Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriet O’Brien (2005)

Interestingly, this book seems to have two different sub-titles depending on which edition you buy. The edition I have is sub-titled ‘A history of Power, Love and Greed in Eleventh-Century England’, a bit generic. But the latest edition on Amazon is sub-titled ‘The Woman Who Shaped the Events of 1066’, which is stronger and more specific.

Emma of Normandy was the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy (993-996) and sister to his successor, Duke Richard II (963-1026). In 1002 she was married off to King Aethelred II of England, the ill-fated king who ruled from 978 to 1016 and by whom she had three children, including Edward, later to become King Edward the Confessor (who ruled 1042 to 1066).

After Aethelred died in 1016, and England was conquered by the Danish King Cnut, Emma found herself being recalled from the Norman court – where she had gone for safety – and, in 1017, quickly married off to the new Danish king. She bore Cnut two more children, a daughter and Harthacnut, who was to succeed Cnut as King of Norway and ruled briefly as king of England from 1040 to 1042.

Thus Emma occupies the unique position in history of having been married to two kings of England and being mother to two further kings of England – by different fathers.

Unlike other books I’ve recently read about this period – Cnut: England’s Viking King by M.K. Lawson or The Norman Conquest 1066 by Marc Morris – which have a lot of factual information to sift and a lot of events to get through, O’Brien’s book is much slower paced and goes out of its way to present a thorough sense of the world in which Emma lived. Almost every chapter opens with a vivid description of a key scene or moment, allowing you to really think through the emotional and cultural effects of the events which other historians sometimes race through rather hastily.

We learn how squalid and unhygienic Saxon England was, what the Saxon king and queen and nobles wore, how feasts were arranged, the role of jewellery and metal weapons, and so on. Some of her vivid scenes depict Emma’s departure from Normandy, her arrival in Canterbury, her wedding ceremony to Aethelred – as well as speculation about her feelings and emotions: What must it have been like to be sold off in marriage to a man probably twice her age (Aethelred), who already had at least one common-law wife by whom he had had no fewer than ten children, the oldest of whom were Emma’s age?

What a bear pit she was sold into – and how strong and clever she must have been to not only survive the murderous rivalries of the English court but then to live on into – and thrive in – the completely different ambience of the Danish king she was forced to marry. Both men had common law wives or mistresses – both, eerily, named Aelfgifu – against whom she had to compete, for affection (maybe) and power (certainly).

The story covers three nationalities – Norman, English and Danish – as well as a host of competing warlords and nobles so it’s no surprise that the book comes well-equipped with family trees of the three countries’ royal families, and a Dramatis personae featuring no fewer than 57 personages – all of whom you really have to know about in order to grasp the full complexity of the situation.

Some commenters on Amazon complain that we learn a lot about the doings of the various men and warlords of her time and less about Emma but a) I think O’Brien has done a heroic job in teasing out every possible incident, experience and emotion which Emma must have experienced and b) what any reading of this period conveys is that everyone’s lives, even the strongest kings, were immersed in the dense and complex matrix of royal and aristocratic marriages, power alliances and conflicts.

Cnut may have conquered England – but only as a result of the twin good fortunes of King Aethelred dying a natural death, and then his son Edmund Ironside unexpectedly dying soon after he and Cnut had made a pact to divide the country (O’Brien recounts the possible causes of that sudden death, injury, illness or assassination).

Cnut still had to travel back to Denmark to try and assert his authority there against his own brother, and went to war to conquer Norway in which he was miserably defeated. Meanwhile, back in the English court, Emma had to protect her newborn infants by Cnut from the jealousy of her own children by Aethelred, let alone the football team size brood of Aethelstan’s children by his earlier, Saxon, wife.

And seeing as every one of these children, male or female, was married off to the siblings of the rulers of Denmark, Norway, Scotland, France, Flanders, Normandy and Brittany, and themselves had numerous progeny, it is quickly mind-bendingly complicated to work out who thinks they’re entitled to inherit the crown of which nation or duchy, and who they’re likely to ally with, or be thrown into conflict against, while new allies or opponents are being born or unexpectedly popping off.

This web of conflicting forces comes into play when Cnut dies in 1035 and there is a period of uncertainty bordering on anarchy while the following contenders vie for the crown:

  • Cnut’s son by Aelfgifu – Harold Harefoot
  • Cnut’s son by Emma – Harthacnut
  • Aethelred’s sons by Emma – Alfred and Edward

To help understand it all, you need the family trees of the Duchy of Normandy, and of Saxon England and of Denmark to follow the dense weave of marriages and kin.

Chapter eleven opens with a particularly bravura recreation of the fate of poor Alfred, Aethelred’s son, who was persuaded to lead a force of Norman sympathisers to claim the throne. He landed with plenty of men and ships on the south coast, was courteously met and persuaded by Earl Godwine to go with him to Guildford, where in the middle of the night his men are disarmed and then brutally massacred – except for the ones kept to be sold into slavery. Alfred himself was tied up and taken on a three-day journey into the heart of Fen country where he was brutally blinded and left to die in the mud.

The narrative is as immediate and bloodthirsty as any contemporary thriller.

O’Brien guides us through this maze of conflicting sources and accounts, consistently seeing it from the point of view of her tough and Machiavellian heroine. Her emphasis on the day-to-day realities of early 11th century England, and on the emotional life of the key players, is a welcome relief from the sometimes crushing litany of battles, taxes and legal charters which tend to fill the accounts of other historians.

This is a very enjoyable and rewarding work not only of history but of historical imagination.

Emma of Normandy (c. 985 – 1052)

Emma of Normandy (c. 985 – 1052)

Timeline of Emma’s life

978 Aethelred II crowned King of England
985? Emma of Normandy born
1002 Emma marries Aethelred. In the same year he orders the infamous Massacre of Danes throughout England.
1005? Birth of Emma’s son Edward (to be the future Edward II the Confessor)
1006-13 A daughter Godgifu and son, Alfred, are born.
1013 Invasion of Swein Forkbeard prompts Aethelred and Emma to flee to her family in Normandy. Her two young sons, Alfred and Edward, are to be left in the Norman court for most of their boyhood and teens.
1014 Swein dies. Aethelred returns but quickly falls out with his son by his pre-Emma mistress, Edmund ‘Ironsides’.
1016 Swein’s son, Cnut invades with a Danish fleet. Aethelred dies of natural causes and, after he’s made a peace treaty with Cnut, Edmund dies in suspicious circumstances, leaving Cnut king of all England.
1017 Cnut marries Emma.
1020s Emma has a son Harthacnut and daughter, Gunnhild.
1027 Cnut goes on pilgrimage to Rome.
1028 Cnut is in Norway furthering his claims to the throne.
1030 Cnut appoints his son by his ‘consort’ Aelfgifu, Swein, earl of Norway to rule in  his absence.
1033 Rebellion in Norway against the unpopular rule of Swein and Aelfgifu.
1035 Cnut was planning a military campaign in Norway and also managing the marriage of his daughter by Emma, Godgifu, to the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad, the future Henry III, when he dies without naming an heir and with at least three possible contenders to the throne – Harold Harefoot, Harthacnut and Edward.
1036 The nobility call a witan at Oxford where it is agreed Harold Harefoot will rule England north of the Thames, Harthacnut England south of the Thames – in his absence run by Earl Godwine in alliance with Emma. Alfred lands from Normandy to press his claim but is kidnapped, blinded and dies. Meanwhile Emma’s best hope, Harthacnut, refuses to come to England, facing his own problems in Norway, and so the path is open for Aelfgifu of Northampton’s son, Harold Harefoot, to be acclaimed king, and Emma to be placed in a very dicey position, as mother of two direct threats to the new king.
1037 Emma flees, but not to Normandy a) because she has been implicated in the murder of her own son, Alfred, who had spent most of his life in exile in the Norman court and whose murder scandalised her relatives b) and because her nephew, the Duke Robert, had died young in 1035, leaving as his only male heir his eight-year-old son by his mistress – William ‘the bastard’ or has he would come to be known, William the Conqueror, so that the court was a snakepit of conspiracies. She goes to Bruges.
1040 Harold Harefoot dies unexpectedly young, aged about 23. Harthacnut, who had finally got round to assembling a fleet to take him to England, is now able to land and claim the throne unopposed. Emma returns with him as the official Queen Mother.
1041 Harthcnut swiftly makes himself unpopular by imposing harsh taxation. He commits a notorious atrocity when two of his tax collectors are killed by a mob in Worcester, and he leads an army west which lays the entire county to waste. O’Brien suggests it is Emma’s idea to invite her surviving son by Aethelred – Edward – back from the Norman court to come and be co-ruler with Harthacnut.
1042 But the arrangement has barely got under way before Harthacnut dies of a drunken fit at a wedding party. Edward II is crowned king.
Around this time a book she had commissioned about her life and times is published, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, a primary source for her life story.
1052 Emma dies, very nearly 70.
1066 Emma’s great-nephew, William of Normandy, seizes the throne of England.


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Cnut: England’s Viking King by M.K. Lawson (1993)

In all, the scarcity of contemporary material is such that Cnut’s personality and many of his activities will remain forever unknown. (p.79)

This is a challenging book to read. Right from the first page of the introduction Lawson assumes you already know the outline of the historical events leading up to and during the reign of King Cnut of England and Denmark (1016-1035), and instead plunges into a very detailed discussion of the evidence from different sources, not only for the various events covered in the book but for the numerous issues and controversies about the period.

Thus the text overwhelmingly consists of very finely tuned assessments of conflicting sources for the period such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which survives in 5 significantly varying versions), contemporary documents such as Anglo-Saxon poetry (The Battle of Brunanburgh describing Athelstan’s victory of 937, The Battle of Maldon describing a Viking victory in 991), sermons notably by the fierce archbishop of York Wulfstan, writs, charters and legal documents, two letters from Cnut himself, slightly later historians in England (Henry of Huntingdon, John of Worcester, William of Malmesbury) in Germany (Adam of Bremen, Thietmar of Merseberg) in Normandy (William of Jumièges, William of Poitiers) in Denmark (Saxo Grammaticus, Swegen Aggeson), Norse poetry embedded in the much later Icelandic sagas (written down in the mid-1200s) and so on and so on – all garnished with a forest of notes which themselves reference other scholarly writings and discussions about each of these issues and cruxes.

Most histories present you with a fairly straightforward and smooth-flowing narrative, maybe mentioning one or two places where the sources disagree. This book takes you behind the scenes of history, as it were, to show you the jungle of texts, the wreckage of what happened to be written down, what happened to survive the centuries, which the conscientious historian has to wrestle with — almost all of them biased and distorted by their non-historical purposes – hagiographies to praise saints, various versions of the A-S Chronicle slanted to praise the scribe’s monastery or benefactors, the Encomium Emmae written to praise Cnut’s wife Emma and her sons.

We have a reasonable number of charters from the period – documents officially assigning land from the king or rich patrons, generally to a religious foundation – except that, as Lawson points out, many of them are probably forgeries concocted by the said foundation to justify rights to land which were customary or lost in the mists of time. (With characteristic thoroughness, Lawson has an appendix naming every one of the royal charters issued during Cnut’s reign, along with date and location, and a second appendix explaining in detail the format in which writs and charters have survived.)

So the sources not only routinely disagree about the most basic facts – like the year in which a battle took place – they are almost all biased, deliberately omitting major events or exaggerate minor ones, names even major names like Sweyn/Swegen/Sven are routinely garbled, a high percentage of the documents may be faked, and most of the reporting was based on hearsay, often decades sometimes centuries, after the event.

The result of Lawson’s detailed investigations is probably the definitive account of Cnut’s reign, but very unlike a normal history book: instead of a smooth and comprehensible narrative the text is entirely made up of scholarly detective work, of the subtle balancing of sources against each other, weighing their probable veracity or inaccuracy on each point against three or four or five other accounts, which are themselves suspect for reasons Lawson explains exhaustively.

And the conclusion of all this effort is quite dispiriting: Cnut’s reign is one of the worst documented of any king of England:

The inadequacies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the surviving charters, even when supplemented by such other fragments as the skaldic poetry and the Letters of 1019-20 and 1027, make it impossible to construct a decent chronology of his reign. (p.79)

So this is not a popular history – although it sheds some unexpected lights on the period, I kept being surprised at the way he mentions what seem to be major events very casually, only in passing, as a side effect of his far more intense interest in the trustworthiness of this charter or that chronicle or the Icelandic poem on the matter, and so on. This isn’t a book for the general reader: I assume it is aimed at undergraduate level or above.

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae)

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae). Note the angel crowning Cnut. Note his hand on his sword. Heavenly and earthly power combined.

Events up to and including the reign of King Cnut the Great

The Saxon kings of Wessex – Alfred the Great (871-899), Edward the Elder (899-924) and Athelstan (924-927), Edgar (943-975) – spent their careers trying to hold repeated waves of invading Danes/Vikings at bay. Despite setbacks, Alfred just about held on then pushed the Danes back and secured the territory of Wessex i.e. the west England, during the 880s. His successors through the first third of the 10th century pushed the Danes out of England, until Athelstan could pronounce himself – and be seen by his contemporaries as – the first King of All England by the 920s.

The reign of Athelstan’s nephew, King Edgar the Peaceful (959-975) is seen as the ‘high noon’ of Anglo-Saxon monarchy. But Edgar died aged only 31, leaving the nation to his son, Aethelred, who was only 11 or 12. Aethelred became known to history as Aethelred the Unready because he was totally unsuited to being a king, combining arbitrary cruelty against the helpless with craven cowardice before the powerful.

During his long chaotic reign (978-1013) the nobles of England were hopelessly divided and a new generation of Vikings made their appearance and ravaged the coastlines of England without pity. Unable to muster a strong army, Aethelred fell back time and again to paying the Vikings off with ever-increasing ransoms – the so-called Danegeld – bleeding the country dry to extract all the goods, silver and coin he could muster in order to fill the Danish ships which sailed home every autumn full of English goods, slaves and treasure.

Among the leaders of the new wave of attackers, which escalated through the 990s, may or may not have been Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark (this is the kind of academic question Lawson goes into in great detail – Lawson refers to Sweyn as Swegen thoughout), but Sweyn/Swegen certainly led an plundering raid in 1003, along with his teenage son, Cnut, and almost ever year for a decade. These temporary raids for plunder escalated until, in 1013, Sweyn embarked on a planned invasion, ravaging across the East of England before seizing London. Aethelred was forced to flee England, taking refuge with his brother-in-law, Duke Richard I of Normandy (Aethelred was married to Duke Richard’s sister, Emma) and Sweyn declared himself King. A surprisingly large number of English nobles were happy to acquiesce in his enthronement.

But then Sweyn died unexpectedly after just a year in power, in 1014. The Danish magnates acclaimed his son, Cnut, their king and ruler, but the English nobles asked Aethelred to return from exile in Normandy, although under strict conditions (which for some historians marks the first recorded pact between an English king and his subjects). Aethelred landed and marched an unusually unified English force against the Danes, catching Cnut unprepared, who decided it was wisest to sail back to Denmark – not least to assert his authority there as Sweyn’s successor to the Danish throne. Aethelred was restored.

But in 1015 Cnut returned with a well-organised force to find Aethelred, as usual, in disarray, with his own eldest son, Edmund Ironside, having rebelled against him.

When Cnut began ravaging across the country in late 1015, Edmund rejoined his father to oppose the Danes, but Aethelred died in April 1016. Cnut then decisively defeated Edmund at the gory Battle of Assundun on 18 October 1016, in which large numbers of English nobles were slaughtered.

Cnut and Edmund made a peace treaty, the latter retaining kingship of Wessex, while Cnut took the rest of England (a carbon copy of the situation under King Alfred 130 years previously) but when Edmund himself died soon afterwards, either of wounds or illness later that year, Cnut declared himself King of All England. Since he was also King of Denmark and part of Norway, historians refer to this as the Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire.

Cnut ruled England from 1016 until his death in 1035. He married Aethelred’s widow, Emma, a shrewd move to consolidate an alliance with Emma’s brother, Duke Richard II of Normandy, and also to deprive her sons by Aethelred of support for an invasion attempt from Normandy.

When he died, Cnut was succeeded by his son by an English woman, his first wife or mistress Aelfgifu – Harold I or Harold Harefoot – who ruled for five years until his death in 1040. At which point Cnut’s young son by Emma of Normandy, Harthacnut, having needed several years to establish himself as Cnut’s successor in Denmark, arrived in England and peacefully claimed his throne.

However, Harthacnut turned out to be a cruel and tyrannical king, even by the standards of the times, imposing ruinous punishments – for example ordering entire towns to be burned to the ground if they refused to pay taxes – and it was a relief to everyone when he died after only two years’ reign, and was succeeded by Edward, soon to be known as ‘the Confessor’.

It was during Edward’s reign that the earl of Essex, Godwin, and his son Harold Godwinson, asserted their power, along with his brothers becoming the most powerful family in England. Edward failed to have any children, and appears, while in exile in the Norman court, to have given some kind of promise to William Duke of Normandy that he would inherit the English throne. This was the tangled web which led – at his death in 1066 – to the open conflict between Harold Godwinson and Duke William for the throne of England, which climaxed in the Battle of Hastings – and the long, complex history of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England came to an abrupt end.

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris

Issues

So much for the bare outline of events. In fact the reader of this book has to piece together a lot of this themselves because Lawson’s main interest, as I’ve explained, is much more a textual analysis of surviving sources, than in writing a spuriously smooth narrative. The entire 200-page book is divided into just five chapters and one of them is devoted solely to ‘The Sources’, but in fact the other four are just as scholarly, tentative, hedged around with reservations and qualifications.

But from the welter of notes and debates over the precise sequence of transcription of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C version, and so on, emerge some rather more comprehensible ideas.

  • Aethelred has a bad reputation for dithering, for not facing up to Danish attacks and for shamefully bleeding the country dry to pay off the invaders: but Lawson points out that the cost of raising levies and arming them might well have been more i.e. Danegeld was the cheapest option. Also, that it’s only in retrospect that we know that they kept coming back for more – at the time, it may have been hoped that a few payments and promises would make them go away for good.
  • I knew that Cnut’s kingship of England created an Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire. Lawson brings out the implication of this, though which is that, in an age of perpetual warfare of all against all, that meant he had not so much to rule a far-flung empire as continually worry about all the threats on the borders of that empire: i.e. he had to be aware of potential threats from the Scots, the Irish Vikings, the Welsh, the Normans, the Franks, the (German) Holy Roman Emperor, from Norway, Sweden, and from the Slavic peoples east of the Elbe including the Poles. Explains why both his grandfather Gorm the Old and father Sweyn took Slavic consorts, to protect their eastern flank.
  • In 1017 Cnut, settling into his domain, divided England into four parts, keeping Wessex for himself, giving East Anglis to the independent warlord Thirkell the Tall, Mercia to Eadric, and Northumbria to the Norwegian earl Eric of Lade, to reward these strong allies in his invading army and to impose a military government. The comparison with William the Bastard parcelling out England to his followers 50 years later is striking. Unlike William, though, Cnut seems to have embarked on the elimination of powerful native nobles, having Eadred (who had, incidentally, overthrown the father of Aelfgifu, Cnut’s English wife) beheaded, along – in some accounts – with a number of other leading nobles. Combined with the loss of life at Assundun this amounts to a little holocaust of leading figures. Poor England!
  • The Viking Age in England started with the attack on the remote monastery of Lindisfarne in 793 and only ended with the crushing defeat of the invasion force of Harald Hardrada, defeated by the mighty Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford bridge outside York in 1066. 273 long years of seemingly endless raids, ravaging, plundering and enslavement, which climaxed in the 20 year rule of a Danish king. Odd that this is so often overlooked in the long sweep of English history.

