The Medieval Review 10.02.11

Nicholas, David. The Northern Lands: Germanic Europe, c.1270-c.1500. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xiii, 410. . $30 978-1-4051-0051-9.

Reviewed by:

Jo Rune Ugulen
National Archives of Norway

The idea of writing a history of northern Europe in the late middle ages is a good one, and one of the first thoughts that struck me was why haven't someone done this long ago. However that may be, it felt good to open the book and starting reading it. As David Nicholas has written some very good books earlier, my hope was that this would be one more of those. While reading the book, though, the good feeling both came and went away again on several occasions. I'll return to some of these, but it first seems reasonable to say something of what the book itself claims to be.

Professor Nicholas writes in his preface that "the geographical scope of the book is the parts of Europe that were influenced significantly by Germanic traditions of law." The area covered is thus the Low Countries, the northern part of the Holy Roman Empire, Scandinavia, England, and the German "colonial" areas of eastern Europe, or, put another way, most of the landmass surrounding the North and the Baltic Seas. The period covered is the late middle ages from around 1270 until 1500. At the same time Nicholas emphasizes that the book is not a legal history, but that he uses the term "Germanic traditions of law" in its broad cultural sense. The preface also draws up some of the main arguments that Nicholas tries to put forward in the book. He says, for instance, that he doesn't argue "that scholars have denied that elements of regional identity survived beyond 1200, but rather that they have ignored them." Nicholas further "argue[s] that Italian financial and trading influence in late medieval northern Europe was less comprehensive than some have seen." And, finally the "book illustrates the myriad of important regional variants on basic structures that were broadly similar throughout Germanic Europe." This last point says quite a bit about what the book really is, and on this particular point Nicholas is resoundingly successful. I'm not entirely convinced that he succeeds quite as well in arguing the thesis of regional identity in the north. The book "deals more with regional identity than with interregional integration," we learn, "although the latter topic is never absent."

The Northern Lands is divided into four main parts, of which the first contains four chapters outlining the political history of England, the Low Countries, Scandinavia and the Holy Roman Empire. This is in my opinion a very good, but in many modern textbooks a very much neglected way of starting such a book. An outline of an area's political history gives the reader an overview of events which then again enables the reader to relate other developments to a chronological framework. A student thus learns the "whats" before the "whys" and "hows," and that is how it ought to be. This is not the place to go into detail in regard to Nicholas' outlines, but it has to be noted that Nicholas is at his best when he writes about the Low Countries, and at his weakest when writing about Scandinavia. There is also a tendency that Nicholas, when writing about Norway, to a much too great extent is leaning on the somewhat outdated two-volume History of the Norwegian People by Knut Gjerset from 1932!

Part II deals with statecraft, sovereignty, law and language, and contains three chapters. Chapter 5 tells of the administration of sovereignty, while chapter 6 is dealing with law and justice. These two chapters are analytical, as is said in the preface, "examining, comparing and contrasting distinctive features of the governing institutions and the law" of the different areas. The chapter on the administration of sovereignty gives a good overview and introduction to the government systems of the northern lands, and is easier to read than the chapter on law and justice which in part tends to go more in the direction of reeling off different laws, statutes and other legal points. But then again, this would be difficult to avoid when comparing to such an extent as Nicholas does. And it has to be said that the chapter on law is very informative, and that I have learned a great deal reading it. The last chapter of part II deals with language, group identity and proto-national consciousness. My impression of this chapter is also generally positive, but it is not without the odd quirk. The statement that the dialect of L├╝beck "became the dominant language in Scandinavia and particularly Denmark" (195) would certainly benefit from rephrasing.

Part III is called "The Strategies of Lineage" and its two chapters deal with elites and family and gender relations. The very interesting chapter 8 on comparative elites is well written and a good read, but suffers due to a lack of discussion of terminology (which is a complex matter, as every single [modern] nation has its own terminology containing many of the same words, while these same words quite often do not carry the same meaning). Thus a statement such as that on the continent knights were considered noble through the thirteenth century, but not in England (210), is not explained. The problem of course is terminological, as the traditional English definition of nobility exclude knights and esquires (who in England are included in the gentry, which in most other countries would be considered to be more or less the equivalent to the lesser nobility). But Nicholas' use of the term noble here is seemingly modern, and the (probably unintended) result could be a misconception among readers unfamiliar to the terminological problems that knights in thirteenth century England were indeed not reckoned as nobles (in the modern sense of the word), which they in fact were (in the modern sense of the word). Chapter 9 discusses family and gender relations, and stresses the point that family in the northern lands "differed fundamentally from that of the Romance regions." In particular women in the north were older when they first married, there were many people that never married and thus the north had a larger number of single-person households, and it was the nuclear family rather than the extended family that was the primary social unit. This latter fact also led to a large number of household servants.

The last part of the book, the fourth, is also divided into two chapters. Chapter 10 deals with urbanization in the northern lands, and starts out with the demographic crisis of the fourteenth century, followed by a discussion of the spatial and functional distribution of urbanization in the north. After several other aspects of cities and their functions, the following chapter 11 deals with trade and the commercial integration of the northern lands. Nicholas also underlines that "the northern lands were more a commercial than an industrial union." In many ways trade is what unite the northern lands. The Hanse League was at its most powerful in the late middle ages, and in certain ways this book can be seen as a history of the framework in which the Hanse operated. Thus trade is a fitting theme for the last chapter, and it is a good one. It is tempting to quote the last sentence in this chapter: "The north was not a community of states, but it was a community of goods and services."

In the final concluding chapter David Nicholas sums up the main arguments of the book once again, and it is hard to disagree with him when he says that northern Europe was not becoming integrated in the late middle ages, but rather was bridging the strong differences, and that the different countries of the region had more in common than did their Mediterranean counterparts.

To conclude, I find The Northern Lands to be well written and a good read, and I have learned quite a lot reading it. It does however, become a bit repetitive here and there, and parts of the book suffer from too much information pressed into too few pages. My main criticism of the book would have to be that it is too short to treat its enormously large and complex subject with the justice it deserves. There are, for instance, important subjects that are conspicuous absentees, such as agrarian structures (which tend to greatly influence the overall social structures of a society), religion (why did northern Europe end up as overwhelmingly protestant?--most of the answers ought to be found in the late medieval northern lands) and ethnic relations on the peripheries. This is also something that Nicholas admits to in the preface, and he lists several other topics there that ought to have been included. Unsurprisingly Nicholas is at his best when writing about Flanders and the Low Countries, and at his weakest when writing about Denmark, Norway and Sweden. This does not mean that he writes badly about Scandinavia, though, if he had written better about it, undoubtedly there would have been fewer minor errors, misunderstandings and misspellings. But despite its shortcomings The Northern Lands is well worth reading, and has to be acknowledged as a significant contribution to the writings on northern European history. My foremost hope is that the book might inspire other historians to continue what David Nicholas here has started.