18.05.03, Wickham, Medieval Europe

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John France

The Medieval Review 18.05.03

Wickham, Chris. Medieval Europe From the Breakup of the Western Roman Empire to the Reformation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. pp. viii, 335. ISBN: 978-0-300-22882-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
John France
Swansea University

This short book (its text is only 257 pages) is not a history of Medieval Europe but an interpretation with a focus on change and its causes. It is also intended to be accessible, and this is greatly assisted by a light and highly readable style. Wickham is a distinguished medievalist but here he wears his scholarship lightly, with no great thickets of footnotes or shrubberies of jargon. However, this is a learned work and in no sense "medieval-lite": this is a view of the medieval past that commands respect, though not necessarily agreement.

Wickham's middle ages are traditional in circumscription--roughly AD 500 to 1500. He is well aware that this periodization is artificial, but as he says, at least that artificiality gets away from the teleological approach which sees its study as justified only by its "relevance" to modern development. Having avoided these elephant traps, Wickham delineates key moments of change in a largely conventional way: the "fall" of Rome, the crisis of the Eastern Empire, the Carolingian experiment, the expansion of Christianity, the decentralisation of power in the eleventh century (avoiding the term "feudal revolution" but accepting its substance), economic and demographic expansion in the high middle ages accompanied by a rebuilding of the state, though also the end of the Byzantine form, the Black Death and the development of intensive state structures in the late middle ages. There is an admirable geographic balance with Germany, Central and Eastern Europe dealt with at length and Italy given its real due: an important corrective to the Anglo-French perspective which dominates so many general studies. Although he is at pains to disown any attempt to make a moral judgement on historical developments, there is no mistaking the emphasis on state development, and the key factor here is the ability of government to tax and to exert control directly and not through intermediaries with wills of their own. It is very refreshing that Wickham strongly asserts the value of late medieval governmental development with the exercise of royal power through competent (if corrupt) officers rather than obstructive aristocrats. But for the earlier part of the middle ages the book runs into the question of the influence of Rome--the old debate about continuity. Wickham is not in any way seduced by the "late antique" brigade, and indeed here refers more than once to the "fall" of Rome, but there is no doubt that, as he showed in his The Inheritance of Rome. A History of Europe from 400-1000 (London: Allen Lane, 2009), he believes that the empire had enormous influence despite the lack of substantial institutional continuity. The question really is how much influence?

In this book he argues that the incoming peoples inherited a sense of the res publica from Rome and sought to preserve that. In particular he suggests very strongly that the assemblies placita, which were so important in early medieval Europe (and indeed later), were a key expression of the inheritance from Rome of this sense of the public good. Now the peoples who invaded the western empire have been scrutinised very thoroughly and it seems clear that they were assemblages of ambitious individuals and groups gathered around "kings" who offered them the best chance of doing well. How could kings, even powerful ones, not consult and consider their wishes and especially those of the more prominent? Surely, it could be argued, this is not Roman consciousness but political prudence. The elite remained in the orbit of the royal courts because it suited them, but Wickham interprets their presence as subordination, although it was only that in the presence of a strong and able king. Weakness produced a quite different pattern. The bloody emergence of the Carolingians (not emphasised here) is a tribute to localised power gathering others into its wake and imposing a new central control--essentially a change of personnel which was later glossed over very nicely by tame intellectuals who even portrayed it as divinely inspired. Charlemagne here emerges dressed up in the bright glow of the "Carolingian experiment." It is interesting that Wickham's bibliography notes H. Fichtenau, Living in the tenth century but makes no mention of that author's Carolingian Empire which is really the only truly critical treatment of Charlemagne's reign. It is certainly true that Charlemagne did draw on and encourage fine ideas of sacral monarchy, but he was also a bloodthirsty warlord whose successors were really not able to copy his methods in dealing with their most important subjects. Charlemagne was able to manipulate his elite, though not without great efforts, but his successors were less able and their line failed. As a result, as Wickham argues, highly localised elite landed power emerged in the tenth and eleventh centuries. However, one might ask was it so very different from what had gone before, or simply much more overt? The "feudal revolution," it could be argued, was only the naked manifestation of local power which had always existed and which could be tamed and mastered at particular moments according to the chances of personality and circumstances. Rather than a notion of the "public good," the leaders of the new barbarian peoples inherited a sense of sovereignty which was so visible in the Roman empire and they copied its manifestations. However, to translate this inheritance into reality was difficult given their dependence upon the leaders of their military followings, and this problem was compounded because very quickly these important followers acquired land and, in effect, shared sovereignty. Landowning is extremely difficult to distinguish from sovereignty and what we see by the twelfth century--earlier in a few places, later in others, never in some--is sovereignty emerging as distinctive, riding on a wave of what Wickham rightly calls, "The Long Economic Boom 950-1300" (121-140). But even then, most successful kings had to consult with their elites: this was a pragmatic imperative. No medieval king was absolute, though some were more nearly absolute than others, and consultation and consent did not everywhere become institutionalised--and that was the result of the interaction of circumstance, personality and chance. The sharp distinction which is drawn in this book between early medieval consultation and late medieval representative bodies seems a false one arising from the premise of the "public good" which ignores pragmatic dealing with the reality of local and sometimes supra-local power. This is stimulating stuff which will provide a great deal for historians to argue about, but some aspects of this work are more controversial.

