The Medieval Review 10.09.09

Lansing, Carol, and Edward D. English. A Companion to the Medieval World. Blackwell Companions to European History. Chichester: Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xii, 584. $199.95 hb ISBN 978-1-4051-0922-2. .

Reviewed by:

Joel Rosenthal
SUNY Stony Brook

Because of the size and the divers nature of the contents of this volume it is unlikely that few other than its editors and the diligent reviewer will read every page of each of the 26 essays (plus a very short introduction). This is a shame, for the papers all present information and ideas of interest; some are compact narratives of events and developments at the time, some are closer to historiographic surveys focused on controversial and complex issues, and some are closer to "think pieces" in which the author is working out his or her own path through some tangled hedgerow of medieval life, thought, and writing. This volume calls to mind the 2001 collection edited by Peter Linehan and Jinty Nelson, The Medieval World, both for its size and for its wide coverage and its thematic treatment of the European Middle Ages. The Linehan-Nelson volume also alternated between detailed case studies and broad surveys, as does this volume, though with fewer case studies for Lansing and English. Clearly, when you send a large team of accomplished colleagues out to do the job, you get a collection of papers that varies considerably in method and scope. Such diversity gives further reinforcement to the idea that this collection is neither a textbook nor a reference book. However, it will be of great value for instructors who want to pull their own thoughts together and to have a model for a concise explication of complicated topics. It will also bring home to students and general readers that there is no "party line" on the medieval world and that the past, as an intellectual and cultural construct, is very much alive. And as was the case with the Linehan-Nelson volume, a reissue in paperback will be a service to the academic world (as to the publisher) and it is probably already in the works.

English and Lansing give us such a large collection and cover so much waterfront that moving through the contents, in their published order, seems the best if a rather pedestrian way to present the volume's contents. Not counting a brief introduction and a final (and fascinating) "wrap up" essay by R. I. Moore, the book is divided into five sections. The first, "Early Medieval Foundations," turns to the now-familiar question of continuity, decline, and revival. Matthew Innes ("Economics and Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe") deals with structures and forms of power, mainly in pre-Carolingian times, with attention to urban decline, regional differentiation and trade patterns, the importance of new villages over old villas, the emergence of an aristocracy whose wealth rested on castles and their control of weapons, and--eventually--the gap between serfs and their lords and the origins of the manorial system. There is deference to the work of Duby and Barthelemy, among others, and the picture is the mixed one we have come to find credible; a lot of bad news, some good news, and real differences depending on geography and demography as well as on social status (which was tied to the opportunity to be trained for warfare). Hans Hammer ("Politics and Power") looks at the Carolingian aristocracy and the issues that revolve around their identity and power: the role of kin, families and monastic patronage, the growing wealth of ecclesiastical institutions ("monastic capital") the question of whether lordship was over territory or people. We have a sober assessment of the "burdens of Carolingian unity" and its sad demise. Yitzhak Hen ("Religious Culture and the Power of Tradition in the Early Medieval West") tackles an issue we often take for granted; the conversion to Christianity and what it meant in terms of waving good bye to the pagan world, of having a new frame for time and a new vocabulary for power and virtue. Paganism, in contrast to a church laboring to develop a sacramental system and a clerical hierarchy, probably was given a more structured identity as the other than it had ever attained through many centuries of practice.

