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13.10.21, Cotts, Europe's Long Twelfth Century

13.10.21, Cotts, Europe's Long Twelfth Century

John D. Cotts has written a new survey that aims to provide a fresh reassessment of European history during what he terms the long twelfth century (1095-1229). The book comprises an introduction and five chapters, covering respectively political order in western Europe, economy and society, spirituality and heresy, intellectual movements and, finally, the crusades.

Cotts' survey has many strong points. It is concise in structure, with its five chapters being divided into clear, thematic, subheadings. It is also well written on the whole, with some of the prose being reminiscent in its sensitivity of C. N. L. Brooke's venerable but excellent textbook Europe in the Central Middle Ages. Reflecting trends in recent historiography, Cotts has covered some topics not generally found in the older generation of surveys: Chapter 1 ("Varieties of Political Order in the Latin West"), for example, discusses the multicultural kingdoms of Sicily and Iberia, as well as the kingdoms of northern and central Europe, in addition to Germany, Italy, England and France. So too Chapter 4 ("Intellectual Syntheses") extends its brief to consider themes such as the role of women as patrons and thinkers, or the importance of vernacular literature as a mirror of intellectual vitality. The latter in particular is reminiscent of the work of C. H. Haskins on the "twelfth-century renaissance," which--for all its faults--was broader in its conception of the varieties of intellectual activity than much of the historical writing that followed it. While on this topic, Cotts' introduction contains some excellent remarks on the limitations of twentieth- century Franco-centric historiography on the "twelfth-century renaissance" (4-9). This is, in fact, an example of one of the book's strongest points: it interweaves discussions of relevant historiography with its narrative in a way that does not distract from its purpose as a survey. It is thus likely to be useful to undergraduates looking for more than just an account of the period's history, for it emphasizes the important role historians have played in shaping those accounts.

The reader will find that Europe's Long Twelfth Century tends to shy away from institutional history. Thus, for example, Cotts' discussion of religion in Chapter 3 ("Spirituality and its Discontents") focuses on themes such as devotion, the cult of saints and pilgrimage, varieties of religious life, women in religious life and heresy. Building upon the work of historians such as R. I. Moore, he sees the Fourth Lateran Council as a moment focused on the ordering of Christian society but also on the exclusion of non-Christian or non-orthodox groups from that society. The chapter does not seek to discuss the development of institutions such as the papacy per se. A similar approach is evident in Chapter 1 ("Varieties of Political Order in the Latin West"). Each of this chapter's sub- sections, which cover respectively most of the kingdoms and principalities of western Europe, is structured as a chronological sequence of individual reigns. Here, perhaps, some of the difficulties of this approach are apparent, for the sequence of biographies sometimes predominates over broader thematic points.

In some respects the book succeeds in its aim to provide a fresh reassessment of twelfth-century Europe: the inclusion of often- overlooked material on women, popular spirituality, social history and marginalized groups, for example. In others, however, it may not have gone far enough. A case in point is Chapter 4. While this chapter sketches out topics such as Arabic scientific learning, women in intellectual history and vernacular romance, it remains at its core the more or less standard potted history of the "twelfth-century renaissance": Anselm of Bec, Abelard, the schools of Paris, scholars in administration, John of Salisbury, Peter the Lombard. This criticism is not to deny the importance of these themes or to find fault with the author's treatment of them, but to say that these well- trodden paths do not provide an accurate or complete impression of European intellectual activity in the twelfth century. A wider geographical, institutional, curricular and source-based survey might have offered in fact a fresh reassessment of intellectual life. The chapter, for example, says little about topics that many twelfth- century intellectuals considered important: the teaching of skills such as grammar or rhetoric, music, cosmology or the intersection between intellectual life and the liturgy.

In general, Europe's Long Twelfth Century is a well-researched book. Nevertheless, in places it would have benefitted from fuller consideration of published scholarship. The author might not have been so forthright in claiming the existence of a formal "imperial church system" had he taken account of the research of Timothy Reuter and I. S. Robinson, which has shown that the imperial episcopate was far from being "a component and an extension of royal power" (23). [1] So, too, his survey of the twelfth-century renaissance in Chapter 4 would have benefitted from consideration of the collection of essays edited by Alison Beach on the place of Germany in that movement (cited in the introduction, but not used in the chapter). [2] Cotts' discussion of the "carnage" that ensued upon the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 (189- 190) is based upon a literal reading of Raymond of Aguiler's account. The important interpretative question, however, is to what extent Raymond should be understood literally. References here to the work of British historians such as John France and Christopher Tyerman might have provided a more nuanced interpretation. [3]

In conclusion, Cotts' survey does not present a straightforward narrative of Europe's long twelfth century. It is a narrative that emphasizes not the triumphant establishment of European identity, but the interplay of frameworks that allowed for what the author terms the "possibility of Europe" (13). While the book is perhaps not entirely the "fresh reassessment" it claims to be, it does offer a frequently thought-provoking survey of twelfth-century Europe from a socio- cultural point of view.



1. T. Reuter, "The 'Imperial Church System' of the Ottonian and Salian Rulers: A Reconsideration," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 33 (1982): 347-374; I. S. Robinson, Henry IV of Germany 1056- 1106 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 6.

2. A. I. Beach (ed.), Manuscripts and Monastic Culture: Reform and Renewal in Twelfth-Century Germany (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007).

3. J. France, Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 355-356; C. Tyerman, God's War: A New History of the Crusades (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 31.