Empires and fringes revisited, but riddle of the hen remains

The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume One

December 1, 2006

For nearly a century, Cambridge University Press has produced a series of volumes devoted to ancient, medieval and modern history, which have tremendous prestige as authoritative and reliable accounts. Planned by J. B. Bury to provide a clear synthesis of historical narrative, with additional chapters on particular topics, they draw on leading experts.

Ancient History (bound in scarlet) was recently revised and extended into the period of Late Antiquity . The New Medieval History (bound in imperial purple) starts in AD500 and covers the entire Middle Ages to join up with the new Modern .

Volume one of The New Cambridge Medieval History was the first planned but is the last to arrive, more than a decade after volume two (1995). In the introduction, the gallant Paul Fouracre describes how he took over the project after the original editor failed to deliver and when the volume was already many years behind schedule. He was able to persuade some contributors to revise their chapters and he added new commissions to cover the biggest gaps, following the more ambitious style manifested in volume three by Timothy Reuter. His introduction presents a neat summary of the recent debate on the transformation of the Roman world and justifies the approach by stressing: "It is always worth revisiting old orthodoxies in the light of new interpretations."

This volume gives much more attention to the fringes of western Europe, Celtic, Northern, Slavic, Byzantine and Islamic than previous editions; it has an extended section on themes and problems, and a solid analysis of the core: France, Germany, England and Spain. Italy misses its Lombard contribution, which leaves a serious gap. Most of the 29 chapters remain devoted to regional developments, which is just as well since the sources available for their interpretation are very patchy and require sophisticated analysis to support any authoritative account. The traditional high standard of synthesis is very noticeable in the two opening chapters on the Roman world (Richard Gerberding) and the Barbarian invasions (Guy Halsall), which set the scene most helpfully.

In all such volumes, however, the quality of chapters is inevitably uneven. The brilliant analysis of the rise of Islam (Carole Hillenbrand) and the mini-kingdoms of the early Celts (Wendy Davies) is not matched throughout. Part one opens with a miserable survey of the Eastern Empire (Andrew Louth) in which Justinian's era is reduced to a question of whether the emperor had a "grand design" and, if so, was it successful? The negative answer spares only the codification of Roman law from censure. Although many other chapters put Procopius's Secret History to good use, here there is little to excite, and no mention of the delights of epigrams from the Greek Anthology , for example.

By part two, the empire has become Byzantine. But the only contribution it makes to early medieval history covered in the volume is theological and heretical. Even here, despite the successful ending of Monotheletism by the Sixth Oecumenical Council of 680, and the participation of papal legates at the following Quinisext Council of 692, there is no discussion of the pentarchy (rule of the five great patriarchs: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem) that underlays such meetings.

Neglect of the overarching methods of sustaining Christian unity is deepened in the thematic chapter on Church structure and organisation (Georg Scheibelreiter), which dismisses the councils as "only superficially concerned with the modest Christianity of the West". Later this singular is corrected to a sense of many Christianities, which is surely more accurate.

The plurality of "micro-Christendoms" that developed in the early Middle Ages is reinforced by the excellent analysis of Christianisation (Ian Wood). But bishops of Rome certainly considered themselves the heirs of St Peter with a superior status, however frequently challenged, and therefore with responsibility for all the Christians in the West. Conciliar activity remained essential to church government, as is clear from analysis of the councils held in Visigothic Spain (A. Barbaro and M. I. Loring).

But the Quinisext, or Council in Trullo (so called because it was held in the palace under the dome, troullos), is totally misrepresented in this volume. The 102 canons it drew up were clearly directed at inappropriate customs that had crept into Christian practice since the 5th century: some derived from Roman traditions of fasting and the celibacy of priests, but many more were directed against Armenian Christian practices, Jewish traditions, popular superstitions and innovations imposed by "barbarian"

occupation (probably a reference to the Muslim expansion into Christian areas). Yet the council is characterised here as "a declaration of war on the Western Church led by the Pope", and its guiding principle is identified as "conscious opposition to Rome".

There is no evidence of the more balanced view that emerged from a conference held in Rome to mark the 1,300th anniversary of the council, papers from which were edited by George Nedungatt and Michael Featherstone and published in 1995. And there is no mention of Pope Constantine, who travelled to the East in 710 to be reconciled with Justinian II and to sign the decrees.

The great transformation of the Roman world that traces the spread of Christian faith is only one of the major themes of this volume. Another is the retention, development and flowering of "ancient wisdom" in encyclopaedic Christian forms. Jacques Fontaine contributes a masterly overview, focusing on Cassiodorus, the two Gregorys (bishops of Rome and of Tours), Isidore of Seville and the Venerable Bede, in order to demonstrate the importance of the teaching of grammar, the collection and correct copying of books and the adaptation of classical learning to Christian ends. Again, there is welcome emphasis on different Christianities and the ways in which educated preachers adapted their teaching to instruct illiterate - "which does not mean uncivilised" - audiences.

A third and very fundamental transformation hinges on ethnographic and demographic changes that feature in clear analyses of the non-Roman peoples who came to occupy the West and large parts of the East. The Britons, Irish, Picts, Slavs and Scandinavians are all given attention, and the position of the Jews is clarified (Michael Toch). Three myths - of Jewish ubiquity, of their commercial hegemony and domination of the early medieval slave trade - are put to rest. The common source of monarchy and the importance of kings is brilliantly demonstrated in a wide-ranging chapter by the much-missed Patrick Wormald. Whatever their origins, the new rulers of the early medieval world aspired to kingly status and the trappings of regal power.

Finally, chapters on the shift from a Mediterranean-based, long-distance trade (Simon Loseby) to the Northern seas (Stéfane Lebecq), and an interesting contribution by Mark Blackburn on money and coinage, document the economic transformation of the Roman world. Art and architecture receive appropriate surveys in which the richer East, with greater resources and patrons, is elegantly presented by Leslie Brubaker, in contrast with the poorer West (Ian Wood). The wealth of Byzantine art forms and products goes some way to correcting a general idea that the 7th century constituted a Dark Age in Byzantium. But overall it is unfortunate that this volume has failed to integrate the influence of the eastern empire in the growth of Western Europe; and at numerous points an outdated prejudice against Constantinople is uncritically reproduced, for instance with reference to the death of Boethius.

Good maps, essential to place unfamiliar names into an early medieval framework, and eight figures (line drawings) amplify the few photographs, some of which are very grey rather than black and white. The bibliography is irritatingly incomplete; some chapters cite no publications of the 21st century. As in all NCMH volumes, there is just one colour plate, which serves as frontispiece.

Here is a puzzle. For volume one, the golden hen and chicks from the Cathedral Treasury at Monza was chosen. It is identified possibly as a gift from Pope Gregory the Great to the Lombard Queen Theudelinda; the two had exchanged letters, and Gregory is known to have sent her exquisite book covers made in a similar style to this "barbarian" mastery of gold and garnets. But this is no toy. No dimensions are given, but this disk is 40cm in diameter and the hen stands cm high. Why is it so large? And what is the significance of the seven chicks pecking at the gold ground? Although there are several references to Theudelinda and Gregory, no clue is offered as to its meaning. Perhaps the missing chapter on the Lombards would have made all clear.

Judith Herrin is professor of Late Antique and Byzantine studies, King's College London.

The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume One: c. 500-c. 700

Author - Paul Fouracre
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 979
Price - £100.00
ISBN - 0 521 36291 1

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