03.01.30, Biller, Measure of Multitude

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Joel Rosenthal

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.030


Biller, Peter. The Measure of Multitude: Population in Medieval Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xxii, 476. ISBN: 0-19-820632-1.

Reviewed by:
Joel Rosenthal
SUNY--Stony Brook

The Measure of Multitude is long, impressively erudite, and yet often rather chatty. It is concerned to trace and explore the growing importance -- Biller is far too wise to get caught in a search for "origins" -- of quantitative thinking in the high or central Middle Ages. The book is not about demography, or mathematics, or quantification as developed by medieval mathematicians. Rather, it lies primarily in the realm of intellectual history. It traces the presence and dissemination of thinking (and writing, and preaching) about such matters. It explicates the links and the divergences between men who touched on similar themes, or who moved in their various directions from a common starting point (such as an Aristotelian text on longevity or a scholastic proposition about non-procreative sex). Much of the exposition is in the traditional mode of intellectual history -- the ideas of various (mostly white) men and their influence upon each other. And yet the end in mind is an exploration of a series of topics and problems very far from the traditional agenda.

In the pursuit of material to cover with his widely-flung net, Biller goes all over the place -- sometimes in directions we might anticipate, and sometimes along strange pathways that, he shows, have surprising connections with the common agenda. Some of the men and ideas he deals with traverse a fairly wide expanse of common ground, such as, the many variations and glosses on some point like Aristotle's views about the proper age for marriage and parenthood. Other efforts are those of men who go off more on their own, like the "Aragon Anonymous" looking in some detail at the longevity of the royal family of that kingdom. In many ways Biller, once having staked out his territorial claim, has to (or is willing to) go anywhere and everywhere the extant authors lead.

The fruits of the investigations he lays before us are the result of many years work on topics that can be covered by a quantitative-defined agenda or set of questions. Biller's earliest self-reference in his vast bibliography is to an article on birth control published in 1982. His findings in this volume are derived from a spread of reading that, even in field of scholasticism and intellectual history, is breath-taking; his bibliography of primary materials alone runs to almost 13 printed pages, and he pays attention to the great stars of the team (like "Albert the Great" and Averroes) and also to a huge roster of position players and even of substitutes: William of Auxerre, Regino of Prum, Roland of Cremona, Petrus le Pelude, John of Pian di Carpine (unforgettably branded as "a travel bore") and countless others, many rescued from the outer orbit of historical of not of intellectual obscurity.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first explores a number of avenues into quantitative thinking and then comes to rest mainly on high medieval treatments of marriage, the generation of children (as a demographic issue), and a long discussion of contemporary thinking about the goods of marriage (by which is meant its virtues or anticipated rewards), the will to have and the will not to have children, and the measures -- before, during, and after pregnancy -- to turn the will not to have (the anti-will, if we wish) into reality.

The second part of the book grows out of Biller's interest in tracing the many strands of interpretation of Aristotelian thinking about procreation, sex-ratios, the civic and political value of population replacement, the proper or best age of marriage and parenthood for men and for women, longevity, the effect of climate and region on birth and survival, and related matters. His accounts of the traditions and schools of translation as the West received the Aristotelian legacy is a free-standing essay of great value. He asserts that "the most important development in the intellectual history of Latin Christendom in the central middle ages was translation" (254), and he makes a strong case on his own behalf. Nor is he alone: Albertus Magnus talked about making Aristotle "intelligible to the Latins." In his explication of the traditions, Biller subjects some of the translation to very close, comparative scrutiny (267-69: the versions of Michael Scot and William of Moerbeke, on the maturation of females, are set beside each other). Biller is at pains to show how the translators and commentators built on each other; thus, "the Aristotle" of 1150 or 1200 was a very different one, as the West knew and used him, from the Aristotle of 1250 or, after Albert and Aquinas, of 1300. The Politics is the major text being tracked for its relevance to "measure" and "multitude," mostly for what it says about how good marriages produced healthy children who would grow up to serve the state and reproduce themselves. But the Ethics comes in for some consideration, and a great deal of attention is also paid to the Arabic-Latin legacy of De animalibus and De longitudine et brevitate vite.

