If ancient Rome is famous and celebrated, if that of the Renaissance is recognized, this is hardly the case of Rome of the Middle Ages, quite the contrary. As if, for a thousand years, the capital ofRoman Empire then from the papacy had been only a minor city in the West. The explanations are numerous, among them the role - as for the Middle Ages in general - of the humanists of the Renaissance, or the rarity of medieval remains, especially if we compare them to ancient ruins. The book edited by André Vauchez is a good way to put things back on track.
Why such a little-known medieval Rome?
In his foreword, André Vauchez tells us that the last comprehensive work, in French, on medieval Rome dates from… 1934! It is Medieval Rome, 476-1420, by Léon Homo. There is in fact a certain lack of interest from researchers and the public for this period, especially in relation to ancient Rome.
One of the possible explanations is the confusion between the history of the city and that of the Church, suggesting that the former has no identity of its own beyond its status as the capital of Catholicism. We can also think of the scarcity of traces of Rome from the Middle Ages in present-day Rome, compared to imperial or modern Rome. However, this second point has been evolving since the 1980s, thanks to numerous excavations, a source of renewed interest today and which justifies the book according to André Vauchez.
The book Rome in the Middle Ages
The (big) volume is divided into twelve main parts, some chronological, for other themes. It is not a question here of summarizing each one, but of briefly presenting the angle chosen by the authors to make us (re) discover medieval Rome.
The first part, Rome in the memory and imagination of the Middle Ages, is probably one of the most interesting, approaching this Rome as seen by contemporaries, to get out of the image given by those who immediately succeeded them, the humanists of the Renaissance. Here we learn about the evolution of a Rome competing with Constantinople, emptied of its inhabitants following the barbarian invasions, considered a "widow", but which still fascinates pilgrims, at least until the new competition from Avignon. A contrasting vision therefore, between black legend and attraction to its mysteries.
The second part is more clearly chronological, since it introduces us to Rome during its passage from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. We therefore go through difficulties with the invasions, both barbarian and Byzantine (with Justinian), then Lombard. This is also, if not above all, the period when the Church - under Eastern influence - began to take on importance within the city, in particular in relations with Byzantium. Even more than Gregory the Great, it is Pope Stephen II who plays an important political role, followed by Adrian I and Leo III (who crowns Charlemagne emperor). Economically, despite a trough in the 8th century, Rome is booming. During this period, Roman society evolved, drawing inspiration in part from Imperial Rome, with a nobility that was intended to be a continuation of the ancient Senate.
The next chapter looks more precisely at the Roman aristocracy from the sixth to the eleventh centuries, how it mutates and tries to take political control of the city. The chapter Society and economy (1050-1420) places Rome in its Italian context, while emphasizing the lack of sources and the dead ends of historians, before tackling the crucial period of Church reform during the first century of this period. Above all, we learn in this part the great number of changes, even upheavals, within Roman society and its economy until the 15th century, things that we know for other cities like Florence, but that we ignore the more often for Rome. It therefore also knows, for example, its communal period (studied in depth in the chapter Roman commune).
The zoom on the city continues with the following chapters. We first see how Rome was organized during the Middle Ages, how its urbanization evolved in a unique way with demographic and economic growth. Then the book looks at the inhabitants, starting logically with the clerics, then with the pilgrims, foreigners and minorities like the Jews.
The last chapters are more oriented on the artistic and cultural aspect, and we can mainly retain the essential part on art, but also the original chapter. The culture of laughter and derision. We can however regret the absence of a conclusion, admittedly difficult given the breadth of the subject and the diversity of the themes addressed, but which could have mirrored the foreword.
Complex but useful
The book is therefore full as an egg, because we must add a welcome and rich iconography (in black and white, and in color), two maps (a little sketchy), a chronology and a bibliography which focuses on the essential, even if they are mostly works in Italian.
Rome in the Middle Ages is a book in French, but written by authors (thirteen in number), half of whom are Italian, and which was first published in Italy (in 2006). It only enriches him. This richness can however be one of its weaknesses, because by wanting to be as exhaustive as possible on a subject that is effectively too neglected, the authors sometimes go into a certain complexity that could put off the general French public.
So we must not see Rome in the Middle Ages as a general work on medieval Rome, but more as a collection of scientific articles on the subject. This does not make it any less exciting, the reader should only be warned. On the other hand, any student intending to work in medieval Rome, but more broadly in medieval Italy, must know it and have more than traveled through it. Because it is difficult not to make a new benchmark.
- A. Vauchez (dir.), Rome in the Middle Ages, Riveneuve éditions, 2010 (Italy 2006), 519 p.