More in the pew than on the pike

The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume Four, c1024-c1198
July 7, 2006

After 80 years, Cambridge University Press has replaced its flagship series on the Middle Ages. The result has taken a decade to publish. The reception of The New Cambridge Medieval History has been a mixed one, of praise and brickbat. Volume Seven (the last in the series), but published out of sequence in 1998, exemplified this. Where one reviewer, Jeremy Catto, was laudatory - it "will enrich historical literature for a long time" - another, Colin Richmond, was excoriating: "Too much of the writing is old, old and tired narrative"; "This... is a book to be used and dismissed"; "Calling itself 'New' is not enough."

Given its sheer scale and size - 1,000 years over 8,000 pages, covering all of Europe and the Middle East - the NCMH , Volume Four, c 1024-c 1198, reviewed here, is bound to exhibit its fair share of flaws. Despite its vast proportions, its main shortcoming is that the extent of its geographical coverage means many subjects lack sufficient depth. This was the era of the Crusades, yet editor Jonathan Riley-Smith modestly allocates himself only 30 pages on the subject.

The grand history of the original Cambridge medieval series is now not quite so grand, but it is still big. Religion, international relations (or European interaction) and politics are the main foci here: popes and kings are still the leading actors on the stage. This volume is not inclined to accommodate new areas of research: the proliferation of gender studies in the past 20 years is not reflected here other than in passing. Women as a topic are barely afforded a dozen pages; almost inevitably, most of this time is spent in the convent. Elisabeth van Houts has criticised Volume Five (published 1999) in the NCMH for this oversight. She has a point, as the series promotes itself as providing the latest academic findings.

Richmond's criticism rings true when he says that the "new" is still the old. The most strikingly different feature of the volume reviewed here - and its main difficulty - is that, unique to the series, it comes in two, equally massive, parts. In every sense - in chronology, bulk and symmetry - it provides the very core of the series; as the editors put it, the period covered is a "fulcrum in the development of the medieval world".

But why two books in one volume, rather than two individual volumes? There seems little convincing rationale for it. The major topics are divided roughly by century, usually addressed by different authors, and then gratingly split by hundreds of pages. The 10th, 13th, 14th and 15th centuries are each afforded their own volume; why not the 11th and 12th?

Part one is thematic, covering economics, society, government and ecclesiastical, and cultural history. The period and volume begin appropriately with rural society and the stirrings of demographic expansion (from Robert Fossier), leading logically to urban growth and trade (Derek Keene). Although not the most exciting of topics with which to open, they are sensibly placed here as they provide an invaluable background to the economic impetus behind the expansionary forces that shaped the two centuries under consideration: flags - or banners and royal standards, at least - were already following trade. One result was, as Susan Reynolds shows, the growth of government and the welfare of "subjects, who, because they constituted a unit of public and legitimate government, were therefore perceived as forming some kind of community". The foundation stones for national identity were being laid.

Peter Landau's essay on legal development, which skilfully manages to avoid aridity, makes the bold claim that this period "saw the establishment of a legal culture which has lasted without break to the present day". He portrays developments in law as a progression, especially in professionalisation. He might have given a little space to disgruntled voices: lawyer-bashing has a long and distinguished history.

Two themes more than any other dominate the Middle Ages: war and religion.

Their treatment in this volume exemplifies the strengths and weaknesses of the NCMH. Religion is handled superbly and is granted the space it deserves; war is not. The structure and institutions of the Church are examined by H. E. J. Cowdrey and Ian Robinson, the latter also dealing at length with ecclesiastical reform. Robinson's chapters are by far the longest in this collection, permitting him to quote primary sources at length (sadly missing elsewhere). His convincing argument, that for Pope Gregory VII "there was no single coherent plan of reform but a series of desperate expedients", underlines the sense of movement and intent rather than planned programmes in the ecclesiastical world, adding to the creative chaos of the period. Giles Constable on religious communities, Bernard Hamilton on the laity and religion, and Jean Richard on the eastern churches complete a successful sextet of essays on religion that form the heart of part one.

Knightly society and war are covered in just two woefully inadequate chapters by Jean Flori and Ernst-Dieter Hehl. There are only eight pages on the business of warfare itself. This neglect is reflected in other volumes in the series and is completely unwarranted. As Philippe Contamine has written (with understatement), war in the Middle Ages never ceased to weigh heavily on historical developments; it had a "decisive place both as an explanatory factor and as the product of a whole cultural, technical and economic environment". Thus no single factor can explain the events of 1066 more completely than the military one.

