of Space, specifically concerning cemeteries, Kleinschmidt says, "The church and the churchyard did not constitute a distinct space of regular communication in their own right. For kin members could continue to perceive the graves of their ancestors as their property and thus as parts of their own space of daily experience...."( 41) A fascinating statement--but no note substantiates this claim, and does it really surprise us that powerful kin groups would resist the diminution of their control by the Church? Either the point is so obvious as to preclude discussion; or, if some deeper point exists, it needs to be presented with evidence, examined, and analyzed so that its true significance emerges. To raise other questions: does the duplication of place names necessarily prove the existence of neighborhood groups as a migrant core? (102) Is it a given that the Crusades significantly increased trade? (159) Is it really news that the Middle Ages saw an overall "change from a group centered-to [sic] a person-centered education of the young," or "change from a group-centered to a space-centered concept of the socio-political environment"? (287) I could go on, unfortunately.

And to address the second, more serious point: in arguing that control over space began to take precedence over and eventually completely supersede control over groups, Kleinschmidt grants limited exemption from territorialization to the countryside and to towns and cities, but neglects even to mention the unique status of the clergy, who carried their ecclesiastical jurisdiction with them, much to the annoyance of rulers. (46- 51) In the same vein, the author claims that during the tenth century,

the higher aristocratic kin groups lost important positions in the church organization, first, after the aristocratic lay clerics...were forced out, and were replaced by ordained monks and nuns; and second, after more aristocratic proprietary church institutions and the saints venerated therein were placed under the supervision of the central episcopal administration.... The ordained clergy could free themselves from domination by the aristocratic kin groups.... (98)

There is a valid point to be made about this time, namely that families ceased to exercise de facto control over religious houses as the church increasingly required ordination of its office-holders. But it is not valid to claim that aristocratic kin groups therefore lost influence in the church; the dedication of the second son to the Church was no empty cliche. And I am frankly stunned by his assertion that "The clergy had acquired a fair degree of homogeneity in the tenth and eleventh centuries...." Reading the rest of the paragraph as charitably as possible, I believe he means that the clergy had acquired self-awareness of itself as a distinct and separate class during this time. But homogeneity? Never!

It is not only his presentation of the Church, consistently portrayed as remarkably unified and purposeful throughout its entire existence, that raises questions. The author's treatment of women raises some doubts as well. His reading of Christine de Pizan leads him to conclude that "Rather than calling into question the rule over women by men, Christine did no more than criticise exaggerations.... Thus Christine produced probably the earliest feminist critique of male domination over women without, however, fundamentally challenging the rules governing the female-male relationship." (133) Though one might argue that Christine adopted the aristocratic and educated norms of reason and virtue for her women, and thus did not break free from the values of her class, her demand for "the equality of treatment of persons of either sex" was precisely a fundamental challenge to the rules governing the female-male relationship--how could we see it as anything else?

When discussing relations within marriage, Kleinschmidt also presents problems. He relies on the concepts of institutionality, sexuality, and "emotionality", which he never defines. It has something to do with affection, though we're never quite clear what; it was "not necessarily a constitutive part of regular married life," and "was perceived as principally conditioned by the vicissitudes of the personal likes and dislikes of the loving individuals," though "it was, nevertheless, subject to certain normative principles." (135) Indifference, passion, adherence to certain modes of behavior, genuine attachment, hatred--all seem to be possibilities. And is it the feelings themselves that the term refers to, or the weight given them? Again, we don't know.

Whatever it is precisely, Kleinschmidt seems to think emotionality is a good thing, and presents it as one of three reasons for the superiority of the "bourgeois" (his marks) marriage. He uses the often affectionate letters of traveling merchants to their wives to claim that "contrary to the aristocracy, the 'bourgeois' families took it for granted that the married couple should be united in love." (138) In bourgeois families, "the mutual cooperativeness [cooperation, maybe?] of the family members was essential to the continuing existence of the family," as was the need for both husband and wife to contribute to the family's income. "This practice led to a sense of cooperation between husband and wife which allowed women a wide scope of autonomous business activities and to maintain autonomous social interactions within the towns and cities."( 138/9) I might be criticized for taking an unfair shot at him by asking, "What about northern Italian towns?" where this pattern by no means obtains--were it not for the fact that he specifically exempted Italian cities from another generalization, AND that his "supportive evidence", which he admits is indirect, for this bourgeois marriage is Leon Battista Alberti's I libri della famiglia, which to me highlights the potential mistrust between husband and wife far more than loving interdependence.

Towns and cities present problems beyond marriage. In the conclusion to "Production and Distribution", the author claims "the heterodynamic, status-maintaining, subsistence orientation of the Middle Ages gave way to an autodynamic, income- generating surplus orientation during the sixteenth century." Why the sixteenth century? The appearance of income- generating, surplus-minded traders was a constant in Europe from the eleventh century on. And if the idiosyncratically- named 'gentile' (derived from the Latin gens, used by the author to indicate members of a particular ethnically defined groups) traders of the earlier centuries were replaced by professional merchant traders as members of autonomous contractual groups during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, why do we find rulers taking actions against or in favor of "the Jews", or, more commonly "the Lombards" in subsequent centuries? No accurate picture of the merchant emerges from these statements.

Nor does one of the towns--to claim, with no supporting evidence, that "from the second half of the fourteenth century, urban governments launched efforts for the defence of their towns and cities by deploying the newly developed firearms through which the larger cities gradually gained a tactical superiority over the aristocrats in their vicinity" (158) is simply astonishing. Large artillery to besiege fortresses and walled towns in the late fifteenth century, yes; but firearms from 1350 on as significant? No.

I don't wish to condemn the entire work; parts are illuminating, even entertaining. Kleinschmidt's analyses of visual sources, when he offers them, are engaging and persuasive. The section on time, praised above, and the related chapter "Communication II: Commemorating the Past-- World Historiography" are to me the strongest sections of the whole book; general statements are well supported with evidence, and compelling arguments about the perception of time, on both a daily and a cosmic scale, follow. These are easily the clearest, most perceptive, best written parts of the book; I hope the author pursues these topics in future works (and leaves behind the often repetitious, jargon-laden pursuit of, say, the body and groups).

Almost every section contains some generalization or specific anecdote of interest; too many also contain thirteen strokes of the clock, however, which lead me to doubt the reliability of the argument as a whole. Add to this unease the irritation caused by awkward writing and editing--I must have checked half a dozen times to be certain that the work was not translated from another language into English. Far too common are instances of erratic comma usage (pp. 140, 165, 314, 315, just to name a few); grammatical errors (e.g., "none of them were fully executed," p. 262); and outright barbarisms ("the king used several places among which he would itinerate," p. 42, or the persistent use of "war-proneness", a neologism that should have been drowned at birth). So is the book worth your time? Certainly a few sections are; others might be, if you approach them with patience and a large block of salt.