Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Chris Wickham - Medieval Europe

In hindsight Chris Wickham's Medieval Europe was probably not an ideal choice for holiday reading. Despite being relatively short at 250 odd pages (excluding notes) it is dense and cannot really be described as a popular history of the period. Despite this, I recommend it for anyone trying to understand the trajectory of the medieval period and what this meant for the population of Europe as well as the legacy for the modern world.

Wickham is concerned with the way the economic base of society creates a large political superstructure. His approach echoes Marx (who he quotes in the introductory chapter) but probably shouldn't be described as "Marxist", perhaps a more structuralist approach.
Medieval political communities based their coherence and their succeeds on the control of land... The reason is simple: all pre-industrial societies are based on agricultural wealth above all. There was nothing which one could call a factory in the middle ages, or for a long time afterwards... Most people, over four fifths of the population in the early middle ages,.. .were peasants: that is to say, they worked directly on the land as subsistence cultivators... Agricultural products were most of what was produced by human labour in the middle ages, and for that reason the control of these, ad by extension the land that produced them, was central.
While this is Wickham's starting point he understands that human societies are full of variety and complexity, so his book tends to explore each area of Europe at his different time periods and discuss the differences and similarities. The problem for the non-expert reader is that there is an enormous amount of detail. Despite importance Wickham gives to the economic base of society, he explores what this means in detailed studies of the top of society. Thus we get a vast amount of information about particular kingdoms, individuals, religious institutions, alliances and interactions between all these groups. At times its bewildering, and for this reader, I was left more with generalisations than with detailed recollections.

That criticism aside there are some great sections which readers will find useful. The story of the importance of Constantinople, and its eventual eclipse (remarkably late in European history) or the rise of Charlemagne's empire. Though I challenge anyone other than the expert to remember all the German princes, or the machinations of the Italian city states. Give the grand sweep of history and the size of the continent, some readers will know doubt be disappointed that their favourite bits only receive a short mention. Despite ten page references to the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England, the substantive account only has a dozen lines or so.

But what matters to Wickham is the dynamism of the Medieval Period. His wealth of data allows him to explore the changes taking place:
This is the background for understanding Europe's political histories after 1350... Whether kings and other rulers still relied on the wealth coming from their own lands ('the domain', as historians of this period often call it), or could develop taxation on a scale large enough to pay for bigger or more permanent armies and denser infrastructures of government, thus has crucial implications for the comparative history of politics. Put simply, rulers who did not develop strong fiscal systems by now could do less, both inside their polities and outside them, than rulers who did, even though they often tried to behave in the same way.
This is essentially about the importance of the growth of what we might call the beginnings of the nation state, or at least the pretensions towards a strong state in some region. A dozen or so pages after the above  quote, Wickham notes that
What links almost all the rulers we have looked at.. is their preparedness, as soon as they had enough money to get an army together... to attack not only their neighbours but also on occasion realms quite some way away, for military glory and hoped-fro permanent territorial control. Hard gained resources were spent above all on displays of power, the rich courts and ambitious building which mark the post-1350 period, but an army was the biggest.. display of power of all, and using it to fight someone was the logical next step. The military machine underlying early modern political and fiscal development has its beginnings in this period.
After 1350 we see land still being the basis of wealth and power, but the raising of tax is now shaping "communities of taxpayers" which meant that "Rulers were thus stronger, but so were the communities of the ruled". Thus we see after this period a public arena that allows for both the development of new methods of production and for sharper conflicts between classes. Thus the "feudal revolution" that had transformed the earlier feudal world eventually gave rise to a much more confrontational public sphere, within which the class struggle could play out.

But this sphere was conditioned by the changing economic and political world. Developments of trade, technology, manufacturing and so on would eventually lead to a new way of organising society, but are rooted in the evolving medieval period. Wickham's book emphasises the dynamism of medieval society, and this is its primary focus. I should mention that Wickham doesn't ignore other aspects of these societies - the role of gender, developments in reading, writing, education etc. But the task he has here, and its an admirable one, is to understanding a broad historical sweep. For all the challenges his style gives the reader, there is much here of interest.

