HistoryBits: Middle Ages

HistoryBits: Middle Ages

Bits and Pieces of History

Society


Middle Ages/Society/Education

The schools of the Middle Ages transformed the system of education dramatically. The rudimentary liberal arts curriculum conceived by Charlemagne in Paris provided a regimen of study that would serve as a model for education throughout Europe. Aquinas would further revolutionize learning by developing a wide curriculum set in a Christian context. Schools such as the law school of Bologna in Italy, the medical school of Montpelier in France, and Paris’ oldest university Paris for the study of theology are living, breathing reminders that the Dark Ages were not as benighted as they seem.

Middle Ages/Society/14th Century

Nothing shakes up the social order like calamity—whether war, disease, depression, or otherwise, and the calamitous 14th century enjoyed all of these in abundance. In fact, it seems that social stasis is a far more prominent casualty of calamity than national boundaries or regimes. Calamity is a masterpiece of creativity in the same sense that a painting of the Last Charge of the Light Brigade is, and brings out both the worst and the best in man–inducing the sort of hothouse conditions for social growth that otherwise tend not to emerge during periods of complacency.

Middle Ages/Society/Peasant Life

“Nasty, brutish, and short” sums up peasant life in the Middle Ages as well as anything. Thankfully, we’ve come a very long way from wallowing in the filth, famine, and desperation of those times. But while we’ve come a long way, others haven’t: one out of four people in the world today live on less than a dollar a day. We need to understand that the well being of our fellow human creature in the most far-flung corners of the world has a direct effect on our own prosperity and security. Everything is intimately inter-related (much as the chaos theory holds that the beating of a butterfly’s wings can produce a hurricane on the other side of the globe), and unless Americans learn to live with their fair share of global resources (our 6% of the world’s population presently account for 40% of the world’s resources), and unless we do our part to ensure a more equitable distribution of the world’s wealth (by investing in people and their basic needs and education), we will continue to reap the whirlwind of terror.

Middle Ages/Society/Teen Recreation

It’s reassuring to know that some things just don’t change. While teens in the Middle Ages dabbled with chess, bowls, tennis, and archery, and their modern counterparts lose themselves in X-Boxes and online gaming, what hasn’t changed is their preoccupation with recreational procreation (sex). Girls back then came of age at a much earlier age than these days (given that the average lifespan would have been 30-something), and parents were forever tearing their hair out trying to keep their daughters’ virtue intact. Girls were more aggressive than boys in their pursuit of carnal gratification, which causes one to realize that given the predilection of modern women for “hooking up”–via cell phones and websites–in lieu of lasting relationships, we may have come full circle.

Middle Ages/Society/Urban Women

In pre-modern Europe, the career avenues available to women who spurned marriage were generally limited to either the convent or the street. The opportunities for women were better in certain cities such as Florence–where not surprisingly, the Renaissance thrived most vigorously. Perhaps the Florentine Renaissance had something to, then, with how this community regarded the role of women in things. To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it.

Middle Ages/Society/Witchcraft

Holding women to blame for every calamity that befalls mankind is an old habit—one that is founded in the resentment that has insinuated itself into the relationship between the sexes ever since the serpent slithered into Eden’s apple tree. Typically, the victim of witchcraft was not the objects of the witch’s Evil Eye, but the poor old crone herself—in most cases, some pathetic creature reduced to selling herbs and potions to make ends meet. Ordinarily left to their own harmless devices, these women assumed a more sinister countenance in times of social turmoil, as the propertied class grew increasingly fearful of the number of poor in their midst, and transformed them into agents of the devil. That women–as objects of the Devil’s own amours–should be the chief victims of the witchcraft craze is no surprise, since burning them at the stake accomplished the useful purpose of sacrificing a scapegoat and making amends with God for man’s many transgressions.

Middle Ages/Society/Black Death

People have tried to explain the emergence and decline of disease, and whether from divine provenance, biological agency, or some metaphysical principle, diseases and epidemics seem to come about for good reason. In times of great economic or social stress, disease symbolizes the helplessness of the times and an exit from those conditions. Before the Black Plague, peasants had virtually no voice with which to express their protest over lack of liberty and poor civic planning in large urban centers. The quality of life during the period of the Black Plague was atrocious, and death may well have offered an improvement.

Middle Ages/Society/Tournaments

The medieval jousts seemed to have been not much different in concept and inspiration from the bread and circuses of the Roman Empire; there’s nothing like a bit of organized mayhem to deflect the spleen and bloodlust of the masses away from political unrest. One wonders if our video wars in the Middle East might not serve the same purpose, keeping us happily preoccupied with slaughtering evil Muslims instead of with more germane perils.