Ravaging and destruction

The scale of the ravaging can’t be imagined. The abbey of Tavistock was burned down in 997, Cerne destroyed, St Mary’s church Exeter was burnt down on 1003, the nunnery at Minster-in-Thanet was burnt down. Christ Church Canterbry was burnt down and the archbishop clubbed to death in 1012. Apart from the massacre of Saxon nobles at the Battle of Assundun, Cnut then executed a number of leading nobles along with their followers. The Danes spent 3 months in 1010 burning East Anglia, killing all the men and cattle they could get their hands on. the young Cnut, forced out of England at Aethelstan’s return in 1014, cut off the hands, noses and ears of the hostages the Saxon nobles had given to him. Cnut’s son, Harthacnut, incensed by the murder of two of his tax inspectors in Worcester, ordered his army to destroy as much of the buildings and kill every man they could find in Worcestershire in 1042. When you consider that Aethelstan repeatedly taxed the nation to within an inch of its life, to extract the repeated payments of Danegeld, combined with the ceaseless harrying, raids, plundering and murdering along any part of the coast, this was a prolonged period when the country was on its knees.

No wonder contemporary writers were so bitter, angry and think the world is coming to an end. Brihtferth of Ramsey in his Life of St Oswald, describes the Danes as accursed, and accomplices of Beelzebub. Archbishop Wulfstan’s famous Sermo Lupi (Sermon of the Wolf) paints a searing portrait of a society in complete moral and physical collapse, and the imminent conquest of the country with the reign of the Anti-Christ.

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned, from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned) from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066, showing men under orders burning a wooden house from which are fleeing a woman and her son. Could be Vietnam. Could be Syria.

England endures

The astonishing thing, though all this mayhem, is the point Lawson makes and so do Marc Morris and David Carpenter, which is that England didn’t fall into chaos, real chaos. Trade continued; taxes were collected; men were drafted into armies; church rents continued to be administered, charters issued and so on.

In fact all the charters, writs and tax returns which Lawson so scrupulously sifts through indicate the continuation of a large amount of central administration and legal writ. Deeper than the destruction is the underlying fact that England was a very wealthy country with an efficient and thorough administrative system before the Danes invaded – a system created by the Wessex kings Alfred, Athelstan, Edgar. This proved solid and resilient enough to survive thirty years of ravaging by the Danes (986-1016), the complete conquest by Cnut, the brief but intensely destructive activity of his son Harthacnut (1040-42), and then the systematic ravaging of the south-east by William the Bastard after his victory at Hastings (1066), followed by the horrific Harrying of the North to put down rebels in 1070, which left Yorkshire in ruins for a generation. But still it endured.

Conclusions

From Lawson’s conclusion, and from the book as a whole, three things emerged for me:

  1. Cnut was, by the standards of his day, the most successful of all pre-Conquest rulers in Britain‘ (p.196). Not only did he rule all of England with some kind of overlordship over the king of Scotland but he was lord of Denmark and Norway, too; and he married his daughter to the Holy Roman Emperor, creating a blood alliance only Aethelstan among his predecessors had managed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mention the outlawing and beheading of a small number of really important nobles, but otherwise his rule doesn’t seem to have been marked by the kind of civil wars which blighted his predecessor and would mar the reign of so many of the Plantagenet kings a century later. Above all, he succeeded in what contemporaries considered the number one obligation of a king – he protected the realm from foreign invasion and raids. All this without the imposition of castles everywhere and the wholescale replacement of the English nobility with his own followers, which is of course what William the Bastard did. So whose conquest was more effective in its day, William’s or Cnut’s? Discuss.
  2. Contingency In fact, what Cnut and none of his contemporaries could have anticipated was that he himself would die relatively young (we don’t actually know his birth year, and Lawson – in his usual thorough way explicates several conflicting theories – but 990 is a popular calculation, so he was, perhaps, 45 when he died in 1035) and that all three of his sons – Sweyn (d.1035) and Harold Harefoot (d.1040) by Aelfgifu – and Harthacnut (d.1042) by Emma of Normandy – would be dead within seven years. Had Cnut lived to 60 like the Conqueror, and had his children reigned similar lengths as the Conqueror’s children (William Rufus 13 years, Henry 1 35 years!) i.e. a total of 48 years i.e. until 1083, then in all probability neither Edward the Confessor, nor Harold Godwinson, nor William the Conqueror would ever have ruled – the Norman Conquest would never have happened! But all three of his male children died in quick succession and the kingship of England reverted to the line of Wessex, to the Confessor, whose failure to have any children, let alone a male heir, turned out to be fatal.
  3. The Viking Age Lawson, like other historians says that the Viking Age came to a definitive end with the crushing defeat of Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, by the army of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. But a section of his conclusion slightly contradicts this. For in 1069 a Danish fleet sailed up the Humber to assist Saxon rebels against the Conqueror; in 1070 this force was joined by Swegen Estrithsson of Denmark, Cnut’s nephew, who was met by people apparently hoping he would conquer the entire country, as his uncle had. In fact William bought Swegen off (just like Aethelred) but another fleet, under Swegen’s son, another Cnut, arrived to support a further rebellion in 1075. They decided against an armed confrontation with William, withdrew and sailed home. But even as late as 1085 William was, apparently, making careful preparations to deal with another invasion Cnut was threatening but in the event never mounted. In other words, it sounds to me as if the Battle of Stamford Bridge didn’t really end the Viking threat, which continued, by Lawson’s own account, to be serious and taken seriously for another 20 years. So surely more as if it slowly petered out rather than abruptly and definitively ended.

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In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood (2005)

Michael Wood

This is Wood’s first book. Back in 1979 he burst onto our TV screens as the boyishly enthusiastic presenter of a BBC series about ‘the Dark Ages’, spread across eight episodes, his hippy length hair and flapping flairs striding along castle walls and over Iron Age forts. I remember chatting to a middle-aged woman TV executive who openly lusted after Wood’s big smile and tight, tight trousers.

Since this debut, Wood has gone on to present no fewer than 19 TV series as well as eight one-off documentaries and to write 12 history books. In fact I was surprised and dismayed to read that the former boy wonder of history TV is now nearly 70.

Dated

The first edition of this paperback was published in 1981 and its datedness is confirmed by the short bibliography at the back which recommends a swathe of texts from the 1970s and even some from the 1960s i.e. 50 long years ago.

The very title is dated, as nowadays all the scholars refer to the period from 400 to 1000 as the Early Middle Ages;’ no-one says ‘Dark Ages’ any more – though, credit where credit’s due, maybe this TV series and book helped shed light on the period for a popular audience which helped along the wider recategorisation.

But the book’s age does mean that you are continually wondering how much of it is still true. Wood is keen on archaeological evidence and almost every chapter features sentences like ‘new archaeological evidence / new digs at XXX are just revealing / promise to reveal major new evidence about Offa/Arthur et al…’ The reader is left wondering just what ‘new evidence’ has revealed over the past 40 years and just how much of Wood’s interpretations still hold up.

Investigations

It’s important to emphasise that the book does not provide a continuous and overarching history of the period: the opposite. The key phrase is ‘in search of…’ for each chapter of the book (just like each of the TV programmes) focuses on one particular iconic figure from the period and goes ‘in search of’ them, starting with their current, often mythologised reputation, then going on to examine the documentary texts, contemporary artifacts (coins, tapestries etc) and archaeological evidence to try and get at ‘the truth behind the myth’.

The figures are: Boadicea, King Arthur, the Sutton Hoo Man, Offa, Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, Eric Bloodaxe, King Ethelred the Unready, William the Conqueror. Each gets a chapter putting them in the context of their day, assessing the sources and material evidence for what we can really know about them, mentioning the usual anecdotes and clichés generally to dismiss them.

Contemporary comparisons

Part of Wood’s popularising approach is to make trendy comparisons to contemporary figures or situations. Some of this has dated a lot – when he mentions a contemporary satirical cartoon comparing the Prime Minister to Boadicea (or Boudica, as she was actually called) he is of course referring to Margaret Thatcher, not Theresa May. When he says that the late-Roman rulers of Britain effectively declared U.D.I. from the Empire, I just about remember what he’s referring to – Rhodesia’s declaration of independence from Britain back in 1965 – and it’s a thought-provoking comparison – but most readers would probably have to look it up. He says that contemporaries remembered the bad winter of 763 ‘just as we do that of 1947’ – do we? He says the Northumbrians felt about Athelstan’s conquest of their kingdom ‘the same way as we feel about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia’ (p.145).

That said, I found many of the comparisons worked well bringing these ancient people to life, in highlighting how their behaviour is comparable to the same kind of things going on in the contemporary world:

For example, he compares the native British merchants getting involved with Roman traders like entrepreneurs in contemporary Third World countries taking out, for example, a Coca Cola franchise – or compares Boudica’s rebellion against the imperial Romans with rebellions against British Imperial rule – the most disastrous of which was probably the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – invigorating my thinking about both.

In the 440s the British King Vortigern invited warbands from Germany, Frisia and Denmark to come and help him fight against the invading Picts and Scots. As we know, a number of them decided they liked this new fertile country and decided to stay. Wood entertainingly compares the situation to modern mercenaries deciding not just to fight in but to settle and take over a modern African country.

The seventh-century English kingdoms were ruled by the descendants of the illiterate condottieri who had seized their chances in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is, let us say, as if Major ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare had founded his own dynasty in the Congo in the early sixties. (p.63)

I understood the reference the more since Hoare is mentioned in the memoirs of both Frederick Forsyth and Don McCullin who covered wars in Africa back in the distant 1960s.

Elsewhere he compares the builders of Offa’s Dyke to modern motorway construction companies, kingly announcements as sounding like modern propaganda by Third World dictators, the lingering influence of Rome on the 7th and 8th century kings comparable to the lingering afterglow of European imperial trappings on African dictators like Idi Amin or Jean-Bédel Bokassa. He compares the partition of England between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings to the partition of Israel, and the readiness of armed civilians to mobilise against the invader as comparable to the readiness of Israeli reservists (p.124); the burning of Ripon Minster by the southern army of King Eardred marching north to confront Erik Bloodaxe ‘had the same effect that the shelling of Reims had in 1914 (p.181).

Learning that King Athelstan was the first king to definitively rule the entire English nation and in fact to extend his mastery over Wales and Scotland, you might think ‘game over’, it’s all peaceful from now on, but far from it. The decades after Athelstan’s death in 939 saw the ravaging of the north of England by conflicting hordes of Saxons, Vikings, Northumbrians, Scots and Welsh, until it became a kind of ‘Dark Age Vietnam’, despoiled by the Dark Age equivalent of our modern ‘saturation bombing’ (p.165).

Quibbles and kings

Pedants might quibble that Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans took place in 60AD, quite a long time before the official start date of the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages, which is generally given as 400. But I can see the logic: a) Boudicca is more or less the first named leader of the Britons that history records and b) the themes of Roman colonialism and British resistance and c) the broader themes of invasion and resistance are set up very neatly by her story. In fact, given that a lot of the book is about invasion and resistance, leaving her out would have been odd.

For invasion is the main theme: the Romans arrived to find the native ‘Britons’ illiterate and so it’s only with the Romans that the written record begins, although archaeology suggests that successive waves of peoples had arrived and spread over Britain before them. But after the Romans there is a well-recorded set of invaders:

  • First the Angles and Saxons under their legendary leaders Hengist and Horsa in the 450s; the legend of King Arthur grew out of stories of native ‘British’ resistance to the Germanic invaders in the late 400s and Wood, like every other serious historian, concludes that there is not a shred of evidence for Arthur’s actual historical existence.
  • It is from the period when the Anglo-Saxon invaders settled into different ‘kingdoms’ – in fact themselves made up of loosely affiliated tribal groups – that dates the stupendous grave at Sutton Hoo with its wonderful Dark Age treasure: Wood goes ‘in search’ of the king who was buried there but, like every other scholar, says we will probably never know, though the name of King Raedwald of the East Angles is most often referred to in the scholarly literature.
  • King Offa of Mercia (757-797) was the most powerful king of his day – he was even deemed worthy of correspondence from the great Charlemagne, king of Francia (768-814) and Wood goes in search of his royal ‘palace’ at Tamworth.
  • It was King Alfred the Great (871-899) who had to deal with the arrival of a massive Viking army and, although pushed back into the marshy maze of the Somerset Levels, eventually emerged to fight the invaders to a truce, in which the Danes held all of England east of a line drawn from London to the Mersey – the so-called Danelaw.
  • It fell to his son, Edward, to successfully continue the fight against the Danes, and it was only in the reign of his son, King Athelstan (927-939) that all of England was for the first time unified under one ruler.
  • In fact, the Danes fought back and the Norse adventurer Eric Haraldsson, nicknamed Eric Bloodaxe, briefly seized and ruled Yorkshire from York. When he was finally overthrown (in 954), that was meant to be the end of Danish rule in England…
  • Except that the Danish King Cnut managed, after a long campaign led by his father, to seize the English throne in 1016 and reigned till his death in 1035, and was succeeded by his son Harthacnut, an unpopular tyrant who reigned for just two years (1040-42). During Cnut’s reign England became part of his North Sea Empire which joined the thrones of Denmark and Sweden.
  • Cnut’s Anglo-Danish kingdom is generally forgotten because it, like a lot of Anglo-Saxon history, is eclipsed by the Norman Conquest of 1066, with which Wood logically concludes his story.

Brutality

Though he conveys infectious excitement at the achievement of an Offa or Athelstan, Wood is well aware of the brutality which was required of a Dark Ages king.

For most Dark Age kings had the inclinations of spoilt children and their moral sense was unrefined. (p.221)

We learn that after Offa’s death the men of Kent rose up against Mercian rule and were crushed, their king, Eadberht Praen, taken in chains to Mercia where his hands were cut off and he was blinded (p.107). The Vikings practiced a ritual sacrifice of their fallen opponents to Wodin, the blood eagle, which involved cutting the ribs and lungs out of the living man and arranging them to look like eagle’s wings (p.114). The great Athelstan himself barely survived an attempt apparently organised by  his brother, Edwin, to capture and blind him (p.140). When the invading Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014, his army elected  his son, Cnut, as king to replace him. Ethelred took advantage of the hiatus to raise levies and attack Cnut in Gainsborough, forcing him to go to sea. But the Danes had taken a number of nobles or their sons hostage for good behaviour, and Cnut put them all ashore at Sandwich, after cutting off their noses and hands (p.216).

Ravaging not fighting

There was no shortage of battles during this period (the thousand years from Boudicca’s revolt in 60 to Hastings in 1066) but what I began to realise was the steady drip-drip of ‘campaigns’ which never involved two armies directly confronting each other; instead during which one or more armies rampaged through their opponents’ territory, murdering, raping, destroying crops and burning down villages, in order to terrorise their opponents into ceasing fire and offering a truce. The Romans, the Britons, the Saxons, the Welsh, the Scots and the Picts and the Irish, the Vikings, the Danes and the Normans – all in their time waged ‘military’ campaigns which amounted to little more than systematic murder, rape and plunder of completely unarmed peasants as a deliberate war strategy.

I’ve always wondered why there’s a massive statue of Boudicca opposite the Houses of Parliament given that one of her main achievements was burning London to the ground, after previously ravaging all Roman settlements in her native East Anglia; and a thousand years later William the Bastard, having defeated the main Wessex army at Senlac Ridge, then set about ravaging the countryside in a wide circle to the west and up and around London – then when the English in the north resisted him, William went on a massive campaign of destruction known as the Harrying of the North (1069-70) resulting in huge destruction and widespread famine caused by his army’s looting, burning and slaughtering.

From Boadicea to the Bastard, a thousand years of horrific violence and destruction.

As David Carpenter points out in his history of the Plantagenet kings, direct confrontation in battle is risky; quite often the bigger better-led force loses, for all sorts of reasons. Hugely more controllable, predictable and effective is to ravage your opponents’ land until he sues for peace. You lose no soldiers; in fact the soldiers get all the food they want plus the perks of raping and/or killing helpless civilians, which saves on pay as well; if you do it long enough your opponent will cave in the end.

This is the depressing logic which means that, time after time, king after king and invader after invader found it cheaper, safer and more effective to kill and burn helpless civilians than to engage in a set piece battle. And it is a logic which continues to this day in horribly war-torn parts of the world.

Slavery

I’m well aware that slavery was one of the great trades of this era, that slaves were one of Roman Britain’s main exports and were still a mainstay of the economy even after William the Bastard tried to ban the trade a thousand years later, but Wood himself admits to being astonished by the range of breadth of the Dark Age slave trade (pp. 183-185):

  • The Spanish Arabs engaged in a lucrative slave trade with the Dublin Norse who often planned their attacks on Christian towns to coincide with Christian festivals when they’d be packed e.g. the raid on Kells in 951 in which the Norse took away over 3,000 slaves to sell on.
  • The Church in Britain was economically dependent on its slaves.
  • The Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland served as clearing houses for slaves seized from the interior or Wales or England and then sold on to Arab Spain, to North Africa or via the Baltic via the Russian river routes to the Islamic states of the Middle East.
  • An Arab traveller of Erik Bloodaxe’s time (the 950s) reported from Spain on the great numbers of European slaves in the harems and in the militia. The Emir of Cordoba, in particular, owned many white women.
  • Most British slaves seem to have ended up being sent via the Russian river route to the Middle East. The numerous Icelandic sagas mention the slave trade and even give portraits of individual named slave impresarios.
  • The Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (962 – 973) captured tens of thousands of Slavs in his conquests eastwards, sending them in chains back to be processed by Jewish and Syrian slave merchants in Verdun, and then shipped south into Arab lands, many of them castrated first so as to be fit servants in the harem.
  • An eighth-century pilgrim in Taranto saw nine thousand Italian slaves being loaded aboard boat, just one of countless shipments to Egypt.

Almost everything about the Dark Ages is terrifying, the never-ending warfare, the endless ravaging burning and looting, but I think the vision of an entire continent dominated by the trade in slaves is the most harrowing thing of all.

The inheritance of Rome

Chris Wickham’s book, The Inheritance of Rome (2009), makes the claim that only in recent times have we come to realise the extent to which the legacy of Rome lived on for centuries after the end of the Roman Empire in the West (traditionally dated to the death of the last emperor in 475). So it’s interesting to read Wood making exactly the same point in 1980:

For the so-called barbarians of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Roman empire cast the same sort of afterglow as the British Empire did in post-colonial Africa… The ruins of Rome stood around them in tangible form, of course. But it went deeper than that. The Northumbrian bretwalda, Edwin, unsophisticated but immensely proud, as Bede portrays him, made the point of having the insignia of Roman office carried aloft before him in public. He was baptised by a Roman missionary in the Roman city of York, and for all we know held court in the still standing Roman HQ building there. Such men were setting themselves up as civilised heirs of Rome… (p.108)

Conclusion

All in all this is a popularising and accessible account, dipping into the most dramatic highlights of this long period, a quick entertaining read, with many stimulating thoughts, insights and comparisons thrown in.


