Cullen Chandler

title.none: Olson, early Middle Ages (Cullen Chandler)

identifier.other: baj9928.0711.009 07.11.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Cullen Chandler, Lycoming College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Olson, Lynette. The early Middle Ages: The Birth of Europe. New York: palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. xvi, 248. $89.00 1-4039-4209-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.11.09

Olson, Lynette. The early Middle Ages: The Birth of Europe. New York: palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. xvi, 248. $89.00 1-4039-4209-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Cullen Chandler
Lycoming College

Lynette Olson (University of Sydney) has produced a textbook for undergraduate use. Such a publication is timely, since the explosion of early medieval scholarship in the last generation is now in need of synthesis appropriate for a student audience. How well Olson succeeds in delivering that synthesis, though, must be the conclusion of each instructor who contemplates assigning the book. An individual instructor must consider carefully the level of the course being taught, the preparation and background of the students, and his or her own teaching style. Olson's book may well be a grand addition to the teaching repertoire of many readers of this review, but the reviewer himself will likely not adopt it.

The overarching thesis of the book, that the Early Middle Ages (defined here as the period c.450-c.1050 in the Introduction, but in practice 400-1100), rather than Classical Antiquity or the period of Renaissance and Reformation, or any other period for that matter, saw the true formation of Europe as we know it today. Olson supports this notion not with a litany of facts laid out in a traditional, political narrative, but with a series of case studies or episodes contained in seven chapters. Students and teachers alike may well appreciate the simple organization scheme--each chapter covers one century--and the approach which eschews comprehensiveness in favor of highlighting major themes. Although not like most textbooks, since it is not a repository of facts, The Early Middle Ages is more easily integrated into many teaching styles than other recent books because of its chronological progression. Some new works, such as Julia Smith's Europe after Rome and the Rosamond-McKitterick-led team effort The Early Middle Ages 400-1000, while innovative and stimulating in their thematic treatments, pose greater challenges in this regard. [1] Furthermore, Olson's case-study approach aims at the big picture and omits many of the details readers would find in books like Roger Collins's Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000 or Matthew Innes's new Introduction to Early Medieval Western Europe, 300-900: The Sword, the Plough and the Book, leaving to instructors the task of discussing in class whichever people, events, and so forth they choose to emphasize. [2] A synopsis of each chapter can best illustrate how Olson executes her plan.

The Introduction not only presents the book's methodology, but uses a case study itself in doing so. Olson employs the frontispiece, the first page of the Gospel of Mark in the Coronation Gospels (folio 77r of Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Schatzkammer, Inv. XIII 18) for a brief lesson in paleography and art history that serves to introduce the various cultural traditions at play in early medieval Western Europe. This was an interesting and stimulating way to begin the book, one that may interest student readers as well.

Moving into the main body of the text, we begin in an era when the western Roman Empire still existed. Chapter 1, "The Fifth Century: Kingdoms Replace the Western Empire", delivers as promised. The major issues are there, illustrated by the cases of Galla Placidia, Sidonius Apollinaris, and even Ulfilas and his Gothic Bible. Olson introduces those new to the field the concept of "fluid identity" (a sub-heading, 15), which is reflective of recent studies and useful for teaching. But other things do not merit mention. For example, the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 appears more as a reminder than a description; ostensibly the instructor is free to elaborate in class if he or she wishes. Olson's approach thus has the merit of not overwhelming the reader with too much detail, but some instructors may wish for textbooks to include more.

Chapter 2, "The Sixth Century: The West Goes Its Own Way", opens with the story of Clovis sending a messenger to Italy to request Theoderic to send a harper to Gaul. This serves to juxtapose the two early barbarian kings and to illustrate Theoderic's web of alliances. His Goths earn the label "intrusive", while the Franks are "inclusive" (29-31), indicating the respective policies of these kings to distinguish or integrate barbarian and Roman cultures in their kingdoms. That Clovis integrated is often the lesson drawn from his baptism, whether to mainstream orthodoxy from Arianism or directly from paganism. The controversy over the date and circumstances of the king's conversion is not noted in this text, and readers may simply assume that Olson's story--that there is no evidence that Clovis was previously an Arian--is universally accepted. But Danuta Shanzer, for one, has raised the possibility of the king's Arianism, based on a letter of Bishop Avitus of Vienne. [3] Political developments of the sixth century are exemplified by the career of the man named Liberius, who served under Odoacar, Theoderic and others before switching his loyalty to Justinian and dying in reconquered Italy. Benedict of Nursia represents Religious and cultural lifestyles. It is quite useful for Benedict to appear alongside the powerful politicians of the century rather than a separate chapter devoted to religion. At the same time, broad statements like "Out of the wreck of Roman Italy the Rule of St. Benedict passed on Roman organization to medieval Europe" (40) are not necessarily helpful; by taking such a long view, they risk obscuring the historical perspective one hopes the intended student audience would be coached to develop. Likewise, constant references to other part of the chapter or other chapters, while intended to help readers make connections, will likely often confuse some by interrupting the narrative flow. And, despite not articulating the debate over Clovis's baptism, Olson does come down on one side of a different debate. While not declaring that there are sides to take over the "end of Antiquity" (despite citing the Pirenne Thesis and the more recent debates it has spawned in the next chapter), she places it in the sixth century, since ties between East and West were weak: Gregory of Tours still recognized them in some theoretical sense, while the Byzantine chronicler John Malalas hardly looked beyond the walls of Constantinople. These two men stand as examples of the relative status of parts of the former universal empire. The chapter concludes with different men standing as examples of a new, northern orientation on the horizon--Gregory the Great and Alfred the Great.

