The Chronicle of a Thousand Books

Being the Chronicle of a Thousand Books, kept faithfully and diligently by thy humble servant, in this most excellent repository of worthy works, the marvellous and justly famous Library of Mare Caelorum. "He who measures his wealth in books shall never be robbed of it, not by fire nor knaves, if only he should preserve them in his memory."

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Medieval Centuries

"The new king, Charles, was an even more successful ruler than his predecessors. Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus) grasped his opportunities firmly; he destroyed the Lombards and enriched himself and the papacy with Italy north of Rome; he stormed south beyond the Pyrenees, north to convert the Saxons to Christianity and subjection to the Franks, east to absorb the already Christian Bavaria, farther still to shatter the Avars and create a marcher dependency in Carinthia. Master of the West, master of the Church and the pope, Charles was the reincarnation of the masterful emperors of the Roman Empire.... A grateful pope on Christmas Day, 800, crowned Charlemagne emperor in St. Peter's, Rome. This action, like Charles's ambitious attempts to govern his vast dominions, was to have important consequences later. For the moment it is sufficient to stress one point: the Carolingian Empire was ephemeral." - The Medieval Centuries, Denys Hay (Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1964)

Your Chronicler has a special fondness for this book, having a millennial theme in common with it. As your servant seeks to catalogue and preserve a thousand books, so too did Denys Hay attempt to chronicle and illuminate a thousand years that for far too long have been known as the Dark Ages.

The "Middle Ages" of history, the interregnum between Rome's final collapse to Renaissance, haven't suffered from a lack of attention by historians, except perhaps in recent decades, where the study and practice of historical scholarship have followed contemporary fashions and trends. (This has been a mixed blessing, in that while comparatively little of weight has been written lately on this critical epoch in Western civilization, active neglect by certain history departments may have prevented irreparable damage from being inflicted on this field of study.)

Rarely, though, does a capable scholar succeed in tackling the Medieval period in a single, concise, engaging volume. Rarer still is the historian who doesn't succumb spectacularly to either of the twin plagues of contemporary scholarship - slavish devotion to either economics or psychology (and its viral new offspring, gender, racial or sexual politics) as the ultimate judges and juries of the period. In some rabidly anti-Western, "anti-dead white male" history faculties, Denys Hay might have faced an academic inquisition for heresy to the prevailing conventions of the discipline. He would certainly have been found guilty of assembling a superb and insightful introductory study of possibly the most interesting, longest and most difficult-to-fathom era of Western civilization.

The Medieval Centuries traces surviving echoes of the Roman hegemony, from the final throes of barbarian invasions and consolidations, to the age of land-based militocracy and the beginnings of modern money-based economics and polity, with careful regard to the role of flourishing faith. Hay's lens focuses mostly on the political landscape of the period, but his survey is unobscured by any pet theory or cherished ideology. Of note, his book is blessedly free of the obligatory, Marxist-inspired perpetual class warfare view of the feudal days of the Middle Ages, and deftly deposes current mythology by turning conventional wisdom on its head with deeply-researched findings.

Servitude was undoubtedly a harsh condition ... Yet the relationship we have been considering had compensations. Serfdom, to begin with, was not slavery. The serf had a right to his holding, he had a family which could inherit it and was, in practice, not at the mercy of his lord.... Moreover the lord had no social or economic inducement to maltreat his service tenants. The land he possessed was useless without their labor; in an economy designed to produce a sufficiency rather than a surplus there was little incentive to exploitation. Nor were the peasantry in the ninth and tenth centuries separated from their masters by an unbridgeable gulf of manners. The peasant's way of life was for long not vastly different from his master's. Both lived on a narrow economic margin; the lord's house and the peasant's hovel would today be regarded as almost equally squalid, both being overcrowded, insanitary and comfortless.... These stabilizing factors go far to account for the marked absence of social disturbances in the early Middle Ages.... The serf of the ninth century differed from the serf of the late twelfth in that at the later date his services were much less onerous and his money payments much more so than they had been earlier.

Hay also applies his critical eye to the question of the role of the Church in the evolution of medieval Europe. He astutely gauges the influence of faith in the political development of the times - but he does not exclusively subscribe to the cynical popular notion that religion was solely 'politics by other means'.

There is some truth in the paradox that the only 'State' in the Middle Ages, the only universal authority remotely comparable to the sovereign bodies of later ages, was the Church.

Such an identification of 'Church' and 'State' cannot but appear today as a monstrous aberration. At the time of which we are writing, the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the very terms themselves had hardly been adumbrated and were certainly not antithetical. Any imperialist would readily have admitted that 'Church' and 'State' were one: his argument would have been that the emperor was God's vice-regent, the custodian of Christendom. It was, however, the later resistance to 'caesaro-papism', papal theocracy, which gradually led men to define a
respublica, a civitas, a 'State' in opposition to the 'Church'.

Throughout the book,
Hay makes clear that the church-state dynamic that defined the medieval era, culminating in the rebirth of European civil society in the Renaissance and ultimately the modern era, would have been impossible had not the Church acted as midwife and 'mother' to the secular powers that matured to supplant it at the end of the thousand years of darkness, in the sense of both cultural identity, and political and administrative organization.

Every Church institution was by now in complete obedience to the pope.... From the headquarters of the Church went forth legates to carry papal programmes to the provinces....

This administrative development was watched with interest by contemporary kings, whose predecessors had in earlier days found much to copy from the more sophisticated methods of the papal
curia. By the thirteenth century the gap had if anything widened between papal administration and that of even the most advanced countries in the West. Yet the over-all business of the kings of France or England was to grow with astonishing speed in the fourteenth century and later, while their revenues were vastly greater than that of the Roman Church.

Hay's description of the tipping of the scales from the early medieval centuries, which saw a unified Church and the fractured inheritance of barbarian usurpers of Roman lands, to the predawn light of the Renaissance which saw the Church diminished and dominated by the rising secular powers that later founded our own modern era, makes for brisk and excellent reading.

As a straightforward and insightful narrative of a very convoluted and fascinating time, The Medieval Centuries is a valuable first guidebook for newcomers to the period, and even for those frequent amateur explorers of the Middle Ages who, having dived headfirst into deep, scattered thickets and brambles of long-disappeared places and times, want a broader perspective of the landscape that birthed Charlemagne, St. Thomas Aquinas, not to mention the modern nation-state.

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