Related Reviews

Dyer - Making a Living in the Medieval Ages
Gimpel - The Medieval Machine
Bolton - The Medieval English Economy: 1150-1500
Bloch - Feudal Society

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Katrina Navickas - Protest & the Politics of Space & Place 1789-1848

Katrina Navickas' book is an interesting and refreshing look at the protest movements that took place during a crucial period in the development of the modern British capitalist state. Its notable that her period begins with the year of the outbreak of the French Revolution and ends with the year of European revolutions. There was nothing in the British Isles on that scale, but these events influenced and found their echo in protest and reform movements here. As the title suggests Navickas uses the concept of space to analyse these movements, but she notes that this method has its limitations. In her introduction she writes:
Describing politics as being conducted within multiple public spheres or a dichotomy of public versus private risks making the term methodologically useless. This is not to reject it completely... much of the debate over the politics of space covered the meaning of the word 'public'. The working classes used instruments of the public sphere - newspapers, pamphlets and political debates - to declare their opinions and rights...
She continues "contests over the body politic and its spaces were contests between classes". Much of the book looks at particular struggles and how their participants and leaders attempted to develop and build their movements within contested arenas. This might mean the struggle for the right to meet, or protest - and here there are many echoes with contemporary times where the increasing privatisation of public spaces can limit places where activists can demonstrate. Thus the struggle for the right to protest in a park or square might also take the form of legal challenges, or mass protests designed to win the right for the future. But they also meant struggles over how spaces were seen by communities (and the authorities) how they were used and how they were defended from encroachment by hostile interests.

Thus the struggle for space is more than a question of future rights, it can also encompass tradition and custom. Navickas writes that "Custom established what rights were attached to inhabitants of a locality... and thereby defined the particular culture of that locality" and notes EP Thompson's "emphasis on custom as an interface that set patrician against plebeian". Her discussion of struggles against enclosure, or common rights are just two of such examples. But Navickas goes on to note that this struggle in the period she covers, takes place in the context of "global processes of free trade political economy, trading and manufacturing practices" which means that "mass collective action" emerges. To put it slightly cruder, the development of a global capitalist system required the entrenchment of particular capitalist values within in society, but these in turn created mass movements that resisted those changes, or attempted to shape things in their own interest.

In her studies of these processes Navickas has uncovered and highlighted some fascinating aspects of radical history. She discusses, for instance, the use of pubs and taverns as places for radicals to meet, and how the authorities would try and restrict this. She examines the way that particular spaces (such as St. Ann's Square in Manchester) become symbolic of particular struggles, in this case the "royalists" movements as opposed to the radicals. And she also looks at how particular events engender some spaces with highly symbolic meaning. Her classic example of this is the way St. Peters Square becomes a place that every radical movement wants to associate itself with in the years following the Peterloo Massacre.

Readers who are based in Manchester will find much of this particularly interesting because Navickas focuses her study on northern cities and some of the detailed studies are of historic radical movements in this city. I was particularly struck by two maps that give a real sense of the intersection between different movements and time periods. One of these is a map of routes taken by radical and "loyal and patriotic" protest marches and parades around Manchester. This shows how the radicals deliberately copied the patriots in their roots in an attempt to gain legitimacy by association as well as taking their spaces.

The second is a map of Ancoats which juxtaposes the homes of individuals who signed radical petitions with known meeting places. Navickas shows how we can trace different radical traditions through the overlapping of meeting places, neighbours and marches to build up a sense of a working class community developing traditions of struggle that are more than simply protests, strikes or marches taking place in different years.

While Navickas' approach has its uses I found it sometimes a little frustrating. Part of the problem is that I don't think that the oppressed can easily (if at all) "reclaim a space" for their use while capitalist relations remain. An example of this is Navickas' discussion of how the "defeat of the bill of pains and penalties against [Queen] Caroline" was celebrated by the loyalists and authorities. She argues that the "rest of the population took the opportunity to reclaim the use of the streets for political symbolism in support of Caroline". These "highlight ritualised movements created a 'contested topography of political authority'. In the urban areas, support for Caroline was clearly marked out in light against the dark of entrenched loyalism".

The problem is, of course, that the morning after the streets are still owned and controlled by the British state (or its local representatives). Any "reclaiming of the streets" by the masses is out of necessity a temporary thing whose longest standing outcome is the confidence of the movement. The temporary nature of space won can lead to the movement becoming solely about carving out its own spaces, rather than challenging the system. Navikas herself notes that this does take place with attempts to create permanent trade union buildings, mechanics institutes and the like. It is, essentially a type of reformism, and could be counterpoised to revolutionary attempts to permanently change things.

That said, there is much of interest here. From Navikas' discussion of urban spaces and working class communities and movements to her analysis of rural struggles such as Captain Swing. Readable and fascinating, Katrina Navickas book might be particularly of interest to modern day activists and historians in the North (particularly Manchester) but I expect it will also become a much studied book for social historians trying to understand the historic struggles that have shaped, quite literally, the world we live and struggle in today.

Related Reviews

Griffin - The Rural War
Hammond & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer
Reid - The Land of Lost Content
Harvey - Spaces of Global Capitalism
Harvey - Rebel Cities