Thursday, 24 June 2004

Europe in the High Middle Ages

Listening to:

Bach, The well-tempered clavier, Book 1. This recording is played by Angela Hewitt on the piano, and is published by Hyperion (serial number CDA67301/2). I bought this recording just a fortnight ago, and I definitely like it. My other recording has Bob van Asperen on the harpsichord. What with the Naxos recordings of Scarlatti’s sonatas, which are all on the piano too, and a version of the Goldberg variations on piano, my music collection is losing its ideologically pure cast.

Particularly with Bach, one can’t afford to be too precious about this: Bach clearly intended lots of his keyboard music to be played on whatever instrument was available, and towards the end of his life, was even approached to try out new-fangled forte-piano instruments that were being developed at the time. In any case, the criterion for judgement has to be whether or not one finds the music beautiful. With Hewitt there’s no doubt: I’ve had the CDs on many times in the past two weeks.

Just read:

John H. Mundy, Europe in the High Middle Ages, 1150–1309.

This big fat book covers the given period in detail, but without often managing to convey much of a unifying theme. If there’s a big, simple story to tell to summarise this period, Mundy doesn’t come out and give it to the reader explicitly. Instead, the reader has to construct it themselves. Given that I read the book over too long a period, I didn’t often feel that I had enough detail in my head to allow such a synthesis.

Here’s my best attempt: this period is characterised by the growth in power of the states, particularly France, the miniature states of northern Italy, and also England. Simultaneously, the German empire is collapsing. In the religious sphere, the papacy asserts its dominance over local ecclesiastical hierarchies, but otherwise loses influence over the states.

This story is very much behind the scenes in Mundy’s book. Instead, his pages are dominated by descriptions of various aspects of medieval life in this period. For example, he talks about various social classes, many aspects of the Church (monasteries, itinerant orders, cathedrals), and the economy. I was particularly fascinated to hear that in this period, various states started issuing tradable debt. In other words, you could buy (and trade in) the equivalent of national bonds. Mundy is very good on how this activity interacted with the Church’s prohibition of usury. In an earlier section, he also discusses how Jews fared in performing this activity themselves.

Hinted at, but never explicitly dealt with because they come after his time period, are the Black Death and the Hundred Years War. Mundy gives the impression that these are going to completely devastate a continent that is otherwise developing in a variety of fascinating ways. Sometimes it seems the best efforts of humanity count as naught in the face of random environmental hostility. (No doubt they brought the war on themselves, but the Black Death doesn't seem fair to inflict on anyone.)

All this good stuff is tied together in a way that is rather bitty (again, not helped by my reading it over such a long stretch of time). Mundy also has a writing style that is quite dry, and that occasionally results in sentences that have to be read twice in order to figure out what they mean.

Now reading:

Joseph Conrad, The duel and other tales.