Celebratory Eurocentrism, Again

A very intelligent friend posted this to my mailing list, pen-l, expanding on the critique of Landes’ article:

In previous Pen-l postings I characterized Landes as part of the “cultural superiority” school – his early work on Egypt, and “Wealth and Poverty of Nations” … Just after the extract Michael P. cites, Landes attributes much to “Judeo-Christianity” (including…”Judeo-Christian respect for manual labor”, citing Noah’s ark — I am not kidding).

But focusing on this extract I wonder whether Landes isn’t just falling in the usual traps: history only from the perspective of the elite along with a failure to include the political/intellectual perspectives in looking at economic history.

So, ‘Rome was good times; the Middle Ages were bad times’ — with no mention of those who went from slave (40% of Italy were) to serf (with a few customary rights), nor mention of the vast conquered peoples (Pope Benedict is quite wrong about why Islam so readily took over and converted the territories occupied of the Byzantine Roman Empire).

The howler is when Landes cites the water power improvements made at the Abbey of Clairvaux and how they helped promote progress in Europe. At this time Clairvaux was perhaps the most powerful political force in Europe. The improvements made around the elite, small headquarters Abbey (using known, well established technologies) were funded by the vast far flung holdings of feudal estates legated to the Abbey by devoted nobles (which received no improvements). Looking at the entire economy of the Abbey shows only a classic elite enclave enjoying the fruits of its exploitation, not an independent dynamic new economic model replicable on a larger scale.

Landes’ blinders also include the political and intellectual factors that promote progress. As all students of the Sorbonne know, at this time Clairvaux Abbey was arguably the single greatest conservative force *holding back* the emerging forces of progress in Europe. Abelarde and the emerging Sorbonne school of thought (logic and reason, drawing on Aristotle) were put on trial for heresy by none other than St. Bernard the famous head of Clairvaux. St. Bernard and Clairvaux likewise played a key role in the launching and sustaining of the Second Crusade (deflecting pressures for social change while also defeating the “popularist” elements of the first crusade). Clairvaux was also a key political player in European continental politics helping to ensure the centrality of conservative forces such as those centered around the Holy Roman Emperor, the selection of Pope’s who were disciples of Clairvaux, the Lateran Councils and the defeat of the Norman empire in Sicily.

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