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The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350 by Robert Bartlett (1993)

The sub-title is ‘Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350’ and that is very much the central idea I take from this book – that before Europe embarked on its well-known colonial adventures from 1492 onwards, it had already experienced centuries of internal colonisation.

Another book I’ve recently read, Robert Fletcher’s The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD, has prepared my mind for this idea, with its account of the millennium-long process whereby Christianity was spread across the ‘nations’ (such as they were) of Europe, to the pagan peoples and rulers of the fringes. The final part of that book makes it clear that, after the First Crusade (1095-99), as Christianity was spread along the Baltic and into the last bastions of paganism in Eastern Europe, the evangelising became much more violent. It no longer amounted to a much-venerated saint converting a bunch of open-mouthed peasants by healing a sick girl; it was now about armed bands of knights united in an ‘Order’ – the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, the Teutonic Order – who waged fierce wars of conquest into the East, forcibly converting the populations they conquered and building imperial castles to hold the territory they’d seized.

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Europe had to colonise itself, before its rulers went on to violently colonise the rest of the world.

Bartlett’s book aims to make you see that a number of scattered events usually treated as separate entities in siloed national histories, were actually all part of One Really Big Pattern: the spread, by conquest, of a centrally organised, Latin, Catholic Christianised state ideology right across Europe, and that this diffusion came from the heart of the old Frankish empire, from the most technologically and ideologically advanced heart of Europe consisting of north-France, north-west Germany and south-east England (after it had been conquered by the Normans in the 1060s).

Thus:

  • The Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1170s was partly a crude seizure of land and resources, but also involved the imposition on Gaelic Christianity of the much more centrally organised Latin Roman version.
  • A hundred years later, Edward I’s conquest of Wales in the 1280s had a similar aim of imposing a strong, centralised, Latinate organisation onto a culture traditionally made of scores of petty princes.
  • The Scots had already undergone a European-style centralising ‘revolution’ under King David I (1124-1153) and so could muster more resources to resist Edward I’s imperial ambitions – but only at the expense of handing over large parts of southern Scotland to settlement by Normans (and Flemings).
  • This period also saw the Reconquista of Spain, the long effort to push the occupying Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula, over the centuries from the reconquest of Toledo in 1085 to the recapture of Seville in 1248.
  • It was also the era of the Crusades (1095 to 1291), which imposed Latin, Catholic Christianity on formerly Orthodox territories in the Middle East.
  • Just before the First Crusade began, Norman troops under Roger I conquered the Kingdom of Sicily from the Muslims (complete by 1091).
  • En route to the Holy Land, King Richard I seized Cyprus from its Greek ruler in 1191, transferring it to Latin rule.
  • And the sack of Constantinople in 1204 led directly to the imposition of Latin, Catholic dioceses and bishops over much of the Byzantine Empire.

The same period saw the campaigns to Christianise the remote regions of northern and north-eastern Europe, now collectively referred to as the ‘Northern Crusades’. These included:

  • The Wendish Crusade (1147) against the Wends of north-east Germany and Poland.
  • The Crusade against the Livonians in the north-east Baltic in the 1190s.
  • The Teutonic Knights prolonged campaign to crush and convert the Prussians in the 1250s.
  • And a series of drawn-out campaigns against the pagan Duchy of Lithuania, the last stronghold of paganism in all Europe.

Moreover, this period also saw internal crusades to impose order and uniformity within Latin Christendom – most notoriously against the Cathars, a heretical sect which had followers across the South of France and which was brutally suppressed in the ‘Albigensian Crusade’ from 1209 to 1229 (named for the town of Albi, which was one of the heretical strongholds).

The Frankish expansion

The animation below shows the first 500 years of the spread of Christianity, the loss of the Middle east and Africa to the Muslims in the 700s and 800s, the Christian fightback – permanent in Spain, transient in the Levant – and then the abrupt worldwide explosion of Christianity commencing in 1500. It’s the first 1400 years or so we’re interested in, the fluctuations in and around the Mediterranean, and the period 950 to 1350 that Bartlett is particularly concerned with.

In a host of ways Bartlett identifies this expansion with the Franks, the Gothic tribe which seized Gaul from the Romans in the 500s and quickly established a centralised state which reached its geographical maximum under the legendary Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 to 814. I hadn’t realised that at its peak, Charlemagne’s empire was coterminous with Western Christendom (with the exception of the Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms) as this map shows. It really was an awesome achievement.

Map of Europe around 800 AD

Map of Europe around 800 AD

William of Normandy who conquered Britain in 1066 was a descendant of the Frankish kings. Frankish aristocrats played key roles in all the conquests of the day, against the Moors in Spain and the Saracens in the Levant, in Sicily and Crete and Cyprus, and in the north pressing into Denmark, into Poland and along the Baltic towards Finland and Russia. Bartlett has a nifty diagram showing that by the late Middle Ages, 80% of Europe’s monarchs were descended from the Frankish royal family or Frankish nobles.

No surprise, then, that the word ‘Frank’ began to be used widely as a generic name for the conquerors and settlers all over Europe – the Byzantine Greeks called the incoming Latins ‘the Franks’; a settlement in Hungary was called ‘the village of the Franks’; the newly conquered peoples of Silesia and Moravia had to submit to ‘Frankish law’; Welsh chroniclers refer to incursions by ‘the Franci’; and Irish monks referred to the Anglo-Norman invaders as ‘the Franks’. Similarly, in the Middle East of the Crusader era, Muslim commentators, kings and peoples came to call all Westerners ‘the Franks’. So widespread and famous was this association, that Muslim traders took the name Faranga on their journeys through the Red Sea eastwards, spreading the term as far East as China, where, when westerners arrived hundreds of years later, they were identified as the long-rumoured Fo-lang-ki. (pp.104-105).

Questions and theories

All this prompts three questions:

  1. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to convert the entire continent?
  2. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to be so centralised; why did it feel so obliged to impose uniformity of ritual and language all across the Christian world?
  3. What gave Latin Christian culture its dynamism – the aggressive confidence which would spill out to the Canary Islands (conquered in the early 1400s), to the Caribbean (1490s), to Central America (1520s), along the coast of Africa (first settlements in Mozambique in 1500), to India and beyond?

1. The first of these questions is answered at length in Richard Fletcher’s book, which shows how the Great Commission in St Matthew’s Gospel (‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you‘) was interpreted by successive Church authorities to mean, first of all, gaining some converts among the rich in cities around the Roman Empire; then to convert all inhabitants of the cities; then, only slowly, to undertake the task of converting the rural peasants; and only then, in the 700s and 800s, the brave idea of venturing beyond the pale of Romanitas to try and convert pagans.

The second two questions are the ones Bartlett specifically addresses and he approaches them from different angles, examining various theories and sifting a wide range of evidence. I found two arguments particularly convincing:

2. The centralisation of the Catholic Church. This stems from the Gregorian Reforms, a series of measures instituted by Pope Gregory VII from around 1050 to 1080. They banned the purchase of clerical positions, enforced clerical celibacy, significantly extended Canon law to impose uniformity on all aspects of Catholic practice. As Wikipedia puts it, these reforms were based on Gregory’s

conviction that the Church was founded by God and entrusted with the task of embracing all mankind in a single society in which divine will is the only law; that, in his capacity as a divine institution, he is supreme over all human structures, especially the secular state; and that the pope, in his role as head of the Church under the Petrine Commission, is the vice-regent of God on earth, so that disobedience to him implies disobedience to God: or, in other words, a defection from Christianity.

This gathering of power by the papacy is generally thought to have reached its height under the papacy of Pope Innocent III (1198 to 1216). Innocent further extended Canon Law, upheld papal power over all secular rulers, using the Interdict to punish rulers he disagreed with (e.g. King John of England) and he was personally responsible for some of the violent campaigns we’ve listed: Innocent called for Christian crusades to be mounted against the Muslims in the Holy Land and the south of Spain, and against the Cathars in the South of France.

Making Christian belief and practice uniform was part and parcel of the extension of its power by a vigorously confident papacy, a vision of uniformity which echoed and reinforced the tendency of secular rulers to create larger ‘states’ in which they asserted increasingly centralised power and uniform laws.

3. As to the literal force behind the aggressive military confidence, Bartlett has a fascinating chapter about the technology of medieval war. Basically, the Franks had heavy war-horses, heavy body armour, the crossbow and a new design of impenetrable defensive castles and all of these were absent in the conquered territories, the Holy Land, southern Spain, Wales and Ireland, in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. These advanced military technologies gave the better-armed Franks victory – at least until their opponents managed to figure out and copy them for themselves. (The Crusades are a different case – fundamentally the Crusaders lost for lack of men and resources.)

But I was drawn to a subtler cause for this great expansion: in the 9th and 10th centuries the laws of inheritance were hazy and patrimonies and estates could be divided among a number of sons, daughters, cousins, uncles and so on. (One aspect of this is the way that Anglo-Saxon kings were chosen by acclamation, not rigid law; and this uncertainty explains the long English civil war following Henry I’s death between his daughter Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois, which lasted from 1135 to 1153.)

Thus, along with the imposition of clearer laws and rules within the Church went secular attempts in Frankish lands to regularise secular law, and one element of this was to enforce the previously haphazard law of primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. But this new rigour had unexpected consequences – it forced all the other male heirs to go off looking for land.

In a fascinating chapter Bartlett sketches the histories of several aristocratic Frankish families where one son inherited the father’s entire estate and left the other 3 or 4 or 5 well-armed, well-educated, ambitious sons literally homeless and landless. There was only one thing for it – to associate themselves with the nearest campaign of Christianisation and conquest. Thus the de Joinville family from the Champagne region of France spawned sons who fought and won lands in Ireland, in Africa and Syria. The descendants of Robert de Grandmenils from Normandy (d.1050) won lands in southern Italy and Sicily, served the Byzantine Emperor, joined the First Crusade, and ended up building castles in northern Wales.

So a newly rigorous application of the law of primogeniture provided the motive for forcing dispossessed aristocrats to go a-fighting – the newly authoritarian Catholic Church provided a justifying ideology for conquest in the name of uniformity and iron armour, heavy warhorses, the crossbow and castles provided the technology. Taken together these elements at least begin to explain the phenomenal success of the ‘Frankish expansion’.

Other aspects of medieval colonisation

These ideas are pretty clearly expressed in the first three chapters; the remaining nine chapters flesh them out with a host of details examining the impact of the Frankish expansion on every aspect of medieval life: the image of the conquerors as embodied in coins, statutes and charters; the division of time into primitive pagan ‘before’ and civilised Christian ‘after’; the propagandistic literature of conquest (in various romances and epics); the giving of new Latin place names which over-wrote the native names of the conquered – the Arabs, the Irish, the Slavs; the imposition of new Frankish laws and tax codes; the proliferation of New Towns with Western-based charters, and the creation of hundreds of new villages, laid out on logical grid patterns, especially in eastern Europe. (This reminded me of the passage in Marc Morris’s history of Edward I which describes Edward’s creation of New Model Towns on grid plans in Wales (Flint) but also England (Winchelsea)).

Bartlett presents the evidence for the widespread importation from Christian Germany of heavy, iron-tipped ploughs which were much more efficient at turning the soil than the lighter, wooden Slavic ploughs, and thus increased productivity in the new settlements (pp.148-152). This went hand-in-hand with a ‘cerealisation’ of agriculture, as woods were cleared and marshes drained to provide more ploughing land to grow wheat and barley, which in turn led to significant increases in population in the newly settled lands. (Although as with all things human this had unintended consequences, little understood at the time; which is that the pagan predecessors, though fewer in number, had a more balanced diet which included fruit and berries and honey from woodlands – the switch to a cereal-based monoculture increased production but probably led to unhealthier people. Analysis of corpses suggests there was a net loss of stature in humans over the period, with the average height decreasing by about 2 inches between the early and the High Middle Ages.)

Names became homogenised. The Normans imported ‘William’ and ‘Henry’ into the England of ‘Athelstan’ and ‘Aelfric’, and then into the Wales of ‘Llywelyn’ ‘Owain’ and the Ireland of ‘Connor’, ‘Cormac’ and ‘Fergus’. Bartlett shows how these essentially Frankish names also spread east replacing ‘Zbigniew’ and ‘Jarosław’, south into Sicily and even (to a lesser extent) into Spain.

In a move typical of Bartlett’s ability to shed fascinating light on the taken-for-granted, he shows how the centralisation and harmonisation of the Latin church led to the diffusion of a small number of generic saints names. Before about 1100 the churches of the various nations were dedicated to a very wide spectrum of saints named after local holy men in Irish, Welsh, Scots, Castilian, Navarrese, Italian, Greek, Germanic or Polish and so on. But the 1200s saw the rise of a continent-wide popularity for the core gospel names – Mary at the top of the table, followed by Christ (as in Christ Church or Corpus Christi) and then the names of the most popular disciples, John, Peter, Andrew.

The names of individual people as well as the names of their churches, along with many other cultural changes which he describes – all followed this process of homogenisation and Latinisation which Bartlett calls ‘the Europeanisation of Europe’ (chapter 11).

New worlds and the New World

Bartlett doesn’t have to emphasise it but the parallels are clear to see between the colonisation by violence and crusading Christianity of the peripheral areas of Europe in the 1000s to 1300s, and the conquest of the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s. It’s a mind-opening comparison, which works at multiple levels.

For example, many of the charters and decrees about the new European lands proclaimed them ’empty’ virgin land ready to be settled, despite the evidence of native populations living in well-developed (though non-Latin) settlements – just as publicists for the Americas and, later, Australia, would declare them ’empty’ of natives.

Even when there are obviously natives (Welsh, Scots, Muslims, Slavs) the official colonial medieval literature disparages the aboriginal inhabitants’ lack of literacy, of iron tools or weapons, of orthodox Christianity, of organised towns with advanced codes of law and so on.

‘They’ are in every way uncivilised; ‘we’ in every way deserve to take their land because only ‘we’ know how to make it productive and fertile.

Many of the other histories I’ve read describe the numerous medieval conquests in terms of battles, alliances, troops and armour and so on; Bartlett’s is the only one I know which goes on to explain in great detail that, once you’ve conquered your new territory – you need people to come and live in it. You have to persuade people from the old lands to risk making a long journey, so you have to advertise and give would-be settlers tax breaks and even cash incentives. Settlers in Ireland, the south of Spain, the Holy Land or Livonia were all told how much empty land they could have, were offered tax breaks for the first few years and then reduced taxes for decades after, and the lords and conquerors fell over themselves to give the new towns attractive charters and independent powers to determine their own laws and taxes.

All of these techniques would be copied by the conquistadors in Central America or the merchant adventurers who launched the first settlements in North America, or the colonial authorities desperate to fill the wide ’empty’ spaces of Australia or New Zealand. It is a mind-opening revelation to learn how all these techniques were pioneered within Europe itself and against fellow ‘Europeans’, centuries before the New World was discovered.

Conclusion

This a very persuasive book which mounts an impressive armoury of evidence – archaeological and ecological, in place names, people’s names, saints names, in cultural traditions, church records and epic poems, in the spread of monasteries and universities and charters and coinage – to force home its eye-opening central argument: that the more advanced, centrally organised parts of Europe (north-west France, north-west Germany and south-east England) (all ultimately owing their authority, technology and ideology to the Frankish empire of Charlemagne) succeeded in conquering and settling the rest of less advanced, less developed and non-Christian Europe with the aid of a panoply of technologies and ideologies, legal and cultural and physical weapons – a panoply which Europeans would then use to sail out and conquer huge tracts of the rest of the world.


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King John by Marc Morris (2015)

I loved Marc Morris’s History of the Norman Conquest because it gave such a thorough explanation of the background, build-up, events and consequences of the most famous moment in English history, so I was looking forward to reading this book and it is certainly good – but not as good as the Conquest one, and I spent some time, as I read it, trying to figure out why.

1. The long historical build-up to John’s reign

I think the main reason is that the central feature of King John’s reign (1199 to 1216) is the complete collapse of the huge and elaborate ’empire’ created by his predecessors – Henry I (his grandfather), the great Henry II (his father) and King Richard, his swashbuckling brother.

The pressures John faced trying to hang on to the south (Aquitaine), the middle (Anjou) and the north (Normandy) of France, along with the large and fractious realm of England, as well as managing relations with Scotland, Wales and Ireland – all these only make sense if you have a good grasp of how this patchwork ’empire’ had been slowly and effortfully acquired by his father and brother in the first place.

So anyone describing John’s reign would have to give a fair amount of space to this ‘back story’. Thus Morris has to start his story with the advent of Henry I (1100) and explain how his son and heir, William Aetheling, was lost in a disastrous shipwreck (1120) which – since Henry had no other sons – led him to the desperate expedient of trying to impose his daughter, Matilda, as his heir on his reluctant nobles. When Henry I died in 1135 Matilda’s claim was immediately contested by her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who managed to secure the throne of England and ruled as King Stephen (1135 – 1154) but under constant assault from the forces loyal to Queen Matilda in the west and north of England leading to 20 years of exhausting civil war.

Eventually, in the event-packed last few years of his reign, Stephen’s own son and heir, Eustace, died young (in 1153) and Stephen was forced to accept the son of Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey Count of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, Henry, as his heir. Geoffrey enjoyed the sportive nickname of Plantagenet, and so this name was also given to his son, Henry.

The very next year Stephen himself died (1154) and young Henry Plantagenet assumed control over a complex web of territories – England from Stephen, Normandy via his grandfather the Conqueror, Anjou, Touraine and Maine from his father and, via his shrewd marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, possession of Aquitaine, a huge slab of south-west France, maybe a third the land area of the present-day France.

Because Henry’s central inheritance (from his father, Geoffrey) was of the Duchy of Anjou, the ’empire’ is often referred to as the Angevin Empire, Angevin being the adjectival form of Anjou (as Poitevin is the adjectival version of the neighbouring region of Poitou).

Just holding on to control of these far-flung territories needed every drop of this remarkable man’s confidence, aggression, cunning and ruthlessness. But it is only by understanding how the ’empire’ came about, almost by accident, that we can understand the context of problems which he and his sons – first Richard (1189-99) and then John (1199 to 1216) – would inherit:

  • How to maintain the disparate French possessions in the face of continual uprisings by local counts and lords?
  • How to fight off the continual attacks and threats of successive French kings – Louis VII and Philip II?
  • How to keep the aggressive Scottish kings bottled up in Scotland?
  • How to secure more land in Wales?
  • How and when to interfere in the troublesome island of Ireland?
  • How to manage relations with the pope, especially when you seem to be at loggerheads with one or other of your archbishops? (England has two archbishops – of Canterbury and of York)
  • How to pay for it all by raising the maximum amount of taxes but not alienating the fractious competing nobles of England?
  • And, above all, how to manage all this while coping with all the adult members of your family politicking and conspiring against you?

