Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Oxford History of Medieval Europe

The Middle Ages are commonly seen as a misunderstood, forbidding and bewildering period in human history, often the subject of heated debate between differing schools of thought. One book which offers a modicum of clarity amid the confusion and fog is The Oxford History of Medieval Europe, edited by George Holmes.

To make it more digestible, the book is divided into chapters corresponding to three segments of time, and these periods are then further sub-divided on the basis of what occurred in Southern and Northern Europe within those years. Each chapter is written by a different historian.

The early part of this history tends to focus on the differences between the eastern and western sectors of the Mediterranean, and the two "empires" which dominated it. Of course, the incursions of the barbarians are very much to the fore, but it is pointed out that these arrivals were not always violent in nature, and that tactics of "inducement", or playing one party off against another, sometimes paid off. A fraught and precarious juggling act it must have been, though. I was impressed by the passages which explored the barbarians, and their power structures, customs and so forth.

This period, like most of the Middle Ages, can be fiendishly confusing, because of the numerous overlapping jurisdictions and the proliferation of pacts and deals, but the authors do a reasonable job of cutting through the morass of detail. One is left with an acute impression of the volatility of fortune, as the factions fought for power, influence and survival. 

There are some intriguing sections dealing with the waxing and waning of cities, towns and urban and commercial life generally. Often references are made to archaeological finds to support theories and conclusions.

Of course, the Byzantine Empire is a central part of the story, and this is an aspect which fascinates me. Byzantium is something of an enigma to many, I suspect, but it also has a mystique and an allure. An area which is definitely on my agenda for additional study. Here, we get a vivid idea of how the empire constantly adapted, and managed to weather most of the changes, challenges and upheavals which came its way.

From the early medieval stages in particular, one can arrive at the conclusion that things were much more exciting in the Mediterranean than they were further north. This may be true, but I wonder how much the true picture has been distorted by the disparity in the quantity (and quality) of available documented records? There is recurring emphasis on the uneven nature of events and changes, with much cautioning against subscribing to the over-simplistic assessments which are so often served up.

It is noted once or twice that whilst all the glittering and "glamorous" political manoeuvrings and advances in commerce and culture were happening, the vast majority of the population of Europe was enduring a fairly miserable and oppressed existence. The "headline" events and pastimes were the preserve of small, privileged elites. The one-upmanship and jostling between and amongst those elites was often at the expense of the downtrodden and the disenfranchised. The latter could only look on in bemusement, unable to predict with any certainty whether they would be ruled by comparatively enlightened masters, or by despots.

In lamenting the apparent degeneration or decay of some elements of culture and civilization, do we need to bear in mind that communications were almost non-existent, that word of progress and enlightenment did not spread, and that science and knowledge were still mistrusted in some quarters? The world was not yet assuming any kind of philosophical or ethical homogeneity.

Naturally, the Vikings get a mention in this history. I would have liked more about them and their exploits, even taking into account the format of this book. What coverage there is seeks to present a balanced view of their motives and their record, and gives a genuinely Europe-wide perspective on the effects of their arrival and settlements.

There is some admirable analysis of societal structures and hierarchies. This got me thinking. Back then, real freedom and social mobility were restricted to but a few, and those in the "lower" strata possessed few of the tools to attempt a remedy.  These days, with better education and modern communications, do the masses accept their lot too readily, or are they correct in recognizing that it will always be thus? Much mention of huge swathes of land (and attendant privileges) being handed out to certain "special interests".  Some would opine that after that the genie was out of the bottle, and that the root of many an ill was planted.

For the most part, I found the Italian peninsula, and the areas directly adjacent to it, to constitute the most fascinating arena here. Many factions collided there, and struggled for pre-eminence,or cobbled together compromises. The developments in that part of the world also offered a glimpse into the future - merchants, "republics", original thinking, more secular culture.

There is a relatively short, but highly readable, examination of the whole city-state phenomenon, its vitality, its deficiencies and its implications. However imperfect and tenuous they were, this was another foretaste of how much of wider Europe was destined to develop. Rightly or wrongly, I perceived that the authors were seeking to imply that the city-states were not as "progressive" as some commentators might have made out. Towards the end, there is a look at cultural and intellectual trends in the later Middle Ages.

This book has prompted me to consider reading more extensively on topics as diverse as Charlemagne, Byzantium and the Italian city-states. Overall, it is an entertaining, well-pitched and illuminating overview of a vast and intricate picture.

No comments:

Post a Comment