First European Revolution

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* Book: R. I. Moore. The First European Revolution, c. 970-1215. Oxford and New York: Blackwell Publishers, 2000


Robert Bartlett:

"What are the components of "the first European revolution"? Some concern the general economic developments of the period: population increase, easily matched by extension of cereal cultivation, so that there were centuries of "sustained increase in the real income per head," along with rapid urbanization, representing "a new world and a new way of life." Others belong to that family of developments labeled by some historians "the feudal revolution" or "la mutation féodale": the rise, around the year 1000, of ruthless castle-based lords who fractured and seized public institutions, subordinated the rural population, and by streamlining their family structures created new patrilineal dynasties to enjoy the benefits of this new seigniorial power. Then there are the innovations of the eleventh century in religious and ecclesiastical life: the Peace of God movement (here given the interpretative centrality which has become customary in the last few decades), popular heresy (a subject on which Moore is a noted expert), and "Reform," the attempt to disentangle the Church from the lay world, notably by the enforcement of clerical celibacy." (


Bruce L. Venarde:

"What Moore manages, in just 200 pages of elegant and even lapidary prose, is to explain the creation of European society in a fashion that links a variety of topics ranging from agricultural organization to strategies of marriage and distribution of patrimony to educational curricula and arenas. At the literal and figurative root of the birth of Europe is the formation of a new and undifferentiated mass of agricultural laborers. Diverse methods of food gathering and even semi-nomadic ways that had been characteristic of early medieval Europe, Moore argues, were focused into a regime of cerealization and serfdom. Two charts (p. 189) illustrate the result. Early medieval society was divided into two groups: the powerful (potentes) and the powerless (pauperes). The former group included independent agricultural laborers on what we'd call family farms, the latter as monks; in other words, the most important social cleavage was not based solely on membership in the class of food producers. By the thirteenth century, in contrast, those who produced food were all (or nearly all) of dependent social status, and it was relation to agricultural function participation in its production or freedom from that obligation that marked the most important social boundaries. Predictable and regular cycle of grain-growing, accomplished by a socially and legally undifferentiated mass of unfree peasants, were the economic foundation of other changes.

Above the peasantry, the elite groups in the newly constituted regime were the classic medieval three orders, an old notion refurbished vigorously after 1150 or so: oratores, bellatores, and laboratores, those who prayed, fought, and worked. Those who prayed, Europe's professional clergy, were for a long time the vigorous advocates and defenders of the newly defined laboring poor. From the late tenth century, monks, nuns, bishops and popes allied with local communities of faithful people and shared their concerns not only for their physical well-being but their spiritual interests, as expressed in relics, shrines, and an organized system of parishes that provided autonomy and a focus for community identity and, in its priest, an arbiter of social peace. The clergy defended the "little community" against the excesses of the mounted warrior class that came to dominate much of the old lands of Charlemagne's ephemeral empire just as the little community supported religious reformers' attempts to remove religious functions from the hands of knights and princes, a central theme of ecclesiastical history in this era.

It was those warriors who, often by force, exacted taxes and service from the peasantry more easily managed if they were indistinguishable from one another, more subservient economically and legally. But the warrior elite had to redefine itself in order to survive. In order to make use of the surplus peasants produced, aristocrats established principles of patrilineage, monogamy, and male primogeniture (in many but not all places, as Moore rightly notes). Families became less collections of relations by blood and marriage than the succession of fathers to legitimate sons, in particular eldest sons, who usually inherited their father's estates. This system, the source of great distress to all those left outside its small circle of beneficiaries, was supported by the Church, which got for its trouble the essential agreement that property granted to any institution of the church a monastery, a bishop, or other religious corporations would remain Church property in perpetuity. Thus, Moore finds, the very Christian clergy who had defended the poor from the excesses of the rough social and economic elite increasingly found necessary alliance with this master class, and in the twelfth century made once localized spiritual practices and ideas increasingly subject to central control. This was no easy task Moore calls it "forcing back into the bottle the genie of popular power" (p. 168) that had helped the Church attain independence from powerful lay lords. But in the end, the Roman Church, still a fairly loosely organized body in the tenth century, had become in a few centuries the hierarchically structured religious authority it remains eight hundred years.

