Kingdoms, principalities and city states:one history of the 15th century

The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume VII
January 7, 2000

The university system in 15th-century Europe ought to be instantly recognisable to anyone involved in higher education today. The number of universities doubled; many were under-

resourced and a few were even forced to close; too many graduates were chasing too few jobs. A new and potentially disruptive form of cultural studies (humanism) entered the curriculum; and academics found that a new technology (the printing press), far from revolutionising the circulation of ideas, simply skewed publishing towards a populist and commercial market.

Such comparisons are entertaining; they are also, ultimately, vacuous.

The new trend in medieval studies is towards alterity: to locate and articulate the otherness of medieval culture and to stress the difference between its priorities and those of later ages. The 15th century has often been acknowledged as the most difficult to characterise: both before and after Huizinga, it has hovered uncomfortably in a twilight world between the Black Death and the Reformation, between the medieval and the modern.

As a result, the century comes down to us as a series of visualised fragments: Mount Tabor, Joan of Arc, the fall of Constantinople, Botticelli's Primavera , Richard III, Columbus, the Kremlin. They are all, not surprisingly, contained within Christopher Allmand's new survey of the 15th century. In a series of elegantly written and richly textured sketches, this large book provides some 32 chapters on the material, cultural and political condition of late medieval Europe. The task has been immense and the product is testimony to the editorial commitment that has sustained it in moments when others would surely have faltered and fallen.

In terms of its apparatus - and its weight - there can be little doubt that the volume provides what the jacket blurb calls "reliable, detailed history". In some senses, indeed, it achieves much more. It exposes the severe economic recession inherited from the 14th century and suffered by most of Europe until at least the middle of the 15th century. It points to the specialist role of the city of Florence, not merely in the patronage of ideas and art, but also, more idiosyncratically, in the production of spectacles for a truly international market. It exposes (and questions) the North-South divide between a rural, hierarchical and culturally unquestioning northern Europe and an urbanised, politicised, intellectually radical Italy. It stresses over and over the extraordinary implications of the invention of printing. But it does all this if not accidentally then incidentally. For the prime objective of the volume is not cultural, but political, history.

If we ask what Allmand and his contributors actually do with the history of the 15th century, the short answer is that they write the narrative history of states. The majority of the book's 1,000 pages are devoted to what modernists would call national case studies: the kingdoms, principalities and city states of the 15th century are picked off one by one (or, where appropriate, in clusters) and subjected to a form of analysis that privileges the history of great events and of ruling elites. The editor is explicit about his priorities, and the decision to commission the first two chapters from Jean-Philippe Genet and Wim Blockmans, the general editors of the recent Origins of the Modern State project, provides a clear indication of the lines of thinking that lie behind the volume. The agenda seeks to map the 15th-century future: the frontiers, structures and ideals of government that would be inherited by an imminent "modern" age. So much, apparently, for alterity.

In questioning the utility of such approaches, and such potted histories, it is important to acknowledge that some of the essays collected here deserve to make a very real contribution to the teaching and learning of medieval Europe. Those studies that provide the kind of up-to-date syntheses of historical research usually unavailable and inaccessible in the anglophone world undoubtedly offer valuable additions to scholarship: Thomas Riis on Scandinavia and (particularly) Nancy Shields Kollman on Russia are good examples. There is also much to be learned about subjects nearer to home; Jenny Wormald's survey of 15th-century Scotland is a model of thoughtfulness and balance. And the dry wit and sound judgement found in Rosemary Horrox's contribution on England and Anthony Bryer's on Byzantium give new vigour and purpose to old debates. Those who read - and write - the political history of the later Middle Ages will undoubtedly find this volume a valuable resource.

Where the book is on much less secure ground is in its ability to deliver overall coverage of a century of social and cultural change.

Robert Black's interesting analysis of previous scholarship on the intellectual developments of the 15th century might well have provided a more credible and accessible introduction to the volume at large than do the wide-ranging but rather unwieldy contributions of Genet and Blockmans (the latter much extending the normal brief by covering the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries). For it is in the thought world of the period that we seem to approach most closely what it really meant to live in the 15th century. A number of authors in this collection comment suggestively on the important role that historical writing played in defining a sense of temporal, as well as cultural identity, during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Unfortunately, the structure of the book simply does not allow the point to be developed fully: it is only in Paul Crossley's immensely stylish and sophisticated discussion of architecture and painting that we find a really sustained attempt to characterise what for him is ironically a particularly random, if not entirely irrelevant, form of periodisation. There is a fascinating story here, but it remains to be properly told.

In fairness to the series of which it is part, it ought to be stressed that this volume is not, and makes no pretence to be, an encyclopaedia of the 15th century. Yet its neglect of matters that are of fundamental concern to increasing numbers of medieval historians seems curious almost to the point of defiance. The index entry "women" has six references, three of them to the Hussite movement. There are actually a few more buried away in the text, as, for instance, in the mention of Paris schoolmistresses on page 255; but this hardly represents an appropriate coverage. There is no proper discussion of vernacular literatures. Above all, religion and popular culture are given very inadequate and cursory coverage: Francis Rapp's chapter on religious belief and practice is overly rhetorical, hypothetical and reverential - hardly a fair representation of a fundamental (and now increasingly well understood) aspect of the late medieval experience.

If books are products of their time, then collections of essays often end up reflecting the priorities of the period in which they are conceived, rather than published. Since the late 1980s, when the New Cambridge Medieval History was planned and commissioned, much has changed in contemporary life and affected our historical perspectives.

Europe can no longer necessarily be treated as the familiar Latin Christendom to which most of the authors of the thematic chapters in this volume restrict themselves. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto persuasively reiterates the old notion that the Atlantic explorations of the later 15th century were in part at least the consequence of a retreating Christian frontier in the east: it is therefore to events in the Orthodox and Islamic worlds that attention is increasingly drawn.

Post-the latest Balkans war, might it not be more persuasive to suggest that the 15th century began not, as here, with the battle of Agincourt of 1415, but with the battle of Kosovo of 1389?

W. M. Ormrod is director, centre for medieval studies, University of York.

The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume VII: c.1415-c.1500

Editor - Christopher Allmand
ISBN - 0 521 38296 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 1048

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments