The Middle Ages were a time of profound diversity and change," proclaims the dust-jacket of The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England. Presumably this should be true of any millennium; yet the horse that many assumed dead - a uniform and unchanging medieval society - still needs to be flogged.
How then does one go about reducing a thousand years of history to a few hundred pages, while also impressing the reader with "diversity and change", which will make it harder to offer a coherent narrative? The two volumes reviewed here provide contrasting answers which, no doubt by chance, neatly reflect Anglo-French mutual stereotypes (not to say Oxford-Cambridge ones).
Cambridge University Press has created its Illustrated History of the Middle Ages by translating a 1982-83 French trilogy, edited by Robert Fossier, professor of medieval history at the Sorbonne. Its great virtue as a general history is its unifying narrative and its neat division of the period into three. The first volume (350-950) covers a series of false starts to European recovery, and the third (1250-1520) a series of crises that led to the early modern period. The central volume, the last to appear in translation, witnesses the major development of the Middle Ages - the "dawn" and "rise" of Europe.
It was during this period that people gathered in more concentrated settlements, first rural then urban; that a commercialised and diversified economy emerged; that the agnatic family was created; that Europe expanded and unified around a dominant Christian culture; and that enduring political, social and intellectual institutions were created. Although the 16th-century upheaval certainly developed these foundations, it may have changed Europe less than the earlier transformation, and less than historians, dazzled by the Renaissance and Reformation, have traditionally held. Indeed it is because many of these high-medieval norms have now been challenged that historians are more acutely aware of them; hence the emerging stature of this period as, in Robert Bartlett's words, the "making of Europe".
The "transformation" narrative is a firmly French one, but Fossier opts for a socio-economic version of it: the common focus on the "feudal" transformation in terms of the aristocracy and power is displaced by putting the peasantry at the centre of the picture. For instance, where others attribute the geographical and agricultural expansion of Europe to aristocratic energy and enterprise, Fossier and Jean-Pierre Poly (in a chapter on the year 1000) assert that it was free peasants who initiated the movement.
Although the nobles are given distinctly short shrift (even gratuitously sniped at) and western politics is relegated to brief sections, the overall effect is of a broad and detailed panorama of high-medieval life, especially in Fossier's three central chapters. The survey extends to the East: Byzantium and the Islamic world are given extensive coverage. Alain Ducellier's two chapters on Byzantium are particularly good.
The scope is further broadened by two excellent chapters on the church and culture by Andre Vauchez. Now that it is seen as cultural history, the triumph of Christianity and the church in this period need be neither hailed or hated, but read as the successful "normalisation" and cultural homogenisation of Western Europe. This is an essential piece in the "birth of Europe" jigsaw, and its themes thoroughly infuse the whole book, just as Fossier and Poly bring together the material and the cultural in their accounts of urban and rural life.
There is much to be said for CUP's transmission of a French work to an English-reading audience, but there are associated problems. The almost complete absence of German material is one product of the Francocentric concentration on the region between the Ebro, or even the Loire, and the Rhine. No orientation is given to the student: there is little overt historiographical discussion, only oblique references (not to say snide darts) which require prior knowledge to decode. The contributors are not identified beyond their names. Moreover, this last volume is now 15 years old and, although the dust-jacket asserts that it has been checked and revised, no details are given: although it is evident in the bibliographies, it is hard to see how so many errors of fact and date could have slipped through if the text had been revised at all thoroughly.
Perhaps little of this matters to the general reader on the lookout for a stimulating read, which many chapters certainly provide. But it must be said that the clarity of writing varies considerably: the assumption of (sometimes much) prior knowledge of fact and historiography, the confused direction of much of the prose, and the curious organisation of some chapters can be baffling. One suspects that the translators have done an excellent job, but sometimes against overwhelming odds. Furthermore, it fails to take seriously the project of writing an illustrated history, as opposed to a history decorated with illustrations. The plates are often completely ignored by the text, and a rather narrow range of visual sources is used. It is to be hoped that once the monumental new Cambridge Medieval History is complete, CUP will commission a shorter illustrated version of it, such as C. W. Previte-Orton's version of the previous CMH, to fill this particular slot.
