Le Goff, Jacques: What Constitutes Europe

Elsewhere, the Slavic states were elaborating territorial policies that were to alter the problem of Europe’s eastern frontier. Poland, a fully European state by virtue of its conversion, and united with Lithuania by the Polish-Lithuanian Jagiellon dynasty, in the late fourteenth century adopted a policy of territorial expansion to the north (Prussia) and to the east and the southeast (Volhynia and Podolia). By the fifteenth century Poland extended all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

Meanwhile Russia, which had thrown off the Mongol yoke, was evolving into a centralized state in the Muscovite region. Ivan III (ruled 1462-1505) continued the unification of Russian territories by gaining control of Nov­gorod (1478) and Tver (1485). He set up a powerful and centralized state based on a solid administrative and judicial system, which was largely instituted by the Code of 1497.

goff3The question that thus arises is whether, from a historical point of view, at the end of the fifteenth century the threats that hung over the past achieve­ments of the Middle Ages outweighed the promises held out for Europe by the long medieval period that I am proposing, or whether the reverse was the case. Of course, we must take into account the vagaries of History and the impact of unpredictable eventualities, but I believe that it is possible to assess what Europe’s chances were at the end of the fifteenth century. I do not think that the threats stemmed either from the emergence of nations or from the religious dissent that was in danger of degenerating into schism. I hope that this book has by now shown that, notwithstanding those two factors, Europe had begun to take shape in the Middle Ages, fueled by ideas of unity and “nationhood” and encouraged by real instances of them, even if the development of the concept of sovereignty and its applications did, from the thirteenth century on, introduce a problem for Europe’s future. Further­more, the end of the monopoly of the Catholic Church did not spell the end of a common Christian culture, or of its civilization and values: in that respect, the laity played a double role for on the one hand it was the heir and disseminator of Christian values, but on the other, it was forced to become their adversary in the course of the bitter struggles that were ahead, at the end of the fifteenth century. Rather, the source of any threat to a future Europe was constituted by armed clashes between its various nations and the warlike nature of the Europeans themselves, which Hippocrates had detected and described even in antiquity. Europe’s future was also unques­tionably threatened by the way in which the expansion and colonization initiated in the fifteenth century evolved and by Europe’s relations with its possessions elsewhere in the world.

As for progress, here the Middle Ages manifested a tension at the deepest level -to the point of presenting a paradoxical image. The dominant ideology, or perhaps one should say medieval mentalities in general, tended to condemn as an error and a sin all that was progressive and unheard of. But at the same time, with respect to both the material and the spiritual worlds, the Middle Ages constituted a period of creativity, innovations, and extraordinary progress. I believe that we should recognize that the most advantageous asset for the development of the concept of Europe and its realization was the European ability to progress that became evident in the Middle Ages and was further strengthened in the fifteenth century. The term “progress” may be found surprising. It is generally recognized that a sense of progress and the latter’s promotion as an ideal was a phenomenon of the late seventeenth and above all the eighteenth centuries, a flower that, in order to bloom, needed the climate of the Enlightenment. And yet, I believe that progress had begun to burgeon in the Middle Ages. What medieval Europe elaborated and began to demonstrate stands in stark contrast to what was to happen in the Muslim world, and above all in China. In the fifteenth century China was the most powerful, rich, and advanced country in the world. But it then remained closed within itself and became etiolated, leaving domination of the world, including the East, to the Europeans. Despite the establishment of the powerful Ottoman Empire and the diffu­sion of Islam in Africa and Asia, the Muslim world, apart from the Turks, lost the dynamism of its medieval period. Christian Europe, in contrast, acquired ideas and practices that were to ensure its incomparable expansion from the fifteenth century onward. Despite its internal rivalries and the injustices and even crimes that it perpetrated abroad, that expansion was a major positive factor in the creation of Europe’s self-awareness and consolidation. Peter Biller’s The Measure of Multitude: Population in Medi­eval Thought (Oxford University Press, 2000) has shown how fourteenth-century Europe took the measure of its population and realized the role that the latter could play in the conduct of human affairs. Despite the fact that, by reason of the agricultural crisis and the plague, the fourteenth century was a period of stark demographic regression, the Europe of the end of the Middle Ages took to regarding the number of its inhabitants and their way of living together and reproducing themselves as a factor of power. A recent collective work, Progrès, réaction, décadence dans Occident médiéval (essays collected by Emmanuelle Baumgartner and Laurence Harf-Lancher, Paris/Geneva: Droz/Champion, 2003) studies the notions and aspects of “progress, reaction, and decadence” in the medieval West. While agreeing with the traditional idea that “the mental frameworks [of the Middle Ages] were hardly compatible with the idea of progress,” this work notes notwith­standing that Christianity ascribed a direction to History (and I have, myself, stressed the “progressive” side to Joachim’s of Fiore’s Utopias). Christianity also demolished the ancient myth of eternal return and the cyclical concept of history. In a classic work, La Théologie au XIIe siècle, Father M. D. Chenu showed how medieval thought restarted history in the twelfth century. The quest for salvation was envisaged as a progress, of a moral nature of course, but also beneficial in every way. Scorn for the world, despite all its theoreticians and emulators, need not imply a rejection of material progress. Medieval dynamism resulted from the interaction of oppositions and tensions that produced progress (even if that was not what it was called). The collective work distinguishes a number of dualisms such as progress-reaction, progress-decadence, past-present, and ancient-modern that fueled medieval dynamism. As we have seen, the thirteenth-century Mendicant Orders dared, in provocative fashion, to proclaim their own novelty, while their opponents formed by more monastic attitudes considered such novelty to be sinful and evil. Medieval civilization and attitudes did not scorn technology and, as soon as an economic domain emerged, applied themselves to encouraging productivity and growth. Al­ready in the Middle Ages, peasants were required to satisfy “contracts ad meliorandum” that is to say contracts that demanded that whoever bene­fited from the land should work to improve its yield.

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