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22.06.10 Lazzarini (ed.), The Later Middle Ages

22.06.10 Lazzarini (ed.), The Later Middle Ages

We might really want to say, finally the late Middle Ages are gaining their full attention with this collection of excellent articles, mostly by historians. Much research on that period has appeared over the last decades, and we have resolutely removed ourselves from the older concept of the late Middle Ages being a period of nothing but decline, crisis, and catastrophe. Of course, the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, etc. were all major conflicts and problems, but that is only one side of the coin. As all contributors to the present volume underscore in one way or the other, the late Middle Ages witnessed an incredible emergence of new discoveries and technologies, and there is little doubt today that the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries really proved to be the springboard for the rise of early modernity. After all, whenever a crisis happens, a new development results, as best illustrated by the long-term criticism of the Church (anticlericalism), which ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation in 1517 and following. There is a consistent thread throughout the entire work, emphasizing the importance of the formation of early modern states or nations, which made so many other developments possible, whether public and private financing, economic trade, technical inventions, new architectural and artistic accomplishments, the transformation of agriculture and of seafaring.

The present book does not fully constitute a new beginning, but certainly a wonderful synthesis of the latest trends in historiographical and other research pertaining to that period. The publisher decided to make it student-oriented, meaning that there are no endnotes (with a few inexplicable exceptions), only bibliographical summaries. Those are, unfortunately, very hard to plow through, as valuable as those long lists, compacted together into a kind of narrative overview, will be for further research. The volume concludes with a detailed chronology and index. Though the latter is quite extensive, there are just too many topics, names, titles of works, or buildings to list which are not included. This makes using this “textbook” a bit problematic.

The authors present their findings in a mostly factual manner, refraining from engaging with primary or even secondary material, though both are implied in the background. All this means that the reader is confronted with rather absolutist statements, and not with a critical discourse. But can we take all those comments simply at face value? Obviously, that is the specific intention by the editor and the publisher. This has certainly didactic advantages, but it also undermines somewhat our effort to give our students a sense of the actual research behind the conclusions offered here. What is sorely missing, hence, is a list of primary and secondary material which the reader should consult along with the studies here. The bibliography at the end simply overpowers anyone who endeavors to probe the information presented in this book.

After Isabella Lazzarini’s generalizing introduction, in which she highlights the new phenomena of complexity, social variety, ambiguity, multiplicity, spirituality, and adaptability (all somewhat vague notions), there follow seven extensive articles that address these topics: 1. Power, government, and political life (John Watts); 2. The economy (Stephan R. Epstein with Christopher Dyer; 3. The church (I would always capitalize this word for the entire institution, whereas a church is the individual building) and religious life (Robert Swanson); 4. Culture and the arts (Alexander Lee); 5. Space, time, and the world (Matthew Kempshall); 6. Society, family, and gender (Catherine Kovesi); and 7. Global Middle Ages, with a focus on the eastern world (Catherine Holmes).

One could engage with many of the claims or statements offered here, but this would be rather pointless because the authors attempt, quite successfully, to summarize and to highlight the most important features, ideas, works, events, and people. Alexander Lee, for instance, considers these sub-topics for “Culture”: patronage and consumption (meaning rather: reception), the literary and the vernacular, humanism, architecture, the visual arts, music, and printing. He correctly emphasizes the great growth of literacy during the late Middle Ages, which also led to the rise of a new book market, which in turn was further promoted by the printing press. We are given a list of some of the most important poets in England, Germany (Sebastian Brant’s name is misspelled here and also in the index), and very fleeting references to the literary scene in Bohemia and Italy, but we learn nothing about the full extent of late medieval literary history (nothing about Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, etc.). As to architecture, we hear about cases in England, Germany, Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula, but nothing in France or Denmark, e.g., late medieval art is covered by Italy alone, whereas the focus on music is broader. The information on the printing press is more comprehensive, but the latest research, here not considered, has also pointed out that the medieval tradition in vernacular literature actually continued well into the sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries.

The editor deserves particular credit for having also included unusual but certainly highly important topics such as space, time, and the world; women, gender, sodomy; and finally, the global Middle Ages. Combined with the bibliographical lists at the end, the general reader will find him/herself in the excellent company of learned authors and can simply draw from the wealth of data presented here. However, this volume obviously targets only Anglophone readers; even essential studies published in English but by Dutch, Spanish, or German presses are virtually absent.

Maybe because I am an outsider here, I found the contribution by Stephan R. Epstein on the economy, including technology, market formation, banking, and specialization most illuminating, especially because he moves away from the usually rather dry and limited perception of what changed in those regards during the late Middle Ages. He includes many other, certainly very important aspects that normally do not attract much attention by more traditional historians (grain markets, regional fairs, new textile industries, technological transfer via migration, public clocks, mass diffusion of linen, innovative processing of foodstuff, water locks for inland traffic, and the emergence of patent law). Unfortunately, trade and commerce in the North Atlantic, on the Iberian Peninsula, in the Slavic countries, and on the Balkans are virtually ignored here. Of course, for such a textbook, compromises had to be made, so I can only point out where some expansion might have been advisable.

Most exciting might be Catherine Holmes’s article on the Global Middle Ages, which is determined primarily by historical perspectives and focuses, unfortunately, mostly on the East. Both here and in many other cases, scholars engaging with the Global Middle Ages confuse the theoretical approach inviting, so to speak, the various power players across the globe to the same table, giving them respect as significant entities, and the fundamental issue with globalism. The latter addresses not simply a kaleidoscope of various elements, like puzzle pieces of various large pictures (note the plural), but also investigates global connections, networks, and exchanges. Holmes attempts to address both approaches, indicating, for instance, that the Black Death, climate change, and demographic crises affected almost the entire world. It seems problematic to establish the thirteenth century as a general “period of expansion and consolidation of state power” (199), as if the kingdoms of Mali or Dai Viet (northern Vietnam) had anything in common. Global history is apparently equated with comparative history, although those are very different concepts.

On the other hand, global trade and exchange of information would be a solid criterion, but Holmes tends to question its importance since the fall of the Mongol empire (here I would recommend strongly the 2018 study by Eugeny Khvalkov.) [1] Incorporating the history of India will make many heads spin, whereas the author then returns to the eastern Mediterranean where indeed a certain degree of globalism can be detected. This is surely not the last word on this topic, since countless questions remain unanswered (or have not even been raised). Altogether, however, Holmes, like all the other contributors, presents her case impressively and allows us to explore the topic further based on much historical research. The study of globalism will certainly profit in the future from the inclusion of art-historical, literary, religious, economic, and other data.

Altogether, this fairly thin pocket-size book lends itself exceedingly well for an advanced undergraduate or even graduate course on the late Middle Ages. A major period is thus receiving full attention, which was long overdue. Much could be added, of course, but space limitations always require selections and compromises. The end result is certainly impressive, so I would strongly recommend The Later Middle Ages both as a college textbook and as a valuable reference work for scholars working in this period.



1. Eugeny Khvalkov, The Colonies of Genoa in the Black Sea Region: Evolution and Transformation (London: Routledge, 2018).