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Crossing the Continent

The medievalist Wilhelm Levison was a living embodiment of the deep links between Britain, Germany and a wider Europe.

James Palmer | Published 27 July 2016

Wilhelm Levison
Wilhelm Levison

In the wake of the EU referendum, my mind keeps returning to Wilhelm Levison’s magisterial England and the Continent in the Eighth Century, published just after the end of the Second World War. Its preface reads: ‘May these pages, in their small way, contribute to join again broken links, when the works of peace have resumed their place lost in the turmoil of war’. The challenges we face now are not as great as those faced then. But, as it feels that those links are again strained, we naturally turn to reflect on how common cause can be maintained and new ways forward set out.

A respected medieval scholar, Levison taught at the University of Bonn and worked for the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. As he was Jewish, he was unable to teach after the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. His former colleagues helped him to escape to England in the Spring of 1939, where he was able to take up a position at Durham University. In 1942, Maurice Powicke invited him to Oxford to give the Ford Lectures the following year. They would become England and the Continent.

What is striking now about Levison’s lectures is how, despite their explicit political setting, they are first and foremost works of sober scholarship rather than a polemic. He did not portray the early medieval past as a utopian vision of pan-European co-operation to contrast with the conflicts of his own time. Indeed, he argued against transposing ‘the opinions and controversies of later times into the past’. Quoting Spinoza, he urged people to understand human action, not to ridicule it, lament it, or curse it. The sentiment remains valuable.

A sense of a common European culture was central to Levison’s vision. This culture was rooted in Christianity and Latin learning and it meant that there was always a core body of belief and books people had, whatever their differences. Europe in the seventh and eighth centuries was coming to terms with the slow political fragmentation of the Roman Empire and the new divisions and cultural revolutions it had triggered. In the 1930s, Henri Pirenne had argued that it was the shattering of the Mediterranean world following the Arab conquests in the 630s and 640s that had paved the way for new political and economic centres to emerge in the north. For Levison this provided some of the backdrop to a series of enterprises which included Pope Gregory the Great sending Roman missionaries to the pagan English of Kent, arriving in 597. A century or so later, English missionaries, including St Willibrord ‘Apostle of the Frisians’ (d. 739) and St Boniface ‘Apostle of the Germans’ (d. 754), contributed to the exporting of new versions of Christian culture to what is now the Netherlands and Germany. These ventures in turn inspired the Christian empire of Charlemagne (d. 814), a diverse political and cultural world held together by shared belief and learning.

England and the Continent was personal in many ways, especially in the emphasis Levison gave to intellectual exchange between the English and German regions. English and German culture owed significant debts to the Irish, too, whose books and treatises spread quickly across the West, thanks to the desire of Irish monks from the seventh century  onwards to set up monasteries overseas or to teach abroad. The North Sea was also alive with trade and travel. And, if the Mediterranean world seemed less coherent in 800 than it had in 400, this did not prevent the movement of people and ideas between the Latin, Byzantine and Arab centres. Historical scholarship in Levison’s time was dominated by ideas of nations and peoples; he, however, recognised the importance of people crossing boundaries, ultimately helping to shape a connected Europe.

Addressing his English audience in 1943, Levison concluded with an appeal to remember Europe’s common heritage and the role migrants had played in shaping it. He quoted the Swiss scholar Jacob Burckhardt, who said ‘a truly rich nation becomes rich by accepting much from others and developing it’. His final words he took from a Latin poet: ‘Now joined is what before were separate worlds’. Levison died aged 70 in 1947 when only the first seeds of peace had been planted. He inspired 70 years of writing on the early Middle Ages, in which scholars across Europe sought to understand the world he sketched. One can hope that, from these foundations, new histories will be able to again join links broken in recent times.

James Palmer is Reader in Mediaeval History at the University of St Andrews.

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