Sunday, 1 February 2004

The birth of the Middle Ages

Listening to:

Nothing more than the hum of my computer’s fan.

Just read:

H. St. L. B. Moss, The birth of the Middle Ages.

This is a thorough, though rather dry history of Europe from 395 to roughly 800. In 395, the emperor Theodosius the Great died. From then on, the western (Italy, Gaul, Spain and England) and eastern (Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt) parts of the Roman Empire led separate existences, never to be reunited under one government. In 800, Charlemagne was crowned “emperor” in Rome by the Pope, emphasising the split between the West, and the East, where there was still a powerful Byzantine Empire.

This is not to say that the Byzantine Empire didn’t influence what was happening in the West. Under Justinian, in the sixth century, the Byzantines controlled most of the Italian peninsula. Even if the Byzantines soon turned their attention to more pressing matters on their eastern frontiers (first the Parthians, and then the great Islamic empire), Western Europe still paid intellectual homage to the idea of the Roman Empire, even if that Empire was now head-quartered in Constantinople.

Moss’s book is good because it describes not only the evolution of power structures in the West (barbarian kingdoms and the Papacy), but also in the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world as well. The first of these three topics is easily the most confusing because there is no obvious narrative thread to grab hold of. Instead, it is a tale of constant ups and downs as various kingdoms and peoples wax and wane. Different flavours of Goths, Lombards, Franks and Vandals all have a part to play, and there is no overarching principle or theme with which to simplify the story. It’s all terribly chaotic and contingent. Sometimes the Pope looks to the Eastern Church for authority and alliance; sometimes to local representatives of the Empire (based in Ravenna), and sometimes to the Franks (hence his coronation of Charlemagne). Because the political story in the West is so difficult to grasp, the sections of Moss’s book on social, economic and cultural developments are rather easier to read. There he generalises, and presents a story that is easy to appreciate. Trade collapses so that only luxuries make long journeys, and people are forced to become self-sufficient. Kingdoms are not administered by salaried officials, but by members of a king’s retinue. A king’s personal wealth becomes the same thing as the state’s Treasury.

Moss’s descriptions of the rise of Islam, and of the Byzantine Empire are interesting and readable. Again this is because there is an obvious narrative for him to bring to our attention, and the story comes across well. Moss is quite willing to wax lyrical about, and comment on the evolution of, art from the various regions whose history he relates. This also helps to leaven what is otherwise a long and complicated story.