For all that Fossier proclaims the dawning of a new era, he is still unable to identify its causes, but he rejects single mechanistic influences, such as technological or climatic improvement, in favour of more complex internal developments. As a result, the early Middle Ages becomes less a footnote to antiquity, and more an identifiable period with an essential role in the making of modern Europe. While its repeated crises of plague or barbarian, Islamic and Viking incursion held back attempts at recovery, the response to these (notably Charlemagne's) created the essential conditions for the final, and irreversible, flowering.
Such a story offers fewer headlines, but balances change with continuity and allows for a richer and more multi-layered account than over-simplistic periodisation (sometimes evident here) will allow. Since, according to Fossier and Vauchez, the transformation of 1000 only came to fruition in a unified Europe after 1200, pinpointing turning-points is a tricky business.
Perhaps this is a stereotypically English-empiricist reaction to a grand narrative. If so, it is reflected by The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England, which studiously avoids telling any story about England's development over a millennium. Janet Nelson considers the available narratives: Bede's chosen people; the free English capable of surviving the Norman yoke and Stuart tyranny; the precocious nation which would rule the world and teach it democracy; and, latterly, the equally precocious centralised royal state which led the world in government. But she dismisses them in favour of a series of episodes and images, guided by the evidence, which sets a pattern for all the contributions in this volume.
Nigel Saul's discussion of the creation of England and Englishness does offer a light unifying frame for the subsequent chapters, partly through his and other authors' awareness of the continental and British context (although the latter is firmly, if unfashionably, eschewed in the preface as unsuitable for a coherent medieval history).
Nicola Coldstream on the visual arts focuses on the extent to which art was distinctively English or international in style. Derek Pearsall on language and literature inevitably concentrates more on the former; Henrietta Leyser on religion and the church, the latter. Although these authors, as well as Chris Dyer on society and the economy, are given too little space to do full justice to a millennium - the work could surely have been longer - they all include a great deal of specific evidence, often interconnecting in an understated way, and offer a vivid account of their subjects.
The result is a rich tapestry of English medieval society, which brings the reader close to the material and utilises the illustrations (although, Coldstream excepted, there is an inadequate system of reference to plates not located near the relevant text). The general reader will find much of interest, and the student much of use.
The lightness of editorial touch and the variety of approach is particularly evident in the three political chapters. Nelson elegantly compresses the Anglo-Saxon period, managing to consider a wide range of issues and types of evidence on the way. Her "sequence of images" does amount to a coherent narrative, but a nuanced and broad one.
George Garnett focuses firmly on what he regards as the essential developments between 1066 and Magna Carta - the developing relations between kings and barons in terms of both power and ideas, whose fundamental interrelation is central to his thesis. He subtly traces the effect of the manufactured Norman claim on the nature of the new regime, on which basis he explains in turn the strength of kingship under Henry I and Henry II, and its crises under Stephen and John in baronial reaction (if this is a somewhat neo-Roundian line to take on the former). While risking much omission, this approach offers a strong and fascinating -and often new - argument, too rich for justice to be done to it here. (It also provides the student with a usefully clear summary of the work of J. C. Holt and S. F. C. Milsom.) Chris Given-Wilson does not pick up this baton for the later Middle Ages, opting for a broad narrative of events - a "ceaseless litany of war, rebellion, and political infighting". He is particularly good on England's neighbours (in France and Britain) and her wars with them, and he explains everything on the assumption that the reader is a beginner. He also summarises long-term developments, although in focusing on Parliament and gentry participation there is little space for analysis of the nobility, the relationship between central authority and local power, developments in ideas about kingship and the connection between these.
Garnett's and Given-Wilson's chapters therefore have a quite different character, which means no coherent story about the development of the English polity emerges. Yet surely this is one grand narrative that should be told: because it is so continuous, the political history of England both offers a story and retains its relevance. It does not have to be done in a Whiggish way.
In an age newly concerned with the balance between different levels of authority and the accountability of power - whether in devolution to local government, or pooling sovereignty upwards from the nation-state in the European Union - English and British history continue to offer a sounding-board for reflection. Whatever one's views about Britain and Europe, and whatever their place in the next millennium, their histories will retain their fascination, and need to be continually rewritten for some time to come.
Benjamin Thompson is fellow and tutor in medieval history, Somerville College, Oxford.
The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England
Editor - Nigel Saul
ISBN - 0 19 820502 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £ 25.00
Pages - 308