Europe in the High Middle Ages

From the year 1000 remarkable changes can be charted in Europe. The lifting of the Dark Ages brought with it a huge gain in population (from two million to ten million in England, from four to fourteen million in German-speaking countries, and so on). There were advances in technology, including the adoption of three-field farming and the heavy plough. All of this led to prosperity and happier times for long-suffering peoples. At the outset of this period, William Chester Jordan informs us, the Church had comparatively little power and influence: ‘To be a Catholic in the year 1000 required little change in traditional behaviour, in part because there were so few people who were actively monitoring behaviour on behalf of that vague body so conveniently yet deceptively referred to under the monolithic label, the Church.’ Three hundred years later, things were different: Political and ecclesiastical powers were centralized, orthodoxies were in place, crusades had been fought, heretics had been routed and burned.


In a wide-ranging narrative that embraces most of the continent and takes in enlightened rulers (Stephen of Hungary, Henry II), adventurers (Richard Lion-heart, Tancred), despots (Fulk Nerra, Henry III), and assorted saints and sages (Dominic, Thomas Aquinas), Jordan charts the course of this growing medieval civilisation. He then describes its eventual collapse under the weight of famine, disease, incompetence, and gunpowder. The author writes elegantly and ironically (‘there was curiously little pacifism in the High Middle Ages’), giving the reader a broad but not dumbed-down view of medieval society and its complexities, which must have seemed to contemporaries very bewildering indeed.


The world of medieval Europe will continue to haunt us; its great works of art, its cathedrals and castles, many of its institutions. The uniquely terrible ‘fire break’ of the fourteenth century – the famines, plagues and wars – meant that the Europe that slowly rebuilt itself in the fifteenth century was a very different place from the brilliant, assured world that had built Chartres cathedral or summoned up the passion for the Crusades. Allow William Chester Jordan to be your tour guide to that time.


Europe in the High Middle Ages is one of the seven volumes in the much praised Penguin History of Europe ( series. If pressed for time, and with an ambition to get a rudimentary handle on European history, this series makes an excellent purchase for your shelves. All but one are in paperback, so the outlay of just over £100 is richly repaid for the pleasure of understanding they yield.


William Chester Jordan ( is Professor of History and Chairman of the History Department at Princeton.


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400 pages in Penguin

First published 2002

ISBN  978-0140166644



Professor William Chester Jordan

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