Substantial fare from meagre sources

The New Cambridge Medieval History
January 3, 1997

Volume two of The New Cambridge Medieval History, the first to be published, is a very fine achievement. Twenty-seven scholars have combined to convey the fruits of modern scholarship in a concise and readable form. The volume is impressive in its range. The first half of the book is devoted to political developments, on a broad front. Although the Frankish heartlands inevitably, and properly, take centre stage, there are chapters on Scandinavia, the Balkans, the Celtic realms, on Spain, on Byzantine Italy, on the Carolingian marches and on the Muslims in Europe. Rarely are we offered a pure narrative of events. Many of the chapters are concerned with the interaction of rulers and ruled, with the impact of one society or realm upon another and with the relationship between politics and other levels of experience.

Two qualities, in particular, impress. One is the sensitivity towards sources. Dealing with exiguous sources is, of course, a characteristic of the medievalist's craft and the editor's introduction conveys some of the complexities in handling the sources of this particular period. Where sources are slight or late, as for the Spanish kingdom of the Asturias, the reader is guided through the realms of probability. But the problems are often greater than this.

Much rests on imaginative reading. The fact that a key source, the Tribal Hidage is, strictly speaking, "a short text of uncertain origin, compiled at an unknown date for a purpose which remains obscure" does not stand in the way of its use in a powerful attempt at reconstructing the nature of the Mercian hegemony in eighth-century England. Other sources can mislead, subtly, through their assumptions and projections into their own past.

Historians of the early Middle Ages are now extremely adept at dealing with this. Thus, the growing reputation of Charles Martel as a despoiler of church lands led earlier medievalists to the belief that he systematically exploited church lands for military purposes, a proposition for which there is in fact no contemporary evidence. Even a source as accessible as Bede can seriously mislead. His portrait of the English missionaries taking the high standards of their church to its decadent Frankish counterpart has had to be drastically modified. In reality, moreover, the sympathetic reaction on the continent to the Anglo-Saxon missions is to be explained not just by the force of personality and conviction of the missionaries but by the needs of the Carolingians, by the prior development of the Frankish church and by the attitudes of lay landowners.

This leads us directly to the second quality: the capacity of modern historians to understand more effectively the roots of power and power relations. It rests partly on closer attention to immediate contexts. For example, Pippin II's victory at the battle of Tertry did not inaugurate the era of Carolingian rule as such; rather, it marked the point where he joined the Merovingian regime. The Carolingians themselves ruled very much within the existing social structure. The Reichsaristokratie was not simply a Carolingian creation and both the independent disposition of the Frankish ruling class and their complex partnership with the ruling dynasty are met at every turn. Not surprisingly, the same qualities are apparent in the second part, rather perversely entitled "Government and institutions". A wide-ranging study of kingship and royal government shows precisely how the aristocracy was linked into the Carolingian system of government and how they participated in its ideology of power. The multifaceted role of aristocratic women is explored as they are progressively rescued by historians from "the tendency of texts produced in a more or less misogynistic clerical culture to ignore or devalue" them.

The chapter on the aristocracy per se reveals how historians in activating "the seemingly inert data banks" of the Libri Memoriales have developed an increasingly sophisticated methodology for understanding the structure, assumptions and behaviour of the aristocracy. A chapter on rural society shows how charter collections can take us where other sources cannot, that is to say deep into the fabric of the small worlds which characterised early medieval society. Here, as elsewhere, the views of earlier scholars are modified or challenged, but treated with respect. Some items, such the capitulary of Querzy, are rescued from the enthusiasm of earlier scholars and put back into contemporary context.

But we are also offered new and challenging views. Famine, it is argued, was due not so much to underdevelopment of the economy as to "'accidents' of expansion" while the classical manor resulted from "a Carolingian agrarian policy" aimed at increasing production. Most of these chapters have an eye on future developments. Of Catalan mountain society, for example, we are told that "it was the combined strength of public power and of peasant property-owning that meant the shift to seigneurial relationships in this area would have to be unusually violent".

This capacity to establish a contemporary context while looking for the significance for later generations is one of the great strengths of this section of the volume, and indeed of the book as a whole. But, wisely perhaps at this juncture, there is no attempt to grapple with the overriding historiographical problem of feudalism.

The third part, on church and society, takes us directly into the drive for unity which was so central to the Carolingian achievement. A pellucid account of the emergence of the papacy first as a local power in Italy and secondly as a western European institution reminds us that it was the Carolingians more than the popes who set the papacy at the very heart of western Christianity. Once again, the evolution of the papacy is seen in its precise context and in terms of the realities of power. Although the "Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals" gave a considerable boost to papal claims, the context in which they were produced championed the role of the bishops; these Frankish bishops stood for the unity of the church. This theme is taken up in the chapter on the organisation, law and liturgy of the western church. The drive for unity in liturgical rites, however, brought not so much the triumph of the Roman rite as a sort of hybrid as Roman texts mixed with earlier indigenous material. The same drive for unity governed monastic history during the period, intensifying in the years after 800 when the Benedictine rule became the foundation of monastic identity.

Carolingian monasteries were at the centre of social and political life as never before and monastic life was lived in close proximity to the world outside, responsive to its needs. It is hardly surprising, as the chapter on religion and lay society shows, that these centuries saw the intrusion of clerically inspired standards into every aspect of people's lives. The fact that by 900 most of the laity came to be buried in mortuary chapels or sanctified graveyards may serve to symbolise the enclosure of their lives within the church.

The final part of the book conveys the considerable work that has been done in recent years on cultural and intellectual developments. Much of this has been based upon unprecedented exploitation of manuscript evidence. There is now a much fuller understanding of the eighth-century basis of the Carolingian Renaissance. Sociolinguistic study has indicated greater complexity in terms of language use than has hitherto been appreciated. It seems that loss of competence in Latin (in both active and passive senses) occurred among the aristocracy, for example, only from c. 850 onwards. The level of book production was extraordinarily high and there was a rapid expansion in library holdings.

Much depended on the sense of mission of Charlemagne and the coterie of scholars around him and upon the reforms of Louis the Pious. If Carolingian learning was at the heart of its legacy to later generations its purpose was essentially present-minded, part and parcel of the establishment of Christian civilisation. The arts became sacralised. Carolingian poetry was everywhere. "Readers of Alcuin's verse posted in a latrine could contemplate his lesson on gluttony."

As far as the visual arts are concerned, there is an increasing tendency to see the culture of the early medieval West as a creative rather than a receptive one. This was the time when book illumination came to hold a central place in Christian art. It was a decisive moment also in European architecture, and this remains true despite the fact that Krautheimer's influential work on the Carolingian revival of early Christian architecture is now seriously questioned. Needless to say, there are matters which a reviewer may wish to criticise. There are repetitions and a few inconsistencies. There are certainly themes which could do with fuller treatment. One is the question of castles and fortifications, where scattered references throughout the book are a constant reminder that this is a problem which deserves to be treated in the round. If a very few of the essays disappoint, the volume as a whole is extremely impressive. Eminently quotable, it will be much used by students and professional scholars alike. Although primarily a work of reference, it deserves a wider audience.

Peter Coss is professor of medieval history and director of the Centre for the Study of Medieval Society and Culture, University of Wales, Cardiff.

The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume Two c700 - c900

Editor - Rosamond McKitterick
ISBN - 0 521 36292 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 1,082

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