A chronicle of high ideals and cherished dreams—as well as famine, plague, holy war, and other apocalyptic horsemen in the making of Europe from the 11th to the 14th centuries.
The year 1000, Haskins Medal–winner Jordan (The Great Famine, 2000) writes, saw the arrival of remarkable change in Europe. The lifting of the Dark Ages brought with it a huge gain in population (from two million to ten million in England, from four to fourteen million in German-speaking countries, and so on) and great advances in technology, including the adoption of three-field farming and the heavy plow. All of this led to prosperity and happier times for long-suffering peoples. At the outset of this period, Jordan (History/Princeton Univ.) reminds us, the Church had comparatively little power and influence: “To be a Catholic in the year 1000 required little change in traditional behavior, in part because there were so few people who were actively monitoring behavior on behalf of that vague body so conveniently yet deceptively referred to under the monolithic label, the Church.” Three hundred years later, things were different: Political and ecclesiastical powers were centralized, orthodoxies were in place, crusades had been fought, heretics had been routed and burned. In a wide-ranging narrative that embraces most of the continent and takes in enlightened rulers (Stephen of Hungary, Henry II), adventurers (Richard Lion-heart, Tancred), despots (Fulk Nerra, Henry III), and assorted saints and sages (Dominic, Thomas Aquinas), Jordan charts the course of this growing centralization and its eventual collapse under the weight of famine, disease, incompetence, and gunpowder. He writes elegantly and ironically (“there was curiously little pacifism in the High Middle Ages”), giving the reader a broad but not dumbed-down view of medieval society and its complexities, which must have seemed to contemporaries very bewildering indeed.
A splendid start to Penguin’s History of Europe series and a first-rate work in its own right.