A comprehensive survey of tenth through thirteenth century European history that offers a rather compelling argument that the foundations of modern Europe were already stabilized by the twelfth century.
For some reason, it’s been second nature to sometimes think – at least since the time of Burckhardt, it seems - of the Renaissance as single-handedly bringing us out of the so-called Dark Ages, which loomed for almost a millennium after the fall of the Roman Empire. There have been occasional attempts at revising this historiographical conclusion, more notably Charles Homer Haskins’ “The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century,” which offer up details on the incredibly complex changes in science, technology, church life, and agriculture which occurred during this time. In fact, some historians claim that the renaissance to which Haskins refers is actually the third in a series of medieval “re-births,” the first two being the Carolingian and Ottonian, which were both intellectual and artistically important in their own right.
R. I. Moore’s “The First European Revolution” picks up Haskins’ revisionist theme and broads his timeline a bit, stretching it from the end of the tenth century to the beginning of the thirteenth, in order to discuss an even wider range of cultural phenomena. During this time, Europe experienced “profound changes in the economic and political organization of the countryside, amounting to a permanent transformation in the division of labor, social relations, and distribution of power and wealth” (p. 2-3). This is a lot of territory to delve into in just around two hundred pages, and the book does seem to suffer from this excessive ambition.
At the end of the tenth century, both the potentes (the powerful) and the paupers (not the poor per se, but the powerless) were both responsible for cereal production, which accounted for almost all agriculture. By the end of this time period, however, almost all food was produced by a group of people dependent on others for their survival (serfs), who became a class in themselves of enslaved workers tied to the land by predictable cycles of grain-growing.
Georges Duby, the French medievalist, outlines the three orders that formed the backbone of medieval society: the oratores (those who pray), bellatores (those who fight), and the laboratores (those who work). At the beginning of Moore’s time period, the first defended the third against the excesses of the swollen warrior classes in the time after Charlemagne, which had exerted their power by the imposition of monogamy, primogeniture, and patrilineage. In time, the Church shifted its support from the laboratores to the aristocratic warrior class, partly because it was promised that land granted to it would never be requisitioned. This is one of the major ways in which we see a Roman Church at the turn of the millennium that is still very loosely organized and weak turn into the powerhouse that it is in the high middle ages.
There are many other really important cultural and social shifts which are discussed in book which I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that the book establishes a lot of history that is sometimes left unsaid coming up through the beginning of the middle ages, and it fills in a lot of the blanks concerning how the Church grew to be so powerful over a relatively short period of time. As I mentioned earlier, I wish that Moore would have narrowed his scope a bit and focused on one or two of the major changes instead of all of these. Covering so much ground leaves you with a less even presentation of their impacts, and it can feel like he’s trying to stuff too much information into a short space, which gives it a bit of a textbook feel.
At least one reviewer referred to Moore’s prose as “lapidary,” a descriptor with which I would have to take issue. I found the writing a bit dry myself, but it’s one of the few affordable books aimed at a non-academic audience which covers this material that I know of, so I appreciate it nonetheless. Moore has written other books on heresy in medieval Europe which look interesting, too.
"Europe" owes its existence to non-eldest sons and scholars. Oh, and castles! Moore's use of "revolution" is somewhat problematic, but he covers a tremendous amount of ground in 200 pages. I'm also amazed at his anecdotes given the tremendous difficulty involved in using medieval sources.
At times, brutal writing, but Moore makes a compelling argument that the transformations in power of the 11th and 12th centuries (especially in areas formerly occupied by the Carolingian Empire) truly constitute the first European Revolution.
Undertaken exclusively by and for the upper classes of Western Europe, this revolution transformed the holding of power (centralized, based on administrative control of one's subjects), consolidated and standardized the orthodoxy of the church (beginning with the Gregorian reforms and culminating with the Fourth Lateran Council) and elevated educational institutions to train the younger sons of Europe who would provide the administrative might behind this transformation.
A Marxist reading of Moore's book will yield the inevitable conclusion that these transformations were all accomplished at the expense of the peasants. Early popular demonstrations in movements like "The Peace of God" kickstarted the Revolution which began to grant greater power to the Church. When the Church was able to secure the cooperation of and unite with the Carolingian descended ruling classes, they kicked those pesky pauperes to the wayside, and they even began to exclude them from the three orders of society. In the new tripartite organization of society when all the dust settled, the laboratores were the craftsmen and bourgeoisie, and the oratores and bellatores sat above. And so began the institutionalized exploitation of the third estate that would last for the next 700 some years...