Historical Infrastructure: Chris Wickham’s Medieval Europe

Wickham, Chris. Medieval Europe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017.

In the early months of 2021, I had the distinct pleasure of reading Chris Wickham’s magnificent Inheritance of Rome (reviewed here on Concerning History). I was so taken with Wickham’s scholarship of the first six hundred years of the Middle Ages that I immediately sought out his previous work, a history of the entire period. That work, Medieval Europe, has certainly confirmed Wickham’s place in my stable of go-to scholars, and yet perhaps inevitably could not live up to the heights of its successor.

The unofficial subtitle of Medieval Europe, emblazoned across the cover of my edition, reads “From the Breakup of the Western Roman Empire to the Reformation,” and this is no exaggeration. Wickham conducts readers from the beginning to the very end of the medieval period, even going past its commonly-agreed end to discuss some implications for the early modern period after 1500, as well. Such a feat might, some could say should, require a massive volume, but not in this case: Wickham executes his narrative of a millennium of history in scarcely more than 250 pages of highly readable, approachable prose. The trick, here, is his focus on what you might call the “historical infrastructure” of the Middle Ages: rather than a blow-by-blow geopolitical history of the period, Wickham outlines a series of themes and developments experienced in Europe across these thousand years, subsequently letting those developments guide his narrative through their relevant example peoples, polities, and cultures. The result is perhaps the most eloquent argument I’ve yet encountered for the relevance of studying the Middle Ages as a period, a demonstration of just how this continent of disparate populations scattered across radically different geographies progressed from massive empire to scattered principalities to the proto-nation states the prefigured the modern world.

As alluded to above, however, this approach has the downside of leeching much of the fascinating details from a thousand years of history. In relating the consolidation of Carolingian power in the eighth century, Wickham skips the fascinating personal interactions, the cut-and-thrust of territorial maneuvering, the gambles and misfortunes of history; instead, power is consolidated, demonstrates his current theme, and is promptly moved past. Perhaps more disappointing for me, though, was that such an abbreviated account of how Europe developed across a millennium naturally does not afford much space for why Europe developed in the ways that it did. There is some analysis of causation, true, and others are regrettably lacking enough scholarship to speculate on, but I was never quite satisfied as to why, for example, Charlemagne was able to concentrate Frankish power in the ninth century, Frankish power locally fragmented in the eleventh and twelfth, and was then reconsolidated in the thirteenth; Wickham simply describes the process rather than analyzes it.

Despite these two oversights (if indeed they can be called that; more intentional cuts in favor of macro-history), I cannot recommend Medieval Europe highly enough. It is perfect for everything from the casually-interested to the student preparing for a course on the subject, and may indeed become required summer reading for any of my students getting ready for AP European History. Medieval Europe is “useful” history at its best, and those who read it will never again have any doubt as to the fascinating relevance of the Middle Ages to the development of the modern world.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.