Wickham lays great emphasis on the diversity of Europe and this is certainly a valuable theme. He is quite right to stress the fluidity of the very term "Europe" but surely overeggs the cake in dismissing it as a serious indicator of identity, especially as he admits "people did talk about Europe in the middle ages" (6). This is very much a Brexit interpretation, not at all sympathetic to the Euro-Vision of the medieval past. But this perspective is surely carried rather too far. What is never discussed is the use of Christianity (meaning the Roman version) as essentially a synonym for Europe. The same aversion to any suggestion of unity produces another oddity, which is the reluctance to concede the importance of catholic and Roman Christianity in shaping structures and attitudes. The chapter "The Expansion of Christian Europe 500-1100" (80-98) is largely about other things than religion, and throughout the book the influence of the papacy is seriously downplayed. The overall impression is to minimise the impact of religion upon Europe and to tell a story of its development which is based much more upon other economic, social and political factors. Nobody can deny that these were important, but the immense contribution of the papacy and the church to European development is surely unmistakable.

Related to this is the scant attention paid to the crusades. They tend to be seen in a very old-fashioned way as early examples of imperialism and covers for greed. More seriously, Wickham ignores the central role they played in European development through the link with the papacy, and treats them as a kind of exotic and deplorable bolt-on, mere excursions with no relevance to his main themes. But they are excursions into a different world for which the author has a great deal of admiration. Tax collecting and its accompanying bureaucratic structures are portrayed here as signs of true stability, and time and time again Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman state-building is favourably contrasted with the European powers. Now this is a defendable case, though the Ottomans took some time to come around to it: after about 1386 the Sultans decided to rid themselves of dependence on tribal warlords by establishing the core of a regular army which needed a strong financial structure to support it. What eventuated was certainly based on Byzantine and Persian models. But the tone of admiration is odd and it often feels as if Wickham is in thrall to "Orientalism" which he mentions (53) only in passing. This curious dogma, so publicised by Edward Said, perhaps explains Wickham's hostility to the crusades and fuses with his scepticism about the influence of the church and papacy.

This is a very stimulating and enjoyable book. Wickham is not much interested in intellectual and cultural history which are so in vogue nowadays. Instead he portrays European development based on political and socio-economic factors. His Europe is vibrant and dynamic, even at times almost anarchic, an untidy mass of competing peoples, states, and cities whose variety is difficult to encompass. This book sketches the changing structures of medieval Europe with great clarity. Much of it is fairly conventional, but the author's emphases and omissions will act as a valuable stimulus to historical debate.

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