Living proof that history on television can stimulate further interest and book purchases: after watching the recent BBC 4 series presented by Robert Bartlett (The Normans and Inside the Medieval Mind) I’ve been reading his critically acclaimed book on medieval history, The Making of Europe – Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350. This is a bit of a departure for me: though I studied Modern History in my first year at university, I’ve never been interested that much in medieval history. But with Bartlett’s TV programmes, and now his book, that’s changed.
‘Europe is both a region and an idea.’
I used to teach European Studies at college (a subject that, sadly, is now all but extinct, both in further education and in universities), and one of the key ideas we explored at the start of a course was what it means to talk about ‘Europe’ and ‘being European’. Bartlett’s purpose is to explore the way in which a particular idea of Europe began to emerge from the 10th century, being fairly clearly defined by the 14th century. It’s a concept of Europe that, in many respects, is foreign to the 21st century citizen of Europe, but, as Bartlett demonstrates, some familiar threads emerged in this period, linking us to this past and helping us understand the kind of Europe that emerged in later centuries.
This is a work of great scholarship (the notes and references take up a quarter of the book), but Bartlett writes in such a clear, comprehensible and unpretentious style that the book is very readable; indeed, often the reader, noting a particular turn of phrase or dry remark, can sense a rather wicked gleam in the eye of the historian.
Bartlett sets out his thesis methodically: that a wave of internal conquest, settlement and economic growth took place in Europe during the Middle Ages, transforming it from a differentiated zone of separate communities into a network of powerful distinctive kingdoms, yet with more uniform shared cultural patterns. This process spread out from the ‘core’ Latin Europe of the early Middle Ages (that is, the part of Europe that was originally Roman Catholic rather than Greek Orthodox, pagan or Muslim). Bartlett shows how the expanded Europe that emerged was the product of the colonisation of areas such as eastern Europe, the Celtic fringe and the Iberian peninsula.
Bartlett identifies the main strands in this process of conquest and cultural change: the expansion of Latin Christendom, and the movement of western European aristocrats into new areas where they settled and which they dominated with the new military technology of heavy cavalry, bowmen and castles. Reinforcing this process were new patterns of law that recognised the freedoms of villagers who settled on these new lands and the burgesses who moved into the new colonial towns. A crucial aspect of this process was the role played by the various monastic and crusading military orders (such as the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights) that blossomed in this period:
Their animating idea involved a fusion of opposites. The 11th century knight was violent, acquisitive, unruly and lascivious. The 11th century monk was dedicated to peace, poverty, obedience and chastity. From these contradictory sources sprang the crusading orders of the 12th century: knights who were poor, chaste and obedient, monks who were fighters.
To the modern observer the important part that these organisations played seems curious: we would expect military force and colonisation to be executed by the state. But soon these orders became the among the wealthiest and most prestigious corporations in Christendom.
Bartlett examines the nature of the ‘race’ relations that evolved on the frontiers of Latin Europe as the result of these changes and concludes:
The mental habits and institutions of European racism and colonialism were born in the medieval world: the conquerors of Mexico knew the problems of the Mudejars [muslims of Al-Andalus who remained in Christian territory after the Reconquista but were not converted to Christianity]; the planters of Virginia had already been planters of Ireland. […]
Conquest, colonization, Christianization: the techniques of settling in a new land, the ability to maintain cultural identity through legal forms and nurtured attitudes, the institutions and outlook required to confront the strange or abhorrent, to repress it and live with it, the law and religion as well as the guns and ships. The European christians who sailed to the coasts of the Americas, Asia and Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries came from a society that was already a colonizing society. Europe, the initiator of one of the world’s major processes of conquest, colonization and cultural transformation, was also the product of one.
An excellent companion to this book is the large format, visually ravishing The Medieval World Complete, also by Robert Bartlett. It covers the same ground, but via a commentary lavishly illustrated through a sequence of spectacular images.
Returning to history on TV, Michael Wood’s excellent series Story of England, which explored the history of one place – the village of Kibworth in Leicestershire – as an archetype for England as a whole, has just concluded. He commented recently on my personal bugbear of televised history – the dramatisation:
There is a lot of formulaic, often poor, filmmaking. On some channels it is so formulised with very simple dramatised tableaux that when you sit in a commissioning meeting, you are told exactly how long your pans should be, what proportion of music should be in the show, what you are allowed – and not allowed – to say, and, of course, that you must include dramatisation. A TV commissioner once said to me: ‘These dramatisations are really great. I look forward to the day when history documentaries can be completely dramatised.’ I replied, ‘Isn’t that drama?’ But that is sometimes how it is – nothing is left to the imagination.