If there are many popular works having as their framework the Middle Ages, beyond the great classics such as Le Goff or Gauvard, none to our knowledge claims to be interested in the Middle Ages as a whole, by trying to address as much political, economic, social, religious and cultural themes. This is precisely the ambition of Christine Duthoit's book, The Middle Ages for all. Successful bet ?
Rehabilitate the Middle Ages?
A medievalist will always be grateful to someone who wishes to "rehabilitate" the Middle Ages, and further combat the stubborn clichés about obscurantism and violence that would have marked this period. This is what Christine Duthoit implicitly does in her foreword, recalling the origins of this bad reputation (Renaissance and Enlightenment), then emphasizing both the complexity, the diversity and the richness of the Middle Ages, but also on the recoveries and the opposite risk of an idealization of the time, for example for nationalist ends.
She also notices that the Middle Ages, despite some success, is little known to the general public because ultimately little taught. Its ambition is therefore to "simply explain" these ten centuries of history, both to the general public and to a "young student".
A simple, but rich introduction
The author begins by delineating his subject chronologically, staying within the "academic" limits (this is obviously not A long Middle Ages de Le Goff), but clearly explaining the dates chosen. It stops at 1453, however, not 1492. Why not? We will come back to it anyway ...
His idea of dividing the Middle Ages into three parts (Upper, Central and Lower or Late), themselves generally accepted, also allows for more clarity. Then, she demarcates it geographically, explaining that she chose to deal only with the medieval West.
However, it is the rest of this introduction that is most interesting. Indeed, and this is not necessarily common in popular works, Christine Duthoit talks to us about the sources, then the way of studying them, through what she rightly calls "the auxiliary sciences of medieval history" . The rest of the book is divided into three parts, those defined above. Within each chronological section, there are different themes.
The High Middle Ages
This period is located, according to the author, between 410 and 950 approximately. After returning to the complexity of the barbarian "invasions" and thus having shot a first cliché, then summarized the installation of barbarian kingdoms, Christine Duthoit focuses on the Church as "the main factor of unity". Next comes the story of the Carolingian dynasty, in two chapters, from the fleeting imperial dream to the "rupture", in the context of new attacks (Normans, Saracens). We note, among others, the notes on Charles Martel or on the fears of the year 1000, which stress the questioning of ideas established on these subjects by current historians.
The classical Middle Ages
Often seen as the medieval Golden Age (especially its second half), it would be between 950 and 1250. The themes here are more… classic: feudalism, chivalry, the economy, the rise of cities, the changes in the Church (including the pope / emperor struggle), and the expansion of the West, that is, the Reconquista and the Crusades. The latter are treated in the traditional way, with an enumeration of the official crusades. The author nevertheless chooses to also evoke the Teutonics. The transition is then made with the following period by the chapter on "State renewal".
The late Middle Ages
This was the period that saw the end of the Capetians and the Hundred Years War, times of crisis which largely contributed to the bad reputation of the Middle Ages. Christine Duthoit begins this last part with the "crises and changes of the 14th century". Then of course it is the Hundred Years War.
However, it has the merit, undoubtedly in the perspective of "rehabilitating" the Middle Ages, of leaving an important place for the renewal which marks the second half of the 15th century. An economic, social, but also political and cultural renewal, this last point being approached in a skilful transition towards the Renaissance, suggesting that it has a kind of debt towards the Middle Ages, through for example characters like Petrarch or Dante, and more artists like Giotto.
We regret here, precisely, that Christine Duthoit did not extend her Middle Ages a little by including more the Great Discoveries (including in the Indian Ocean with the Portuguese), just mentioned in the foreword. Indeed, if it quickly approaches the end of the Reconquista and very vaguely Christopher Columbus, it does not place these great travelers and their decisive explorations in the medieval period, whereas they are really characteristic of it, as much in their mentality as in their methods and their vision of the world. A few more lines would have sufficed.
A pleasant presentation and good "little ideas"
A popularization book, which is more so ambitious, must be clear and pleasant to read. This is the case here, with short paragraphs, meaningful titles, essential ideas in bold type,… Everything is there to catch and remember easily, including small illustrations.
The good idea, however, remains what we will call notes. These are small paragraphs, biographical, geographical or thematic, also clear, sometimes original and recalling some historiographical debates. Let us quote in a jumble: "Arthur, a mythical king on the fringes of history? "," The oaths of Strasbourg "," Cluny and his monastic empire "," Le Cid, a historical figure "," The Ciompi Florentines -1378 ”,“ Jacques Cœur, the great money maker ”, etc.
Finally, let us salute the cards, few in number but well done, and above all a bibliography of classics on the Middle Ages, ideal for continuing and more fully immersing yourself in this so rich period.
For which audience?
Answering this question is always difficult with this kind of work. There is not much to reproach Christine Duthoit, and we can even salute this feat, because the gist is there (for the West), in just over two hundred pages! The problem, logical, is that everything is very fast and summarized, even if it is in a neat and clear way. It will therefore be difficult to recommend it to a beginner medievalist student, who is likely to find the book quickly limited, even if he can come and fish for some quick landmarks.
On the other hand, The Middle Ages for all is perfectly suited to a wider audience or to high school students, who would like to get to know this period, while losing the preconceived ideas that we often have about it. Before taking advantage of the bibliography to go further. By its title, and its expression "a first clearing", it was undoubtedly the first ambition of Christine Duthoit. And so it is successful.
- C. Duthoit, The Middle Ages for all, Ellipses, 2010.