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Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 495-497

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Book Review

The First European Revolution, c. 970-1215

The First European Revolution, c. 970-1215. By R. I. MOORE. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. Pp. xviii + 237. $27.95 (paper).

It will soon be fifty years since the publication of Sir Richard Southern's The Making of the Middle Ages in 1953. In that work, which is characterized by R. I. Moore in the volume here under review as "one of the most influential books ever written on the European Middle Ages," Southern spelled out the importance of the period he had chosen to treat, a period marked out by the symbolic boundary years of 972 and 1204: "For a thousand years Europe has been the chief center of political experiment, economic expansion and intellectual discovery in the world. It gained this position during the period with which we are concerned. . . ." He spoke of "the secret revolution of these centuries" and of "the new social order" that was its product.

Moore's book, which has almost exactly the same chronological parameters as Southern's, shares the view that the period from the late [End Page 495] tenth to the late twelfth century witnessed, in western Europe, a transformation so complete and so momentous that it can be seen as a turning point in world history (even if a "point" over 200 years long). He is, indeed, even more insistent. Those years saw the "construction of a new civilization" and from that time on western Europeans were to exhibit the "restless dynamism" that has distinguished them from the members of other civilizations—Byzantium, Islam, China. This is a "central fact not only of European but of modern world history."

What are the components of "the first European revolution"? Some concern the general economic developments of the period: population increase, easily matched by extension of cereal cultivation, so that there were centuries of "sustained increase in the real income per head," along with rapid urbanization, representing "a new world and a new way of life." Others belong to that family of developments labeled by some historians "the feudal revolution" or "la mutation féodale": the rise, around the year 1000, of ruthless castle-based lords who fractured and seized public institutions, subordinated the rural population, and by streamlining their family structures created new patrilineal dynasties to enjoy the benefits of this new seigniorial power. Then there are the innovations of the eleventh century in religious and ecclesiastical life: the Peace of God movement (here given the interpretative centrality which has become customary in the last few decades), popular heresy (a subject on which Moore is a noted expert), and "Reform," the attempt to disentangle the Church from the lay world, notably by the enforcement of clerical celibacy.

At least that is Act One. In Act Two we move to the twelfth century, where rather different forces are at work: central political power is re-established, as we witness a major instance of "the transition from decentralized . . . societies that we call state formation"; simultaneously there is "the creation of a new sort" who would construct the complex intellectual architecture of scholasticism as well as staff the new bureaucracies; insistent on rigid definitions and fiercely tenacious in their hold on power, the clerks and rulers they served went on to exclude, demonize, and attempt to destroy those they labeled deviant: Jews, heretics, lepers (Moore here recaps the theories of his The Formation of a Persecuting Society of 1987).

Many of the subplots in this drama are uncontroversial: few would doubt the assertion that the European population was growing in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Other elements are more debatable: not everyone would agree that increases in productivity meant that this growing population enjoyed a "sustained increase in real income." [End Page 496] Finally, there is the issue of what weight to give each element in the story and the exact role it plays: Is population growth a genial piece of background lighting, perhaps a long-term feature of Europe prior to the Black Death, or is...


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