The third of the three orders, the laboratores, were not by 1200 the peasantry but a new group, the merchants and artisans of the "citied civilization" that peasants, warriors, and clergy produced. By the early thirteenth century, business was the real labor of the privileged. The new laborers, or better negotiatores ("businessmen," indeed almost all males), appeared in contemporary sociological descriptions and classifications. But that omits another group, one not visible in the triple schema yet, as Moore sees it, the one that ultimately made possible the first European revolution. Younger sons deprived of landed inheritances, sons of the new urban elites (who often had noble backgrounds themselves) and even some fortunate sons of the peasantry got their educations together in the schools and nascent universities of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It was these university graduates, literate, numerate, and well trained in logic and analytical thinking, who served new powerful lords, lay and ecclesiastical. >From the twelfth century forward they also served increasingly powerful and effective kings in France and England, as well as an international cadre of bishops, including the bishop of Rome, the pope. This group of literate servants were essential to "the capacity developed by both secular and ecclesiastical powers to penetrate communities of every kind vigorously and ruthlessly, overriding the restraint of custom, and enlisting, or destroying men of local standing and influence in the name of order, orthodoxy, and reform" (p. 172). And so it was that European society, one that in many ways endured for centuries and in some ways endures still, was born.

A summary blunts the sharp complexity of Moore's presentation, slights the force of its explanatory power, and worst of all, removes examples and anecdotes that make its arguments viable and vivid. Moore's notes reveal his technique: he knows recent scholarly literature on a great variety of subjects, and he has also read intensively in certain medieval sources, in particular saints' lives and the discussions of popular heresy which he first studied thirty years ago.[3] He weaves together scholarly debates and close readings of sources, often managing striking juxtapositions and ingenious uses of the conclusions of scholars some of whom, he knows, will not be entirely pleased at the purposes to which he has put their work. Moore is adept and often brilliant at linking social and economic relations and realities, the nature and distribution of judicial and fiscal power, and mentalities. In the face of the greatest hindrance to writing medieval social history, the almost complete absence of direct evidence about the lives and beliefs of the illiterate majority of his period, he weaves together a rich narrative of the fate of the voiceless majority in this changing society. His remarks on a few basic facts of history-making are also refreshing. Moore begins by pointing out that since the twelfth century, historians have been writing that Europe emerged from the fusion of the Mediterranean inheritances of Greek and Roman cultures and Judeo-Christian religiosity. These legacies mattered deeply, of course, but "from that stock...the men and women of the twelfth centuries took what they wanted for their own intricate and highly idiosyncratic construction, and discarded what they did not want" (p. 2) Not from the past did Europeans get their ideas on how to farm more efficiently or how to distribute landed property in families. Moore also insists that the distribution of economic, legal, and religious power that emerged in this era was, if not planned, then not accidental either: it came about through conscious human actions. That is to give medieval people agency that our Burckhardt-influenced students might deny them, but also to attribute to them responsibility for what they did.

It is around accountability for accomplishment that Moore finds himself in a different position than most medievalists in revolt against modernists. His view of the most significant developments that constitute the first unique European society (unique among other Eurasian societies and cultures, with which he fruitfully compares it in the last pages of the book) is decidedly dim. Moore's thirteenth century is a time of the powerful few and the powerless many when matters both mundane and supernal were carefully directed by centralized governments whose educated and ambitious agents pledged loyalty only to their centralizing patrons. This is not the image of medieval Europe Charles Homer Haskins had hoped to promote. And it is also in strong contrast to the tone of the book it most resembles, R. W. Southern's The Making of the Middle Ages.[4] Southern, too, read widely and then used a select series of examples, performing a kind of core sampling of medieval society in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; he covered many of the same themes -- politics, families, the economy, the church, education --and his bracketing dates were virtually the same as Moore's. Still widely used in university classrooms, Southern's account, now nearly fifty years old, gives a far sunnier view of the formation of medieval society. ("It's the rah-rah Middle Ages," as a cynical but not unperceptive student of mine once put it.) Perhaps it was easier in the early 1950s, in the wake of Allied victory at the end of what has been termed Europe's second Thirty Years' War, to look with pride on the formation of the society that had just beaten back Teutonic brutality and despotism. But Moore, here as in his earlier The Formation of a Persecuting Society [5], sees also (instead?) the lineage of twentieth-century genocide in anti-Semitism that was at least a side effect, if not an essential characteristic, of the society that the first European revolution fashioned. The most impassioned pages of this new book (especially pp. 149-159) are those on the sorry evolution of Jewish-Christian relations in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and their results, difficult for some Christians and disastrous for most Jews. Just because the origins of the modern West are in the activities and habits of the people of the central Middle Ages, Moore reminds us, does not mean we should regard them uncritically." (