wickham medieval europe

Chris Wickham’s analysis of the European Middle Ages is a rich introduction to the development of Europe up to the 15th Century, argues Chris Bambery


Chris Wickham, Medieval Europe (Yale University Press 2016), 352pp.

Europe has not always existed. In the Roman world, for example, the key divide was along the Rhine and the Danube, the border of the Empire. That divide remained even after the Empire collapsed. As Chris Wickham points out:

‘… one thing which remained constant throughout the Middle Ages was the importance of the old Roman imperial frontier’ (p.252).

And in a sense the Roman Empire did not collapse. Its Eastern half, what we’ll term the Byzantine Empire, long remained. The Byzantine state was able to tax its population, unlike the new kingdoms which emerged in the West, and was thus much wealthier and able to maintain a paid, standing army, again unlike Western rulers.

Neither was there such a thing as Christendom, meaning, in reality, the lands where the Catholic Church held sway. Firstly, it took a long time for the Pope in Rome to become head of a separate church. During the Roman Empire, he was just one hierarch in the imperial church and after its fall he remained so; the one hierarch outside the Byzantine Empire. Swathes of what we now regard as Europe were non-Christian, north of the old imperial border, in Iberia and Sicily when Islam conquered both, or became to be regarded as heretics, in the case of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

That what we term Europe might become the wealthiest and most powerful corner of the earth, at this time would have been laughed out of court because it compared woefully with the Byzantine and Persian Empires and then with the new world of Islam. Chris Wickham is excellent on this. He also is very clear in that looking at the emergence of medieval Europe and its development the key factor was that it was a society dependent on the labour of peasants, increasingly unfree, who made up the vast majority of the population. Everything rested on that simple fact.

Britain’s contribution to Marxist theory has often been derided but in the field of history it has a bright firmament. With all due respect to some of my friends and comrades, Chris Wickham’s star currently burns brightest. His Framing the Early Middle Ages (Oxford University Press 2005) is a large, academic book examining the emergence of a new society, but it is brilliant. The much more accessible, The Inheritance of Rome (Allen Lane 2009), the precursor to this volume, is a must read. His explanation of the fall of the Western Empire is excellent and he is very good on the rise of Islam, something also true of this book. Indeed, the inheritors of Rome were, in many ways, as he demonstrates here, the first Caliphate and ultimately the Ottoman Empire.

The period he is covering in this volume is from roughly 500 CE to 1500. It is a period which saw profound changes. From the collapse of Roman rule in the West, it sees the changes thrust on the Byzantine Empire by the Arab conquest of today’s Middle East and North Africa, and the attempt to build and maintain the Carolingian Empire. It saw the expansion of Christianity, particularly in the tenth century, and the localisation of power in the West in the eleventh century. It saw economic and demographic growth from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, which led to the construction of royal and papal power in the West during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The effective demise of Byzantium came in the thirteenth century (later followed by the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the most powerful state in Europe at the close of the period). Plague and demographic collapse followed towards the end of the period, and then, as Wickham charts well, popular engagement in matters of governance and religion spread more widely than before during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Of course, if you live through profound changes you may not always be aware of them. When the Western Empire collapsed many in the upper classes still regarded themselves as Roman and the new barbarian rulers tried to rule in a Roman way. Use of the term barbarian is problematic as many of those tribes had long lived in a complex relationship with Rome, and many of the new conquerors had served in its army. They themselves did not regard themselves as Roman and still had to convene assemblies of their followers, these narrowing over time into a landowning elite. Neither could they tax as the Romans did. Increasingly grants of land and treasure were the way to secure loyalty.

The fundamental difference between those kingdoms and the Carolingian Empire which succeeded them, was that these new emperors did not grant land in perpetuity. They tended at its height to move lords around. However, the localisation of power was already underway in the sense that great landlords could no longer own estates spread across the Mediterranean, as had the Roman Senatorial elite.

The Carolingian Empire could not be maintained, not just because of infighting between Charlemagne’s heirs, but because trying to rule such vast expanses was very difficult and economic resources were limited. Byzantium and the Arabs could still tax and thus raise standing armies, the Carolingians relied on their nobles to raise an army. The Arabs, when they conquered the Middle East and North Africa, did not disperse their armies across the land but concentrated them in new settlements, like Cairo, where they lived separately from the non-Muslim peasants and city dwellers. Tax raising states were much more stable than those relying on the gift or exchange of land for military and political loyalty. Those faced a tendency for power to become dispersed because, as Wickham, paraphrasing the great French historian Marc Bloch, points out:

‘… the more you granted away land, the less you had, and your landed elites in the future might obey you less if you had less to give’ (p.11).

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, the vast majority of peasants were still free, those from the barbarian tribes clung to a notion that the land was communal. One central theme of this book was how they became unfree, and then, in what’s now Western Europe, owners of land they worked or wage labourers. At the same time, serfdom was extended into Eastern Europe. Whatever their legal status, the violence of their landowners was a stark reality in extracting tribute and later rent, but so was peasant resistance, as Wickham charts.

Meanwhile, society prospered because of slow but real economic growth, and, over the centuries, coherent and solid states began to emerge in France, England and Spain. In the north and east of Europe that was not the case. A Scottish army could defeat an English one at Bannockburn in 1314 but the story was very different afterwards as a feudal host found itself repeatedly on the losing side to an enemy who could increasingly pay its soldiers and employ new techniques of firepower.

For those interested in how medieval Europe emerged and how it changed, bringing the reader up to the years before the Reformation, this is an excellent introduction, as well as being of rich use for those who know something of the period. Having read it so I could review it, I regret not being able to sit down and enjoy it over my seasonal break. Beg or borrow a copy!

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.