'The Middle Ages', by Johannes Fried (Translated by Peter Lewis) - Review

By McGlynn, Sean | The Spectator, January 24, 2015 | Go to article overview

'The Middle Ages', by Johannes Fried (Translated by Peter Lewis) - Review


McGlynn, Sean, The Spectator


The Middle Ages Johannes Fried (translated by Peter Lewis)

Belknap Press, pp.580, £25, ISBN: 9780674055629

For those who imagine the medieval period along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- knights, castles, fair maidens, filthy peasants and buckets of blood and gore (you know, all the fun stuff) -- Johannes Fried's version may come as something of an aesthetic shock. His interests lie in the more rarefied world of theologians, lawyers and philosophers. So while the kings and emperors of the Middle Ages are afforded largely thumbnail sketches, it is the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, William of Ockham and Peter Abelard that attract Fried's closest attention in his study of the 'cultural evolution' of the Middle Ages.

Fried, the éminence grise of German medievalists, takes a typically Teutonic approach to history in pursuing a big idea. He is well known (and a little controversial) in his native land as a proponent for the study of history as a 'cognitive psychology' and 'life science' and for championing 'neuro-cultural history'. His preface to The Middle Ages is a little choked with some indigestible slabs of relativism:

Our focus... is therefore a construct, necessarily subjective.... It is a hypothesis, whose plausibility is conditioned by unprovable premises, our own subjective experiences, and familiar structural patterns.... Likewise, the simultaneity of events also defies any authoritative account, since once such an account has been given, it is forever consigned to posterity, and is only capable of sequentially considering, combining, or describing things that in actual fact had a concurrent effect and were contingent upon one another and intermeshed in their impact.

If that doesn't have you reaching for the Rennies, nothing will.

Had Fried not flagged it up, you would be unaware of this propensity, shared, sadly, by too many academic historians, for historiographical navel-gazing. For when he warms up Fried, thankfully, just gets down to the business of writing excellent history in this absorbing book. In his successful endeavour to demonstrate that the Middle Ages was not 'an era hopelessly ensnared in a kind of self-inflicted intellectual immaturity', Fried makes even such topics as nominalism and dialectics come alive.

He achieves this by sensibly focusing on individuals to draw the reader into key themes and ideas. Thus the chapter on the ideas of Boethius, author of the hugely influential Consolation of Philosophy -- favoured and translated by Alfred the Great, no less, as an abiding comfort in adversity -- begins: 'Boethius, the most learned man of his time, met his death in the hangman's noose.' This immediately arresting opening is typical of Fried's treatment of his topics. Keen to show the evolution of 'a culture of reason', Fried brings in Boethius at various stages of the book, as when he is discussing William of Ockham's nominalism, which promoted chance, contingency and individuality as governing reality. Fried states that 'the ramifications of this position for scholarship were immense and are still felt today'. We are familiar with the concept of Ockham's razor, in which simple explanations are to be preferred to more complex ones (something Fried might have considered applying to his preface).

He reminds us that the evolution of reasoning had a human cost. While Mother Church produced great and favoured thinkers such as Aquinas and Francis of Assisi, she also nurtured in her womb young who would turn on her and challenge her as an obstacle to progress. In an age when the line between heterodoxy and orthodoxy was a very fine one, many were prepared to walk it. It is salutary to consider how brave, even reckless and arrogant, many of the great minds were. William of Ockham flirted perilously with heresy, accusing the 'pseudo-pope' of 'heretical error' for defending the wealth of the Church when the reform movement towards apostolic poverty remained vital. …

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