This wonderful book is about the end of the Dark Ages, when trends were aligned in such a way that Europe finally began to overcome the long decline and chaos that followed the Roman Empire's disintegration. During this period (950 to 1350 CE), the vast migrations and fluidity of the early middles ages ended decisively, allowing stable states, a reformed and largely unified western church, and oases of stability to flower into what would become modern Europe. It was a time of economic boom and technological advancement, the end of centuries of external threat, and expansion outwards, not only into the holy land but to central and northern Europe. The book is the perfect followup to the more impressionistic Forge of Christendom, which evokes many of these issues but neither describes nor analyses them in the depth that I found here.
In 950 CE, Europe was a shrunken region under siege from non-christian invaders (Arabs, Vikings, Hungarians, and certain Slavs, i.e. from all directions). As the Millennium approached, many in western Christendom believed that the apocalypse was imminent. While there had been a succession of relatively effective Emperors from the time of Charlemagne, their dynasties had proven unstable, rarely lasting more than 3 generations before disintegrating into power struggles. Then suddenly, the external threats either stalled (the Arabs) or were absorbed by conversion into Christendom.
The relative calm that resulted enabled actors to undertake a series of fundamental measures that completely transformed the political and economic landscape. On the one hand, aristocrats adopted a new style of defensive fortification, the stone castle. This new technology of warfare consolidated their power base, allowing them to invest their resources into economic development - clearing land, forcing their serfs and peasants to pay taxes and stay within their territories for long-term servitude - rather than merely warfare. On the other hand, the Roman church initiated a series of reforms, in particular the clearer definition of orthodoxy, opening the way to persecutions for heresy and crushing the enormous diversity that had grown up during the extraordinary experimentation of the dark ages. Indeed, Christianity became a far more politicized ideology, a unifying glue (with administrative structures and educational institutions in place) that spawned that gigantic colonial venture called the Crusades in the Holy Land as well as east and north within Europe. While these developments narrowed diversity and did not promote political freedoms, they added focus to the work and missions of European rulers. Europe in this time became far more uniform as a territorial entity in its economy, institutional forms, political-religious ideologies, and urban plans. Even the names of rulers lost their local flavors, becoming those of the accepted saints as defined by Rome.
This was a golden age for aristocrats (the landowners, knights, and upper clergy), who intermingled, spoke common languages, and moved into geographical areas designated to them by emperors; they exploited new policy instruments to buttress their power. In exchange for service to the Emperor or King, many commoners became aristocrats at this time. In addition to the church's support, they established scholastic universities, systems of uniform law based on the legal legacy of Rome, and the foundation of cities and networks in which new economic activities could be undertaken. As the economy flourished and populations exploded in size and dynamism, Europe truly established an identity for itself. Much of the basic urban contours that they established at that time exist today.
Bartlett covers this for the most part from the optic of "colonialism" - the movement of populations to new, often unoccupied areas for development. It was more or less the end of the migrations that established the essential outlines of the ethno-linguistic groups that exist today. This is, of course, only one dimension of the process: there was also an intellectual movement (scholasticism) that is largely uncovered, the economy is only occasionally mentioned, and other related developments (e.g. the Gothic era, another way to define the entire period) are neglected. The reader will need to explore those elsewhere. Also, it is so analytic that there is very little narrative, which makes it read a bit dry at times.
This book is so full of ideas that it was very hard for me to put it all together in this review. I do not feel I have successfully covered either the nuance or even the substance, which means I must read it again. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in the West and/or the middle ages. It is fundamental reading and has forever changed my perception of the period.