Reading: David Nicholas — The Northern Lands: Germanic Europe, c.1270-c.1500

My combination book unpacking / book selling (fuck yes, I sell books sometimes too!) led to the discovery of a few books I’d never blogged – or for that matter finished reading. David Nicholas’ The Northern Lands: Germanic Europe, c.1270-c.1500 is one of those, unfinished because it’s kinda boring; rereading cos it’s informative and enlightening in a broad, generalist, undergrad way, heavy on the facts and light on poetry, a bit like reading contract law or  health insurance.

Who is David Nicholas and why does start sentences with ‘but’ so much? Professor Emeritus at Clemson University until he retired a decade ago, and yes, if there’s a distinct style of, white, anglo-euro-american male academic writing (and have I read a trunkload of them), he’s it (reminds me of Central Asian scholar Christopher I. Beckwith, or Aloïs Riegl). Around once every sentence I notice I’ve vagued out into mediæval fantasy land (me in central role saviour-ing or slaughtering, either/or), before returning to one of his regular and unintentionally hilarious sentences or clauses. (Such as – paraphrasing here: “Austrians always regarded the Swabians as aliens.”)

Yes. I have been learning things. No. Not quite sure what. Ignoring entirely the awkward-ish ‘Germanic’ in the title, no, he’s not tromping down the well-worn racist path of pure German identity, in fact he makes it quite clear without making it the central thesis that whatever constitutes ‘Germanic’ was throughout the period he covers conditional and contextual, and often incomprehensible: Swabians, Slavs, Wends, Frisians, Flems, Danish, Scandinavians all at various times and places both were and were not Germanic, even moving back and forth depending on where they were, whom they were speaking to or who was speaking of them. It’s the -ic in Germanic that’s important, an attribute of language, thinking, culture that moved back and forth between lands and regions, rather than an identity or nation that existed as a fixed object. But it’s the German that’s at issue, and while Nicholas broadly divides regions into England, Flanders, Netherlands, Denmark and Scandinavia, and Germanic regions (contemporary Germany, Austria), along with forays into Poland, Czech and those parts of the Holy Roman Empire, he nonetheless prioritises ‘German’. Probably would have been better to leave the title at “The Northern Lands” and move his focus to the interactions between these regions. Professor Len Scales’ review is far more eloquent on this than I can be.

My criticism is predominately on the boringness of the writing (ok, and on the substantial absence of women, art, culture, Jewish communities …). Dry, dry, dry enumeration of facts and names, which I can stodge through if it weren’t for baffling jumps back and forth across hundreds of years, frequently in the same paragraph. I’m sure for Nicholas this makes sense, but fuck me sometimes I’m at a loss to understand his line of reasoning or his point. If I was twenty, considering a life in mediæval history and was assigned this for coursework, I’d probably go off and become a tradie, spending the rest of my life thinking it was because I was stupid, and not that for all its density of information this work fundamentally uninterested in communicating – and I’m saying this as someone who reads Caroline Walker Bynum for pleasure (repeatedly).

For a more realistic comparison, trundling through Wikipedia pages on the Hanseatic League, Magdeburg, Sachsenspiegel, (all of which he’s written about), and various other labyrinths of mediæval gloriousness (plus following links out into the wilds of the internet) is far more informative, rewarding, and enjoyable. Weirdly, I keep hoping the next page he’ll break from his interminable introduction style and get down to some substantial writing. Not bloody likely.

If you’re at university and being made to read this, go somewhere else. Mediæval northern european history is mad fun, alternate history levels of science-fiction strangeness, it’s addictive as all shit, and it’s a living thing you can walk into any old church and see, it has philosophical debates and ideas as wonderful as Deleuze or Serres or Butler, art that thrashes contemporary stuff for levels of intensity (imagine walking into church and it was 5 hours of Volksbühne: that’s mediæval art), in all seriousness whatever workable future Europe has – politically, socially, culturally – it’s going to find more possibilities 800 years ago than in the last couple of hundred years of contagious bollocks, and if you’re reading The Northern Lands you’re going to experience approximately none of this. Fuck’s sake, go and read Bynum.

David Nicholas — The Northern Lands: Germanic Europe, c.1270-c.1500
David Nicholas — The Northern Lands: Germanic Europe, c.1270-c.1500