General History IV: 900–1150
This option offers you the challenge of coming to grips with societies quite different from our own, whether they are those of the emerging medieval kingdoms and churches of western Europe or the neighbouring and more developed worlds of the Byzantine Empire and Muslim Caliphates of Cordova and Baghdad. You can now also approach the period through a rich body of translated sources as well as material sources (e.g. Romanesque churches, illuminated manuscripts, archaeology, and numismatics).
In the West the period opens with the invasions of Vikings, Arabs and Magyars following the collapse of the Carolingian Empire: here the focus is as much on the fragmentation of authority as on the gradual formation of the new kingdoms and empires which were to hold sway for much of the middle ages. Instead of taking the rule of kings and nobles for granted, you are encouraged to ask what the bases of their power and authority were, looking at topics such as sacral authority and ritual, kinship and gift-giving, rebellion and feud, and the way in which castle building transformed the landscape of power. The tenets of classic works such as Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society (1961) will be explored and questioned. The role of monasteries, the church and the miraculous (the cult of saints) provide further central themes. The nature of religious reform will come into stark relief, whether in relation to monasteries such as Cluny and Gorze in the tenth century, or in relation to the eleventh-century papal reform movement named after Gregory VII, which established the papacy as a central institution in the Middle Ages and beyond. By the end of the period we see the first stirrings of the twelfth-century renaissance, brought alive by sources such as the letters of Abelard and Heloïse.
Any attempt to analyze what life was like for those within this world will lead you to consider the extent to which we are still dealing with a subsistence economy at the beginning of this period but one in which we can chart the increasingly vigorous stirrings of a moneyed and market-orientated economy. With the emergence of Venice, Genoa and the towns of Flanders and the Baltic it becomes possible to speak with confidence of urban life and long-distance trade for the first time since the decline of the Roman Empire. At one level the peasantry can be viewed as mere chattels of the élite, but from other angles it is population growth, the peasant land market and peasant colonization which provided the most dynamic and decisive forces shaping this period. Consideration of the role of women will challenge the idea that development was all one way; for instance, in the late tenth century the German Empire, West Francia, Lorraine and England were all ruled by women on behalf of their sons.
Many students will concentrate on Western Europe, turning to neighbouring societies as points of comparison and contrast, but for others these neighbouring societies will be central to their work. Key areas for study include: the relations between Muslim and Christian Spain, the former with a far more developed economy and culture than anything in the West during this period; the wider Muslim world centred on the vast metropolis of Baghdad; the First Crusade, pogroms and the Jewish communities of Europe and the Middle East; the Byzantine Empire which can be glimpsed so vividly through the translated writings of Liudprand, Psellus and Anna Comnena; and the emergence of the kingdom of the Russ through a process of ethnogenesis between Slavs and Vikings.