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Durham University

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Native Realms: A New History of Europe, 1291-1420

A research project of the Department of History.

Background

The fourteenth century remains, in scholarly and popular perception, one defined almost wholly by catastrophe and failure. A recent television series did not feel the need even for a concluding question-mark to its chosen title, ‘The World’s Worst Century’. The century was, in Barbara Tuchman’s best-selling formulation, ‘calamitous’: ‘a violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age’. In the latest textbook survey of European history in the period, readers encounter ‘the demography of disaster’ and a world ‘wracked by famine, deadly epidemics, war and insurrection’ before they reach page ten.

 The roots of the fourteenth century’s dark reputation lie partly in the traumas and preoccupations of the twentieth. Johan Huizinga’s portrait of a late-medieval world of vacant forms, lifeless beneath their rank over-elaboration, was marked by his deep cultural pessimism about his own times, in the shadow of the First World War. The Great Depression encouraged economic historians to discover the century as a testing-ground for models of ‘crisis’ – still a favoured paradigm for approaching the period. Other scholars, accustomed to searching in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries for evidence to support their varied narratives of progress – whether towards rational Christian enlightenment, some early form of European unity, or the ‘modern state’ – found that the trail went cold after 1300. The fourteenth century was the century that did not fit. Consequently, it has never been given its due or its importance assessed in the round. This project aims to set that right.

Aims

It does not aspire to replace a ‘gloomy’ with an ‘upbeat’ view of the century (though its remarkable achievements have certainly been undervalued in earlier accounts). Instead, the project aims to set aside the familiar, simple but fragmented, vision, concentrated on the monarchies of north-western Europe, in favour of a more complex, dynamic, interconnected and geographically wide-ranging one. Regions (notably in east-central and north-eastern Europe, as well as in Iberia) are examined which were affected in different ways, and on quite different chronologies, by the century’s formative traumas, than were the western-European lands. The project explores developments central to the century’s history:

 

  • The consolidation of an interconnected yet irreducibly plural world of political and cultural communities;
  • A shift in Europe’s political centre of gravity, reflected in the development of new centres, in Kraków and Prague, Vienna and Munich, Buda and Naples, and a new papal seat at Avignon;
  • A new social breadth of participation, and a new prominence for the voices of lay people;
  • In some parts of Europe, a growing emphasis upon cultural and even ethnic cohesiveness, and a readiness to draw boundaries against perceived outsiders.

 

‘Native Realms’ is intended broadly, as signifying ‘familiar spheres of life’. It is not meant to deny the importance of communications and interactions across frontiers – which the project will also trace.

The starting and terminal dates refer to recurrent themes of the project. 1291, which brought the fall of the last Latin-Christian strongholds in the Holy Land, also saw the formal establishment of a new-style, self-consciously communal forms at the heart of Latin Europe, with the Swiss Confederation. In the same year, the attempts of Edward I of England to appoint a new king for the Scottish throne underlined the complexities of law and allegiance, just as they sowed the seeds of one of the long-running, intractable wars so characteristic of the new century. 1420, which brought a healing of Latin Christendom’s divisions with the return of a unanimously-recognised pope to Rome, saw them reopened as Hussite heretics defeated an army of Catholic crusaders in battle before Prague. The same year brought the first moves to purge Vienna’s Jewish community – the prelude to the violent establishment of exclusively-Christian ‘holy cities’ throughout much of central Europe in the decades that followed. In visual culture, the re-conceptualizations of physical and human space (and boundaries) in the works of Masaccio and Brunelleschi drew to a focus a century of developments from Giotto. Each of these patterns of action and innovation can be understood as a product of longings, visions and of courses of change, traceable throughout the fourteenth century.

Staff

From the Department of History

Further information

For further information, please contact Professor Len Scales.