In her third chapter, "The Seventh Century: Cultural Watershed," Olson begins to make the case for a northward shift in the cultural center of the West. The Irish did not save civilization, she argues, because it did not die out on the Continent; nonetheless her emblematic figures come from the British Isles--Columbanus and Egbert. Another cultural shift took place in the seventh century, as the Islamic conquests of the Near East and North Africa forever severed Mediterranean unity. Olson gives a very fair assessment of these conquests, pointing out that "far more people were forced to convert to Christianity than to Islam" in the period she considers (65). Of further help to readers just beginning their studies of the Early Middle Ages is a good overview and assessment of the Pirenne Thesis. Pirenne's "political beyond dispute" (66)--indeed Charlemagne is inconceivable without the weakening of what remained of the Roman Empire that resulted from the Islamic conquests. Here Olson makes overt reference to historiographical trends, which can help students see history as a living discipline and historical understanding the result of debates and re-examinations of the evidence. Why she chooses to bypass any such discussion elsewhere is thus confusing. In any case, Visigothic Spain merits a somewhat lengthy discussion to round out this chapter. Kings working with church councils, the practice of anointing, the famous Visigothic Law on marriage and the Jewish population of Spain, Isidore of Seville, and even the horseshoe arch serve as examples of the cultural synthesis on the seventh century. Olson is keen to point out that the arch, widely known as typical of Arab architecture in Spain, was actually developed by the Visigoths.

Chapter 4, "The Eighth Century: Formation of the Core of Europe" (France, Germany, and Italy), begins with Boniface, called "one of the most important people in European history" (77). His story blends in seamlessly with the English mission, Frankish-papal relations, and the origins of Carolingian royal power. Three events at mid-century, perhaps best described as regime changes, highlight the point that the eighth century indeed gave birth to Europe as it came to be known, but also saw important changes in the East. The usurpation by popes of what had been Byzantine imperial authority in Italy, the coronation of Pippin III, and the Abbasid Revolution set the stage for historical development over the following three centuries, at least. The basis of medieval power, aside from religious authority, was land, and Olson states for the Carolingian West, vassalage that employed land as a governance resource in the absence of taxation and bureaucracy. The eighth century is also well known as the beginning of the Carolingian Renaissance, a term Olson agrees is warranted by the intellectual and educational reforms it signifies.

Chapter 5, "The Ninth Century: Expanding the Boundaries," begins, perhaps obviously, with Charlemagne's imperial coronation. Olson quickly moves on to his elephant, Abul Abaz, to embody the new emperor's foreign relations. In what is clearly a typographical error, the book claims that Abul Abaz arrived in Aachen as a gift from Harun al-Raschid in 1197 (98). While most of the several typos in the book are harmless, this one could cause confusion and consternation among readers and so merits attention. Historical sources require careful attention, for the Carolingian period as for others, and Olson is right to question whether Charlemagne really was surprised by Pope Leo III's presentation of a crown. But such care with sources is not always present in the book. For example, drawing on Notker's Gesta Karoli for another perspective on the ruler as well as for a lesson on source criticism, Olson observes that Notker wrote "to entertain" Charles the Fat, without the slightest indication that the work could also have been intended to edify the later king. This chapter continues from the previous one Olson's insistent notion of public vs. private authority, in that counts were public officials at the local level. Evidence shows "Charlemagne ruling through private authority" using "simple lines of lordship and dependency" to build "a superstructure that rises to towering heights" (101). While most would not question the differences between Carolingian governance and the institutions of modern states, Olson's statements do not seem to take into account arguments like that of Matthew Innes, who concludes that "'state' and 'society' tend to collapse into each other" in the early medieval period. [4] The main social distinction in Olson's Early Middle Ages was that of free or slave, and in texts like the Polyptique of St-Germain des Prs, that line blurs. The lay authors Nithard and Dhuoda show the maneuverings of the elites in this society, and outsiders (the Vikings and Bulgars) help to bring it down into "The Nadir of Europe" (130-131), despite the efforts of Charlemagne at the beginning of the century and Alfred the Great at its end to reform and reinvigorate it.

