Johannes Fried: The Middle Ages

July 27, 2017

I’m starting this post with a really major gripe, that a major academic press should publish a book like this, that has been so poorly edited and so sloppily proof-read. In places it reads as if it’s been translated using google translate, with infelicities of expression and poor syntax making it at times almost incomprehensible; there are errors in some Latin expressions and in a couple of places, proof-reading annotations have been erroneously left in the final text… good grief!

The book itself is a difficult read: there’s such a huge sweep of time and material to cover that it seems impossible to corral it all coherently, and the author has to keep doubling back on himself, picking up threads he dropped for a while. And there are so many names, of tin-pot local rulers in the Europe of those times. Fried’s focus is mainly on France, Germany and Italy – or the areas that comprise those nations today – and in some ways that’s understandable, as the core of the story was there, and the rest of the continent was peripheral.

And yet – it’s really good. It challenged me, and the picture I’d had of the Middle Ages, almost through my entire reading life. It is a revisionist approach, countering the perceived idea of those times as a swamp of ignorance and barbarity that was finally and thankfully swept aside by the flowering of the Renaissance, followed by the Enlightenment.

The major calamity or disruption to civilisation was the collapse of the Roman Empire: after that, the story is one of people and principalities attempting to pick up the pieces and stick something back together again, a tale of warlords and would-be aristocrats learning how to build and maintain countries, defining the nature of kingship and its relationship to those being ruled, against a backdrop of the Church and the Papacy also flexing its muscles and trying to assume ever more power, as well as defining itself in increasingly secular terms. You can certainly see, by the end of the book, where the impulses for the Reformation came from: the corruption of the Church was truly scandalous.

The scale of the task of recovering from a collapse of civilisation is vast: Fried shows us how much had to be rediscovered and re-invented (and was – the idea that all learning vanished until the Renaissance is clearly untrue). Even the capacities of language itself were limited, as the universal language had disappeared…

A great deal of work clearly went on: monastic orders were founded and texts were preserved, even if then lost again or not understood; cities developed and the necessary apparatus of law painfully developed to allow trade and the slow evolution of what would become capitalism, and Europe itself; the old religious attitudes to money (root of all evil) and interest (sinful) were gradually reinterpreted as everyone came to see how essential both were to progress…

Equally, Fried shows us the beginnings of the growth of reason, the gulf opening up between it and faith, which I had again always associated with the Renaissance and Enlightenment: ways of thinking evolved and you can see the gradual development of the European mind; the task of defending religion (specifically the Catholic Church) against the onslaughts of reason was already a challenging task towards the end of these times.

The picture of the Middle Ages as an obscurantist epoch is ultimately, Fried demonstrates, a product of the Enlightenment rather than a truth about those times. The quest for knowledge was pursued vigorously and moved towards the era of exploration and contact with the world outside Europe; even though a great deal of geographical knowledge from earlier times did in fact still exist, it was not easily accessible or directly usable, and this helped keep the brakes on discovery.

Fried’s overall sweep is masterly, through such an enormous amount of material: over the course of the book he does manage to draw together the vital strands and show how they came together over time; the thematic chapters were for me far more interesting than the endless iteration of names of princelings throughout Europe. He shows us the gradual development which ultimately led to the coherence of Europe as a place and an idea, the centre of a particular civilisation which, for better or worse, we are all part of…

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One Response to “Johannes Fried: The Middle Ages”


  1. What a pity about the editing, but glad you enjoyed it all the same and expanded your knowledge of this time period.

    Like


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