viernes, 26 de octubre de 2012

England In The Late Middle Ages (1307-1536) by A. R. Myers

England In The Late Middle Ages (1307-1536) by A. R. Myers forms the fourth volume of The Pelican History Of England. Now sixty years old, this particular text examines a period of transition, perhaps from the traditional towards the modern, at least in spirit. The author cites the fifteen thirties as the decade beyond which medieval values and assumptions were in terminal decline. The modernity that replaced them was merely incipient, however, and took centuries more to transform English society, but the case made in this book for the fifteen thirties forming the cusp of that change is compelling.

The book certainly presents history as a top-down affair. The king and his concerns are ever central, and most of the rest revolves around this core. It is Myers’s case that medieval societies were characterised by a need for an all-powerful figurehead whose authority was perceived as derived directly from God. And given this, the history of the entire period was thus the history of the exercise of this authority. There were strong kings, who commanded the allegiance of those who held power of their own, and there were weak ones who thus invited plot, conspiracy and instability. The divine right of kings, it seems, was subject to Darwinian market forces: those who succeeded in attracting sufficient authoritative godliness prospered, while those who did not were deposed.

A measure of the monarch’s strength during this period seems to have been the ability to fight foreign wars. The word “foreign” is problematic if the Angevin origins of this empire are acknowledged. In the eyes of those who viewed contemporary life, perhaps, England and their France were never perceived as separate entities, but merely part of the same, unified heirloom estate that happened to have a strip of sea through the middle. This view of the political geography of the time is not stressed by Myers, so a sense of England versus France pervades the narrative.

Myers devotes time to the arts, economy, society in general and ecclesiastical life, as well as to descriptions of court life, intrigue and military campaigns. His discussion subtly charts the growth of trade and the rise of a class of nouveau riche business families who eventually supplant the older, land-owning aristocracy. And it is these people who eventually provide the stimulus that encourages the adoption of humanism and other renaissance traits that had developed a century earlier on mainland Europe. They thus appear to occupy the role of a modernising elite.

The fourteenth century in England was a century of plague amidst almost constant warfare, either with France or, if that had temporarily run out of steam, internally, where the Wars of the Roses saw the Houses of York and Lancaster vie for the English throne. It was perhaps this conflict that resulted in medieval values persisting in England when elsewhere they were already in decline.

But what is really satisfying about Myers’s account of late medieval England is that in a short volume he manages to communicate and illustrate the complications and exceptions, as well as the general thrust. This is a work of true scholarship and understanding that strives to portray the big picture, but accomplishes this via an attention to detail that brings the story completely to life.

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