This context, this historical backdrop, the events of the 60 or 70 years prior to John’s accession (in 1199) are key to understanding John’s predicament.

2. Use of flashbacks

Rather than deal with this long historical run-up in a straightforward chronological account, Morris takes the risky decision to start his narrative in the middle of John’s reign, starting with a detailed account (along with pictures and two maps) of the French King Philip II’s siege of the Plantagenet castle of Château Gaillard, on the River Seine, 20 miles south-east of Rouen in 1204.

Having painted this scene, in chapter two Morris jumps all the way back to the birth of the family empire in the early 1100s (as outlined above). Chapter three returns us to the Château Gaillard siege (which turned out to be one of the longest and most gruelling in medieval history). Chapter four jumps back again, to 1189, when Henry II died and his son Richard succeeded.

This chapter takes us through the first half of Richard’s ten-year reign – his adventures on the Third Crusade (1189-92), his capture on his return through Europe, his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and his final release after his regents in England had raised an enormous ransom for him in 1194 – then abruptly stops.

The next chapter picks up the thread of John’s reign in 1205 after the end of the Château Gaillard siege and the humiliating failure of his English nobles to join an armed flotilla designed to attack King Philip of France, then follows events of the ‘campaigning season’ of the following year, 1206.

We are just getting our head round this context when the next chapter whisks us away from all that, to pick up the second half of King Richard’s reign from 1194 and carry it on through to the first years of John’s reign, 1202.

And so on. For well over half its length the book flicks back and forward between a ‘present’ narrative and historical flashbacks. I think I can see why: he didn’t want to start his book with 60 or 70 pages of solid exposition before he gets to John’s coronation. But, for me, it doesn’t work.

Comparison with Dan Jones

It just so happens that I read Morris’s book  in parallel with Dan Jones’s jaunty, boys-own-adventure account of the entire Plantagenet dynasty. This tells the story outlined above but in a traditional chronological order and a direct comparison between the two suggests that, although Morris’s book is more scholarly and nuanced, Jones’s narrative is not only easier to read but gives you a much better cumulative sense of the issues at stake for all these rulers:

  • how the Angevin empire was originally created
  • the tremendously complex shifting alliances it required to keep it together
  • the history of the other major players involved, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, like Henry II’s rebellious children, like the pesky kings of France
  • as well as the litany of difficulties Henry, Richard and John all encountered while trying to tax the bolshy nobles of England
  • and the challenges of keeping the bloody church and interfering pope onside

To put yourself in the place of these (horrible) rulers you have to understand the constant pressure they were under from all sides (and the constant pressure they themselves exerted in the never-ending conflict which was medieval high politics). And the only hope you have of understanding why William of Scotland or Llewylyn of Wales or Louis of France attacked when and how they did, is to have a sense of the cumulative relationships between them and Henry or Richard or John, and the accumulated grudges or alliances or betrayals which feed into their behaviour.

It is hard enough to follow when presented clearly and simply so, for me, Morris’s approach made it hopelessly confusing. I quite quickly decided to read the chapters of his book out of the textual order he’s placed them in (reading chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, then 1, 3, 5, 7).

Detail

Dan Jones is shrewd to start his 600-page account of the Plantagenets with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, which really seems to be the mainspring of the whole Plantagenet story. But his chronological approach also allows him to give events a properly detailed treatment as they occur – logically enough, there is a set of chapters devoted to Henry II and Richard I, before we get to the birth and youth of John.

Morris, by contrast, often skips over these earlier events in order to get to the ostensible subject of his book the quicker. He has to tell us something about the events of earlier reigns because John grew up under them and spent most of, for example Richard’s reign (1189-1199) politicking and conspiring against his brother – but he tends to skimp on details of Richard’s activities.

Thus he tells us simply that, en route to the Holy Land in 1191, Richard conquered Cyprus, in one sentence (p.72). Jones goes into much more detail, giving us a full description of Richard’s two-pronged assault on Cyprus (pp.118-119) and giving a typical snapshot that, once he’d conquered, Richard forced all Cypriot men to shave their beards off!

Similarly, Morris skips very briskly over Richard’s time in Palestine to focus on John’s scheming back in England. But we need to understand the detail of Richard’s activities in Palestine in order to understand how and why he managed to alienate so many of his Christian allies with such parlous consequences: we need to know that he scorned Philip of France so much that Philip eventually packed up and returned to Paris. And when the vital city of Acre was finally taken from the Muslims after a prolonged siege in which many Christian knights died of fighting or sickness (1191), Richard managed to infuriate Leopold Duke of Austria. Leopold had been involved in the siege for a year before Richard arrived and had demanded an equal place at the front of the victorious Crusader army as it rode into the fallen city along with Richard – but Richard rejected this request and added insult to injury by having Leopold’s flag torn down from the ramparts of Acre.

These details are vital because both Philip and Leopold returned to Europe before Richard and spread the blackest possible rumours about Richard’s treachery, lack of chivalry and so on, to anyone who would listen. When Richard finally decided to abandon the Crusade and return to England (prompted by news of the ruinous feud which had grown up between his chancellor William Longchamps and his enemies supported by John) Richard discovered that he was now a wanted man across most of Western Europe. So that when his ships were blown ashore in north Italy and he tried to make his way in disguise through Austrian lands, Richard was soon recognised, arrested and taken to the court of the very same Leopold who he had so fatefully insulted in Palestine – who promptly threw him into prison.

For sure Richard’s imprisonment, and the vast ransom demanded for his release, are all dealt with by Morris because they all impinge on the state of England and on John’s scheming (John was in his late 20s during the ransom crisis) – but the story makes much more sense, acquires a fuller depth of meaning, if you’ve been given a really good account of Richard’s activities in Palestine, and this Jones does better than Morris.

King John

King John

Notable aspects of John’s reign

It is in the second half of Morris’s book (chapters 9 to 14) – once he drops the flashback structure – that it becomes measurably more detailed and immersive than the Jones account. Having had a run-up of 150 pages or so you begin to have a feel for certain key players in the story – the ill-fated William de Brouze who John hounded into exile, imprisoning and starving to death his wife and son – or the remarkable William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, whose career spanned five monarchs, and who managed to survive accusations and punishments from the erratic John and went on to become guardian and regent for John’s young son, Henry III, when he succeeded in 1216.

And you get a feel for the relentless turnover of events: every year sees all the players on the board – the Scots, the Welsh, the numerous Irish and Anglo-Irish, the King of France, the nobles of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Main, Poitou, Angouleme, Gascony and so on, all girding their loins and setting off to fight each other, in a bewildering blizzard of alliances which shift and change at the drop of a hat. This second half of Morris’s book becomes really gripping, providing much more detail than Jones’s limited space can, and judiciously weighing evidence, balancing the accounts of the different contemporary chroniclers, as he gives a week by week account of John’s difficult confusing reign.

Some highlights

His reign lasted 17 years (1199 to 1216).

John Lackland While a boy under King Henry II John acquired the nickname ‘Lackland’ because his older brothers were all given substantial provinces to rule except for John, who was too young. Towards the end of his reign, the nickname was ironically revived to describe the way he had lost most of the Angevin Empire.

The loss of Brittany Arthur, Duke of Brittany From the very start of John’s reign there was an alternative ruler, Arthur, son of John’s elder son Geoffrey (who himself had died in 1186). Arthur was born in 1187 and so was 12 when King Richard died in 1199.

Arthur inherited from his father the title of Duke of Brittany, and his Breton nobles proved remarkably loyal to him, while Arthur himself sought help and advice from French King Philip II. The situation was worsened by the fact that back in 1190 Richard had officially declared the infant Arthur his legal heir (during his peace negotiations with Tancred of Sicily, p.67). On his death-bed Richard changed his mind and proclaimed John his heir, fearing Arthur was too young for the job – but the Bretons, and everyone opposed to John, took Arthur as a figurehead for their cause.

The to and fro of successive alliances and peace treaties whereby Arthur allied with Philip, then John, then Philip again, came to an end when, in one of the rare military successes of his rule, John captured Arthur, who was leading a force besieging his grand-mother, Eleanor, at the Château de Mirebeau in Anjou.

John sent his nephew to a series of castle prisons. The contemporary chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall reports the story that John sent two knights with orders to mutilate the duke but that his gaoler, Hubert de Burgh, refused to let them – a legend which quickly spread and later provided the central plotline of Shakespeare’s play, King John, as well as heaps of wonderfully sentimental Victorian illustrations, like this one.

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Young Arthur was moved to Rouen prison in 1203 and never heard of again. Quickly the rumour got about that John had had Arthur murdered, though whether getting others to do it or, in one version, murdering his nephew himself in a drunken rage, has never been confirmed. The rumour was enough for many people, nobles and commoners alike, throughout his realm, and John became known as the nephew-killer. In response the nobles of Brittany rebelled against John and he never regained their trust.

The loss of Normandy Meanwhile in 1204, to the East, King Philip II of France began a major offensive against Normandy, bypassing the stronghold of Rouen and picking off smaller towns – Falaise, Cherbourg. Rouen begged John (in England) for reinforcements and John tried to mount an armed expedition to help them, but was stymied by the reluctance of his own nobles, who showed up late or not at all. When it became clear that no help was coming from England, Rouen surrendered to King Philip and the remaining strongholds of Normandy followed suit. The 139-year union of England and Normandy, created by William the Bastard in 1066, came to an end in 1204.

The loss of Aquitaine In April 1204 Eleanor of Aquitaine died, old and full of years (a little over 80). With her died the loyalty of most of the dukes and counts of the massive region to the Plantagenet regime in the form of the unattractive John. They rose up, seized whatever strongholds remained loyal to John and, within months, the largest part of the Angevin Empire was lost.

Tough taxes With the loss of most of the Empire, John’s sphere of activity was vastly reduced and now confined to the British Isles. Here he became famous for instituting ferocious new taxes. At that time many simple activities of the nobility traditionally required permission and a nominal fee to be paid to the king, for example for the smooth succession of an heir or the arrangement of a new marriage. John pushed these customary dues much deeper into every aspect of noble life and hugely increased the fees, by up to 1,000%. Anyone who questioned his right to do so was arrested or forced into exile and their lands confiscated. There was a ‘forest tax’ for anyone found breaching the rules of the Forest. John hiked these and extended the definition of ‘forest’ to include agricultural land and even towns. There was a tax known as ‘scutage’, which knights could pay if they didn’t want to answer the king’s call to join an army: John hugely increased this and applied it for new purposes. He applied another tax known as the Thirteenth, and in 2008 another tax, known as the tallage (p.182). He relentlessly mulcted everyone and everything throughout his reign.

The failed 1205 invasion In 1205 John used this money to organise a massive invasion of Normandy, recruiting thousands of knights and soldiers and building (or hijacking) enough ships to create a war fleet of 1,500 vessels. But – at the last minute his leading nobles and knights backed out – afraid of chaos in the realm if John were killed (he had no heir), afraid they would find no support in the French realms which had so solidly gone over to King Philip, afraid of losing their lives and remaining goods.

And so John was left to gnash his teeth and weep tears of frustration. In fact John did mount several expeditions to France later in his reign, in one of them landing in Bordeau and marching inland to seize castles in his traditional heartland of Anjou. But always he had to retreat before the superior forces of King Philip II, or the Bretons or Normans or the Gascon nobles, sometimes reinforced by armies from over the border in Spain.

Two wives King John had two wives, both named Isabella. In 1189 Henry married John off to Isabella, Countess of Gloucester, when he was 23 and she was 16. In fact they were half-second cousins as great-grandchildren of Henry I, and thus within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, and on this basis John had their marriage annulled by the Church in 1199, just before he acceded to the throne. He then married Isabella of Angoulême in 1200, when she was just 12 years old. The marriage gave him possession of lands in the centre of Aquitaine but also, unfortunately, led to the enduring enmity of Hugh IX le Brun, Count of Lusignan, to whom she had been betrothed and who John was widely seen as stealing her from. The enmity of the de Lusignan family and their allies was a contributory factor to the loss of Aquitaine in 1204 when Eleanor died.

The Papal Interdict Archbishop Hubert of Canterbury died in 1205 and the monks secretly elected one of their own as his successor. King John and the English bishops refused to accept their choice and appointed John’s favorite, John de Gray, in his place. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) refused to accept either candidate and instead arranged the election of his friend Stephen Langton, in 1207. Furious, John expelled the monks of Canterbury who fled to France. The pope responded by placing England under Interdict in 1208. The interdict suspended Christian services and the administration of sacraments (except baptism, confession, and last rites). Even the dead were denied Christian burial. Ordinary people would have experienced an eerie phenomenon – for the first time in their lives church bells – which rang at numerous times of day for various services – fell silent and remained silent. John in fact turned the situation to his advantage, imposing lucrative fines and threatening imprisonment to bully the clergy. Innocent III retaliated by excommunicating John and eventually declared John ‘deposed’ in 1212, absolving his subjects of their allegiance to him.

In fact John, at a low point in his fortunes in 1213, made the shrewd move of completely and totally humbling himself to the papal legate, declaring England as the pope’s belonging and himself only a humble vassal. Innocent II was delighted and from that point onwards (for the last three years of his life) treated John with notable indulgence and favouritism. The interdict was lifted and after five long years, the church bells of England were allowed to ring again.

The Jews There were probably only a few thousand Jews in all of Britain, but they were in a vulnerable position. They were allowed to carry on the business of lending money – forbidden to Christians – but only on the king’s sufferance. The crusading fervour at the very end of Henry’s rule led to violent anti-Jewish pogroms on the day of Richard’s coronation and for weeks afterwards, leading to the horrible climax of the entire Jewish community of York being hounded into York castle and preferring mass suicide to facing the baying mob outside. In 1210 John imposed a massive tax or ‘tallage’ in 1210, extracting some £44,000 from the community. At first he wanted only a percentage of their loans but this escalated to become a percentage of all their possessions. Roger of Wendover tells the gruesome story of a Jew of Bristol who was imprisoned and had one tooth knocked out every day until he gave in and handed over all his wealth to the king. Leading Jews were hanged as an example. And then, in John’s last full year of 1215, there were further attacks on the Jews, extracting money under torture. It took the Jewish community a generation to recover population and belongings after this onslaught.

Scotland When he came to power John turned down King William the Lion of Scotland’s demand to have the province of Northumbria returned to him. The two remained on reasonable terms until in 1209 John heard rumours that William planned to ally with King Philip of France. John invaded Scotland and forced William to sign the Treaty of Norham, which gave John control of William’s daughters and required a payment of £10,000.

Ireland John was made ‘Lord of Ireland’ by his father as long back as 1177, when he was just 11. When just 19 he was sent there by his father but, along with his youthful courtiers, created a very bad impression, making fun of the local nobles’ long beards. During his reign there was conflict not only between the caste of Anglo-Irish rulers who had settled in Ireland since the Conquest, and the native lords, but also among the natives themselves. John played all sides off against the other, and in 1210 led a major expedition to Ireland to crush a rebellion by the Anglo-Irish lords and impose English laws and customs.

Wales was divided into roughly three parts, the border or ‘marcher’ regions with England, ruled over by a handful of powerful Anglo-Norman lords, south Wales/Pembrokeshire owned by the king directly, and wilder North Wales. The leading figure was Llywelyn the Great, to whom John married off one of his illegitimate daughters, Joan, in 1204. In 1210 and 11 Llywelyn launched raids into England. John retaliated by supporting a range of Llywelyn’s enemies in the south and in 2011 launched a massive raid into North Wales. However Llywelyn’s forces retreated and John’s army was reduced to near starvation in the barren lands around Snowdonia. But the next year he came back on a better planned attack, ravaging Llywelyn’s heartlands, burning villages, towns and cities, until Llywelyn sent his wife, John’s daughter, as emissary to beg for peace. Peace was signed at, of course, a steep price, then John sent his mercenary warlords into South Wales to secure the territory and build defensive castles.

By 1212 John had lost almost the entire continental empire, but solidly secured the grip of the English crown over the neighbouring British countries. But all mention of peace is deceptive, even inappropriate in the context of the Middle Ages. The very next year John had to go to the aid of William of Scotland who faced pressing danger from a usurper and had barely finished doing this before Llywelyn led a concerted attack to reclaim his lost territory in north Wales, along with uprisings by lords in central Wales.

Basically, every year there was conflict – and in more than one theatre of war – with players shifting alliances from year to year based on short-term strategy. This is what makes medieval history so difficult to follow in any detail.

The Battle of Bouvines I’d never heard of this battle, but both Jones and Morris says it has a similar talismanic importance in the history of France as the Battle of Hastings has for England. It was the climax of the series of incursions John made into French territory in the previous few years. John had amassed a force of English nobles and foreign mercenaries (all paid for by his brutal taxation) and was campaigning in central France, while his allies – a force of German, English and Flemish soldiers – was being led by Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor, in the north. John’s plan was for his forces to draw King Philip II south while his German allies took Paris, leading to the decisive crushing of King Philip, for him to regain all his lost French land and the Emperor Otto to seize the Low Country.

In fact John had already suffered a defeat when he was forced to abandon the siege of La Roche-au-Moine due to the reluctance of his Poitevin allies to engage in a pitched battle against King Philip’s son, Louis. In the retreat his infantry were badly mauled and he only just made it back to La Rochelle, losing all the gains of the campaign to the French.

So everything now depended on the northern army of the Emperor. This caught up with Philip’s main army on 27 July 1214, and rapidly attacked. The battle turned into confused mayhem but slowly the cavalry charges of the French began to tell. By the end of the day the Emperor had fled, his army was defeated, and a collection of rebel nobles had fallen into Philip’s hands.

From the French point of view, their strongest enemies had created their strongest possible alliance and thrown everything against the French – and failed. A chapel was built, Masses were sung everywhere, the students of Paris danced in the streets for a week, according to one chronicler. The Battle of Bouvines confirmed the French crown’s sovereignty over the Angevin lands of Brittany and Normandy, and lost them forever to the English crown. It was the climax of John’s decade of brutal taxation and war plans: and it was a complete failure.

A few hours of bloody mayhem at Bouvines had confirmed that [John]’s loss of Normandy, Brittany and Anjou would be permanent. (p.235)

Magna Carta

The barons’ rebellion The failure of this campaign tipped many of England’s nobles over into open rebellion. Morris says there were about 160 barons in England and now most of them openly denounced and defied John. For several years there had been calls to return to the good old days of Henry II or even before, embodied in calls to restore the charter Henry II issued on his accession. Numerous hands – probably involving the archbishop – were involved in creating a draft document which started with traditional calls for good rule but then went on to address specific issues of John’s reign. The climax of the Barons’ Rebellion came when one of their forces – a self-proclaimed ‘army of God’ – seized London ahead of John’s representatives in May 2015. Now they had access to all his treasure and the taxation rolls of the Exchequer.

John camped with his forces at Windsor and representatives of both sides met half way, in the meadows at Runnymede. Here the document we call Magna Carta took shape and was swiftly stamped and agreed by John.

