With the terminal decay of the Idea of Progress in both Whig and Marxist incarnations comes a growing recognition that much of what once seemed most characteristic of the modern world's experience is not especially new. Europeans have been behaving in the same way for most of Europe's existence. Europe's Middle Ages, the label long attached by a quirk of historiographical circumstance to the era of its youth, are acquiring a 'relevance' that architects of the National Curriculum should find it increasingly hard to deny. Ordered governments with at least elements of state consciousness had been formed in parts of the West before 1000 - especially in England, where the proportion, though not of course the numbers, of those living in settlements sufficiently concentrated to warrant the name of 'town' was as high in 1086 as it was ever to be before the 18th century. From the 11th century onwards, the West witnessed explosions in its population, in the productivity of its cereal (though not pastoral) farmers, and of its textile (though not heavy) industry, in its literary and academic output, in the scale of its major buildings, and in the documentation generated by its bureaucrats, which were at least as spectacular in relation to preceding patterns as developments in the 16th century. In particular, the onset of the aggressive expansion which is Europe's most fateful hallmark lies not in 1492 but in that period from 950 to 1350 which is the subject of Robert Bartlett's remarkable book.
LRB 24 February 1994 | PDF Download