15 MAY 1936, Page 25

The Modernity of Medievalism

IT may be not uninstructive, and possibly more amusing. to regard this, the concluding volume of the Cambridge Medieval History, as the prelude to the modem age no less than the conclusidn of its own. But the attentive reader will be even more forcibly struck by the extraordinary parallel the fifteenth century provides—that age of exhaustion, confusion, defeat, of general break-up and new beginnings, of old, loose ends and premature stirrings—with our own time, such a welter of old, bad causes enjoying their St. Martin's summer, of the decay of former certainties and the failure (as yet) of new ones to establish themselves, of hopes deferred and ubiquitous dangers. The general reader, if he is wise, will turn to Dr. Previte-Orton's " Epilogue," in which he draws together the various themes and threads of the age and the volume, than which there could be no more judicious and satisfying a summing-up. But, whether the parallel was in his mind or not—he certainly does not obtrude it upon the reader, does not even directly mention it—it stares out at one from every aspect of the age.

The fifteenth century, in his view, saw the breakdown of many of the characteristic-forms of mediaeval society. There was the failure of the Conciliar Movement's attempt to reform the Church—after all, the greatest model of international government the world has known since the' end of the Roman Empire. Dr. Previte-Orton instances the forces at work disrupting the Movement : the incompatibility of its desires

for fixity of doctrine, for ecumenic Christendom, and for co-operntive government by discussion " ; the growing nationalism of States and governments reflected in its Councils : " allied with monarchs, rigid against heresy, the Councils provided a stage for national dissidence, and yet— for they represented Western Christendom—naturally shunned the separatist thought of individuals which found its home in nationalism. They cut themselves off from the growing life their 'efforts nourished." How like the efforts of post-War liberal internationalism in the League of Nations it all reads ! He sees, too, within States the breakdown of their "co-opera- tive, diversely federated government," monarchy super- imposed upon feudal nobility, in a series of exhausting national and civil wars, of which we may take the Hundred Years' War between England and France as the type. He notes the bank- ruptcy of old ideals in Church and State, in law no less than in economic institutions ; the sterility and decay of ideas once so fecund, the subsidence' of the great edifice of scholastic thoughteundermined by the scepticism of the nominalists, the distrust in reason. The contemporary parallels are not hard to seek. There is the sterility of so much of the literature of the age ; " the growing unreality of its professed aims " in Which he sees " the source of the decadent aspect of the fifteenth century." Is it not rather the insufficiency of old institutions and of an earlier ideology for new forces, new needs ? In any case, how like the twentieth century ! Those trends necessitated efforts in a new direction of which there were manifest signs on all hands—the Portuguese and Spanish voyages, the art of Donatello and Paolo Uccello, the thought of Nicholas of Cosa, the growing study of Greek—before the century ended : all which were to reach fruition in the next.

How rich a failure -it was ! In one respect, it was not a failure at all : there was a great artistic achievement ; but then art does not have a direct correlation with political success and social contentment. Here Professor Constable's chapter on " Painting, Sculpture and the Arts " is the most brilliant in the book, as it is the most modem in approach ; for example, he shows us the mutual reactions of Northern and Southern art, insists that there is no strict dividing-line between them, and he has a contemporary understanding of the dependence of art upon technical and social conditions. The cultured reader will turn next to Mr. Tilley's agreeable chapter on " The Renaissance in Europe," with its generous treatment of early English Humanism, Duke Humphrey, and English students in Italy, Linacre of All Souls, Colet.

In the political chapters we find some of the veterans of previous volumes, along with some new names ; we miss others that might have been there. Of the first we have Altamira on Spain, 1412-1516, Petit-Dutaillis on France under Louis XI, Pirenne on the Low Countries, Edward Armstrong on Naples and Sicily. Pirenne's chapter is masterly in its grasp of the economic structure of society and of the way it deter- mines institutions and political conformations. In general. the volume reflects our time in its much clearer understanding of the relations between classes and of their role in history ; though not so Armstrong, who belonged to the old school. Bat what a charming old school it was : so cultured, so fresh, and evidently written with the lovely Italian countryside in his mind. His chapter on the Papacy and Naples is so well- written ; this is how history should be written, one feels. Among the newcomers there is Mr. McFarlane on the Lan- castrians, perhaps the most detailed chapter of all, but one which contains much original research and is well-written. His summing-up of England in that age, " a low degree of public security was not incompatible with a vigorous national life " is very convincing ; it is borne out by Mr. Williams on the Yorkists, and is not inapplicable to fifteenth-century Europe as a whole, though the devastation due to the incessant wars went in some countries, as in France, a good deal further than in this. Professor Laski has an excellent common-sense chapter, short and vigorous, on later mediaeval political thought.

If one may turn to criticism : two chapters are too large

• an allowance for Bohemia in the fifteenth century, and the real historical importance of John Hus seems a good deal exaggerated, though we may pardon the exuberance of a -Czech writer in writing of the Hussite Wars, " the Czechs entered upon a struggle for his cause the like of which history has never seen before or since." In its place there might have been a chapter on Russia, or, better still, on the Town-life of the Fifteenth Century. The previous volume had a chapter on Peasants and Peasant-Life by Miss Power. One misses in this volume a chapter on the most characteristic economic developments of this period, though there is a good deal about the towns scattered up and down. Indeed, it would be hardly avoidable, for a major characteristic was the growth of the towns to importance and with them the rise of the urban middle-class, usually going along with the trend towards despotic monarchy. Along with these, there are the permanent themes of European history, as much to the fore then as now : the conflicts over the debatable lands between France and Germany, over the Low Countries, the struggle of the Czech race against the Germans (it is some consolation to think in these days how tough they have been, how inextinguishable their independence), even the separatism of Catalonia.

One lacuna shocks me : there is no more than half a sentence devoted to Villon (in 819 pages !) : the most characteristic poet of the age, the expression of its very spirit in his splendours and miseries, his intellectual precocity, in his very mediaevalista so modern a mind, the poet of doubt and agonised uncertainty "Rien ne m'est seur quo la chose incertaine;

Obscur, fors en qui est tout evident ; Doubts ne fais, fors en chose certain ..."

A. L. RowsE.