Clambering off the slopes of Everest some 40 years ago, Sir Edmund Hillary is supposed to have remarked that the great advantage and indeed the attraction of that lofty mountain is that it is there at all. Much the same may be said of the The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 2. This genuinely monumental pile of erudition (848 dense pages of text with 20 maps, not including the preface, appendices, 174 pages of very useful bibliographical paraphernalia, 36 black- and-white and 1 color plate, and a 40-page index) is daunting enough for readers to be compared with a Himalayan summit, and yet undeniably and alluringly there. Rosamond McKitterick, the tireless editor who managed to get this second of three projected volumes in place long before either the first or third gives any sign of appearing on our scholarly horizons (in her conclusion she loyally writes of volume 1 in the present tense, as if it were already in existence, but it is not), deserves praise. The authorial alacrity her "cajoling" (p.xix) elicited from the 27 scholars, mostly British ones of her generation, is admirable. Under her direction (she calls it "editorial interference" on p.xix) a considerable achievement of early medieval scholarship has been made. Though the pantheon of eminent authors also is meritorious, it is thanks to her labor that the enormous book sits on library shelves and can be consulted at leisure.
The work of compiling the book seems instead to have been anything but leisurely. The rapid pace at which writing advanced is alluded to by one author in a note on p.537, and haste left an important lacuna in the book, for the chapter on law and legal practice "did not arrive in time to be included" (p.xix), though another potential gap, unexpectedly created by Josef Semmler's poor health, was filled by Mayke de Jong, who, "at very short notice" (p.xix), wrote a fine chapter on Carolingian monasticism. Perhaps the swiftness of composition explains the occasional error which crops up in the texts (what is the "Codex Bravo" of p.xxiii? when was the "reign of Cividale" of p.828? are there 25 (p.787) or 28 (p.685) Merovingian Luxeuil manuscripts? and in what sense was Salerno a Carolingian literary center (pp.722-3)?), but which does not, on balance, detract from the tome's authority.
This The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 2, is declaredly a replacement for the former Cambridge Medieval History, vols. 2 (1913) and 3 (1922), but actually some of the new concerns (for example chapter 14, "Byzantium and the West," which balances detail and intelligent generalization well) were covered in the old volume 4 (1923). Juxtaposition of old and new Histories, briefly essayed in McKitterick's preface, is edifying. It reveals changes in the bookmakers' craft which have occurred in the twentieth century, and, naturally, changes in the early medieval historians' craft as well. McKitterick had none of the difficulties her predecessors experienced in finding specialists in early medieval history, and was also able to unleash them on a far wider range of subjects, in both geographical and thematic senses, than the old histories dealt with. Thus the new history is not focused "on the creation and maintenance of empire and the simple, blow-by- blow account of conquests and coronations" (p.xviii). Along with political accounts and wars, the new history offers a cornucopia of economic, social, and cultural analyses, reflecting new canons. McKitterick also stresses the far more ecumenical understanding of "Europe" her volume expresses, so that not just Anglo-Saxons and Franks receive concerted attention, as in the old volumes, but also Basques, Beneventans, Byzantines, and (in one of the most instructive and insightful new chapters) Bulgars.
Curiously, the most old-fashioned section of the new volume (Part I, "Political Development," pp.1-380) is also the most innovative, precisely because it espouses this new conception of Europeanness. Although many pages in Part I in fact sedulously list the chronologies of reigns and wars, and though basically pages 18-201 are about Anglo-Saxon and Frankish history, the political historians are those who have kept up with contemporary trends best: the inclusive new Europe of after 1989 is the Europe they investigate. In this way the New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 2 is as much a product of its historical circumstances as the old version was of its. The "political enmities" and major wars (p.xvii) which determined the staffing and stances of the old history are supposed not to have fashioned the new understanding of early medieval history (even if Continental scholars remain underrepresented in McKitterick's volume), yet the "increasing economic and political integration of the [contemporary] European states" (p.xvii) certainly has. The current vision of a coherent, interrelated, integrated "Greater" Europe informs Part I most strongly.
