Somewhere on my shelves, I have a book majestically titled Thirteenth: The Greatest of Centuries . Such proud pronouncements belong to a distant age of historiography, when history was written by chaps, was concerned almost exclusively with kings and battles, and when sorting the past into chunks of relative merit was a task of obvious importance. Although today we have broadened the scope of our studies to include more than the stirrings of the state and the exploits of armed men, and no longer pronounce judgement on ages with such confidence, it is nonetheless true that we tend still to think in centuries, and that fashions for particular periods still hold sway. Thus, within medieval studies, the 13th century has fallen slightly out of favour: pushed aside initially by the 12th, with its claims for "renaissance", superseded more recently by the exciting crises of the 14th, and the wonderful political muddle of the 15th. Given that a popular view of the Middle Ages tends to rest on a Monty Python view of the 14th century - a not entirely inaccurate picture of disease, death, superstition and mud - it is worth returning to the 13th century as something of a corrective.
The most important changes in the period involve the centralisation and consolidation of power in Europe. At the beginning of the century, Innocent III held the papal throne, and his programme of reform, legislation and definition mark what was probably the high point for the papacy. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council set out a template for what it meant to be a member of the faith, prompted in part by the threat of heresy, but more importantly by the recognition that although Europe was largely Christianised it was not yet truly Christian. Hence, under Innocent's care, the continent-wide system of parishes was reinvigorated, bringing every lay soul under the care of an individual priest. Each and every Christian was to know the Credo, the Paternoster and the Ave Maria - not a huge corpus of theology, but part of a pattern of conformity with deeper effects. Priests were expected to know their flock and to be engaged with the most important moments in their lives: birth, marriage and death.
Perhaps most importantly, each and every soul was to make private confession to their priest at least once a year. This process of confessionalisation had tremendous implications. By calling on every person - whether of high or low rank, literate or illiterate, male or female - to consider internally their thoughts and actions, in order to present them for inspection to an external authority, confession arguably effected an essential change in how one perceived and understood oneself. As the French historian Jean Delumeau put it, it marks the beginnings of a "guilt culture" in western Europe. Without Lateran IV, there would be no Ricki Lake; such are the strange causalities of history.
It was the 13th century that saw the birth of the new mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans. Again, a fundamental shift: although very different in practice, the old monasticism had clung to a theory of withdrawal from the world, an idea of holiness based on retreat into the symbolic desert. What Francis and Dominic supplied was very different, embracing the peripatetic life of the apostles, bringing the Word to the people. Preaching in the 13th century was not simply a matter of expounding scripture: it involved the use of exempla, small stories rooted in peoples'
everyday lives, designed to illustrate and integrate the tenets of faith in lived existence. The darker shadow of this engagement with the laity was also connected with the mendicants: the birth of the "inquisition into heretical depravity", begun as a method for combating heretical sects, but also forming one part of a larger programme of discipline throughout Europe.
Some of these changes can be allocated to the vision of Innocent III, but the deeper causes of change were more profound. The 13th century was an age of economic expansion, of a population explosion in the countryside, and of vast growth in the cities. Indeed, by 1200 most of the main cities of Europe were already in existence. The numbers of their inhabitants were tiny by our standards - maybe 60,000 in London, 100,000 in Venice and 200,000 in the pre-eminent metropolis of Paris - but an extraordinary concentration of people and wealth for medieval times. These urban centres were able to support new kinds of superstructures: cathedral building continued apace; merchant oligarchs erected vernacular constructions of wealth and secular glory; and - pre-eminently in Paris - universities were created and staffed by the intellectual cream of Europe. The birth of universities returns us to our starting point, providing the tools for the practice, management and justification of power. Canon and civil lawyers, political theorists and theologians all studied at university (and a great number in Paris). Thus Christendom fashioned the rhetorics to explain itself to itself, and to justify its hierarchies to its masses.
Literacy was on the increase, including both literary and practical vernaculars that were beginning to challenge the hegemony of Latin. Merchants and traders needed writing to communicate along trade routes; princes and knights needed reading to enjoy the fictions of their existence provided by chivalric romance; even peasants needed literacy - or at least, access to literacy - in order to cope with the vastly increased bureaucracy at the heart of royal power. There was disease, there was ignorance and there undoubtedly was mud; but there was very much more also.
Not all developments were so rosy. The crusading movement opened the century with one of its most shameful acts: the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, in effect splitting the western and eastern churches and contributing to the destruction of the last remnants of the Roman empire. Further east, the Mongol empire was reaching its apogee, looking at one point as if it might sweep into Europe itself. And anti-Semitism was on the rise. Lateran IV had decreed that Jews must wear identifying badges to allow Christians to avoid contact with them; by the first years of next century, the Jews had been expelled - largely sans possessions - from most western kingdoms. As the centres of power in Europe set about defining themselves and extending their dominions, they found it useful to have groups to which they could point as "other". Thus the Jews (with their own laws, practices and beliefs) provided an enemy within that could justify the extension of royal and ecclesiastical power.
Most of the above can be gleaned from volume five of The New Cambridge Medieval History . This massive work of reference is arranged into six sections and 25 chapters, plus appendices, maps, genealogical tables and bibliographies. The original Cambridge histories were produced in the first half of the 20th century, and were prey - as Peter Linehan, one of the contributors here, has outlined elsewhere - to the snobbishness, nationalism and endemic procrastination of academia in that age. As David Abulafia, the editor, notes in his introduction, the new history is a far more international affair, boasting scholars from America, Israel, Norway, Lithuania and the Netherlands as well as the expected western European contributors. The original Cambridge histories rid themselves of German scholars about the time of the first world war, for "patriotic" reasons; curiously, this omission remains, though presumably now for other reasons.
Although undeniably excellent, one has to wonder what the point is of this kind of grand, institutional doorstop of a book. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Cambridge series could probably kid itself that it was producing the authoritative account of all history (a pattern rooted in the medieval chronicle). Such a sense is less supportable these days, and although the volume makes creditable efforts to cover a very much broader geographical sweep than its earlier incarnation, a lot of argument, discussion and topics are inevitably missing: no chapter on gender, for example, and only 11 pages on "rural society" (although some individual contributors manage to sneak a page or two more into their discussions of each principality). There is a mass of learning and scholarship here, but frequently so compressed due to constraints of space that one is better off reading monographs by the contributors. The bibliographies are useful, and reasonably up-to-date. Perhaps the most useful parts are those on topics not frequently covered in English-language scholarship: Scandinavia and eastern Europe. We are given chapters on the laity, the Jews and other sociocultural topics, but the emphasis is clearly on a fairly traditional political history. Probably the most interesting article is by Kathryn L. Reyerson, on "Commerce and communications", which manages to cover an abundance of topics with verve and intelligence in just 20 pages. Curiously, she is the only female contributor out of 37 scholars; history, it appears, is written by chaps, after all.
John Arnold is lecturer in history, Birkbeck College, University of London.
The New Cambridge Medieval History: Vol. 5 c. 1198 - c. 1300
Editor - David Abulafia
ISBN - 0 521 36289 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £90.00
Pages - 1,044