With the terminal decay of the Idea of Progress in both Whig and Marxist incarnations comes a growing recognition that much of what once seemed most characteristic of the modern world’s experience is not especially new. Europeans have been behaving in the same way for most of Europe’s existence. Europe’s Middle Ages, the label long attached by a quirk of historiographical circumstance to the era of its youth, are acquiring a ‘relevance’ that architects of the National Curriculum should find it increasingly hard to deny. Ordered governments with at least elements of state consciousness had been formed in parts of the West before 1000 – especially in England, where the proportion, though not of course the numbers, of those living in settlements sufficiently concentrated to warrant the name of ‘town’ was as high in 1086 as it was ever to be before the 18th century. From the 11th century onwards, the West witnessed explosions in its population, in the productivity of its cereal (though not pastoral) farmers, and of its textile (though not heavy) industry, in its literary and academic output, in the scale of its major buildings, and in the documentation generated by its bureaucrats, which were at least as spectacular in relation to preceding patterns as developments in the 16th century. In particular, the onset of the aggressive expansion which is Europe’s most fateful hallmark lies not in 1492 but in that period from 950 to 1350 which is the subject of Robert Bartlett’s remarkable book.
Bartlett has written an absorbing account of how a common culture emerged throughout what now regards itself as Europe. His subject is the central Middle Ages, because it was then that Europe assumed its present shape. Between 950 and 1300 the Latin Church set up episcopal branches throughout Scandinavia and as far east as the Carpathians and the Gulf of Finland. Westerners drove Muslims from all but the southern tip of Spain, from Sicily and from the other Mediterranean islands, as well as, temporarily, from Palestine. They colonised huge tracts of the land of pagan Slavs, Balts and Finns to the East, while more or less forcibly intruding on that of Christian Celts to the West. They even, though again only for a time, seized control of Greece and Constantinople. Expansion was fronted and energised by an ‘aristocratic diaspora’ from the one-time heartland of the Carolingian Empire in Northern France and Western Germany. It was given depth by peasants and traders, migrating by hundreds of thousands into new villages and new towns under aristocratic patronage and protection. The instruments of expansion were heavily-armed horsemen, castles and siege-engines (‘Walter Scott and Hollywood had it right’). Cavalrymen were dressed in iron at a time when iron had up to fifty times the value relative to what it has today, a ‘staggering investment’ indeed. The overall story is of a ‘dramatic reversal of the pattern of victimisation’. A West that had soaked up punishment for centuries now dished it out in its turn.
Bartlett’s is by no means just an epic of European conquest. ‘As important is the process of cultural change which interwove with the more simply military tale and was not merely a function of it.’ Yet the features of the new European persona that he skilfully picks out are resolutely practical. The coins and charters penetrating to all corners of the West are ‘small, durable objects’, whose ‘manipulation could be extremely elastic and convenient’. Christendom’s new unity is promoted by carefully cultivated contacts between the aristocracy of the diaspora and reforming Rome. The uniformity that increasingly marked Latin culture is revealed in easily transferable organisational blueprints, such that a new town or Cistercian monastery looked much the same in Spain, Ireland or Livonia. Universities, when they eventually find their niche (three pages at the end of the penultimate chapter), produce a career that shows how higher degrees in the Middle Ages offered all the vocational return on investment demanded by modern scourges of learning for learning’s sake. Bartlett’s is a powerful tale of men on the make; of parvenus who, peasant or prince or Pope, were literally as well as socially new arrivals; of Room at the Fringe, where it was your own business, not ‘Daddy’s’, whose prospects beckoned. Bartlett’s Europeans command respect, even though they embody appetites of which few Europeans are still proud. In many ways, indeed, they have a distinctly transatlantic air about them.
In arguing that these were the decisive centuries for the making of the European experience Bartlett has a harbinger; and a more commanding one it would be difficult to conceive. ‘For a thousand years Europe has been the chief centre of political experiment, economic expansion and intellectual discovery in the world. It gained this position during the period with which we are concerned.’ Thus, the introduction of Sir Richard Southern’s Making of the Middle Ages. Bartlett quoted it in a perceptive recent tribute to Southern, with the rider that ‘every century has its protagonists,’ but ‘those who see the 11th and 12th centuries as a time of particularly significant change may be able to make a better case than most.’ Southern was effectively the first to make this case. Not since Burckhardt had epoch-making change in European history been so decisively charted. It was Southern rather than Charles Homer Haskins, inventor of the term ‘12th-century Renaissance’, who really established that this Renaissance was for most purposes more significant than Burckhardt’s in casting the European mould. He was not much concerned with frontiers, other than in the Crusaders’ eastern Mediterranean. But he gave an unforgettable impression of a society on the move within its own boundaries. Bartlett is one of Southern’s most gifted pupils. The dominating influence of his masterpiece is no surprise.