In general, the three later parts of the New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 2 (II, "Government and Institutions," pp.383-559; III, "Church and Society," pp.563- 678; IV, "Culture and Intellectual Developments," pp.681-844) do not keep abreast with the contemporary coziness (or at least, early 1990s coziness, which in 1997 already seems dated) of the EU and its satellites. These sections are far more relentlessly Frankocentric than the political accounts of Part I, and we learn nothing of Bulgarian art, Byzantine rural society, or Basque religiosity from them. It is therefore the Carolingians and the Franks who define the Europe of Parts II-IV, rather as they did in the old Cambridge Medieval History. In the conclusion to the new volume, McKitterick states that "not one region of the area we now think of as Europe was so self-contained as to remain entirely untouched by events in the Carolingian heartlands" (p.845). Pace today's Sicilians, Greeks, Portuguese, and Icelanders, early "Europe" is still conceived as a cultural and topographical space irradiated by the Carolingian aura. Though there are exceptions, and the chapter on "The Papacy in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries" explicitly claims "papal history must first be understood in its own terms, and those terms are rooted in and around Rome" (p.563), in these latter three sections of the New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 2 the master narrative is a Frankish one.
The range of topics parts II-IV manage to encompass, even given their narrower, more traditional geo-cultural focus, is impressive. There are invaluable mises à point, on dozens of subjects, from iconoclasm to coinage. Such concise and magisterial summaries as offered in chapters on "Kingship and Royal Government" and "The Aristocracy" (primarily Frankish and Anglo-Saxon, with stress on the symbiotic relationship between kings and aristocrats between AD 700 and 900), as well as of "Economic Organization" (with emphasis on north European agriculture), "Religion and Lay Society" (a topic ignored in the old version), "The Carolingian Renaissance," (a topic that always interested historians, here presented in unusually literate and compendious fashion) and "Art and Architecture" (another old topic treated in up-to-date "contextual" fashion, without overzealous "influence" hunting) will guide generations of grateful readers.
Since the New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 2 is already a gigantic compilation that "covers" so many subjects it may seem unreasonable to ask, like a Dickens character, for more. Still, some omissions detract from the book's completeness and, in a reference tool that could have reflected the fruitful innovations in early medieval historiography since 1923, represent an important missed opportunity. American readers (the majority, these days) will in vain seek a chapter on gender and women, and may find the mentions of these subjects in the chapters on kingship and Carolingian education (but not, oddly, in that on monachism) only tantalizing glimpses of what might have been. Warfare, too, is not accorded much space, surely not as much as the enthusiastic practice of this activity by so many of the men who appear in the book's pages warrants. The technological history of the period AD 700-900, and issues of material culture in general, are presented insofar as they relate to manuscripts and their confection, a very olympian way of seeing this period. The natural environments in which people lived are almost never alluded to, nor how (or if) these diverse ecologies mattered (but see pp. 202, 385 for suggestive remarks). The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 2 does not scrutinize ritual in any sustained and anthropologically informed way, though it is arguable that in eighth- and ninth-century Europe rituals of different sorts were vital social actions. And, to conclude this catalogue of what the new history does not do, the use of archaeological data, for a volume which endorses "the importance of an interdisciplinary approach" (p.xvii), is most restrained. The flurry of excavations and surveys carried out since 1945 has given rise to major reinterpretations; though some chapters skilfully exploit this new evidence, the New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 2 overall takes its cue rather too strictly from chapter 1 ("Introduction: Sources and Interpretation"), where we learn "the principal evidence [early medievalists should use] remains written material of one kind or another" (p.4).
But there is a great deal this New Cambridge Medieval History volume does do, and well. Its more than 1000 pages will be avidly consulted by anglophone students of early medieval history for decades, and they will learn a lot about this intricate and growing field of studies. Few will want (or need) to scale its every pinnacle, as a reviewer must, but the vistas offered are usually worth the effort. Moreover, it's there on the shelves, a welcome reality to be reckoned with.