The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages
Johannes Fried, translated by Peter Lewis
Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press 632pp  £25

To present the whole thousand years of medieval European history in a single offering needs an exceptionally large-minded historian, with a strong take. In the German original of Das Mittelalter in 2008, Johannes Fried gave German-readers a powerful sense of the medieval West's 'progression' towards 'a culture of reason'. The take was that of an intellectual historian, embracing a cultural scene populated by great writers who inspired great doers. From Boethius, the sixth-century philosopher, through 'the dawn of the age of reason' in tenth-century German courts, through 'a multiplicity of freedoms' in 12th-century French schools of France and Italian city-communes, to late medieval 'revolutionary movements', scholars and scholar-kings, Fried delivered a compelling narrative. Now, in this admirable translation, Anglophones can read it.

There is much to like. A strong line of eschatological thinking, traced in recent decades by Fried himself among others, links all the medieval centuries. Several chapters, whose headings apparently portend pope-centred histories, turn out to be counter-intuitively diverse and thought-provoking. The 12th century presented as a series of papal schisms reveals such unexpectedly positive consequences as a king's capacity to 'swing' a kingdom's church behind him, or the enhanced momentum of diplomatic contacts across an enlarged medieval world of communications. Fried's fabric is deftly woven of an astonishing range of materials, shot through with bright threads of modern analogy. Fried, whose personal areas of expertise include the reign of Charlemagne, rates that ruler's court  'a headquarters of knowledge organisation such as the world had not seen anywhere before', while 'its most recent heirs are modern government ministries of education and research'. 'Consensus and reciprocity' bound nobility to king in what Fried goes on to suggest 'represented a breakthrough on the way to a formal social contract'. 

Not all parts of medieval Europe can receive equal attention, yet Fried's eye for evidence can be very sharp indeed. Take England: Domesday Book (1086) is singled out for its 'rational organisation', the Dialogue of the Exchequer (1179) for its distinction between 'public' and 'nonpublic usury', Magna Carta (1215) for its 'comprehensive manifestation of the demands for freedom that were abroad throughout Europe at this time'. Take Aragon: in the late 14th century, Francesc Eiximenis, perhaps influenced by Magna Carta, placed the cosa pública and the communitat of the realm above the king and 'was the first to identify a connection between bon regiment (the common good), work and merit'.  

However, some parts of Europe prove a good deal more equal than others in terms of authorial attention. A preponderant emphasis on Germany is understandable in a Mittelalter destined for a German audience, but harder to justify in a translation aimed above all at Anglophones nurtured on historic common-law tradition and its legacy post-1945 in human rights. This large handsome book has flaws: the publisher, generous with illustrations, seems to have economised on the Index, on keying-in of pictures to text and on basic proof-reading. This reviewer's more substantial concerns are about the book's underlying teleology and Eurocentrism. Travellers to the East in the 13th-century showed astonishing enterprise and, in the case of Marco Polo's Le Devisement du Monde, a shrewd enthusiasm for diversity (and perhaps a better market for it in its original French). But, missionaries apart, their sights were primarily on wealth. It is hard to see Fried's 'turning point in the process of globalisation' as other than a false dawn. When in the 14th century the Mongol Empire collapsed and Turks moved west, European contacts with the Far East shrank. Princely 'wars and power struggles' and pogroms conducted by urban elites revealed new aspects of 'a persecuting society' (Fried rightly borrows more than once R.I. Moore's telling phrase). 

Though Fried rejects an older historiography of decline and amply acknowledges spiritual renewal and intellectual creativity, his master-story of the onward march of reason and freedom is wearing thin when he reaches the late Middle Ages. The great Mediterranean powers were 'arming themselves for the conflicts of the Early Modern era', as, with all their paradoxes, the Middle Ages, 'crossed seamlessly over into a similarly constituted Early Modern period'. Perhaps, for new readers, the Epilogue would have been the place to offer qualifications or rectifications? There, alas, an opportunity has been missed. 

Jinty Nelson is Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at King's College London. 

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