13.09.33, North, The Expansion of Europe

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Adam Franklin-Lyons

The Medieval Review 13.09.33

North, Michael. The Expansion of Europe, 1250-1500. Manchester Medieval Studies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012. Pp. xiii, 561. ISBN: 978-0-7190-8021-0.

Reviewed by:
Adam Franklin-Lyons
Marlboro College

Michael North's broad survey of the end of the medieval period can best be understood as an introduction for scholars of the early modern period. All of the works strengths and weaknesses make more sense in this context. Much of the tone of the book focuses on where Europe will be in 1600 rather than where it came from before 1250. At times, this allows North to paint a vivid picture of the major medieval influences on the early modern world. At other times, the presentation becomes somewhat formulaic and could be tiresome for a medievalist already familiar with the area and time period in question. Additionally, the forward looking character of the narrative sometimes obscures the more contingent character of the late-medieval state in preference for the strength of early modern central governments.

In the introduction, North paints "expansion" as applying to various areas that might or might not have created a recognizable Europe.  The primary question offered is "what and who is Europe?" While the title and seems to imply a text about the expansion of that what and who, the text focuses more on how Europe becomes Europe. Almost no reference appears anywhere to territories or lands outside "Europe." The expansion begins to feel more like how certain ideas became peculiarly "European" and came to form a recognizable basis for the Early Modern experience in various countries. Perhaps a clearer title might have been the "Consolidation" of Europe. This is the most frequently returned to concept in the work, apply as much to artistic production, cultural identity, and religious beliefs as it does to questions of state control.

After the introduction, the book is divided into three parts, a series of short studies of the various European states, a discussion of broad "themes" of development over the period, and a presentation of certain "Debates and Research Problems." In the first section, North gives a sketch of major regions in Europe. At times the regions are future nation states--England, France, Italy, Russia--and at other times they are general regions--East-Central Europe, South-East Europe, Scandinavia. Smaller states generally have their narrative couched within a larger regional framework; Portugal is in the "Iberian Peninsula," Switzerland in the "Holy-Roman Empire," Ireland and Scotland both in "England." Even when the region in question has none of its modern governmental forms, North looks towards unification and central government. Notably, even when he admits that "Italy" is an anachronism, he decides to use it anyway because, "it is an attempt at a comparative perspective" (124). Similarly, when discussing the Holy Roman Empire, North notes that already by the end of the fifteenth century, writers began referring to the "Germanic Kingdom," justifying our view of the Empire as the precursor to the German state (158).

Each of these sections contain a discussion of the centralization of dynastic power, comments on the traditions of fiscal or political representation (parliaments or cortes), a sketch of the economy of the region, and a discussion of the class and ethnic makeup of the society. The sections conclude with a discussion of the area's cultural identity, including linguistic patterns, literature, art, and often music. Even regions with diverse rulers focus on their eventual centralization--the Burgundians in the Low Countries, the Jagiellonian dynasty's Polish-Lithuanian union in Eastern Europe, and the eventual union between Sweden, Norway, and Denmark in Scandinavia. Continuing the forward looking feel, the cultural sections most often discuss the appearance of Humanist and Renaissance ideas amongst the elites, as well as the regional connection to Italian ideas and art forms.

In the second section, North provides a more integrated view of European evolution in the areas of "State and Constitution," "Economy," "Society," and "Culture and Religion." The chapters on the state and the economy (Chapters 10 and 11) shine as the best sections of the book. Particularly in "State and Constitution," the dozen examples built up in part one allow North to provide a clear narrative both of centralization as a pan-European project, but also a project with great local variation in urban, royal, or noble balances between authority and representation. North's description highlights the similarities without losing sight of the differences between groups like the Boyars and the English Barons, or the Venetian Doges, the Medici in Florence, and the controlling merchants in the Hanseatic League. Like the Part I, it is still oriented towards how Europe will turn out in the sixteenth century, but North's understanding of politics as the balancing of centralization and representation is thought provoking and well worth reading even for those familiar with the standard narratives provided in Part I.

"Society" is probably the weakest of the theme sections, but both "Economy" and "Culture and Religion" provide good narratives for those aspects of late-medieval society that look forward to the early modern period. The economy covers population, feudalism, and several aspects of growing regional trade. The summary of feudalism is less convincing, leaving out the variety of forms of land tenure available in the fifteenth century. However, the sections on banking and manufacture provide the same broadly diverse but unified view put forward in the state section discussed above. Contrasts between Hanseatic financing and Spanish or Italian banking, or the differences between Flemish, English or Polish exploitation of resources and expanding manufacture all receive solid treatment. The discussion of religion is somewhat dominated by papal politics from the Avignon Papacy to the Great Schism and the response of the conciliarists. However, this meshes well with North's general focus on the state based theme of centralization and representation. As with the previous sections, the text expertly portrays some of the unifying features of reform throughout Europe, including the Russian church as well as the major players from England to Hungary.

Finally, in Part III, North offers a series of summaries of major debates in late-medieval scholarship. North states explicitly that they are not meant to be exhaustive and "consciously follow my own interests, with a focus on economics and culture, which tend to receive less attention" (421). The longer sections ("Crisis of the Late Middle Ages" and "Renaissance and Humanism") provide good clear summaries scattered with useful observations by North. Discussing the crisis, he discusses the different schools of thought between Malthusian, Marxist, and monetary schools of thought as well as including people who he believes do not fit neatly in one of those categories (for example, Guy Bois or Steven Epstein.) While "Humanism" receives relatively less attention, Chapter 17 on the Renaissance performs similarly well describing why artistic tastes might have changed as well as what research scholars have undertaken to answer both what is the Renaissance and how did it come about. While still clearly written, the shorter sections on "Political Integration," "The Court," and "Cultural Transfer Studies," are more cursory.

As in any work with so broad a reach, there are a few notable gaps. For just a couple of examples, the section on politics in Spain (Chapter 3.1) focuses almost completely on Castille's rise to power, neglecting such events as the Catalan civil war in 1462-1472 in the centralization of monarchial power. Similarly, while the overview of the church in Chapter 13.4 excellently portrays some of the antecedents to Protestant and Catholic reform in the sixteenth century, the Cathar and Albigensian heresies receive a relatively cut and paste textbook description, neglecting any mention of new historical trends such as the work of Mark Pegg. Despite these and other shortfalls, the book does rely heavily on German historiography, which should be a useful addition in English scholarship where such depth is relatively less common. Lastly, this book is a translation of the German original, Europa expandiert 1250-1500, published in 2007. As such, the bibliography has received only marginal updating and so cannot serve as a resource for the latest scholarship. Many of the debates, in particular, rarely cite work published after 2005.

Overall, The Expansion of Europe provides readable and thorough introductions across a wide geographic span and covering several topics. The inclusion of cultural sections in the national introductions is a very helpful edition, often including even music, topics still neglected in general introductions. The themes sections are readable and sometimes insightful and the best of the debates cover the scholarship on the issues clearly and include work in many European languages.

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Adam Franklin-Lyons

Marlboro College