Flori's treatment of feudalism is somewhat dated; his treatment of warfare, though competent, is distinctly flat and stale. First, there is the tired repetition in the opening paragraphs: "The technological revolution is well known"; "The equipment is well known"; "The offensive arms are equally well known". In all three cases, as elsewhere, this does not stop him from covering the same old ground in some detail. Worse, this is at the expense of other important factors, not least logistics and infantry. Nor is there any engagement with recent research that questions the supremacy of cavalry (Flori seems dated here, too). Hehl's contribution is fine in itself, but it is another lost opportunity. The infeasibility of religious and legal attitudes to war makes his topic interesting but academic: theorising the empirical realities of military conflict ignores the brutal fact that the practicalities and imperatives of war superseded any legal or moral pronouncements. There were no war-crimes tribunals for commanders in the Middle Ages.

Part two is less interesting and less successful. The thematic approach of part one lends itself more readily to an essay format; the narrative restraints of part two mean more drastically constrained, workmanlike surveys. Richmond's criticisms of Volume Seven are particularly pertinent here: "In the chapters on individual states there are too few attempts at longer views, too few pauses for analysis, and too little attention given to sorting out the significant."

The poor organisation, mentioned above, exacerbates the problems. The effect on continuity is irksome, and the authority of a single authorial voice is lost. Important matters can fall through the gaps: despite part two's emphasis on government and authority, Thomas Keefe's account of England from 1137 omits Henry II's Assize of Arms, which receives only a passing mention in Michael Bur's chapter on French seigneuries. And then there are further inconsistencies, more to the fore in part two. Chief of these is the scholarly apparatus: some chapters are heavily annotated, others have not a single reference; some have heavy lengthy bibliographies, others short ones. One searches in vain for rhyme or reason.

This is not to say that the historians do not do a good job - they do, within the artificial divisions imposed upon them. Thus one of the most satisfactory contributions to the second part is the single-author, single-chapter topic on Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the 12th century from Geoffrey Barrow. Robinson's 12th-century papacy is also notable; but then, once again, he is indulged with the lengthiest chapter. The papacy, also covered here by Uta-Renate Blumenthal, is approached as a powerful, functioning force: by the end of this period it had extended its temporal and spiritual authority as never before, approaching its apogee with Innocent III's succession in 1198, the date at which this volume tellingly ends.

This widespread accretion of power reappears as a theme. Thus England and, eventually, France, as John Baldwin succinctly demonstrates for the latter, both centralised and thereby extended their authority. The major exception, as Benjamin Arnold explains, was the Western Empire, riven by internal rivalries.

The very nature of a work such as this tends to produce grand history as dry history. The essays need to be taken one at a time; there is little to enliven the process. There are two noteworthy exceptions: both prove that erudite, historical narratives and overviews need not be heavy going. Keefe's style is lively and engaging, peopled with full-blooded characters. Peter Linehan, on 12th-century Spain, recreates the success of his Volume Five essay. Like Keefe, he provides the salient facts and analysis without crowding and losing them in a dense narrative. He also animates his text with a lively style peppered with judgments and anecdotes: the rulers of 12th-century Spain "come across as irredeemably two-dimensional figures"; Berengar Ramon I tells his lord: "For all I hold from you, I would not thank you with one fart." Oh, and the history is good too.

Generally, however, restrictions of space combined with geographical breadth frequently lead to chapters that are too intense for the general reader and too synoptic for serious students; the freedom for academic debate is severely curtailed. The problems are compounded by the messy mistake of publishing this as one volume in two parts.

And yet, and yet... one is still left impressed by the scope and ambition of the volume, especially when it is viewed as one element in a larger and hugely impressive enterprise. More sparkle and verve would have been appreciated, but the essays mostly serve their purpose in being informative and authoritative. Like Wagner's Ring Cycle (or, if you prefer, Pink Floyd's The Wall ), the whole is better than its parts. Volume Four lacks the impact of later volumes, but considered as the final piece of the NCMH jigsaw, the whole constitutes a magisterial statement of knowledge.

Sean McGlynn is a part-time tutor at Bath University and is completing two books on medieval history for Cassell and Sutton.

The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume Four, c1024-c1198

Author - David Luscombe and Jonathan Riley-Smith
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 917 (Part One) and 959 (Part Two)
Price - £100.00 each
ISBN - 0 521 41410 5 and 41411 3

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