A century neither 'pre' nor 'post'

The New Cambridge Medieval History
September 13, 2002

The medieval centuries have sometimes been analysed in terms of the supposed forgetting or remembering of classical culture. In these terms, the 10th century has found itself occupying a section of that lacuna separating the Carolingian renaissance from its 12th-century counterpart. It is not the business of a series such as the New Cambridge Medieval History to view these centuries from such a biased perspective. Nevertheless, the 10th century still suffers the blight of being seen as an age of disunity and obscurity. The danger lies in thinking simply in terms of political failure: do we blame the Ottonians for failing to emulate the Carolingians, or do we attribute inherent instability to the earlier dynasty?

In terms of evidence, the 10th century is reasonably covered in some areas, such as Byzantium, which is not to deny the significance, for example, of the cessation of the Carolingian cartulary tradition from the end of the 9th century. Hagiography provides extensive resources, if only we can decide how to use it. Material culture does not emerge with full clarity from the present state of archaeological inquiry - but the textual, rather than pictorial, focus of this series, exacerbates this problem. Peter Johanek examines towns, for instance, but where are the detailed maps and the images? Despite an attempt to examine the countryside, the most clearly emerging features of the material world of the 10th century are the so-called art objects: liturgical artefacts and, above all, manuscripts. But you would do best to head for specialist studies if you are interested in these rather than rely on the small cache of black-and-white illustrations provided here to supplement his survey article.

If the evidential coverage of this book is a little uneven, it should be made clear that the series is not really intended to provide that kind of overview. Rather, it is a re-tread of the original Cambridge Medieval History . And the problems that dogged the original exercise haunt the new version. Is this series meant to serve as introductory textbooks? Is it meant to represent a synthesis of the latest academic thinking? Or is it primarily a symbolic undertaking, a sort of monumental statement of belief in the significance of medieval European history?

These are not new questions. Reviewers of the original Cambridge Medieval History raised some of the same concerns, as did some potential contributors. These matters were exacerbated by the context in which the volumes came to publication, as has been described by contributor Peter Linehan. Problems began with the original editor, J. B. Bury, a "scholar who was not attracted to the Middle Ages and who was temperamentally unfitted for the commission". He laid down a rigid framework of 30-page chapters on topics that seemed to have more to do with 19th-century nation-states than they did with the conditions of the period under consideration. The situation was then made dramatically worse by the first world war and its aftermath, the key result of which was that German contributors were unceremoniously dropped.

The effect of this can be seen in the equivalent volume to that under review. Volume three of the Cambridge Medieval History appeared in 1922 as the laboured result of a series of editorial voices. Titled Germany and the Western Empire , it was finally entrusted overwhelmingly to British and French scholarship. But even if the most appropriate writers of the age had been used, it would still be massively outdated. The introduction states:

"It is chiefly of kings, of battles and great events, or of purely technical things like legal grants or taxes of which alone we can speak... We know but little of the general life of the multitude on its social and economic side. For that we must argue back from later conditions."

The basic framework of the current volume is still political history, although some laudable attempts have been made to reclaim the world of everyday life. The agenda is more relativistic, less positivistic, than the earlier volume, which is in many ways a strength: consistency is less vital today than the importance of showing a range of attitudes and positions. Part one contains chapters on general themes such as Robert Fossier on the countryside and Johanek on markets and towns. This section continues with an impressive parade of authorities, particularly Janet Nelson on government and Rosamond McKitterick on the church. It provides wide thematic coverage, although a chapter on gender and spirituality would have been welcome. And something on the Jews.

After this, the text moves on to a more conventional survey, focusing primarily on "post-Carolingian" Europe and then on "non-Carolingian" Europe. These are problematic notions that imply, first, that the Carolingian empire was central to the 9th century across Europe and, second, that the 10th century was marked chiefly by that empire's dissolution. The inclusion of England in the post-Carolingian sphere is intriguing. It can, perhaps, be best explained by the drive to integrate British and continental historical narratives.

Conventional political accounts, with a minimum of source analysis and engagement with debate, are provided, often excellently, by a number of the contributors, such as Eckhard Mueller-Mertens. Other chapters, which aim at a more ambitious synthesis, sometimes suffer from trying to be too wide ranging within the constraints of the volume. Attempts to include alternative perspectives also run against the force of conventional constraints. Thus, we find Simon Keynes's chapter putting the spotlight on the English in England at the expense of the Danes and Celts. This may have something to do with the fact that the history of these peoples for much of the 10th century was examined in volume two of the series, even though this supposedly covers the 8th and 9th centuries. Scandinavia c. 700-1066 is also in volume two. This displacement from volume two is curious since the break-up of the Carolingian empire has conventionally been seen partly in the context of the Viking raids and settlement by Scandinavians.

Ultimately, some of the most fascinating debates in this volume centre on regionalism versus centralisation. Jean Dunbabin contends that the West Frankish kingdom had real significance through the 10th century, while David Bates argues that "genuine state-building is typical of the 10th-century aristocracy/princes".

Timothy Reuter's introduction, looking at the enigma of the 10th century, is a rewarding avenue into such debates. He concludes with the following sentiment: "It is this paradoxical relationship between coherence and fragmentation which in the last resort dominates most readings of the long 10th century... The reader of the chapters that follow will do well to bear this paradox in mind, and will also do wellI to think of the period not as 'pre' or 'post' anything, but rather as of itself."

I have great sympathy for such a view and it is, therefore, all the more surprising to find part two, the core of the volume, titled "Post-Carolingian Europe". It is as though, in its paradoxical coherence and fragmentation, the scope and organisation of this volume has come to echo its fascinating if enigmatic subject.

Dominic Janes is director of academic programmes, Foundation for International Education, London.

The New Cambridge Medieval History: Vol 3 c.900-c.1024

Editor - Timothy Reuter
ISBN - 0 521 36447 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £80.00
Pages - 863

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