The key thing about Magna Carta is that it was a peace treaty between the two armed sides; and that it failed. Within weeks open conflict broke out again and John took his foreign mercenaries on a rampage through East Anglia, killing and raping all the supporters of the rebel barons, destroying crops in the fields, burning everything. It was on this last final orgy of destruction that he decided to take a short cut across the Wash into Lincolnshire but was caught by the tide and lost his entire baggage train, including all his jewellery and treasure, the crown of England and his priceless collection of Holy Relics. And he got dysentery. It was a blessing for everyone when he died on 19 October 1216.

There is no doubting John was a wicked, evil man, a coward who screwed his country and tortured countless victims in order to extract a vast fortune from his subjects which he then squandered on mismanaged military campaigns. He lost almost the entire Angevin Empire which he’d inherited, and he left his country in a state of bitter civil war.

Morris’s book includes at the end a full translation of the Magna Carta into English but that is all. Obviously his preceding historical account gives a blow-by-blow description of the events leading up to it, and to the issues raised by John’s misrule, which the charter seeks to address and limit. And briefly describes how the charter – a failure in its own day – was reissued under later kings, widely distributed, and became a set of standards to which medieval kings could be held to account. But somehow just stopping with the translation and nothing more felt a bit… abrupt.

Plantagenet trivia

  • King Henry I carried out a brutal recoinage of the realm’s money in 1125 in which he ordered the mutilation of all his moneyers – the people who had official permission to mint coins, namely the removal of their right hands and genitals
  • Right at the end of his life Henry II took the Cross with a view to going on Crusade and recapturing Jerusalem. In 1188 he instituted ‘the Saladin Tithe‘, a levy of 10% on all revenues and movable properties across England. In the end it raised some 100,000 marks, though Henry died before he could go on Crusade. The administrative machinery created to claim the tithe was used four years later to raise the enormous ransom required to free Richard I from his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor.
  • King Richard founded Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard.
  • Richard in his usual impetuous way, finding himself in negotiation with Tancred ruler of Sicily, promised to betrothe Arthur (then aged 4) to one of Tancred’s daughters (aged 2), though the wedding never took place.
  • In his passion to go on crusade, Richard weakened the Crown by selling off or mortgaging a huge number of Crown lands and goods. He is said to have quipped, ‘I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.’
  • King John founded Liverpool in 1207.
  • the word Exchequer derives from the large chequered cloth laid out a table on which debts were counted out using a device like an abacus (p.167).

Glossary

  • amercement – a financial penalty in English law, common during the Middle Ages, imposed either by the court or by peers
  • castellan – the governor or captain of a castellany and its castle
  • distrain – seize (someone’s property) in order to obtain payment of rent or other money owed
  • interdict –  in the Roman Catholic church a punishment by which the faithful, while remaining in communion with the church, are forbidden certain sacraments and prohibited from participation in certain sacred acts
  • forest eyre – the main court of the Forest Law in the medieval period was the Forest Eyre, which was held at irregular intervals by itinerant justices
  • Forest Law – laws separate from English Common Law designed to protect game animals and their forest habitats from destruction. Forest Law offenses were divided into two categories: trespass against the vert (the vegetation of the forest) and the venison (the game).
  • justiciar – a regent and deputy presiding over the court of a Norman or early Plantagenet king of England
  • moneyer – any private individual who is officially permitted to mint money
  • scutage – also called shield money (from the Latin scutum meaning ‘shield’) in feudal law payment made by a knight to commute the military service that he owed his lord
  • tallage – a form of arbitrary taxation levied by kings on the towns and lands of the Crown

Related links

Reviews of other medieval books

The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (1919)

There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. (p.91)

I’ve recently been looking at paintings from the ‘northern Renaissance’, namely works by Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. This trio are often credited with introducing a new more realistic and sensual style into painting in the first half of the fifteenth century.

This prompted me to dust off my old copy of this classic text on the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages. The book was originally published in Dutch by the historian Johan Huizinga in 1919, then translated into English in 1924. Its subtitle is: ‘A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’.

The most important thing about this book is that it is not a chronological history of the period. Very much the opposite, as it skips from one incident to another, across decades, between countries, taking excerpts from contemporary chroniclers, philosophers, writers and poets as required, to build up a mosaic of sources to exemplify the theme of each of the 23 chapters.

These have titles like ‘The violent tenor of life’, ‘Pessimism and the ideal of the sublime’, ‘The vision of death’, ‘Types of religious life’ and so on. As we process through these themes and ideas, anecdotes and quotes, slowly a composite ‘portrait’ of the culture of fifteenth century northern Europe emerges.

In fact, I’d forgotten that there is a direct connection to van der Weyden et al because, in the Preface to the English edition, Huizinga explains that his study originally started as a systematic attempt to understand the cultural and social background to the art of the van Eyck brothers and their contemporaries – precisely the artists I’ve been reading about in Craig Harbison’s excellent introduction to The Art of the Northern Renaissance (1995).

Burgundy and France

When I first read this book as a student in the 1980s I found it bracing to read a work about the Middle Ages which emphatically wasn’t about England or Britain. Instead the focus is very much on the kingdoms of France and especially the Duchy of Burgundy, and mostly during the 15th century. As it happens, I’ve just read a few pages summarising the history of the Duchy of Burgundy in a book about the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. The most obvious thing about it during this period was that it was extremely fragmented, divided roughly into the area which is still called ‘Burgundy’ in modern France and is down towards Switzerland – and a northern coastal region comprising most of modern-day Holland and Belgium.

The other thing I took from my first reading all those years ago was the comedy names of the rulers of Burgundy in this period:

  • Philip the Bold (1363-1404)
  • John the Fearless (1404-19)
  • Philip the Good (1419-67)
  • Charles the Bold (1467-77)
  • Mary (1477 – 1482)
  • Philip the Handsome (1482-1506)

This time round I much more understand the context of Huizinga’s point that one of the purposes of giving these rulers grand surnames was to incorporate them into the only social theory the age possessed – Chivalry; that the names are ‘inventions calculated to place the prince in a nimbus of chivalrous romance’ (p.92).

Permanent war

Europe was almost continually at war. There were no real nation states in the way we’re used to today. Britain, for example, was a very fractious country. For the earlier half of the century the English were in a state of permanent war with the kingdom of France, the latter stages of the so-called Hundred Years War. The cause of the war was simple: successive kings of England claimed the throne of France; successive French kings rejected the claim.

The war’s high point, from the English point of view, was the Battle of Agincourt, fought on 25 October 1415, a famous victory for young King Henry V. Sadly Henry failed in a king’s main duty to rule long and leave a male heir. He died aged 35 in 1422, leaving the kingdom to his baby son who grew up to be the hapless and mentally unstable Henry VI. This explains why, despite rallies and counter-attacks, after Henry V’s death the tide of the war was broadly in favour of the French and they had eventually won back all their territory from the English (with the tiny exception of the coastal town of Calais) by the time a final peace treaty was signed in 1453.

In fact, it was complaints about the huge losses of lands in France suffered by many ‘English’ aristocrats as a result of these territorial losses that helped destabilise the English throne and trigger the series of dynastic disputes which we refer to as ‘the Wars of the Roses’. These were in reality a series of conflicts between dynastic nobles scattered between 1455 and 1487. And also, throughout the fifteenth century, the English (as in centuries before and after) suffered intermittent attacks from the Scots, who periodically invaded and ravaged the North of England – though this doesn’t feature much in this study of the Continent.

Instead Huizinga’s book is dominated by the conflict between the fragmented kingdom of France and the rising Duchy of Burgundy. From 1380 to 1422 France was ruled by Charles VI who, in 1392, went mad, without warning murdering four of his knights and nearly killing his brother. He became convinced he was made of glass and that his enemies were out to shatter him. Power devolved to competing cabals of nobles and France fell into anarchy. (The plight of France helps explain Henry V’s victories.) France’s ongoing misrule was exacerbated by the Hundred Years War which amounted, in practice, to unpredictable attacks and destructive rampages across the land by brutal English armies.

No wonder the Duchy of Burgundy, located away from England in the East, was able to rise to relative power, by allying or at least declaring peace with England, and protecting the trading wealth of its coastal ports in what is now Holland.

Two theories

Medieval society had broadly two theories to explain the world: Christian dogma and the code of chivalry. That was it. No science, no medicine, no economics, no political science, no sociology or linguistics or anthropology, no hard or social sciences at all. Again and again Huizinga emphasises the sheer ignorance of the age.

1. Christianity Christian teaching gave a comprehensive account of the creation of the universe, of the nature of the world, of all life forms and of the human race, along with a timeline which extended back to the Creation and forward to the End of the World when Jesus will rise to judge the dead, who will be consigned to Heaven or Hell for all eternity. In order to escape an eternity of hellfire you had to devoutly follow Christian teaching. It was a complete and imaginatively convincing cosmology.

2. Chivalry As to everything else people saw around them, the behaviour of human society, this could be summarised in the other major theory of the time, Chivalry. Huizinga quotes from a wide selection of 15th century poets, historians and chroniclers, and goes on to point out that:

The conception of chivalry constituted for these authors a sort of magic key, by the aid of which they explained to themselves the motives of politics and of history. The confused image of contemporaneous history being much too complicated for their comprehension, they simplified it, as it were, by the fiction of chivalry. (p.66)

At its broadest chivalry taught that everyone was born into a fixed position in an unchanging society made up of minutely defined orders or ranks or ‘estates’. The peasant majority existed solely to produce the food eaten by the myriad employees of the Church, and by the aristocracy and the king. The ‘middle classes’, the burghers and business men in the newly expanding towns, had no exact place in this ancient schema and were seen as a reluctant necessity of life; to some extent they had forebears in the merchants described in the Bible, but they had to be kept in their place. This was done, for example, by strict sumptuary laws which defined exactly what they and their wives were or were not permitted to wear. Because the best clothes, food, living quarters, art and lifestyle were – self-evidently – restricted to the most noble, virtuous, dignified and deserving in society – the aristocracy and the court.

But, as part of the intricate interlacing of ideas so typical of the late medieval mind, the court, in exchange for these obvious material benefits, had to be paragons of nobility and display for everyone the courtly virtues of dignity, charity, kindliness, forbearance and so on.

As the Middle Ages – say from 1100 to 1500 – proceeded, the depiction and understanding of these virtues (as of so much else in medieval thought) became more and more elaborate, defined in courtly protocols and etiquette which were enhanced and added to by each generation of writers until there were written rules prescribing every possible type of behaviour and clothing and speech which should be used on almost every conceivable occasion.

The lack of theory

Maybe the most though-provoking idea in the book (for me) was this notion that, Chivalry was all they had to think about society with. Lacking any other notions of human nature, lacking our modern ideas of biology or evolution, lacking the post-Enlightenment idea that there have existed numerous and hugely varied societies which themselves have changed and evolved over time, lacking the post-Industrial Revolution idea that technology drives social change with ever-new gadgets leading to ever-rising standards of living — all these modern ideas are predicated on CHANGE. But the central determinant of medieval thought is precisely that THERE IS NO CHANGE. God has made the world as perfect as it can be. Bible chronology explains the entire history of the world right up to its apocalyptic end. Christian teaching is all you need to live well and proceed to Heaven.

This explains why, for example, when medieval artists paint Bible scenes and stories, the characters are always wearing medieval clothes. Because the world HAS NOT CHANGED. The medieval mind can imagine no change, it has no theory of the gradual evolution of society and manners. People must always have dressed like they do today. (Huizinga makes the interesting point that it is only with the Italian Renaissance that artists began to depict the saints in classical togas, thus for the first time setting them aside and apart from the everyday familiarity they had enjoyed during the Middle Ages. In medieval art Roman martyrs and saints had worn medieval costume.)

The one glaring exception to this idea was the age-old one, as popular in the late Classical world as in the medieval world, which is the notion of steady decline from the first, primordial perfection of the Garden of Eden to the present sad and lawless days. The world hasn’t changed but Oh how behaviour and morality has lapsed and decayed!

Profound misunderstanding of their own times

Lacking any modern understanding of human nature and social dynamics, medieval thinkers, artists and writers were astonishingly dim about the world around them. So, for example, Huizinga makes the fascinating point that, lacking any theory of technology, commerce or economics, the chroniclers of the Duchy of Burgundy explained the notable wealth and success of the court of Burgundy not through the (to us obvious) point that the coastal towns of Antwerp and Bruges and so on were at a geographic nexus between Britain to the West, the Baltic to the East and France to the South and so the merchants there made fortunes as middlemen for vast matrices of trade, fortunes which the Duchy then taxed and lived off – none of this could be understood by contemporaries. Instead, every single chronicler accounts for Burgundy’s wealth in terms of the nobility and virtue of its ruler. Chivalry, nobility, Christian morality – these and these alone are what accounts for an entire nation’s rise or fall.

The chroniclers of the fifteenth century have, nearly all, been the dupes of an absolute misappreciation of their times, of which the real moving forces escaped their attention. (p.56)

And this explains why all the chroniclers and historians and priests, in their sermons and pamphlets and books and works have one message and one message only – since the world depends for its continued wealth and stability on the virtue of the prince, of the noble ruler – ALL of these books without exception start, focus on and end with earnest, heart-felt pleas to the ruler and prince to be Noble and Virtuous and to Rule Well. We are all depending on you.

It is the one political idea in the entire culture.

Chivalry as psychological protection

Chivalry was a kind of mass wish-fulfilment, the casting of all human behaviour into stereotyped and idealised patterns, which had tremendous psychological importance for all educated people of the time and many of the commoners. For Chivalry’s exaggerated formality and romantic ideals attempted to hold at bay what most people actually saw around them – which was appalling random acts of violence, sickness and death.

Only by constructing a system of forms and rules for the vehement emotions can barbarity be escaped. (p.105)

With no effective medicine, anybody could fall ill at any time, or suffer a scratch or wound which became infected and they died. Countless women died in childbirth. Countless children died pitifully young. Countless millions starved to death unrecorded and unlamented. Millions died horribly in the repeated epidemics of plague which swept across the known world. And countless millions lived in villages or towns where any day, out of the blue, soldiers in armour arrived and started killing, raping and burning everything, for reasons concocted in the faraway courts of London or Paris or Dijon, and which the victims would never hear about or understand.

For the rude and common people, only the incredibly ornate and complex set of Christian customs, practices, beliefs, festivals, penances, sacrifices, masses, saints and relics was all that stood between them and the constant spectre of complete disaster. Huizinga mentions a host of medieval superstitions – that you couldn’t fall ill on any day when you heard Mass (quite a strong motivation to attend as many as you could) or that any patron saint sighted during the day would protect you for that day (and hence the outside and the porches of churches being crammed full of statuettes of saints.) I particularly liked the idea that you don’t actually age during the time it takes to attend a Mass – the more you attend, quite literally the longer you will live.

The same was of course true for the educated aristocracy, but overlaying the boggling complexity of Christian teaching was this idea that the nobility should also aspire to Perfect Ideals of Gentlemanly and Courtly behaviour. Almost nobody did, and many rulers were instead paragons of greed, unpredictable rage and the most primitive rivalries and revenge. But the increasingly convoluted protocols of Chivalry which came to determine almost every element of an aristocrat’s life and thought and behaviour, were all the ruling class had to call each other to account, and to try and restrain themselves with.

(In a typically illuminating aside, Huizinga points out how the worlds of chivalry and theology overlapped in the figure of the archangel Michael, who is generally portrayed in armour, wielding a sword against the rebel angels. As the leader of the loyal army in heaven, he was the first knight – and thus the two worlds of divine angelology and worldly knighthood were neatly merged.)

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Complexity as a defence mechanism

This explains why forms, patterns, orders, ranks and definitions ramified all over medieval society like weeds. Everything had to be nailed down with a meaning and a place in what was aspiring to be the Total System. Numerology played a large role in all this, numbers conveying a potent magic power, especially if they invoked any of the myriad numbers from Holy Scripture: the three of the Trinity recurs in all sorts of contexts: the human body is seen as made of four humours for each of which there is a key bodily fluid which determines one of the four human character types; all of the colours are given multiple religious symbolism, eventually becoming so complicated entire books can be written about them. Saints multiply like rabbits until every day in the year was the Special Day of at least one saint if not several.

I remember laughing years ago when I read an early medieval sermon which asserted that there needed to be two holy testaments (the old and new) because humans have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs so – you know, there just have to be. Like so much medieval reasoning, it has a sweet and childish flavour. The Middle Ages took the many numbers present in Holy Scripture and vastly expanded them:

  • the One God who created the world and all things in it
  • the two-persons in the duality of Jesus, man and God together
  • the Holy Trinity, the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity)
  • the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice), the four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell), the four points of the cross, the four seasons, the Four Evangelists, the Four Elements and their summation – the fifth or Quintessence
  • The Five Wounds Christ received on the Cross (one each in hands and feet and the spear in his side), the Five Planets of the Solar System (plus Sun and moon makes seven)
  • the seven supplications in the Lord’s Prayer, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Beatitudes (from the Sermon on the Mount), the seven penitential psalms, the Seven Deadly Sins which are represented by seven animals and followed by seven diseases, the seven attributes, the Seven Sages of antiquity
  • the Nine Worthies were nine historical, scriptural, and legendary personages who personified the ideals of chivalry, typically divided into three groups of three – three pagans (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), three Jews (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus) and three Christians (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon)
  • the Twelve Disciples, the twelve months of the year, the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, the twelve companions of Lady Rhetoric (as devised by George Chastelain, historian of Philip the Good in the 1460s)
  • the Fourteen Auxiliary Saints, the 14 Stations of the Cross
  • 33 is the estimated age of Jesus when he was crucified. Stephan Kemperdick’s book about the Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden informs me that one strand of medieval theology thought that 33 is the age that all the dead would be when they are resurrected on the Last Day. If it was the optimum age for the Son of God so, by analogy, it must be the optimum age for a human being.

In fact Huizinga, in his brilliant chapter on ‘Symbolism in decline’, makes the harsh but true point that numerology is actually pretty boring. It is the deeper and often vaguer symbolic correspondences which the medieval mind loved to make between almost every aspect of the natural world and some part of Christian Theology or the Christian story, which are more accessible and more profound.

For example, consider the holly and ivy which grow in northern Europe (I have an abundance of both in my own garden): the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the berries are the drops of blood they caused. The beauty and simplicity of much of this kind of symbolism lives on to this day, especially when it is about the natural world.

Everyday things like plants and flowers, as well as classical stories and pagan myths, legends and imagery, all of it was easily taken over and incorporated into the vast system of Christian concordances because, to the medieval mind, everything was connected – because it all shines forth the wonder of God. A medieval author explains how the walnut symbolises Christ: the sweet kernel is his divine nature, the green and pulpy outer peel his humanity and the wooden shell between is the cross (p.198): there is no end to the ability of the medieval mind to find a religious symbol or analogy in everything around us.

Thus every day was marked out and divided, for the ever-growing number of religious orders of monks and nuns and so on, by precise hours at which their rituals had to be carried out. On the professional side, this gave rise to countless Rules for the different religious orders prescribing their behaviour for every minute of the day. The secular equivalent is the innumerable ‘Books of Hours’, beautifully illuminated manuscripts whose purpose was to give meaning and resonance to every hour of every day.