Southern’s influence extends to two other virtues singled out in Bartlett’s appreciation and subsequently emulated in his book: the grasp of ‘underlying structures’ possessed by a scholar whose chief preoccupations lie in the worlds of mind and spirit – ‘when things can usefully be counted, he counts them’; and the use of ‘the detailed and concrete example ... as characteristic of his work as is the Virgilian simile of Virgil’s’. Being so much less concerned with things ethereal, Bartlett has a still more immediate sense of the concrete. He ‘counts’ to outstanding effect: as when convincingly calculating the higher standard of living allowed by Eastern lords to their colonising peasantry, compared to their Western counterparts. No less impressive is his capacity to deal with contentious issues – the bitterly controverted (because, as such things tend to be in East European historiography, racially loaded) question of whether German colonists brought in a heavier plough than that of the Slav is firmly settled: they did. And he has the same instinct as Southern for conjuring up the grandest of themes in the most vivid of vignettes: the half-dozen crossbow-bolts found in skulls from excavated Baltic battlefields; the family tree linking up the reforming Pope Stephen IX, the lower Lorraine dukes who founded the kingdom of Jerusalem, the redoubtable Countess Mathilda of Tuscany, and Count Eustace of Boulogne, who had some right to think that he might have been Edward the Confessor’s heir; there is much, much more of this electrifying stuff.
To compare any book with The Making of the Middle Ages is to be about as flattering as is possible. Southern is the acknowledged prince of English-speaking medievalists. Yet it is a comparison that Bartlett is able to sustain. His style, if less limpid and rhythmic, has the same cool clarity. He can run to touches of creative colour, as when pondering the impact of ‘the scratch of the quill, the curl of the parchment and the smell of hot wax’ on two Slav witnesses to the charter confirming the endowment of a new Benedictine monastery in recently converted Pomerania. ‘Basic common sense’ is a commodity which current British political discourse is putting rapidly out of intellectual fashion. Before it is discredited irretrievably, it should be said that Barlett, unlike our political masters, uses it in ways that raise it to a high plane of creative effect. Many of the problems he deals with would tie lesser scholars and their suffering readers into the most Gordian of conceptual knots. One cannot imagine Bartlett ever failing to be understood.
So what are the problems? Central is the occupational hazard of any historian’s attempt to chart revolutionary change: how much was really new? Bartlett does make one uncharacteristically silly remark, and it serves as a lodestone around which some of the difficulties cluster: ‘conquest, in the sense of the permanent replacement of one set of rulers by another, was a high medieval rather than an early medieval phenomenon.’ One wonders how Bartlett explains that he writes a language which originated in the North German coastlands.
For large periods of the early Middle Ages, the European map was more stable than is often realised. But at other times it was subject to hectic change, as new warlords elbowed out those whose martial juices were drying up. One early medieval parallel is especially pertinent. Charlemagne’s conquest of the Saxons was accompanied by forced conversion (and tithe payment), by Frankish settlement, by the foundation of daughter monasteries duly modelled on their mother houses, by written law-codes, by towns of a sort – and by coins and charters. What is the difference between this movement and that which the Saxons themselves would one day unleash on the Slavs? The habitual raiding of early medieval warfare could always become something more systematically serious, as its disruptive effects within the raiders’ own society tore more and more people from their roots and set them searching for new homes under new masters. That is how ninth-century England eventually came to be faced with the prospect of conquest by one-time Viking pirates.
The issue of what was new ties in with the causes of the novelty there was. Bartlett has some of the ‘humility before the deep springs of change’ that he finds in Southern. On the much-debated proposition that the aristocratic expansionism which brought all else in its wake was connected with narrowing of the upper-class family around the male line, ‘no conclusive answer is presently available.’ But this has the makings of a cop-out. As it happens, one of those brain-teasers that give the statistically-minded no trouble but are agony for the unfortunate remainder dictates that whole families can be provided for under any system of succession so long as population levels are generally stable. This presumably applies as much to noble as to peasant households. It suggests that even on a higher social plane prime attention should go to the population growth of high medieval Europe, on which Bartlett has some extremely cogent pages. But he may also be near the nub of the matter when he has the honesty to admit the close similarity between the military retinues of ‘feudal’ Europe and the war-bands of the world of Beowulf. The explosion of the North European aristocracy over much of the known world in the 11th century surely began with an implosion of the structures of public order over much of what had been the Frankish Empire. The consequence was that the bond of lord and man was almost all that was left by way of social cement. The predatory appetites that this form of society had always generated sought wider outlets as they were increasingly canalised at home, with the difference that they were now powered by a demographic boom. Such a model would explain why the highly effective state built up by later Anglo-Saxon kings barely trespassed on its Celtic neighbours; but did, like Wales and Ireland, fall prey to Normans.
