The Making of the Middle Ages

by R. W. Southern

Rating: ★★★★

Southern's book is one which I have often seen referenced as authoritative in discussions of early medieval society. Perhaps because of this, I had always imagined it as quite a weighty and ponderous text. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to discover that it is actually quite a short and readable book, with a sensible systematic analysis of the themes of the early medieval period livened up with specific examples and quotations. It is by all accounts good history, too, which makes it a rare achievement.

The overall thrust of the analysis, covering roughly two centuries of what might be termed Latin Christendom, is that this period is one of slowly moving from an internally-focused heroic vision of life as something that happens to you, to a romantic vision of a world that might be explored and in which some agency is expected. The slow and repetitive study of theological texts gives way somewhat, due to the translation of ancient Greek texts, to a world of more secular intellectual struggle. This is a poor paraphrase of the complex picture Southern paints, however, which covers the physical, religious and intellectual dimensions of his subject.

As with all writing on this period, there is necessarily a great deal of weight given to church proceedings, which often bore me. Southern manages to keep it lively by showing how the church transforms itself over the period, and how it is intimately tied into the legal landscape. The pictures of the church as a geopolitical power are far more interesting than the accompanying discussion of evolution in liturgical procedure and theology. Having kept me awake through these patches is quite a testament to the engaging writing, especially for a book more than 60 years old itself. As an entry point to study of the medieval world, this would be an excellent text.