Huizinga explains the nature of what was known at the time as ‘Realist’ philosophy (but which we would nowadays called Idealism). This amounts to the notion that every idea is Real, has a precise definition and a place in an infinitely complex hierarchy, all underpinned by theology and, ultimately, God the Creator.

The creative result of this mind-set is a symbolical way of thinking, where almost every everyday occurrence or object can be related to deeper (or higher meanings). His explanation of the internal logic of this approach is fascinating enough – but it is riveting when he then goes on to draw out the connections between this mindset and the prevalence of proverbs (which crystallise everyday behaviour into idealised patterns), to the emblems and mottos chosen by aristocratic households, and their connection of all these with the complexity of heraldry, which had a more-than-decorative purpose for the aristocracy which commissioned it. For them it was a visible embodiment of the ancestors, of their family and its values and achievements. Their world is made up of a dizzying array of vertical hierarchies of meaning.

Wherever it looked the medieval mind constructed a vast and intricate ‘cathedral of ideas’ (p.194). Lacking any ability to genuinely understand the world or to change it, the medieval mind delighted in finding (spurious) patterns everywhere in the natural world, and in creating dizzying edifices of intellectual patterning to fill their (otherwise empty) heads.

Scholasticism

Hence the mind-boggling complexity of medieval theology which, over succeeding generations, set out to codify and order every conceivable thought anyone could possibly have about any aspect of Christian theology, the ceaseless multiplication of saints, feasts and festivals, religious orders, shrines, relics and so on. The late medieval world overflowed with meaning all of it, fundamentally, spurious.

It was this tendency to over-elaboration that later generations satirised with examples of the great debates which were held over ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’, and dismissed as barren ‘scholasticism’. Much of this was gratefully abandoned even by the Catholic Church in light of the great Reformation which came in the early 16th century.

The gap between theory and reality

But for Huizinga what is entertaining is the vast gap between the theory of Christianity as pursued into endlessly remote corners of mental complexity – and the reality of a Church which was in a parlous state. At the top the Catholic Church was tearing itself apart, beginning with the period of the so-called ‘Babylonian Exile’ from 1309 to 1377, when seven successive popes ruled from Avignon in the South of France. When Pope Gregory XI ended the exile and moved back to Rome, half the Curia (most of the French cardinals) refused to go with him and set up a separate Pope of their own. This period became known as the ‘Great Schism’ of 1378 to 1417 when two, and then three, separate popes claimed God-given rule over the church, while merrily excommunicating and damning their opponents.

On the ground all across Western Europe, peasants and town-dwellers, dismayed by this perplexing collapse of central authority, mainly experienced the Church via the immense corruption of an institution devoted to fleecing them with all kinds of religious taxes, penances and indulgences – one of the great themes of the literature of the age.

Courtly Love

The will-to-complexity explains the gorgeous edifice of Courtly Love which grew up intertwined with the complex ideas of Chivalry. Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. The cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address.

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life. (p.105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating and curlicuing this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

Anxiety and hysteria

The terrible realities of a life without any medicine or science were compounded by the awful fear of the living hell awaiting almost everyone after death. Everyone was badly stressed by this appalling plight. And this helps to explain why, when anybody anywhere was seen to threaten the controlling orderliness of Christianity and Chivalry, they acted like a kind of lightning rod to the anxieties of an entire culture. For a threat to any part of the fixed and repressive structures of medieval society was a threat to ALL of it and therefore a threat to the entire mental and psychological paraphernalia which was all these people had to stave off bottomless fear and anxiety. Threatening complete collapse.

It is this extremity of anxiety which they felt all the time which explains the (to us) extraordinary hysteria which was let loose in the various witch hunts and trials. Helpless old women or sassy young women who stepped out of line, or in fact had often done nothing at all, could quickly find themselves short-circuiting the anxiety of an entire culture, instantly blamed for every bad harvest, illness and death which had happened anywhere near them. And not just blamed a little, but immediately transformed into omnipotently evil associates of Satan and his demons, complete with magic spells and malevolent familiars. Huizinga mentions the ‘vauderie d’Arras’ from 1459 to 1461 in which 29 townsfolk were accused of witchcraft (10 of them women) of which 12 were executed (8 women).

The same went for heretics, for anyone who dissented from the crushing orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Once again a threat to any part was a threat to the whole ornate edifice of belief which sustained everyone and so even a small threat prompted hysterical over-reaction.

And for such a complete subversion of the fragile state of things, only the most extreme form of punishment was suitable – something so terrible that it would terrify anyone who witnessed or heard of it to go anywhere near this kind of transgressive behaviour. Heretics were hunted down, entire communities wiped out, and, like the so-called witches, their leaders very publicly burned at the stake.

Waning and decay

The terrible conditions of life, the almost continual warfare, the terror of hell, the ubiquity of witches, heretics and enemies of society, the only certainty being early death and a strong possibility of an eternity of hellfire – explain Huizinga’s title.

Huizinga doesn’t see this as a society on the brink of the exciting ‘rebirth’ of the Renaissance as we latecomers, looking back over the centuries, are tempted to see it – but as an age which was exhausted with permanent war and religious terror. An era of fathomless pessimism and permanent nostalgia for the olden days which must, must surely have been better than this. And an age, above all, which has thought itself out. Every detail of life has been cemented into the vast cathedral of analogies and concordances, of symbolic types and correspondences which crust the whole thing together so that no new thought is possible.

Early on he makes the brilliant point that the two are connected – that writers of the Middle Ages were so damn pessimistic precisely because they couldn’t see any way out of the dead end of dried-out theology and tired literary forms (all those thousands of allegory and romance).

We ‘moderns’ have two hundred years of accelerating technological change behind us giving us the near certainty that things will always be changing (and at an accelerating rate) – better medicines, laws, technologies, the spread of human rights, equality, feminism etc.

But the medieval mind not only had no theories of social change, their political ideas – such as they were – forbade social change of any kind, because Society – along with its ranks and positions – had been laid down for all time by God. Change was not only subversive, it was blasphemous.

Thus they not only had no mental wherewithal to envision a better future, at a deep level they weren’t allowed to; in their future there was only the certainty of continuing decline from the former Golden Age, combined with fear of the end of the world and the threat of an eternity of hell. No wonder the age was so pessimistic!

Unexpectedly critical

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is how critical it is of medieval society, thinkers and rulers. You expect a scholar who’s devoted his life to a subject to be enthusiastic about it, but Huizinga is bracingly critical, if not downright insulting, about the culture as a whole and many of its leading thinkers and writers.

The mentality of the declining Middle Ages often seems to us to display an incredible superficiality and feebleness. The complexity of things is ignored by it in a truly astounding manner. It proceeds to generalisations unhesitatingly on the strength of a single instance. Its liability to wrong judgements is extreme. Inexactitude, credulity, levity, inconsistency, are common features of medieval reasoning. (p.225)

The ideal of chivalry tallies with the spirit of a primitive age, susceptible of gross delusion and little accessible to the corrections of experience. (p.125)

Most of the authors of the fifteenth century are singularly prolix. (p.268)

And he has harsh words for many of the writers he quotes so liberally. Eustace Deschamps is only ‘a mediocre poet’ (p.102); most of the poets of the age were ‘superficial, monotonous and tiresome’ (p.262); ‘Froissart is the type of this extreme shallowness of thought and facility of expression’ whose mind is marked by ‘poverty and sterility’ (p.283).

Comparison of late medieval literature and art

It is only towards the end of what feels like a long, dense account of the culture of the late Middle Ages, that Huizinga finally arrives at the subject which, apparently, triggered it – a consideration of the art of van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and their contemporaries. Why is their art so good, so beautiful, if so much of the rest of late medieval culture is tired, clapped-out and formulaic?

For two reasons:

1. It is newer. Written literature stretched back to the Romans. Literary genres like history, chronicle, play, poetry, epic, lyric, satire and so on had been going for nearly 2,000 years. In medieval hands every logical possibility within these genres had been explored and done to death. Hence Huizinga’s rude comments about the poets and even prose writers of the age. The medieval intellectual system had systematised everything and all that was left was repetition without invention.

By contrast, painting was new. It had only emerged out of flat devotional panels and icons in, say, the 1200s. There was still a great deal of scope for individuals to compose and arrange even the most hackneyed of subjects – the Annunciation, the Crucifixion etc. And in subjects free of Christian content, the world was their oyster, and European painting would continue to develop at an astonishing rate for another 500 years. Thus Huizinga points out that whereas there had been erotic literature for thousands of years, there was little or no genuinely sensual erotic imagery. There’s little or no erotic imagery in the late medieval art (which has survived) but what there is has a fantastic sense of freshness and innocence. We can still sense – 500 years later – the excitement of innovation and experimentation in their paintings.

2. There is (obviously) a fundamental difference between written literature and painting. In the Late Medieval period in particular, both succumbed to the era’s obsession with detail, but with widely different results: so much of the literature, whether religious or secular, routinely turns into lists of vices and virtues – Huizinga really dislikes allegory because it is such a superficial, sterile way to ‘create’ characters out of often flat and empty ‘ideas’, little more than words.

Imagination, both literary and artistic, had been led into a blind alley by allegory. (p.303)

He quotes reams of poets and prose writers whose texts are long lists of the angels or personified Virtues they encounter, and their entirely predictable attributes and oh-so leaden dialogue. Their realism ‘remains enslaved by conventional forms and suffocated under a heap of arid rhetoric’ (p.276).

But in the painters of the day, the obsession with complexity and detail is transformed into the goal of decorating every surface, with rendering every stitch and jewel, with capturing nuances of facial expression and emotion – and this is something entirely new in the history of art.

In a fascinating passage (chapter 20, ‘The Aesthetic Sentiment’) Huizinga quotes one of the few recorded opinions of this art made by a contemporary, the Genoese man of letters Bartolommeo Fazio who admires in the paintings of van Eyck and Rogier the realism and the detail: the hair of the archangel Gabriel, the ascetic face of John the Baptist, a ray of light falling through a fissure, beads of sweat on a woman’s body, an image reflected by a mirror.

It is precisely this love of detail and its exquisitely realistic rendition, which we know aristocratic patrons of the day enjoyed, and which to those of us who love it, is precisely one of the strengths and appeals of medieval culture: its creation of wonderfully rich and decorative patterns in not only the visual arts but all other aspects of intellectual life: the rich detail and dense symbolism to be found in all medieval arts – of tapestry, illumination and painting.

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1430)

Fascinatingly, we have the opinion of Michelangelo himself on Netherlandish art, recorded by Francesco de Holanda. Michelangelo credits the technical achievement of the northerners but then criticises them for having too much petty detail and not enough of the grand sculptural simplicity which he, of course, achieved so spectacularly.

Though the eye is agreeable impressed, these pictures have neither art nor reason; neither symmetry nor proportion; neither choice of values nor grandeur. In short, this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single thing would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application. (Michelangelo, quoted p.254)

What he dislikes is the late medieval tendency to get lost in a maze of details (reflecting the complexities of the mazes of theology and chivalry). For Michelangelo all this has to be swept aside to make way for enormous, grand, simplified and epic gestures.

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

Gone are the flowers, the trees, the landscape, the roofs and towers of the distant town, the colour symbolism and elaborate folds of the stiff clothes, the sweet douceur of the faces and the sentimental tears of the mourners. But these are precisely what I like so much about the art of the northern renaissance.

Conclusion

The above is a summary of just some of the many themes discussed in this brilliant book. It is a really rich, profound and insightful account, which repays repeated rereading, even after all this time still offering up new connections and shedding fresh light on time-honoured subjects.


Credit

The Waning of the Middle Ages was published in 1919 Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen and translated into English in 1924 by Frederik Jan Hopman. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition as reprinted in 1982.

Related links

The Wars of the Roses by John Gillingham (1981)

This book is 35 years old but is still, apparently, influential for the approach it takes to the subject. It amounted to an attack on the prevailing opinion about the wars and his critique of that attitude remains influential to this day.

Gillingham’s arguments are summed up in the brief but powerful opening chapter.

The prevailing view

The Middle Ages are conventionally dated as coming to an end around 1500. Therefore, the fact that England was subject to civil wars between various claimants to the crown from 1455 to 1485 was taken as indicating the general bloodiness of the whole 15th century, and an indication that the entire Plantagenet line of kings was worn out.

On this view the wars of the roses represent the ‘decline’ of the Middle Ages into chaos and bloodshed, reaching a nadir with the short brutal rule of King Richard III (1483-1485), whose injustice and harshness prompted yet another rebellion, this time led by a Welsh nobleman, Henry Tudor, which culminated in the decisive Battle of Bosworth, where Richard was killed and his army defeated.

The victorious Henry – crowned Henry VII – established the Tudor line of monarchs which proceeded through Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, Edward VI, to the glorious reign of good Queen Elizabeth I, marking the transition from an exhausted medieval dynasty to the ‘early modern’ period.

Gillingham’s counter-arguments

The myth of periods Historians know they shouldn’t divide history into periods, but they do. They shouldn’t because time is a seamless continuum and dividing it up into chunks is highly misleading.

Defining periods has two drawbacks: having defined a block of time as the ‘so-and-so period’, the temptation is to give this random era a beginning, middle and end. And ends, in the organic world, tend to be the result of age and decline. Thus the recurring vice of historians: inventing periods and then spending careers accounting for their rise and fall.

The myth of the middle ages But these are totally misleading metaphors. In reality there were no ‘middle ages’. The phrase was invented in the ‘Renaissance’ to characterise the period between the peak of the ancient Roman world the revival of learning which Renaissance authors were very aware of in their own time. But for a generation or more scholars have been fighting the ‘myth of the middle ages’ in all kinds of ways, for example by explaining that Rome didn’t ‘decline and fall’ as fast or as thoroughly as the myth demands. This is the thrust of Chris Wickham’s magisterial study, The Inheritance of Rome which shows the legislative, linguistic, religious and administrative legacy of Rome continuing for centuries after the last emperor (450), strongly enduring into the era of Charlemagne (crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800).

The myth of violence Moreover, England wasn’t a specially violent or bloodthirsty place in the later 15th century. The reverse. All the evidence is that England was unusually peaceful among comparably sized European states. Gillingham gives a lot of evidence for this.

  • A long explanation of military technology shows how the widespread development of powerful cannon led to the equal development of fortifications which could resist them, specifically the creation of bulwarks sticking out from the curtain walls of town or castle walls, to be used as platforms to bombard attacking forces. Almost all European towns and cities built them because the continent existed in a state of almost continuous warfare; there are hardly any in England because they weren’t needed.
  • Foreign observers commented on the peacefulness of England and pointed out one simple reason: the Channel. All nations in continental Europe were liable to be attacked at any moment by any other. Nobody could attack England. Raids there were, for example on the Cinque Ports on the south coast – but these merely prove Gillingham’s point because these were the only places which built ‘modern’ defensive walls. The entire rest of England didn’t need them.

On the contrary, Gillingham adduces evidence that the wages of labourers were at their highest point during the period. And – something he doesn’t himself mention but which I know independently – the period from 1450 saw the flourishing of the late medieval style of parish church design known as ‘Perpendicular’ – new, larger-than-ever churches built across the country and representing the wealth that comes from economic and social stability. It was the heyday of medieval church building.

So far from being the bloodbath which later tradition made it out to be, Gillingham in fact pithily sums up the period of disorder which later generations called the wars of the roses as merely ‘a few disturbances of the aristocratic establishment’ (p.11).

The Tudor myth

So why is there this myth in the first place?

Because when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III he commissioned writers to prove that he was a hero, restoring order and peace to a nation brought to its knees by incompetent rulers, weltering in blood and chaos, all leading to the acme of evil – the wicked king Henry overthrew, black Richard III, the evil hunchback.

His son (Henry VIII) perpetuated this version of history and so did his sons and daughters (Edward VI, bloody Mary, Elizabeth I). Chroniclers, teachers, historians – everything they wrote and published using the power of the new printing presses (which began to spread precisely during Henry VII’s reign) was first vetted and approved by government censors. And the government used the power of the press to promulgate the Official Version of a state brought to the brink of chaos and redeemed by the heroic Tudor dynasty.

100 years later Shakespeare – whose history plays are sometimes credited with being the biggest single influence on the English’s view of their own history – sealed and cemented the myth in the series of six ‘history’ plays he wrote about Henry IV, the hero Henry V, and the sad decline of Henry VI (the incompetent, possibly mentally defective king under whom the wars broke out).

Later historians accepted the official Tudor myth at face value and the story of chaos climaxing in the wickedest king in our island history was repeated over and again.

Only in the 1980s and since, has a revisionist version of the period taken hold: one that doesn’t represent it as a period of decline and fall into inevitable violence, but of surprising peace and stability upset only by dynastic quarrels right at the top of society which had surprisingly little impact except on the poor individuals press-ganged into fighting or in whose vicinity battles – generally quite small-scale battles – took place.

Full of meat and ideas

Lots of history books are full of dates, events and pernickety interpretations of them, but Gillingham’s book is riveting for the way it defines the big issues and tackles them head on. It is packed with logical arguments and insights.

It is, for example, fascinating to read that the biggest problem for any armed force in the field was provisions. Even living off the land was only a viable option for a limited period. In a war of foreign conquest part of the process of cowing the opposition was ravaging and destroying the land. But in a civil war, especially when you were claiming the throne and looking for people’s loyalty, the opposite was true – you wanted to present yourself as the enforcer of peace, law and stability. You wanted to rein in your followers and limit damage as much as possible.

These reasons explain why the Hundred Years War – fought mainly in France a generation or two earlier – and the other continental wars of this period, often settled down into long and destructive sieges, with land around the besieged cities ravaged and laid waste. Whereas the Wars of the Roses are characterised by the opposite, an unusual number of pitched battles, battles which didn’t last long and were usually decisive. Neither side wanted to destroy the very kingdom they were fighting to inherit.

This isn’t the place to summarise the actual wars (there were three distinct periods of violent conflict with periods of peace and manouvering between them). You can read summaries of the events on Wikipedia or any number of other websites. Suffice to say that in his opening chapters Gillingham’s book gives a host of fascinating, logical and persuasive arguments for rethinking our understanding of the entire period.

Related links

Every room in the Victoria and Albert Museum (part one)

Cousin Carlos was over from Spain and asked if we could have a go at visiting every room in the (vast) Victoria and Albert Museum. In one full day, from opening time at 10am to chucking out time at 5.30pm, we managed to visit the first 50 rooms, i.e the whole of the ground floor.

The highest-numbered room in the V&A, up on the sixth floor, is 146 – but it quickly becomes obvious that not all the rooms exist, or are accessible, and that entire sets of rooms seem to have gone missing. So maybe there are more like 120 accessible rooms.

The advantage of the ‘every room in XXX’ approach is it makes you visit parts of museums you’ve never visited before, didn’t even know existed, or usually walk past in a hurry to get to the latest exhibition.

