Sunday, 15 February 2004

The crucible of Europe

Listening to:

Bach, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147. A cantata written for performance on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 20 December 1716. (Naxos 8.554042)

Just read:

Geoffrey Barraclough, The crucible of Europe.

This short and readable book is another in my current history bout. It takes up where Moss’s The birth of the Middle Ages left off, with the reign of Charlemagne. It concentrates on the ninth and tenth centuries, and follows the fortunes of those areas that were a part of Charlemagne’s empire: France, Germany and northern Italy. Barraclough also includes one brief chapter on England.

First, Barraclough explains how the great Carolingian Empire collapsed into a multitude of statelets over a relatively short period. It’s easy to imagine that the death of a great leader should prompt the undoing of his achievements, but Charlemagne’s empire was stretched even before his death. It was an ongoing military enterprise that depended on continuing expansion for its health. When it stopped expanding as its own ability to govern what it had taken declined, it started to collapse in on itself. Then there were also significant external pressures leading to downfall. Attacking from the North, the Vikings represented a serious, ongoing danger, one that the Franks had no real answer to. In the East, Slavs and Magyars threatened the borders, and places like Saxony, nominally within the Empire were restive. In the South, Saracen pirates threatened the Mediterranean coasts.

In relatively settled, but rural France, political unity was quickly lost, and political power devolved to the county, a level at which self-defence could be organised. On these units French feudalism was to gradually emerge. In Germany, the pressures of life on the frontiers of Christendom meant that a strong central state had a real raison d'être. Much larger political units, duchies, were the rule, and later, under Otto I, Germany was the most significant power in Western Europe. It controlled chunks of Italy, and manipulated the Church up to the level of the Pope. In Italy, life was relatively settled, as in France, and the cities and towns remained significant centres. Feudalism in the French style, centred on the county, did not arise. Instead, cities and bishops came to dominate the political scene.

Barraclough’s chapter on England is a strange little interlude. He quickly tells the story of how Alfred grew the kingdom of Wessex into the dominant force on the island, eventually managing to expel the Danish invaders. Barraclough describes the administrative arrangements in England, and contrasts them with what was happening in the other areas of interest.

I read this book in a single sitting, and appreciated its interesting mix of narrative history with comparative analyses of political and administrative systems.