This is a history of Christendom (Western Europe) during the Middle Ages (from 950 to 1350). It follows the expansion of the Normans into England and later Wales, Ireland and, at least culturally, Scotland. It follows the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors and it follows the expansion of the German speaking world around the Baltic and into the territories of the pagan Wends and Slavs. Even in Italy, the Christians drive down south and recover Campania, Calabria and Sicily. It is thus principally a story of expansion.
What drove this expansion? Was it the extraordinary vigour of the Franks? Was it the religion? Was it the economic model of prototype capitalism? Or was it technology? Inventions such as the modern plough enabled German farmers to cultivate much more land than the pagan Wends and to increase the productivity of their farms. This in turn led to their ability to support more monks, warriors and merchants. And this drove expansion. Frontier Lords repeatedly found new towns and are able, because of the agricultural improvements, to invite colonising peasants on favourable terms knowing that they will make a profit even if they tax their peasants at a lesser rate.
What is remarkable about this story is how modern everything is. Founding charters talk of investments and profits. And yet things are strange. Ethnicity is principally a matter of language and religion; therefore one can change one's ethnic group by converting and learning a new tongue. For the multi-cultural populations that grow up in frontier colonies there is the expectation that each will be tried by their own traditional laws; it is only with time that unified laws for all people in the same region are developed.
And there are the novel institutions. The Benedictine monasteries are each individual, though following the one Rule of St Benedict. The Cistercians, however,are all bound through mother houses back to the great grandmother abbey of Citeaux. But the expansion of monasteries, which each require a significant capital outlay to found with sufficient resources to sustain themselves, is dwarfed when the mendicant orders of Dominicans and Franciscans which need much less investment expand. And Universities set alight the touch paper of learning.
So this is an extraordinarily fascinating period. But the book is really difficult to read. It is a scholarly work but the general reader will find it tedious. Bartlett spends too long mustering his evidence, and sometimes defending his sources and criticising other authorities, and too little time telling the glorious story of these years. This does not make it a bad book. For its audience it is great and I hope to keep it as a work of reference. But I was frequently bored.
Exhaustive and sometimes exhausting. March 2013; 314 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57