Medieval Europe by Chris Wickham (review)
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Medieval Europe. By Chris Wickham (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2016) 335pp. $35.00

Wickham, one of the leading historians of the European Middle Ages, offers his own unique perspective on the period in this lively survey, [End Page 246] which squeezes an extraordinary amount of information into a modest 257 pages of text. The book treats the Middle Ages as traditionally defined—namely, the years from approximately 500 to 1500 a.d.—in a well-balanced fashion, conferring roughly equal coverage to the early, central, and late medieval periods. Geographically, the work is also even-handed. Wickham’s expertise in the Italian peninsula is evident through-out the book, but this region in no way dominates the narrative. The traditional foci of medieval history surveys—England and France—are also well represented, alongside the German kingdom, Byzantium, Russia, Scandinavia, and numerous other parts of Europe.

Wickham’s aim is not to provide a thorough description of events. As he explains, his study is intended to be an interpretation of the Middle Ages, not a textbook. For that reason, he does not force readers to trudge through vast thickets of dates, places, kings with Roman numerals after their names, and other confusing facts. Wickham is judicious in his use of details to add nuance to his main points without ever descending into minutiae. To his credit, no paragraph, nor indeed even a sentence, in this book feels gratuitous. The treatment of secondary scholarship is equally sensible. Wickham provides a narrative that owes a great deal to current literature; he includes occasional references to leading scholars while also giving overviews of the most important debates in the field. Yet, he avoids unnecessary namedropping or the rehashing of outdated scholarly arguments.

Because this book represents Wickham’s interpretation of medieval history, rather than a textbook approach, the heart of the work is a wide-ranging narrative about political and socio-economic structures. Wickham emphasizes the significance of fiscal developments—for example, the decline of Roman taxation systems in the early Middle Ages and the appearance of new forms of tax collection in the later Middle Ages—as well as other important general trends, including urbanization, the expansion of literacy, and the changing nature of warfare. For Wickham, the period around the year 1000 is crucial to understanding the decline of older structures (including the public, political culture of Carolingian-era assemblies) and the emergence of the highly localized society of the central and late Middle Ages—though this society always maintained connections between its discrete localities. The recurring metaphor that Wickham employs for Europe after the year 1000 is a corporeal one of cellular structures and capillaries. Local communities were distinct “cells,” but cultural, social, religious, economic, and political currents continuously linked them through “capillary” networks that helped to ensure the existence of a common European framework.

Most medieval historians will probably not find their general perceptions of the Middle Ages altered significantly by the account that Wickham offers. Nevertheless, his excellent, up-to-date survey provides broad interpretations that are immensely useful for anyone looking to understand the medieval period as a whole. Wickham’s emphasis on political and socio-economic developments is refreshing in this day and [End Page 247] age when cultural and intellectual history tend to dominate narratives of the Middle Ages. It is equally refreshing to read a largely positive account of the later medieval period that effectively draws from recent scholarship in order to discredit the stubbornly persistent arguments about decline in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Wickham’s interpretation of the European Middle Ages is one of vibrancy and dynamism, a welcome reminder of why many people find this period fascinating.

Jonathan R. Lyon
University of Chicago
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