Though The Measure of Multitude is roughly divided into these two segments, I really find the book more valuable when read as a series of learned essays, different takes on its over-arching theme or agenda. Some extremely interesting material really is thrown in because, or so it seems to me, it was just too good to omit, even at the cost of tighter organization. A long chapter on "Inhabitation of the World" is both fascinating and illustrative of my comment. In this chapter Biller takes us through the numerical and quantitative speculations and observations about the earth's people -- not just from the encyclopedists and world-chroniclers -- but from those men who had made the great overland treck and who returned to tell of it. Back from Cathay, what did they offer about the size of Chinese cities, or the empty spaces between Mongol strongholds, or the population politics of monogamy as against more growth-friendly practices?

As a treasure house of learning and reflection, Biller presents an array of ideas and of links between them. Men we rarely explore in depth, like William of Auxerre, are shown to have talked of the "historicization" of marriage (Biller's term), that is, its treatment as an institution with a history, and one that admitted of variety in time, across cultures, and as defined by geographical distinctions or boundaries. When Walter of Mortagne commented on how "men of different times have had different laws and customs of marriage," we suspect (correctly) that we are moving from the familiar track of scholastic didacticism. Are we seeing instances of relativism, or of proto-anthropology -- as reading and experiential knowledge came together? And Biller leads us through numerous comparable issues: the patriarchs' need for many children from many wives, the injunction upon Moslems to bear children to fill the empty desert (as well as paradise), the contrast between biblical injunctions for fecundity then and blessed virginity now, whether Hell could contain all those condemned to damnation, whether the lust of prostitutes served to make them sterile ("excess of ardour"), among many others. A sub-theme of the exposition of contributors to population-related topics: population-dense Europe of the thirteenth century was more concerned with issues relating to the control of population, while come the fourteenth century with famine and then plague, an interest in fertility, sex-ratios, and survival and longevity took over, at least to some extent.

Not matter how much admiration a book invokes, a reviewer always finishes with a few points to criticize. One is simply that the book is long and dense; hardly easy reading, and probably very difficult for students (and often for this reviewer). This is despite Biller's lively sense of humor, one that comes through on more pages than not. In tracing the changes over time and in showing how thinker/writer X drew upon and was indebted to X-minus-1, and he in turn to X-minus-2, etc., we wind up with a good deal of back-tracking and repetition. On the other hand, this is difficult material, and once-over-lightly would hardly do. The current discursive style of scholarly writing certainly helps show us where we are going, where we have just been, though it does run up the word count. On those occasions when Biller wants "hard data" from modern demographers and social historians, he tends to rely too heavily on a few names and publications. This is a bit like a sociologist falling back on a history textbook recommended by a colleague when he needs some background. But in balance, Biller is extremely generous to scholars whose parallel work has informed and inspired: John Baldwin, Richard Smith, P. J. P. Goldberg, Michael McVaugh, Nancy Siraisi, and many others.

Because the book is so strongly in the channel of exposition of texts, there are relatively few summary statements by Biller. He rarely says "this was the conventional view on coitus interruptus around 1200," or some such. He would probably say that the point of his book is to show that there was no single accepted or conventional view, and that we only get a grip on the complexities of medieval intellectual life, and medieval social commentary, by coming to grips with its diversity. If so -- and he knows far better than I -- fair enough, but a little more help for the reader would still not be amiss.

But these are not a lot of objections to raise, given the length of the book, the complexity of its arguments, the intractability of so many of the men to whom it devotes space. I might almost suggest that Biller made a bet with a colleague that he could write a book to demonstrate that scholastic thought dealt with social problems and issues and that if often expressed itself (or themselves) by means of a quantitative approach. If so, he wins the bet, hands down. As he bends them to his anvil, dozens and dozens of men are shown to have worried about "the multitude," whether their approach began with just a single foetus in the womb, or the hoards of Saracens who were procreating as fast as they could with their many wives in order to out-number the monogamous Crusaders.

It is a cliché of historiographical assessment to say that a book has dealt with a problem so we need not deal with it again for some years. In this case, we need to return to the problems Biller treats, very soon and very often. And after reading Biller's book (from cover to cover), I will never again be as quick, or as dogmatic, about the distinctions between high medieval thought on these issues and our own. They rarely counted, and they often counted incorrectly, but they did understand that "measure" was a key to both the Cities they felt called upon to explain to sinful and concupiscent humanity.

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Author Biography

Joel Rosenthal

SUNY--Stony Brook