Saturday, March 14, 2009

Colonised knightly Europe

Thomas Bartlett’s excellent The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350 is a fine history of the development of European institutions. Bartlett traces the roots of Europe’s post-medieval colonial history in medieval history: Europe the coloniser was itself the result of a process of colonisation. Thankfully, his analysis is done as intelligent history, rather that using propositions as buttresses to the display of virtue.

Something that is very striking in Bartlett’s book, given recent controversies in medieval historiography, is how crystal clear it is that the dominant model in medieval rulers’ heads was the "feudal" one. Or, as I like to put it, franchising social protection to armoured thugs. Whether it was native dynasties importing knights (Mecklenburg, Poland, Scotland, Denmark, Hungary) or frontier conquerors (Spain, Norman Italy, Outremer, Wales, Ireland, Brandenburg, Prussia) or simple conquerors (England), the dominant model is grant-land-receive-military-service. Now, how much those grants were genuinely conditional (your continued tenure rests entirely on your continued service) or obligated (you providing service is an obligation of ownership) or the service was contractual (it’s your land but you want things from me, I want things from you) or strong expectation (ultimately, we’re in this together) is a moot, and highly variable, matter. But the pattern is clear enough.

Bartlett makes the excellent point that Latin Europe spread because it provided a self-replicating matrix of adaptive institutions: thus, monastic rule + knightly ethos => military orders; immunity + market => chartered town; priesthood + guild => university (p.310). Indeed, the medieval order was much more successful at both spreading across Europe and developing its economic resources than the Romans had been.

What is most socially distinctive about the medieval period from the C11th on (the "High Middle Ages" if you like) is the knight and their consequences. This is such a cliché, historians seem to have lost some grasp of the continuing truth of it (see my review of R. I. Moore's The First European Revolution). Yet when medieval chroniclers write histories that read like medieval romances, they are far from foolish in seeing what the knights did as central to their age.

Bartlett points out that the expansion of Latin Europe was largely not a result of the most powerful rulers: they were often too busy fighting each other. What you got was a matrix of knightly-clerical-mercantile expansionism (p.308). Yet the latter two were every bit as present in later European imperialism. That the majority of European military forces faced off against each other was also true of later European imperialism. What was different was the replacement of the knights by a mixture of adventurers and officials (not mutually exclusive categories). Medieval Europe was, to a very large extent, the world the knights built: they and their consequences were what made it most different from what came before and after.

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