Cosimo III de' Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Cosimo III de’ Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Rooms 1 to 7 Europe 1600 – 1815

These are next to the tunnel entrance and are relatively new. They show objects from Europe – mainly France – between 1600 and 1815. A gallery attendant was keen to show us the latest digital innovation, which is you can look up some of the objects on a smartphone app and listen to commentary about them.

But the most striking thing about these seven big rooms is the question – Why are they in reverse chronological order? Why don’t the rooms start in 1600 and proceed through to 1815, showing you the development of various styles of furniture, metalwork, silverware and cutlery etc?

Instead, you begin with busts of Napoleon and Josephine and some striking ‘First Empire’ furniture from 1805 or so, and then move slowly back in time through the neo-classicism of the late 18th century with elaborate clothes and enormous dinner services (1770), past attractive rococo paintings (1750) and on into the heavy, elaborate and melodramatic statuary, painting and metalwork of the Baroque (1600-1700).

Of the wealth of impressive objects on display I most liked the rococo paintings. I liked their delicacy and humour, especially so close to the heavy, grinding Baroque mirrors and furniture and the architect’s plans and paintings of the vast palaces designed to squash the viewer with their power and wealth.

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 - 1752)

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 – 1752)

The galleries include several spaces entirely recreating the inside of a rococo or Baroque room of the time. There’s also a fancy interactive video built around the characters of the commedia dell’arte, popular across Europe in the 18th century.

Towards the end was a space devoted to 17th century guns with an informative video showing how they were loaded and fired. Beautifully made with plenty of fancy scrollwork and decorative metal work, these are, nonetheless, instruments designed to blind, eviscerate and kill people. As I get older I find it harder to ‘enjoy’ the sight of such things.

Case of 17th century muskets

Case of 17th century muskets

Rooms 8 – 10 Medieval and Renaissance 300 – 1500

I’ve reviewed these rooms elsewhere.

Not enough late antique/Dark Age/early medieval stuff, for my taste. More Vikings, please! In line with the confusing room number policy, although the numbers indicate three rooms there are in fact six, numbers 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c. I like the pagan motifs, the Dark Age animals, the hieratic postures of these pre-Conquest figures, and the strange forest animals and foliage woven into the capitals of the wooden columns on display.

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

I liked this 12th century Madonna and child because it is so modern. It looks like an Eric Gill.

12th century Madonna and child

12th century Madonna and child

I love the enormously solid but beautifully carved wellhead from 900. Although a Christian artefact it is decorated with classic ‘Celtic’ interwoven knots and is redolent of a strange dark time, full of pagan secrets and mysteries.

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy (c.900)

Room 10c is dominated by an enormous work – the Devonshire Hunting Tapestry: Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-1430). The tapestry is impressive in itself but benefits enormously from a stylish touch-screen guide. This lets you select particular themes or parts of the image and then zooms in to give extra information about them, giving you time to really absorb the details and let the impression of this huge work really sink in.

On the whole, I prefer medieval art because I find it full of touching and humorous details, to Renaissance art which I find too austere and coldly perfect. Hence I liked the three wooden statues in this room, depicting a knight and squire and man at arms, quirkily thin and cartoon-like, missing bits of their arms and equipment.

Three standing English wooden figures (1450)

Three standing English wooden figures (around 1450)

Rooms 11 to 15

Missing, as far as I can tell.

Room 16a

A corner room between 27 and the café which contains one statue, probably by Tilman Riemenschneider of Wurzburg, Germany, made around 1510.

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Along with the north European statuary in rooms 26 and 27, this makes me wonder if there is a distinctive northern Renaissance ‘look’ i.e. the faces seem longer and narrower, the figures slightly gaunter, than the smooth perfections of the Italy Renaissance. I find them more characterful, in their strange remote medieval way.

Rooms 17 to 19

Don’t appear to exist.

Rooms 20 to 24 The sculpture gallery

Room 20 appears to be closed off. You could be mistaken for not realising numbers 21 to 24 were rooms at all since they in fact constitute the long narrow corridor you cross when you step down from the shop and walk across a narrow space to get to the swing doors into the John Madejski garden in the centre of the museum.

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

The corridor is lined with, and has a long central row of, a great array of statues of all shapes and sizes. This is the first time I’ve ever stopped and read the wall panels here and so I realised for the first time that this is the V&A’s European statue collection. As I’ve sauntered through it towards the exhibition rooms, I never suspected that it was divided into categories – funerary statuary, portrait statuary, garden statuary. Nor that it is arranged chronologically.

In the usual V&A manner, the rooms are in reverse chronological order i.e. the oldest statues – Jacobean funeral images and wall monuments from churches – are in ‘room’ 24, while ‘room 21’ contains a surprising array of 20th century sculpture. So, as so often, if you start at the lowest number and go through them in order, you are travelling back in time.

I had no idea that the far left of the corridor, room 21, contained such brilliant highlights of 20th century Modernist sculpture.

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

By taking the time to stop and read the many wall panels, I learned that most of the statuary belongs to the neo-classical i.e. hyper-real style which dominated from 1700 to around the 1850s. Master of this style appears to be have been Antonio Canova, who was one of several European sculptors who immigrated here and made a living supplying tasteful classical statuary for the homes and gardens of members of the aristocracy who had learned about this sort of thing on their Grand Tours of the Continent.

The cut-off date of 1850 coincides with the rise of ‘Romantic’ sculpture, which for practical purposes is dominated by the French artist Auguste Rodin. Apparently, eighteen or so of his works were being shown in a London exhibition of modern art in the summer of 1914 just as the Great War broke out. As the British found themselves fighting the Hun alongside the French, Rodin made the magnanimous gesture of donating all the works to the British nation. And so here they are, the Rodin Bequest, on permanent display in room 21a.

Rooms 26 to 27

These form the corridor running between the exhibition shop with windows to the left onto the Garden, which you walk down to get to the café. They are statues, so sort of related to the earlier preceding rooms, but statues of the north European (German, Dutch) Renaissance, almost all figures of Christ, the Crucifixion, Mary, saints, from around 1500, so in fact more closely related to the medieval and Renaissance galleries. And mostly in wood, often cracked perished wood, compared with the impossibly smooth white marble of Canova’s 18th century creations.

Rooms 28, 29, 30, 31

Missing.

Rooms 32 and 33

These are the numbers of the corridor outside the main exhibition rooms. They have half a dozen huge mosaics commissioned by an early director of the museum from contemporary artists. The one that stood out for me was the figure of Pisano as created by Frederick Lord Leighton.

Rooms 34, 35, 36, 37

Missing.

Rooms 38a, 38b, 38c

The main exhibition rooms. 38b and 38c are closed while the curators take down the big Botticelli exhibition and prepare the 1960s Revolution show, which is due to open in September.

38a is hosting a temporary exhibition of photographs from the past century, which take the camera itself as their subject. Oooh, the self-referentiality! From kids in New York slums taking pics of themselves holding Kodak brownies to paparazzi shots of glamour models or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor being hounded by press photographers, none of these really interested me.

Earlier this year it was announced that ‘The world’s largest and finest collection on the art of photography is to be created in London when more than 400,000 objects transfer from the National Media Museum (NMM) in Bradford to the Victoria and Albert Museum.’

Just from a few hours’ exploration I’d realised that the V&A is really pressed for space. Its collection is vast and the rooms and corridors and galleries which currently exist can only show a fraction of its artefacts.

So where on earth is it going to display an additional 400,000 photographs? A purpose-built photography museum would be a much better idea.

Room 40

This is a big stand-alone room in the west wing, just up the stairs from room 21 of the statue gallery. In the centre of the room is a big circular construction which you need a ticket to enter and which hosts clothes-related exhibitions. This is where they had the stimulating show of fashion shoes earlier in the year. Now it’s hosting the exhibition of underwear through the ages, which I whistled through a few weeks ago and found surprisingly boring.

Lining the walls of the room which surrounds it are big cases displaying historic European clothes.

Rooms 41 to 45 – The Asian galleries

These four rooms are each a world unto themselves, focusing on, respectively the art and culture of:

Room 43 is the central main V&A shop

  • China (44)
  • Japan (45) ‘The V&A has been collecting Japanese art and design since it was founded in 1852 and now holds one of the world’s most comprehensive collections, including ceramics, lacquer, arms and armour, woodwork, metalwork, textiles and dress, prints, paintings, sculpture and modern & contemporary studio crafts.’

These rooms are so large and so packed with stuff that they have their own diagrams showing how the displays are organised into themes and subjects. Whole worlds, thousands of years of tradition, can be sampled and enjoyed in each one and they are related to specialist rooms tucked away elsewhere in the Museum. From these rooms I liked the geometric woodwork of the Islamic galleries, like this 19th century window panel.

Islamic wooden carved screen

Islamic wooden carved screen

  • the numerous small 18th century watercolours from India, such as this depiction of Nawab Sikander Jah (1810) artist unknown
  • almost any of the lovely Japanese prints:
19th century Japanese print

19th century Japanese print

Rooms 47a to 47g – The Asian corridor

As with the sculpture galleries, I’d always thought of this as a corridor – architecturally it is the long corridor which runs to either side of the main entrance (47d). I’d never really realised that each division of the corridor counts as a ‘room’ and that these are arranged to showcase artefacts from South-East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and so on. There were no end of golden Buddhas from all these countries and a space dedicated solely to Buddhas. Among all these the delicate puppet figures from Indonesia stood out, for me.

Rooms 46a and 46b – The cast courts

At the east end of this long corridor is an entrance into the famous Cast Courts. There are usually two of these but room 46a is closed for refurbishment.

46b is an enormous room, well-lit by a glass roof, which contains monstrously enormous plaster casts of some of the great classics of the Italian Renaissance. The casts were created for the 1851 Great Exhibition and were an education for the great majority of the population, and the many artists, who couldn’t afford to go on the Grand Tour to Italy themselves. Obvious highlights include:

although many of the best things are the tiny details to be found among the vast friezes and reliefs copied from towns and cities across Renaissance Italy.

Room 48a The Raphael Cartoons

This is entered from the South-East Asia corridor – from room 47a to be precise – and is a vast darkened room containing half a dozen enormous ‘cartoons’ by the famous Italian Renaissance painter Raphael. These are ‘full-scale designs for tapestries that were made to cover the lower walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The tapestries depict the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, the founders of the early Christian Church.’

Subsequently, they were bought by King Charles I and transported to Britain, to the royal tapestry manufactory at Mortlake, where they were used as templates to make tapestries, before eventually passing onto the V&A.

In this shrouded room we are intended to reverence the genius of the Renaissance in hushed tones. You can see the characteristic soft-focus outline of the angelic faces, and the bold physical gestures of the figures in a totally achieved three-dimensional space. All of this must have seemed like magic to its earliest viewers.

Room 49 Exhibition space

I’m guessing room 49 is the exhibition room to the left of the main entrance hall. This is currently displaying an exhibition of the life and work of Ove Arup, the engineering company.

Rooms 50a to 50d

50a and 50b are enormous rooms, big wide and very tall, containing original Renaissance statuary and entire stone pulpits and the entire facade of an enormous Italian church.

Room 50a: The Renaissance City 1350–1600

I disliked most of the things in room 50a, the bigger of the two spaces – the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast looming choir screen from the Cathedral of St John at Hertogenbosch which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection. It is a spectacular space, no doubt about it, and individual items are beautifully carved and created – but I recoiled from its overbearing scale.

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the renaissance Gallery

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the Renaissance City Gallery

What I love in Dark Age and Medieval art is the sense of delicacy and mystery, not vague sentimental hints, but the real, solid, dark impenetrable mystery of the northern forests. What I dislike about a lot of Renaissance, especially public Renaissance art, is its oppressive projection of power and control, typified by the equestrian statue above.

50b: The Northern Renaissance

The smaller of the two rooms is still enormous. Its artefacts appear to come more from the Northern Renaissance and feature more painted altars and crucifixes than 50a. Overall, I prefer statuary from the Medieval or Northern Renaissance, as being less superhumanly perfect. It tends to portray the imperfections of the human form, and therefore be more capable of humour. Very roughly speaking, repeat visits to the V&A make it clear to me that I prefer ‘Gothic’ to ‘Classical’.

Gothic North European altar

Gothic North European altar

But also, strolling through these rooms, the 50s, the goal of our challenge to see all the rooms on the ground floor of the V&A – another reservation emerges. Compared to the timeless simplicity of much of the Japanese art, the heavenly serenity of Chinese jade sculptures, the geometric mazes of Islamic design – all these bloody crucified Christs and saints and martyrs being beheaded, crucified, burned, drowned and eviscerated seemed like the quintessence of barbarism. Compare:

with any of the hundreds of serene, unviolent Buddhas from China, India, Thailand and across Asia:

with the dainty paintings of graceful Japanese women, with characterful Chinese jade statues of horses, with the geometric beauty of Islamic design, with the watercolour depictions of life at the Mughal court in India.

It’s difficult not to be appalled at the bloodthirsty images which lie at the core of the Western Christian tradition. But maybe this guy should have the last word…

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)


Related links

Other museums

Sicily: culture and conquest @ the British Museum

I’m aware of three exhibition spaces at the British Museum: the big Sainsbury space for blockbuster exhibitions at the back of the main hall; the temporary display room 3a, immediately on the right of the main entrance; and the medium-sized space on the first floor of the Rotunda in the main hall.

This exhibition is a medium-sized one in the Rotunda: the ticket collector on the door said it would take an hour to go round and this compactness was confirmed by the lack of audio-guide.

Two eras

I was expecting a comprehensive historical overview of Sicily – the largest island in the Mediterranean, the triangular island at the foot of Italy and only 96 miles from the coast of Tunisia. In the event, the exhibition manages to be so compact because it focuses on just two key eras in the island’s long and chequered history.

1. Classical Greek

First is the classical Greek era, from the earliest colonies founded in the 730s BC, which overlapped with sporadic Phoenician settlement in later centuries, all the way through to the period of the Roman conquest, circa 200 BC. In fact the decisive battle in which Rome won the island was fought on 10 March 241 BC.

The early rooms contain fascinating artefacts from this long period, which taken together show the evolution of Greek sculptural art from abstract designs through stylised human figures and onto the astonishing realism of full classical Greek art. As an example of the earliest artefacts, there is a large stone tomb cover, decorated with a huge abstract carving – fertility symbols, some kind of religious imagery? No one knows.

Representing the middle period is a marvellously preserved terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, featuring the standing figures of three fertility goddesses.

Terracotta Altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily. C.500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

Terracotta Altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily. C.500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

There are numerous other statues, including a glass case with 10 or more foot-high figures of Cybele, goddess of fertility, festooned with her distinctive necklace of grapes, hieratic heads from temples, along with numerous coins from this, the earliest period of coin history, before you start to encounter the supremely realistic depictions of human and animal figures which are the glorious achievement of classical Greek art.

For me the outstanding example of this later period was the stunning  terracotta horse’s head from an equestrian group which surmounted a temple in Sicily, c. 480–460 BC.

The flared nostrils and the swollen veins of the horse bring it vividly to life; you can hear the whinnying, the snorting and smell the hot sweaty horse smell.

2. The Normans

Then – surprisingly – the show skips the Romans altogether, along with the reconquest by the Byzantine Empire of Justinian I (530s) and conquest by Muslim forces (820-1020), leaping over 1,000 years forward to the Norman period, starting when the Normans conquered the island in 1061 and continuing through their period of dominance to around 1300.

I found this second section the more interesting of the two, which may be a simple reflection of the fact that we have much more written evidence from this period. Normans (descendants of 9th century Vikings who had settled the area that became ‘Normandy’ in north-west France) had already established bases on mainland Italy and during the 11th century mounted raids on Sicily. Eventually in 1061 they established control over the entire island.

Marble bust of Frederick II, Italy, 1220–50 AD. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome. © H. Behrens, DAI Rom

Marble bust of King Frederick II of Sicilty, 1220–50 AD. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome. © H. Behrens, DAI Rom

Due to its long history, sketched above, the island was now home to a checkerboard of communities including Italians, Byzantine Greeks, Muslims, Jewish immigrants and now its Norman rulers. Sicily was ruled by a succession of Norman kings – Roger II, William I and William II – who turned it into a military power base but also created a unique hybrid, multi-cultural court. The exhibition has a room devoted to the amazing Palatine Chapel, commissioned by Roger to sit at the heart of the royal palace at Palermo, which was covered in gorgeous decoration mixing twelfth-century Byzantine-style mosaic with marble and wooden Islamic-influenced architectural decorations.

Sicilian facts

Sicily has always enjoyed an unusually fertile soil created by the regular volcanic eruptions of Mount Etna. This large sloping mountain dominates the island in every direction.

Sicily contains some of the best-preserved classical temples in the Mediterranean and a stunning ancient theatre built on a hillside overlooking a bay with Mount Etna in the background.

Speaking of stunning landscapes, probably the most striking feature of the exhibition is a number of really massive, wall-sized, colour photographs of the Sicilian landscape, along with temples and ruins, which cover many of the walls and really bring the subject to life. It’s a technique the Museum used in the Viking exhibition a few years ago, and it really helps situate the dry artefacts into a living breathing (and very sunny) environment.

My favourites

The show includes some 200 artefacts from its two chosen eras. I went with my son and we each chose our favourite objects. I liked:

Gilded falcon, dating from the early 1200s and harking back towards the winged eagles and birds of prey which formed bowsprits to Viking warships.

Gilded bronze falcon, Bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy, 1200–1220 AD © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gilded bronze falcon, Bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy, 1200–1220 AD © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Palatine chapel ceiling The chapel stood at the centre of the royal palace in Palermo. It was commissioned by the Norman King Roger II and consecrated on 28 April 1140. For the exhibition the extraordinary ceiling of the chapel has been recreated (admittedly the three-dimensional roof with alcoves and arches has been recreated as a flat two-dimensional photograph) and is suspended low above one of the exhibition rooms. Shame there wasn’t a mat for visitors to lie on and look up and study the highly detailed intermixing of abstract patterns, decorated with Islamic script, among which sit rosettes holding quaint medieval portraits of Christian saints and holy men – all the work of Fatimid woodworkers and painters from North Africa.

My son’s favourites

Bronze rostrum The exhibition includes a direct remnant of the battle in which the Romans conquered Sicily in 241 BC: a bronze battering ram that was fitted on the front of the Roman warships to sink enemy ships, and which was only recently excavated from the waters around the island.

Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. c.240 BC. Soprintendenza del Mare © Regione Siciliana

Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. c.240 BC. Soprintendenza del Mare © Regione Siciliana

Tabula Rogeriana The book of maps which King Roger II commissioned from the Arab scholar Al-Idrisi, who took 15 years creating a description of the world and world map, the first one anyone had attempted in a thousand years. The Tabula Rogeriana was completed in 1154 and the exhibition has a splendid 14th century copy of it.

14th Century copy of a map of Sicily - A double page map of Sicily from Al-Idrisi’s Treatise, Unknown, c.1300–1500AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

14th Century copy of a map of Sicily – A double page map of Sicily from Al-Idrisi’s Treatise, Unknown, c.1300–1500AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Summary

So the exhibition is far from being a complete overview of Sicilian culture. Instead it’s a collection of many wonderful artefacts from two distinct moments of European history which – along with the dazzling and enormous colour photos of various landscapes of the island – really whet your appetite to go and visit this fascinating and beautiful island.

