Monday, September 13, 2010
Rethinking the Middle Ages
"The name Middle Ages is a modern usage. It was hardly known until the late 17C. The wish to set off that era from antiquity on one side and from modernity on the other probably expressed pride—men of science and free-thinkers generally wanted to separate themselves from the "centuries of ignorance." Soon the 18C made that consciousness of superiority explicit and convinced posterity that "Gothic" art, scholastic thought, and pious behavior were barbarisms incarnate. The residue of that conviction is the use of "medieval" in journalism and common talk to condemn anything felt as outdated and crude. Everybody knows that the Middle Ages were brutal, brutish, and superstitious in every way.
The truth is that during the 1,000 years before 1500 a new civilization grew from beginnings that were uncommonly difficult. The breakup of the Roman empire in the 5C had left a few towns and many isolated settlements to fend for themselves against outer anarchy. But the Middle Ages, as the plural indicates, were several ages. Their varied achievements include creating institutions, reforming others (more than once), and—according to some—showing the world two renaissances before the one that has monopolized the name. The latest view is that instead of two such flowerings, there was only one great one, from 1050 to 1250. Much earlier, it is true, the intellectual and political activity during the time of Charlemagne in the 8th and early 9C had been remarkable. But this burst of genius was limited to his court, and then swamped by a fresh wave of Germanic invaders—Franks, Vandals, and Goths of all stripes; while from the south Arabs and Berbers, lumped under the name Saracens, attacked and though repulsed were not eliminated.
While the occidental populations were being re-formed out of these elements, monks in Ireland worked to preserve the treasures of high culture by copying manuscripts and compiling books. St. Patrick and his followers did more than rid the island of snakes. On the Continent, from the latter half of the 9C to the middle of the 11C, practical life or death concerns were paramount and the period may be called dark if it gives anybody pleasure. Later, its application is absurd. Far from scared or gloomy, the mood portrayed in much of the popular literature of the Middle Ages is jollity; continual danger can lift the spirits and energize action. Even during the worst times strong traditions endured. Neither the Roman code nor the canon (church) law faded away, and the Germanic invaders brought a type of custom law that some later thinkers have credited with the idea of individual freedom.
The use of descriptive terms in speaking of the medieval era is always a delicate task. Within any one period, any one region or town, there was great diversity in language, law, government, and other components of culture. As Agubard wrote to Ludwig the Pious in the 9C: "One frequently sees conversing together persons no two of whom are governed by the same law." The situation resembles that of ancient Greece; it is the modern habit to say "Greek drama," when "Athenian" would be the proper word, while other city-states should be named in describing some one work of architecture or history or lyric poetry.
Accordingly, though the term Feudalism springs to mind when the word medieval is uttered, it is best forgotten unless one wants to study the period in detail. In its place, one should put the idea of loyalty between man and man, the strong feeling backed by an oath that bound a vassal to his lord for military service and other aid. This bond was the practical means of defense against threats to life and sustenance from whatever quarter they might come. Vassalage did not necessarily imply a fief, that is the possession of land by the vassal, but it did imply the moral force that held society together. It underlies the familiar stories and traditions, from King Arthur's Round Table to Wagner's operas." Jacques Barzun – From Dawn to Decadence, page 224-226