The double celebration of 1992, Maastricht and Columbus, spawned a double debate, each prolonged way beyond its intrinsic interest by media attention and its acolyte, academic scrutiny: it may be years before any of us will be able to read with enthusiasm another book or article on either the identity of Europe or the irruption of Europeans into America. Each of the two debates was and is characterized by celebrators and detractors, people following the long tradition of enthusiasm for European superiority and people concerned to deconstruct and otherwise undermine it, arguing that Europe is imaginary, a long-standing way of defining Us against Them, and that its hegemony over the world is illusory or shameful. Personally, I have no trouble identifying with the second group, but actually a third group is more interesting, for it is comprised of people who try to sidestep the moral issue and focus on explanation: how concepts of Europe arose and what they meant at different times, and why it actually was that parts of western Europe were able to conquer and transform most of the rest of the world in the modern period. If the focus is deep enough, the separate Maastricht and Columbus debates here merge into one, for both have common roots in the central Middle Ages, when the polities of Latin Christendom were beginning to define themselves as ‘Europe’, a Europe moreover already keenly and rapaciously expansionist. It is at this meeting-place that Robert Bartlett has placed his new book, The Making of Europe footnote; one of the things he has explicitly tried to do is, precisely, to explain the double face of Latin Europe in the four hundred years before the Black Death, brusquely expansionist and, simultaneously, increasingly homogeneous. The memory of the staleness of 1992 gives an edge to one’s interest in seeing how well he has succeeded.

Even the explanatory focus of the third approach is perpetually haunted by the moral debate, for any discussion of European identity, no matter how scientific, risks falling into teleology, again from two directions. The ‘European identity’ teleology is expressed in the long-standing preoccupation with when Europe was ‘made’, when we finally became Us, the quintet of France, Germany, Italy, England and (eventually) Spain which could gain sufficient common identity for their different expansions actually to be seen as European expansion. Hence the vast number of books with the same titles, listed for example in two recent critical articles in History Workshop by Timothy Reuter and Ross Balzaretti: The Birth of Europe, The Childhood of Europe, The First Europe, The Origins of Europe, The Making of Europe (already in 1932: that time, as at others, the wonder ingredient for Europeanization was a form of Catholicism). All these are books by medievalists; many of them have a very naive image of European supremacy, and most have a fairly un-thought-out idea of what ‘Europe’ actually is. Then as now, however, as Reuter remarks, ‘To invoke Europe was. . .to pursue a deliberate rhetorical stategy’; as Miri Rubin (in the same issue) and Balzaretti further stress, it covers up huge differences in real lived experience.footnote1 Indeed, European identity, if it is to be understood at all except rhetorically, must be faced as a problem, head on.

The second teleology, that involving the capacity of Europeans to expand, is better founded and, for that reason alone, in some ways more insidious: for there is no doubt that nine or ten European states did directly control nearly all the world at different times between 1750 and 1950, and were busily engaged in transforming it economically. It is therefore only too easy to focus one’s attention on those features of European history that make the area special, different, more adventurous and creative, as with—to take one recent high-quality example—Michael Mann’s preoccupation with what he calls the ‘leading edge’ of power.footnote2 Any discussion of European development that concentrates too much on ‘creativity’, without rooting it very deeply in the stable and ongoing experience of production and exploitation that characterized all societies, whether European or not, risks falling into this teleology, with only those elements which make Europe special declared worthy of interest.

Bartlett had a difficult path to walk, then, when writing this book. I will argue below that he has not entirely avoided the second teleology, but that he has dealt very firmly, and in some respects definitively, with the first. This alone would make his book extremely interesting. To a professional medievalist, furthermore, a third problem presents itself: how to write a general survey of the central medieval period in English that is not in some measure simply a rewriting of Richard Southern’s 1953 masterpiece, The Making of the Middle Ages, which, although a short work, has had something of the effect on English-speaking medievalists that Marc Bloch and Georges Duby have had on everyone else. Here, too, Bartlett is interesting, for in my view he is one of only three such historians who have ever successfully managed it—the others being Alexander Murray, with his 1978 book Reason and Society in the Middle Ages, and Susan Reynolds, with her Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe of 1984. The success of all three in part derives from the fact that they treat things other than the traditional ‘central’ problems so well discussed by Southern, such as feudal/aristocratic power and Church reform. Murray, the most arcane of the three, linked the breakthroughs in intellectual knowledge in the period (‘reason’) to the developing structure of society; Reynolds, perhaps more compellingly, posed the changes of the whole period in terms of changing patterns of collective activity.footnote3Bartlett, for his part, has done it by shifting his attention from the ‘core’ lands of the Latin West to the ‘periphery’, the areas of initial Western expansion, above all the Celtic lands, the western Slav lands, Muslim Spain and the Crusader states. It must be clear that each of these three works can only be fully persuasive as a general survey insofar as it can convince us that its chosen focus actually does have the power that Southern’s had, to stand for medieval development as a whole. Here too there are some problems in Bartlett’s choice, as we will see, although they must be set against one of his greatest strengths, an interest in far more of the geography of Europe than that normally held by anyone writing in the field.

Bartlett’s book roughly divides into three. His concern is to show how the basic political, social and institutional structures of Latin Europe (i.e. the parts of Europe which used Latin as a literary and liturgical language) spread from the ‘core’, the old Carolingian lands (France, Germany and Italy), England and the north Spanish fringe, as in 950, to an area more than double in size by 1350, which included the whole of modern Europe eastwards to Estonia, Poland and Hungary. In the first section, he concentrates on aristocratic expansion, its technological basis and its ideology. Three central chapters match this with accounts of peasant migration and urban settlement in the outer lands of Europe (notably the German Ostsiedlung in eastern Europe and the English occupation of Ireland). The last third of the book looks at ethnic relations in the periphery, in law courts, in the Church, and in towns, and at the rise of racism at the end of his period. He concludes with two survey chapters, on ‘Europeanization’ and on political sociology, which sum up the implications of these three approaches to the material.

It must be stressed, however, that this pattern is only a convenient structure, to give cohesion to his argument; it does not restrict in any way. Bartlett constantly and deftly moves from idea to idea—as, for example, when he notes (p. 68) in the middle of a discussion of military technology that an interest in castle-building in some respects turned traditional geographies inside out, privileging marginal but defensible terrain rather than cultivated fields; or as when in his section on towns (p. 182) he shows that English immigrants into twelfth-century Dublin came from towns in England, not from the countryside, thus changing our entire sense of the cultural profile of the earliest Anglicization of Ireland. He is particularly strong on the effective use of the striking example, whether it is the extraordinary success of a small French aristocratic family, or the influence of the law of Lübeck, or the literary and legal interests of an archbishop of Lund, or the way that both the Scottish and the Mecklenburg ruling families steadily abandoned Scottish and Slavic names like Donald and Pribislaw in favour of common European stock names such as Henry and John. He can balance Irish, Polish or Spanish examples in a single argument without eliding their specificities, and does so constantly. This is an easy book to read and absorb, without being in any way simplistic, as also Southern was before him, and it will be read by non-medievalists too.

It is because of the stimulus of Bartlett’s book, then, that it is worth looking at some of its underlying themes. Not all of them are made explicit by Bartlett—notwithstanding his sophistication, as seen for example in his final sociological chapter, he is not much more interested in theory than are the great majority of historian—but the themes are all, I think, reasonably clear in the text; and they all connect with the issues raised at the start of this article. I will discuss his idea of Europe, and then set out four, linked, ways in which I think his chosen focus is problematic.