Great Transition of the Late-Medieval World

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* Book: Bruce Campbell, The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016

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Review

Eric Jones:

"The cathedral that stands unfinished in Siena marks how abruptly the expansion of the High Middle Ages was brought to a halt, although maybe the failure to complete it during the recovery that began in the fifteenth century is more surprising. Until the fourteenth century the expansion had been remarkable, with population doubling or trebling since the late eleventh century, cities multiplying, international trade routes linking up, and cultural output soaring, with a thirteen-fold increase in the annual output of manuscripts for example. The climate was benign and the burden of disease modest. What could go wrong? Bruce Campbell’s 400 tightly-packed pages tell us about what might be termed the Great Disruption.

He is chiefly interested in climatic and biological forces, and the cascade of political, economic and social woes that arose in the “Perfect Storm” when they all seemed to go wrong at once. Much of Eurasia was afflicted by the same malign, “quasi-autonomous,” turn of events. The book concentrates heavily on England, which is better documented than other countries, but stretches across Europe to the Middle East and Asia as far as China. It takes in the irruption of the Mongols and the cramping of options for the Vikings of the North Atlantic; indeed it takes in everywhere and every phenomenon. Ingenious proxies are introduced. The text is backed up by an extraordinary array of attractively drawn graphs and bar diagrams, although I have qualms about the unstated implication that all sources are equally reliable. The reader is usually obliged to take the underlying numbers on trust. Occasionally models are cited incautiously and objections to them scouted, for instance where falling interest rates are assumed to have determined capital investment in peasant farming. Similarly, the costs and benefits of political fragmentation are dealt with a little ambiguously.

Medieval economic history is nevertheless more valuably expounded in the long central stretches of this volume than anywhere else. In principle it is standard stuff, but here it is impressively digested, made sharper and brought right up to date by its use of advanced scientific findings about influences on the climate and human and animal health. Over fifty years ago the Hampshire County Archivist told me that she had some sleepless nights after cutting her finger on a parchment of the Plague Year. Well she might. Yet it is only this minute, so to speak, that DNA from the dental pulp of exhumed skeletons has confirmed what the disease organism really was.

The Perfect Storm of climate and disease was a gigantic shock but it was still an asymmetric one. In the long term not quite everything did go wrong. The Black Death, Campbell states, worked to England’s advantage by relieving the burden of poverty and facilitating structural reform. This is a thesis of growth by disaster, a sort of neutron bomb that counteracted the morcellement produced by intense demand for land: a considerable proportion of capital-in-land was not exactly untouched but was at least reusable. Extra-somatic sources of technical knowledge also survived." (http://eh.net/book-reviews/)