Kings, knights and accountants

The New Cambridge Medieval History
April 4, 2003

The appearance of a weighty and elegant tome such as this, traditional in its design and scholarly in its presentation, makes one pause and reflect on the state of ambitious academic publishing projects more generally. In a decade that has seen a decline in the publication of historical monographs, a fall in the number of students of history in British universities and the triumph of popular surveys of British history on television, where does a volume such as this fit in? Some 1,110 pages, cased in sections and 36 chapters, covering a single century of European history - who can this be aimed at? It may offer an occasion for celebration, as with the survival of any species doomed to extinction, but is there more to be welcomed? Do students have the attention span to read what the authors have so expertly confected and the publishers so carefully produced?

Like other volumes in the New Cambridge Medieval History, this edition is above all a series of essays tracing the life of polities: kingdoms, city states, the papacy and empire. These close studies of polities are prefaced by 12 short thematic chapters, on religion, education, rural and urban societies, family and trade, chivalry, court life, court art, architecture and vernacular literature. It is clear that real synthesis was attempted by the authors of these initial chapters, and the prose is, on the whole unencumbered by overspecialised detail. These essays are followed by the 24 "political" chapters. It is a sign of the transmutations of the late-20th century that the Baltic and central Europe are well represented, and that the British Isles are covered in five chapters offering expertise on each of their constituent parts: two on England, and one each on Wales, Scotland and Ireland (Gascony, though not part of the British Isles, was held by the English crown, and ill fits into the scheme). The volume is well-produced and is accompanied by maps and genealogical tables, though the quality of illustrative reproductions is disappointing: the frontispiece (Simon Martini's panel of St Louis of Toulouse crowning Robert of Anjou) is the sole colour image. Readers can surely expect current technology to brighten up and convey more accurately the palate in which political and spiritual power were visualised.

The overarching picture that arises from these learned articles is one of hectic and increasingly sophisticated attempts at rule, at bureaucratic management, at extraction of wealth through a variety of modes of taxation in order to support the machinery of government and the lifestyles of those in charge. Be it Richard II in England, Wales and Ireland (engagingly described by Caroline Barron) or Pope John XXII in Avignon (incisively presented by Patrick Zutshi) or even the masters of the Teutonic Order in a more muted fashion, rulers headed vast administrative systems and inhabited lavish courts, maintaining European networks of diplomatic, dynastic and financial activities. Communication was facilitated by the busy routes - waterways and roads - of Europe, which saw the movement of merchants, warriors, pilgrims and diplomats, who expected to be fed, lodged and protected within the cities and trading posts along the way (Jean-Pierre Leguay reflects effectively on urban life).

This period saw the perfection of safe conduct (an embryonic passport), of mutual agreements for alien merchants, of double-entry book-keeping, of insurance notes and banknotes and spectacles (an impressively gritty chapter by Peter Spufford surveys the dizzying movement of goods and bullion throughout Europe).

All of these underpinned the work of government and rule - that is the provision of justice, defence and offence, and the maintenance of rituals of power and governance that displayed the worth and the wealth of the polity (as demonstrated in Paul Binski's masterly, but all-too-short, survey of court patronage). Be it Venice or Paris, trade and finance and display were linked, and courtiers as well as legislators were often involved intimately in it: be it the cloth merchants of Florence (whose fortunes are penetrated here by Louis Green), the magnates of England whose wealth was increasingly tied in the 14th century to the wool trade, or the Neapolitan crown, whose fortunes were so affected by the collapse of the Bardi and Peruzzi banks (as argued by David Abulafia).

Concurrently, urban interest and expertise contributed to political discussion and practice through the variety of forms of representation maintained in England, France, Iberia and the Imperial territories, just as it set the tone of the politics of Italian cities and Imperial Reichstädte .

Most of this is well known, and several of the articles elegantly expound with fresh exemplification transitions and novelties that are familiar to the scholar but will be appreciated by students and by teachers when developing new subjects. The volume contains few contributions that owe much to innovative approaches to history, but the articles are well versed in current discussions, as in Nick Havely's lucid and entertaining chapter on vernacular literature.

If not a mine of new material or the product of new approaches, what is the volume's strength? It is in the meticulous work of mediation that it performs, between a vast literature in European languages to which most readers, and most historians, no longer have access. It is less likely these days that the medieval historian should have not only good Latin, French and German, but a working knowledge of Italian and Spanish, as was the case in the last century among English and American scholars.

The volume is well served by authoritative and much-needed chapters on the Iberian Peninsula (Alan Forey and Peter Linehan), on the Holy Roman empire (by Peter Herde and Ivan Hlavácek), and on Russia (by Nancy Shields Kollmann) and the Ottomans (by I. Metin Kunt). An extraordinary array of historical research has been distilled, and from it have emerged the chapters as well as the sectional bibliographies that appear at the end of the volume.

Like all acts of translation, something is lost in the immediacy of encounter with the historical idiom of another scholarly community. But for those of us who teach European history and who are committed to embedding the past of the British Isles within a European context, the service is enormous. This is particularly evident in the articles of parts three and four ("The church and politics", "Northern and Eastern Europe") but also in the articles of part one ("General themes"). The result is a picture of Europe that is broad and varied. Student readers using it intensively will recognise in it the forces and languages and some of the identities that are vying and will come together to shape the expanding European Union during their own lifetimes.

This type of geographical inclusion fulfils some of the hopes of medieval historians of the last century who envisaged a histoire totale that might provide Europeans with a sense of the shared destinies shaped by landscape and climate, agrarian patterns and demographic change. Marc Bloch and the annalistes hoped that a European history would evolve away from "events" and they emphasise the routines of work and reproduction, family, community and belief. It is clearly nonsense to dismiss wars and revolutions as "mere froth", and for this annalistes have been rightly chastised. But their insistence that ideas on fundamental aspects of human existence - family, kinship, good and evil, sin and redemption, gender and attitudes to the land and to other species - are at least as important. It is these aspects of the 14th century, which pertained to every person, high or low, that elude this volume. The authoritative chapter on the family by Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, the survey of religious currents by Jeremy Catto and the fresh sketch of rural life by Paul Freedman contain insights and indicate problems that might have informed all other sections of this carefully edited tome. This is not to detract from the achievements of the volume, but rather to signal a historiographical challenge that sees the political in the workings of home and community as well as in the city and state, and which appreciates the interlocking of ideas and symbols in the many areas of life so expertly described here. Like all good history, this whets the appetite, presenting current knowledge and signalling new challenges.

Miri Rubin is professor of medieval and early modern history, Queen Mary, University of London.

The New Cambridge Medieval History: Vol VI c.1300-c.1415

Editor - Michael Jones
ISBN - 0 521 36290 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £95.00
Pages - 1,110

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