The next section treats "Populations and Economy" and its five papers mix broad sweeps with case studies, some of them landing rather far from the announced theme of the unit (which is no reflection on their quality). James Masschaele ("Economic Takeoff and the Rise of Markets") weighs the variables regarding population growth, economic take-off, and urban development. He sides with the progressives (Pirenne and Lopez, et al) over the conservatives or neo-Malthusians (Postan and his followers) on when and why the takeoff occurred, and he offers various statistical models to show the possibility of alternate readings. Though he concludes by saying we just do not know, he leans toward the economic over the demographic explanation for a reviving economy and urbanization. Phillipp Schofield ("Rural Families in Medieval Europe") covers the obvious economic questions regarding rural and peasant self-sufficiency (or the lack thereof), rural taxation, and the composition of the rural/peasant household. He also pays attention to the culture of the family; the presence and role of orality, godparenting, family feuds, and patriarchy all come in for some attention (along with some statistics on household composition). Martha Howell ("Marriage in Medieval Latin Christendom") provides a valuable survey of the topic and of the different schools of thought about the development of this rather central institution. Duby is respected but no longer allowed to dominate the discussion, as the sustained roles of women, both in marriage and widowhood, have come to claim a good share of the debates, as have various views regarding mutual consent and the problems as well as the freedoms it could entail. John Arnold ("Gender and Sexuality") works through a lot of historiography and incorporates the role of monks and monasticism, misogyny (in both its ecclesiastical and its secular expression) the role of the confessional, and the world of the monastery as a fictive family in his presentation. He is quite explicit about the way a discussion of gender in a medieval context is a house built on shifting sand. Edward English ("Society, Elite Families, and Politics in Late Medieval Italian Cities") gives the tightest case study (so far) and follows various historiographic trails concerning extended households, dowry and the transmission of wealth, and the woven networks of marital alliances.

We move on to "Religious Culture," with six papers that lead us in six different directions. Maureen Miller ("New Religious Movements and Reform") talks of the process of Christianizing society--something we must not take for granted--and her lead takes us through the sectarian and/or historigraphical treatments of the Gregorian reform. Both the Protestant and the Roman Catholic views of the Investiture Controversy are set out with commendable clarity, giving the sort of lead many of us need and should welcome for the classroom and as a vade mecum for further reading. Constance Berman ("Monastic and Mendicant Movements") is an informed survey of regular orders, both early and late, running from the early Benedictines until well after the coming of the friars. That familiar cycle of reform, success, and decadence is explicated, along with a reminder of how diverse and numerous were the many forms of regular life. From the student of women in the Cistercian order, the tale of women and their orders is, as expected, treated at length. James W. Brodman ("Hospitals in the Middle Ages") mostly deals with the historiography of the topic, one now coming into its own in terms of recent scholarship. Especially useful is his treatment of Spanish institutions as Iberian history slowly but steadily claims space in the mainstream narrative. Carol Lansing ("Popular Belief and Heresy") deals mostly with what was considered to be heresy, rather than with variations of popular religion that stayed within the accepted boundaries. She does emphasize that "heresy" had no objective existence, defined into existence by its enemies and thereby giving us sources written by those interested in maximizing the threat. She closes with a sage bit of advice; do not romanticize heretics just because we see them as the persecuted. Kenneth R. Stow ("Jews in the Middle Ages") looks at the autonomy and stability of Jewish communities, though as the centuries rolled along his picture becomes closer and closer to being a history of anti-semitism. That more hostility seemed to come from the laity than the ecclesiastical leadership of high medieval Europe is an instructive point. Olivia Remie Constable ("Muslims in Medieval Europe") is an informed and concise narrative mostly focused on Spain (with some attention to Sicily), informed by references to the many and deep divisions and antagonisms within the Moslem world (Baghdad vs. Corboda) and also sensitive to the problems of dealing with a newly-converted (or not) populations as the Reconquest pushed farther and farther southwards.

From religion we move to "Politics and Power:" seven essays that focus more on themes than on places and times. Thomas Kuehn ("Conflict Resolution and Legal Systems") gives a narrative of the development or evolution of law and legal systems, shedding light on such questions as what constituted the basis of proof or the logic behind the much-ridiculed ordeal. Kuehn argues that the Gregorian reform separated civil or secular law from religion in a wide-ranging paper that carries us from wergild to English common law and the emergence of canon law under papal scrutiny. Robert Dyson ("Medieval Rules and Political Ideology") is the history of dualist political theory--Christ, Caesar, and the papal monarchy that emerged. This compact essay stretches from Augustine through the conciliar movement. Andreas Myer ("Papal Monarchy") covers comparable ground, with Innocent III being foregrounded as the monarchical high point, the advocacy of the crusades as the papacy's special or proprietarial project. Like Dyson, he covers a long span with economy and has time for such phenomena as the Donation of Pepin. Teofilo Ruiz ("Urban Historical Geography and the Writing of Late Medieval Urban History") covers the historiography of what is generally unfamiliar territory. The urban revolution and the two-way movement of people, plus ideas about how space in towns was best used, are important but recondite topics, rarely considered outside specialized writings. Richard Britnell ("Bureaucracy and Literacy") begins with a familiar tale of loss and decline and the breakup (or breakdown) of Roman imperial practices. He then follows his theme through to the happier and more bureaucratic days of the 12th and 13th century, with its great leap into in record keeping and the production of documents at both central and local levels of society. Clifford Rogers ("The Practice of War") has a concern for those who actually showed up to fight, as well as how much the training and equipment of such men would have cost (not to mention their horses). The ranks of bowmen, heavy infantry, and cavalry are nicely arranged for us, as they supposedly were on the field, with the terror as well as physical harm and economic destruction they would wreak as goals of their activity. Christopher Tyerman ("Expansion and the Crusades") is particularly strong on comparing the Crusades of outre-mer with other Christian efforts at political and cultural (and religious) expansion; the civilized and densely populated near East in contrast to the world of the Baltic and east Germany. On this other front of militant Christendom the ideology of faith was an element sometimes only introduced after the fact of conquest, expansion, and imperialism.

The last section of the books covers "Technologies and Culture:" four papers in a mix of architecture, lay culture, and scholasticism and philosophy. Stephen Murray ("Romanesque and Gothic Church Architecture") explores the major architectural transition of the cathedrals and with an eye on the way writers of the Renaissance helped create the paradigm of Romanesque to Gothic and then imposed a view of progress on the transitions. This essay is the only one in the book that deals with the visual arts and it (alone) suffers from lack of illustrations. Richard Barton ("Aristocratic Culture: Kinship, Chivalry, and Court Culture") contrasts the ties of kinship and lineage with those (later ones) of chivalric bonding and court-centered behavior and culture. Barton argues that no single narrative covers the many varieties of behavior and mores and he reflects on how life at the top before the year 1000 compared with the later medieval centuries. Stephen Gersh ("Philosophy and Humanism") deals with change over time as he puts examples of medieval "humanism" forward in contrast to the agenda of the scholastics. He explains how men like Bernardus Sylvestrus can be seen to lead us to the more familiar humanism of the Renaissance. Philipp Rosemann ("Philosophy and Theology in the Universities") covers the reception or recovery of the Aristotelian canon, emphasizing the role of naturalism in the teaching of the scholastics, with Aquinas as very much in this tradition (and thereby explaining the condemnation of his works in 1277).

A final essay by R. I. Moore ("Medieval Europe in World History") is a striking tour de force, comparing some "advances" of medieval Europe with comparable ones in other parts of the world, other civilizations, other cultures, other economic and environmental contexts. In China, in the Islamic world well away from its shared borders with Christendom, and in Christendom itself such developments as urbanism, the greater intensification of agricultural production, temple building, the rise of clerical elites, and the widening gap between the mass of the peasantry and those at the top, are to be found. Not comparative history in a simplistic sense but a serious and thoughtful knock against European and Christian exceptionalism.

This kind of review, of a book with so many contributors and going off in so many directions, has to be a rather step-by-step affair. The reader is likely to have two sorts of favorites among the many valuable and up-to-date essays. There are those that unravel complicated topics, those where one says "I always meant to read up on that." Then there are those that cover topics about which one has been reading and working, and in these instances it is of interest to compare interpretations. All the essays are usefully supplemented by endnotes, extensive bibliographies (some running to 5 or 6 pages), and suggestions for further reading. Though one can always find topics not covered--part of that need to be critical, no matter what--it is hard to argue against the inclusion of any of the essays. Their variety is a salutary reminder of how many rooms there are in the mansion, how many ways to cover the sources, the modern scholarship, and the perennial dilemmas of human society. In reading this large and complicated volume, I cam away with a feeling that the intellectual legacy of Henri Pirenne and Marc Bloch still define our professional labors. This is a great legacy--not one of reaction or anachronism--and we should be proud to sit upon the shoulders of such giants and to be able to survey so much of a landscape that they helped map out.