It can be suggested that there were three early medieval ages. The first was that of the warrior society, from the fifth to the eighth century, when kingdoms were rapidly established and just as rapidly eliminated by royal war-bands of the Beowulf type. The second was that of the holy society, from the eighth to the 11th century, when rulers and their spokesmen sought to regulate internal behaviour (developing their own cult of uniformity) and to justify external expansion, in terms of the carte blanche that God had given the very similar culture (as they saw it) of Old Testament Israel. In the third phase, from the 11th to the 13th century, came an amalgamation of the characteristics of both earlier periods into an outward movement that fully gratified the impulses of warrior and holy society alike, and that derived its unprecedented impetus from the fact that, as Southern has again said, Europe in the 11th century experienced ‘that moment of self-generating growth for which economists now look so anxiously in underdeveloped countries’. It could be more significant than is suggested by the place, rather late in his book, that Bartlett allots it, that the expansionary parts of Europe had almost ceased to be slavery-based economies by the 11th century, while most of their victims had not.
A contemporary medievalist has observed that when historians fall back on rising population as the explanation of historical developments, you can be quite sure that they have no idea what the real explanation is. But the relevance of demography to Bartlett’s problem is brought out by something to which he might have given more attention than he does. At the end of his book, he gets around to saying what one had long been waiting to hear about the connections, comparisons and contrasts between the medieval and Early Modern ages of expansion, and he says it very well. What is not said, however, and what needs saying, is why the late 15th century saw the resumption of a process that almost ground to a halt in the early 14th. Effective resistance had then at last been encountered. Pagan Lithuania was the largest state in 14th-century Europe – a point, Bartlett notes, that ‘is sometimes overlooked’. The Baltic Crusade no longer made headway. Gaelic Ireland bottled up the English within their Pale. The Cross was finally driven from the Holy Land. Greeks retook Constantinople. A pocket of Islam was left in Granada, to be mopped up in 1492. Meanwhile, three great European powers were humiliated in the same two decades by an inability to finish off small-fry opposition: Philip IV of France by the Flemings, Edward I of England by the Scots, and Leopold of Habsburg by the Swiss. There is of course a screamingly obvious reason why expansion should have halted in 1350, Bartlett’s terminus: Europe then lost over a third of its population to the Black Death. But signs of ossification were there decades earlier. The implication is that the European boom was petering out before bubonic plague put it into reverse. There is some evidence of pressure on available resources from around 1300. If so, it must have been the persistence of growth that had pushed Latin Europe’s frontiers outwards in the previous 250 years.
‘It might be said of Southern’s Middle Ages,’ Bartlett fairly observes, ‘that they are too limpid and serene ... Absent from the scene are crippling malnutrition, heavy infant mortality, endemic diseases, savage cruelty, craven terror and endless labour.’ By and large, they are absent from Bartlett’s book too. He clearly sees the treatment of the Irish by the colonising English as one blemish – though, in distinguishing between attitudes to Muslims in the Mediterranean orbit and to pagans in the Eastern zone, he does not explain why the Christian Irish were treated like the latter and very much worse than the former. Otherwise, it is apparently enough that Slavs, Finns and Balts sought to emulate the technology which overran them, and to adopt the faith which was its inspiration. Would it be unjust to detect a hint here of John Roberts’s argument that, because the Third World generally chooses to wear Western suits and fire Western guns, we need not regret the price that they paid for European colonialism? Bartlett does note that the 20th century has incurred some of the costs of the achievements of the 12th: whether in Ireland, or east of the Oder-Neisse line, or even (he does not say this) in the West’s wider experience of an Islam that has not forgotten that Holy War was a Muslim (if it was not an Israelite) invention. Almost everywhere that Bartlett charts the impact of the 12th-century West, there would, one day, be a revanche. When Europeans next went on the rampage, after 1492, they did not make the mistake of leaving societies that would ever again kick back.