Hedghog & Fox interview with Chris Wickham, author of ‘Medieval Europe’

This transcript is an edited extract from an interview conducted by the new Hedghog & Fox podcast at All Souls College in Oxford with Chris Wickham, author of Medieval Europe and Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at Oxford University. You can listen to the complete interview here.

The first question for Chris was how his interest in the Middle Ages began:

CHRIS WICKHAM
I suppose I must have had the interest in castles that every kid has, but it was really when I was at school: I got so bored with doing the nineteenth century over and over again. I wanted something different so I started to read medieval things when I was about fourteen, fifteen, and I just took to them.

THE HEDGEHOG & THE FOX
And which particular aspects, beyond the castles, really fired your imagination?

CHRIS WICKHAM
As a kid I was very interested in reconstructing geneologies, so I got to know the Middle Ages in an oddly external way, and that created a framework for me so that the history of it made sense. And because it did make sense, I got more interested in it.

THE HEDGEHOG & THE FOX
And as your knowledge deepened and your view of it became more sophisticated, what problems and questions were you interested in pursuing in graduate work and beyond?

CHRIS WICKHAM
I remember in my first year looking at Finals exams to find out what questions I wanted to know the answers to, and I discovered that the questions were all in the early Middle Ages. So then I did a number of early medieval courses and I became interested in the history of Italy. I knew Italian, which helped. It seemed to me then that no one did the history of Italy and that that was a problem that was worth focusing on in itself, of course I didn’t realise at that point that plenty of Italians studied it. But [my interest] was more country by country than problem by problem. I got interested in the problems only later.

THE HEDGEHOG & THE FOX
In this book you write about the entire history of the continent over the space of a millennium, with a ‘great arc’ which resists earlier great arcs. There are certain views of the Middle Ages that you’re keen to contest and challenge and overturn…

CHRIS WICKHAM
Yes, I think that’s absolutely crucial. Really what I thought was: I have never read a general account of the Middle Ages that I didn’t think was absolutely, fundamentally wrong, because all of these accounts have fixated on a period where things start to happen and things become more modern: Gregorian reform; papal reform in the eleventh century; the twelfth century Renaissance; rediscovering the ancient past; the commercial revolution of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; nation-state building in the thirteenth century…

All of these things should have inverted commas around them, but it is a combination of what people used to call the ‘High Middle Ages’, again with inverted commas around it. This is the ‘medieval peak’. I don’t buy any of it and I wanted in this book to show why in my view they didn’t work at all.

THE HEDGEHOG & THE FOX
Accepting that you can go into detail here and the readers will have to discover the details for themselves, just give me a sense of the shape of the arc that you’re erecting.

CHRIS WICKHAM
The first half of the Middle Ages consists of political systems that have the memory of Rome in their minds, that have the memory of a big public operation with something that you can call a state. They use the word publicus, ‘public’, a lot. Some of them are very ambitious. In the Carolingian period for example, late eighth and ninth century, a huge area of Western Europe, France, Germany and the low countries most of Italy parts of Spain Austria are all under a single political unit.

These people are very ambitious indeed in terms of a moralised public power, very moralised in fact. They’re ambitious in a way that no later medieval political system is. Then that breaks down in the eleventh century, very roughly, and people are less ambitious after that. Political systems are less ambitious after that. Rulers are operating on a much smaller scale and that breakdown, I think, is the hinge of of the Middle Ages.

Then after that, people try to reconstruct. But they have to reconstruct on the basis of the small political units that were created in the eleventh century, and often enough they do that very well. Like medieval France was a very, very strong political system. But often enough things remain pretty fragmented after that.

THE HEDGEHOG & THE FOX
Two things that I took away from your book were (1) the importance of understanding who owns land (where it comes from, how it’s managed, what financial transactions are involved in it), and (2) how taxation works. Both sound potentially comparatively dry topics, yet you make a convincing case that they do underpin a great deal of what is going on in Europe.

CHRIS WICKHAM
I think it’s just a question of where the money is. If one says now ‘follow the money’, it’s a cliché. But following the money isn’t dull. If you follow the money in the Middle Ages, then you need to know about land and about tax; this is how people make money, this is how people become rich, and this is how people become rich enough to be politically powerful and politically active. And you can’t analyse people who are politically powerful and politically active until you know how much money they’ve got.

I think people don’t do this enough. They do it surprisingly little. So people write histories of, I don’t know, Sweden as if it’s the same sort of thing as writing histories of France, and yet the King of Sweden has got about – I’m totally guessing here – possibly a hundredth of the disposable wealth and therefore the resources and therefore the capacity to pay an army, for instance, that the King of France does in 1450, say. And it can’t help but affect your understanding of what the King of Sweden can do and what the King of Sweden can’t do once you realise that.

You can listen to the complete interview here.


Medieval EuropeChris Wickham is Chichele Professor of Medieval History, University of Oxford. He lives in Birmingham, UK.

 

Share this

You must be logged in to post a comment