The trailer

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham (2009)

The sub-title is ‘A History of Europe from 400 to 1000’. It is the second in the ‘Penguin History of Europe’ series, following Classical Europe and preceding Europe in the High Middle Ages. It is a dense 550 pages long, plus extensive notes, bibliography, index and maps. But I’m not sure it’s a book I’d recommend to anyone. Why?

Events and theories

Very roughly there are two types of history books – ones which tell you the events in chronological order, and ones which discuss themes, theories and ideas about the events. Thus Dan Jones’s breathless account of the Plantagenet kings gives a thrilling head-on narrative of their trials and tribulations from 1120 to 1400. You can go on to explore individual Plantagenet monarchs further via in narrative-led books like Marc Morris’s accounts of King John or King Edward I.

By contrast, a thematic history would be one like John Darwin’s overview of the British Empire, which examines different elements or themes of the imperial experience, bringing together incidents, facts and stats from widely disparate territories and different points in time to prove his general points.

This book is very much the latter. Although divided into four chronological sections –

  • The Roman Empire and Its Breakup 400-550
  • The Post-Roman West 550-750
  • The Empires of the East 550-1000
  • The Carolingian and Post-Carolingian West 750-1000

– it is much more a thematic than an events-based account. Wickham explains the bits he needs to, but yanks them out of contexts as disparate as Viking Iceland or Muslim Baghdad. In the same sentence he can be talking about Justinian in the 550s then switch to Constantine’s reforms in the 312s and end with some comments about Theodosius in the 390s. I found the result very confusing.

In my experience you have to read the most detailed account possible of contentious historical events in order to feel you have even the beginnings of an ‘understanding’ of them; in fact ideally you read several complementary accounts to begin to build up a three dimensional picture. By ‘understanding’ I mean the ability to put yourself in the place of the relevant players – kings, queens, nobles, opposing generals or whatever – to understand the social, economic, cultural and psychological pressures they were under, and to understand why they behaved as they did. Alaric sacked Rome because of a, b, c. Charlemagne attacked the Saxons so savagely because of x, y, z.

The further removed you are from a comprehensible, chronological and granular account of the Past, the sillier it often looks.

For example, if you are told that the armies of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century were diverted from attacking the Saracens in the Holy Land and ended up besieging, sacking and permanently weakening Christian Constantinople (in 1204) you will be tempted to make all kinds of generalisations about how stupid and violent the crusaders were, how muddle-headed medieval leaders were, how hypocritical Christianity has always been, and so on.

It’s only if you delve deeper and discover that Constantinople was experiencing a major leadership crisis in which an anti-Crusade emperor had deposed a pro-Crusade emperor and was threatening to execute him, and that this crisis was taking place against the background of mounting tension between the Latin and the Greek populations of the city which had already led to one major riot in which the city’s Greek population had massacred or forced to flee the entire Roman population of around 60,000 – if you’re told all this, then the crusaders’ motives no longer look so random and absurd: in fact you can begin to see how some of them thought the diversion was vital in order:

  • to rescue ‘their’ emperor
  • to ensure the safety of ‘their’ people in the city
  • and to establish favourable conditions for the ongoing pursuit of the crusade against the Muslims

In fact it was not so stupid after all. You are also better placed to understand the arguments within the Crusader camp about whether or not to besiege the city, as the leaders of different national factions – each with different trading and political links with the Greeks or the West – will have argued the case which best suited their interests. Now you can begin to sympathise with the conflicting arguments, you can put yourself in the place of the squabbling crusaders or the different factions within the city. Now – in other words – you have achieved what I define as a basic ‘understanding’ of the event.

Or take the famous sack of Rome in 410. I recently read John Julius Norwich’s long account of the Byzantine Empire from 300 to 800, very dense with facts and quite hard to assimilate – but it does have the merit of describing events very thoroughly, giving you a clear picture of the unfolding story of the Byzantine Empire – and its clarity allows you to go back and reread passages if you get a bit lost (easy to do). Thus, although I’ve read references to Alaric and the Visigoths’ sack of Rome scores of times, Norwich’s book was the first one I’ve ever read which explains in detail the events leading up to the disaster. And it was only by reading the full sequence of events that I learned the unexpected fact that the sack was mostly the fault of the obstinate Roman authorities, because they snobbishly refused to negotiate a peace deal with Alaric, a peace deal he actually wanted, and that their foolish refusal eventually forcing him into extreme action. (See my review of Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich.) Norwich’s account was a revelation to me, completely transforming my understanding of this key event in the history of western Europe. Compare and contrast with Wickham, who covers it in one sentence (on page 80).

For me, in the study of history – the closer, the clearer and the more chronological, the better.

Modish

On top the confusing thematic approach, Wickham’s text is aggressively modern, theoretical and self-consciously up-to-date. He uses the lexicon of literary theory I was taught in the 1980s and which has gone on to infest history writing and art criticism. Events are ‘situated’ in the ‘space’ created by hierarchies, his book sets out to survey ‘the socio-political, socio-economic, political-cultural developments of the period 400-1000’ and will investigate the complexity of the state structures within which the major figures ‘operated’. And he is liberal with maybe the key indicator of fashionable post-modern jargon, ‘the Other’; hence,

The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’ (p.43).

The trouble with this kind of jargon is that it rarely explicates things and more often confuses or obscures them. ‘The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’.’ What does that say except look at my modish post-modern vocabulary. Does he mean that the Roman Empire, within which law, order, peace and trade prevailed, was surrounded by territories in which shifting alliances of illiterate barbarian tribes lived their mostly unrecorded lives, tribes which periodically threatened to overrun the borders of the Empire.

Wickham emphasises how bang up to date he is and is at great pains to skewer the vulgar error of all previous historians of this period, who thought the Roman Empire ‘collapsed’ under pressure from invading ‘barbarians’. The whole thrust of his book is that Roman law, administration and other structures lingered on much much longer than has been previously thought – hence the book’s title. But he still needs a generic word to describe the non-Roman peoples who indisputably did break across the frontiers of the Empire, who did ravage large sections of it, who did cause enormous disruption and who did form the basis of the post-Roman societies which slowly replaced the Empire. Having ruled out the use of barbarians, since that falls into the vulgar error of all previous writers on the subject, he eventually decides to call them ‘barbarians’, with added speech marks and so throughout the book the word ‘barbarian’ occurs just as much as it would in a traditional account, but with the quotes around it to remind you that the older accounts were so so wrong, and this account is so much more sophisticated.

All past accounts are wrong

The opening pages of The Inheritance of Rome explain why all previous histories of the Early Middle Ages were wrong – they suffered from any of three major flaws:

1. The Nationalist Fallacy i.e. countless histories have been written over the past two hundred years in the nations of modern Europe claiming that the period 400-1000 saw the ‘seeds’ being laid of their respective proud nation state – of modern France, Germany, Britain etc etc. No, they weren’t, says Wickham. The people we are investigating lived their own lives in their own time according to their own values inherited from their recent past – they had absolutely no inkling what would happen in the future. To write as if Charlemagne was laying the foundations for modern France is unforgiveable teleology i.e. seeing a purpose or aim in events, a sense of inevitability (rising, in conservative nationalist histories to a sense of Historical Destiny) which simply doesn’t exist and which didn’t exist at the time.

When Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate in 472 no-one knew that he would be the Last Roman Emperor in the West. All the various political players continued jostling for power in the normal way, invoking the presence, the power and the continuation of the Empire, not least the Eastern Emperor Zeno, as if a replacement would shortly be found. Even a hundred years later, the so-called ‘barbarian’ rulers of Italy were still invoking the authority of the Emperor and using Roman titles to bolster their rule. No, the ‘barbarian’ rulers of Western Europe circa 600 had no thoughts of founding France or Germany or Belgium or Holland. They must be seen entirely within the context of their own times and values to be properly understood.

Basically – avoid hindsight. Assess historical periods in themselves, as their protagonists experienced them. Don’t make the mistake of judging the Early Middle Ages as a hurried way station on the journey to later, greater things: of conceptualising Clovis as just a stepping stone to Charlemagne or Offa as just a step on the way towards Alfred.

Only an attempt to look squarely at each past in terms of its own social reality can get us out of this trap. (p.12)

2. The Modernist Fallacy i.e. European history has been a tale of steady progress towards our present giddy heights, towards the triumph of a global economy, liberal culture, science, reason, human rights and so on. These all began to appear in ‘the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome’, but then – tragically – fell into a pit of darkness with the end of Roman Imperial rule, a bleak ‘Dark Age’ awash with ‘illiterate barbarians’ who only slowly, painfully clawed humanity back up into the light, which began to shine again during the Renaissance, and has risen steadily higher ever since.

Nonsense, says Wickham. The early medieval period was first given the negative name ‘the dark ages’ by chauvinists of the Renaissance who despised everything Gothic and non-classical. Later, 18th century and Victorian historians reinforced this negative image due to the paucity of documents and evidence from it, which for so long made our knowledge of it so patchy. But recent revolutions in archaeology, along with the availability of more documents than ever before (including from behind the former Iron Curtain), and their freely available translations on the internet, mean that:

a) we can write much better, more informed histories of the period than ever before
b) this significantly increased amount of evidence shows that Roman administrative structures, law and literacy carried on for much longer than was previously thought. I.e. there is much more continuity of civilisation in post-Roman Europe than those old historians claim. I.e. it wasn’t so dark after all.

The fundamental aim of Wickham’s book is to bring together this recent(ish) research in both document-based history and archaeology to show that the Roman Empire didn’t inevitably ‘decline and fall’ under the impact of ‘barbarians’.

a) There was no inevitability: the structures – the tax system and bureaucracy and church – lasted for centuries after the first ‘barbarian’ incursions in the West and, of course, continued for an entire millennium in the Byzantine East.
b) We have lots of evidence that the so-called ‘barbarians’ – all those Goths and Vandals and Burgundians and Franks – themselves quickly assimilated Roman standards, ideas and terminology, that many of them wanted to remain vassals of the Emperor in Byzantium, centuries after the West had fallen. Roman ideas, practices, the language and bureaucracy and structures of power, all lived on for a long time into the Early Middle Ages (and for another 1000 years in the East). The so-called ‘barbarians’ in fact went out of their way to adopt the Roman language, Roman iconographies of power, a Roman bureaucracy run on Roman lines and so on, for as long as they could after seizing power in their respective areas. I.e. there wasn’t an abrupt END – there was a very, very long process of assimilation and change…

Themes not events

So this book is not a blow-by-blow chronological account of the period. It proceeds in chronological periods but skips through the events of each period pretty quickly in order to get to what motivates and interests Wickham – academic discussion of themes such as how much the Imperial tax system endured in 5th century Gaul, or just what the archaeology of the lower Danube tells us about the Romanisation of its inhabitants. And so on.

I found a lot of this discussion very interesting – and it’s good to feel you are engaging with one of the leading experts in this field – but I was only able to enjoy it because I had recently read three other books on the exact same period, and so understood what he was talking about. In other words, I would not recommend this book as a ‘history’ of the period. It is a collection of discussions and meditations on themes and topics arising from the history of the period, but it is not a detailed sequential account of what happened. For that you’d have to look elsewhere.

Interesting insights

Once you understand that it is a meta-history, interested in discussing themes and topics arising from the period, and presupposing you already have a reasonable familiarity with the actual chronology, then the book is full of insights and ideas:

  • Ethnogenesis The ‘barbarians’ were illiterate; when they conquered somewhere they recruited the local Roman bureaucracy to run things and record laws. We’ve long known that the Roman accounts of the tribes which fought and invaded were unreliable. But I hadn’t realised that the terms Ostrogoth, Visigoth and so on were merely flags of convenience later writers give to peoples who didn’t call themselves that. More searchingly, recent historians think that even the idea of coherent tribes and peoples is open to doubt. More likely these groupings were probably made up of smaller tribes or even clans which temporarily united round one or other leader for specific ad hoc campaigns or battles, before splitting up again. Complicated.
  • Britain and Ireland A sort of proof of this vision of fissiparous ‘barbarians’ comes in chapter 7 which Wickham dedicates to Ireland and Britain. Ireland was never ruled by Rome and so kept its native pattern of tiny kingdoms, maybe more than 100, each owing fealty to higher kings, who themselves owed fealty to whoever managed to seize control as the High King at any one moment. Chaotic.

The end of Roman rule in Britain

More interesting is what happened to Britain after the Romans withdrew. The collapse of post-Roman Britain seems to have been quicker and more complete than of any other Imperial territory but modern historians now think the end of Roman rule was more complicated than the bare dates suggest. In his history of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, Gildas says that most of Britain’s Roman garrison was stripped by the commander Maximus when he made his bid to become Augustus or emperor in the West, in the 380s. Maximus took the garrisons with him on his invasion of Italy but was defeated and killed in 388. Britain returned to the rule of the Emperor Theodosius – until 392 when the usurping emperor Eugenius seized power in the West, although he also was defeated by Theodosius, in 394.

When Theodosius died in 395, his 10-year-old son Honorius succeeded him as Western Roman Emperor but the real power behind the throne was Stilicho, Honorius’s father-in-law. In 401 or 402 Stilicho stripped Hadrian’s Wall of troops for the final time, to bring them to Europe to fight the Visigoths.

In 407 a Roman general in Britain, Constantine (not the Great), rallied his troops in rebellion against Honorius (perhaps because they hadn’t been paid for some time) and led them into Gaul, where Constantine set himself up as Emperor in the West. But ‘barbarian’ invasions soon destabilised his rule and in 409 or 410, British authorities expelled his magistrates and officials. The Byzantine historian Zosimus describes this as a British ‘rebellion’.

This is how the stripping away of Britain’s defending army actually took place over a thirty year period, from 380 to 410, and as a result of the (generally failed) ambitions of a succession of usurpers and military governors.

Later in his history, Zosimus says the British authorities appealed to help from the Emperor. The Emperor replied (in the so-called Rescript of Honorius) that the British civitates must look to their own defences.

That’s it. Britain had been stripped of all Roman garrisons and legions and was wide open to sea-borne invasion by Saxons and others. These are traditionally dated to the 440s and 450s. The collapse of the Roman-British lifestyle was, apparently, very quick after the garrisons withdrew. Within a generation, archaeology tells us, the towns and villas had been abandoned. 50 or 60 years later, in 510 or 520, Gildas writes his long lament for the ‘ruined’ state of Britain. By the mid-500s the Eastern historian Procopius writes that Britannia was entirely lost to the Romans.

More insights

Militarisation of the élite Following the fall of Rome, in the West the secular aristocracy became militarised: the trappings of the Emperor became more military; the importance of a secular education i.e. the ability to quote the poets and write Latin prose like Cicero, declined rapidly; wealth across the Empire also declined and the hyper-rich Senatorial wealthy class disappeared. The widespread Latin education which was the bedrock of the extensive tax-gathering bureaucracy withered and disappeared, and with it our sources of written records.

Rise of church records It is logical, but I hadn’t thought of it this way, that into the vacuum left by the falling away of Roman Imperial records come church records. In the 6th and 7th centuries, as secular records from the disappearing Roman bureaucracy grow thinner on the ground, we have increasing records of church synods, the gift of land to the church, church land ownership records, along with increasing numbers of ‘lives’ of saints and popes and holy church figures, as well as a wealth of texts recording the period’s abundant theological disputes and debates. Thus what we know about the period, and  how we think about it, is hugely conditioned by the type of writings which have survived. It opens the possibility that maybe the Roman aristocracy lingered on for centuries after the ‘fall’, but didn’t write or record their activities so systematically.

Fatal loss of Carthage It is interesting that, in Wickham’s opinion, the failure of the Roman authorities to prevent Geiseric the Vandal moving from Spain into North Africa and seizing Carthage in 439, is far more important than Alaric’s 410 Sack of Rome. The trade, tax and food umbilical cord between Rome and Carthage was broken permanently. (Carthage supplied all Rome’s foodstuffs in lieu of tax. No Carthage, no food. From the mid-5th century the population of Rome begins to drop fast; in the 6th century its population probably plummeted by 80%.)

Tax collapse And so a vast tax hole opened in the Western Empire’s finances, which made it progressively harder to pay armies (increasingly made up of ‘barbarian’ mercenaries, anyway). Slowly a shift took place towards paying armies, generals and allies off with land; very slowly the Empire moved from being a tax-based to a land-based administration. This is the basis for Western feudalism.

The Goths in their various tribal formations took Gaul, Spain, then North Africa, then Italy. But Gothic hegemony was itself transient: by 511 it was over. Clovis, king of the Franks, defeated the Goths in the Roman province of Gaul, which increasingly becomes referred to as Francia; and the Eastern general, Belisarius, led violent campaigns in Italy to expel the Goths from the mainland (although it turned out he only created an exhausted power vacuum into which a new tribe, the Lombards, would enter).

Francia But the success of Clovis I (ruled 480s to 511) would establish Frankish rule in most of Francia and transform Gaul from a peripheral kingdom into the core of Western Europe for centuries to come (up to, including and following Charlemagne’s vast extension of Frankish power in the late 700s).

Tax Wickham makes some points about tax-based regimes I’d never thought about before: Tax-based regimes are generally much richer than land-based ones, because they tax a broader spread of citizens, more effectively. Tax-based regimes also are generally more powerful than land-based ones, because tax collectors and assessors monitor the entire domain more thoroughly, and court officials, army officers etc are paid salaries from the royal treasury. By contrast land-based armies or nobles are more independent and harder to govern – which helps to explain the endless rebellions which are so characteristic of the High Middle Ages.

Meat It’s one of only hundreds of interesting details in the book, but I was fascinated to learn that the shift from Roman to post-Roman society can be measured in diet. Aristocratic, senatorial and wealthy Romans asserted their class through a rarefied diet of delicate and expensive ingredients. The ‘barbarian’ successor states liked meat. The rituals of the royal hunt, the killing of wild beasts, and the division of cooked meat to loyal retainers in the royal hall or palace replaced the ornate, lying-on-a-couch sampling dishes of larks’ tongues of the Roman Empire – and The Hunt is a central motif of art and literature, drenched with power and significance, all through the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance period.

But ultimately…

Although Wickham hedges it round with modish qualifications and theoretical reminders not to be teleological or use hindsight, despite all the warnings to be more subtle and alert to slow increments rather than catastrophic ‘falls’ – nonetheless, the fact remains that the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist as a coherent political entity by the mid-6th century. It was replaced by a patchwork of kingdoms ruled by non-Roman ‘barbarian’ kings. And – rather contradicting his own thesis – Wickham admits that the archaeological record shows ‘the dramatic economic simplification of most of the West’ (p.95); north of the Loire in the 5th century, in the core Mediterranean lands in the 6th.

Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalised, exchange became more localised.

Wickham sees the shift from the Empire’s efficient tax-based economy, to the land-based administration of the post-Roman states as decisive. By the mid-sixth century the successor states couldn’t have matched Roman power or wealth, no matter how hard they tried, because they lacked the sophisticated tax system and revenue. Different states, with different social and economic system, different iconographies of power and different values, were firmly established.


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