The next chapter, "The Tenth Century: Nadir to Take-Off," begins from this low point. Three cities--Worms, Lucca, and York--represent the urban zones of Western Europe, from the well-establish Mediterranean urban tradition to Romanized areas farther north and new towns arising from cathedrals and fortresses in the outer circle. Cities were, of course, the epicenters of the commercial activity termed the "take-off." The other main developments of the tenth century, Cluniac monastic reform and the "rise of Germany" under the Ottonians, receive their fair share of attention as well. Especially in the discussion of Germany, but also elsewhere in the book, women come to the fore. Hrotsvitha, Theophanu, Adelheid, and Matilda all have parts to play in the political and cultural scenes unfolding in this chapter. It ends with a call to see the year 1000 as a true historical break (Olson admits the arbitrariness of periodization in her Introduction), as the Feudal Revolution (although she does not use this term), demographic and economic growth, and church reform combined to transform Europe in the decades after the turn of the eleventh century.

The seventh and final chapter, "The Eleventh Century: Transformation of Europe," is the longest of the book and covers territory other books on early medieval history do not. Otto III, as emperor in the year 1000 appears here offering a vision of universal empire. Olson discusses the emergence of new Christian kingdoms in central and eastern Europe, to Ralph Glaber's "white mantel of churches," and the concept of the liturgical state. She treats "The Three Orders and Feudalism" almost as if Suzanne Reynolds had never written Fiefs and Vassals, other than a passing reference that the term feudalism is "not universally defined" (170). [5] She cites R. W. Southern and Marc Bloch on the subject, but gives not one passing mention to Reynolds or the Feudal Revolution debate that appeared in Past 8 Present. The Song of Roland provides information on the knightly ethos to illustrate the social relationships involved (not cultural values like courage or loyalty), and Europe, especially Normandy, we learn have been "thoroughly feudalized" (173) by the end of the century. The Norman conquests of England and Sicily, the rise of towns, and Gregorian Reform round out the contents of this chapter, all described and discussed rather well, before a brief consideration of the First Crusade as an outgrowth of all these developments. In "The Final Analysis" appended to Chapter 7, Europe stands more organized at the end of the eleventh century than it ever had been before, but at great cost to women, Jews, and religious dissidents.

A brief Epilogue ends the book with a glance to the future and to other areas of the world at the same, "medieval" period. The period known as the Middle Ages, especially the centuries designated "early medieval" are the beginning, not the middle, of European history. With this statement I agree.

Since the book is aimed at a student audience, remarks about the writing and organization are in order. Almost constant cross-referencing makes some points unclear, as Olson has a habit of bringing things up "as we will see in the next chapter." This kind of reference, while probably the result of writing in a friendly tone, may confuse some readers into thinking that, for example, the problems facing Charles the Bald in the 840s were exactly the same as those facing the early Capetians a century and a half later (see 109). Germany and Normandy appear in Chapter 8 as examples of the Carolingian legacy, even though they did not exist at that time. Olson knows this and admits such (131), but I fear that this kind of structure and language use, like the ubiquitous cross-references, may ultimately confuse novice readers. The principality of Brittany, cited earlier in the same chapter, would have been just as appropriate and even clearer. And for instructors as well as students, Olson or her publishers have employed an annoying practice with footnotes and primary source citations. Footnotes are for side remarks, which are sometimes helpful, while source citations appear separately and unnumbered. They are listed in order of appearance within each chapter.

All in all, this book has many desirable characteristics. It is short, so instructors can use many other texts along with it and not worry too much about overwhelming students' time. It does not aim at comprehensive coverage, so instructors can use many other sources of information in class while students can easily digest the core textbook. In these senses, it is far more appropriate for my own students than Collins's book cited above, but also better than Smith's and McKitterick's offerings in its chronological progression. I would not assign Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages as a course text at the level of my own early medieval history course, so that makes Innes's introductory book Olson's main competition. For now, I think my students will read Innes next fall, with its helpful chapter summaries and chronologies, its useful bibliographic essays, and its more comprehensive treatment that engages historiographical debate along the way.


[1] Julia M. H. Smith, Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History 500-1000 (Oxford, 2005) and Rosamond McKitterick, ed. The Early Middle Ages 400-1000 Short Oxford History of Europe (Oxford, 2001).

[2] Roger Collins, Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000 second edition (New York, 1999) and Matthew Innes, Introduction to Early Medieval Western Europe, 300-900: The Sword, the Plough and the Book (London and New York, 2007).

[3] Danuta Shanzer, "Dating the Baptism of Clovis: the bishop of Vienne vs the bishop of Tours," Early Medieval Europe 7 (1998):29-57.

[4] Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the Middle Rhine Valley, 400-1100 (Cambridge, 2000), 12.

[5] Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford, 1996), 393.