Middle Ages/Society/Class Distinctions

“Nasty, brutish, and short” sums up peasant life in the Middle Ages as well as anything. Thankfully, we’ve come a very long ways from wallowing in the filth, famine, and desperation of those times, though it didn’t happen all of a sudden. The stability and security that feudalism offered came only at the expense of surrendering virtually every other aspect of life to its embrace. Most chose serfdom because they lacked the resources and money to start up a business of their own, and few questioned their paucity of options in a world where life was nasty, brutish, and short. Manorialism offered a halfway house of sorts between the communal group-grope of ancient times and the intimidating autarky of our modern economic condition. Today it’s a very different story, and a far more malign one. The United States is becoming as divided—economically, socially, politically–as at any time since the Civil War. Regardless of which side of the fence one comes down on, the fact is that George W. Bush has polarized American society to an extent long unseen. It’s quite impossible to conceive of any middle ground between the adulation of Mr. Bush as the champion of conservative, faith-based mainstream American values on the one hand, and the liberal assessment of the man as the most prodigious One-Man Wrecking Crew–of the economy, the environment, of civil liberties, of trust, of America’s global image and relations–that Americans have ever installed in the White House. Many see the man as clearly the minion of Big Money and of its power to buy any election and conform the domestic and foreign policies of the United States to its bidding. Wealth has come to separate Blue from Red as surely as politics, and the preponderance of gated communities and private schools speaks to the widening chasm between two very different worlds in America. At risk is the success of the American Experiment, since in a sense, it’s our differences that define America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace their most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them. Regrettably, however, the evidence speaks loud and clear that differences in American society are widening, and are more and more evading our ability to embrace them.

Middle Ages/Society/Dark Ages

Things were simpler then. During the Dark Ages, everything was as it had been for as long as the oldest European could remember. The center of the universe was the known world – Europe, with the Holy Land and North Africa on its fringes. The sun moved round it every day. Heaven was above the immovable earth, somewhere in the overarching sky; hell seethed far beneath their feet. Kings ruled at the pleasure of the Almighty; all others did what they were told to do. Jesus, the son of God, had been crucified and resurrected, and his reappearance was imminent, or at any rate inevitable. Every human being adored him (Jews and Muslims excepted). The Church was indivisible, the afterlife a certainty; all knowledge was already known. And nothing would ever change (though you wouldn’t have wanted to say as much to Martin Luther).

Middle Ages/Society/Germanic Institutions

Whatever served the purpose of keeping law and order within such a diverse and far-flung empire as Rome’s could be expected to appeal to the Romans, and when it became clear that the Germanic invaders had a better idea as to government, the Romans were quick to embrace it. In this case, the Germanic custom of personalized rule by an elected leader who enjoyed the sworn loyalty of his warriors seemed a substantial improvement over the hereditary emperor who might—as was often the case—be deranged, feeble-minded, or otherwise not up to the job. The barbarians had a better idea as to law and order as well: law was derived from custom and precedent, and wasted no time on speculating about the motive for a crime, only its result. And its result required an offset in the form of compensation—wergeld–not punishment, and many a wasteful blood feud was thus avoided. After all, what real good does it do the victim to send the offender off to jail or to the gallows? This is a legal concept that we Americans have gotten onto only recently; in fact, it surprises me that with our fine instinct for money—and with American tort law’s propensity for denying accountability for one’s actions–we hadn’t long since realized that there’s money in victimhood!

Culture


Middle Ages/Culture/Science/Eric the Red

Imaging going off to become the King of Greenland and Lord of the Polar Bears! The foray of Eric the Red and his band of settlers must have made for a madcap adventure, right up there with colonizing Australia or the fetid tropical islands of the South Seas Land Bubble. In a way, it makes you nostalgic for the days when there were virgin lands to explore and adventures like this to be had. But having explored every accessible nook and cranny of our physical realm, perhaps the next frontier lies within.

Middle Ages/Culture/Science/Medicine

I’m inclined to believe (pun intended) that what you believe is what will cure you–whether herbalism, African fetishes, voodoo, acupuncture, the White Man’s medicine, or plain old placebo. I’m not sure which is more potent: medieval medicine–with its arcana of herbs, maggots, and potions—or the modern pharmacopoeia, with its infinite array of nostrums, pills, and powders. Both offer mind-boggling potential for healing by dint of sheer imagination, the prime prerequisite of faith healing. Medieval medics were not the benighted bunch of quacks we often assume them to be: after all, bloodletting (if practiced extensively enough) will absolutely, proof-positively put an end to whatever ails you… and how often can modern medicine offer that kind of a guarantee?

Middle Ages/Culture/Science/Shortcomings

Stuck in the muck of superstition and dogma, medieval science (such as it was) was a sitting duck for the spirit of objective inquiry that developed with the Scientific Revolution. It was getting a bit late in the day to burn people at the stake for challenging the established canon of the Greek ancients or the holy writ that held man to be the center of the universe, but even so, the weight of faith yielded only grudgingly to the new world of empirical evidence that was revealed by exploration, instruments, and curiosity. In a sense, the father figures of the Scientific Revolution—Descartes, Bacon, and Newton–were the most destructive three-man wrecking crew in the history of Western philosophy, in terms of their effect on man’s relationship with his environment. Descartes gave us to understand that mind was separate from matter (and by inference, man from his physical realm), while Bacon made us know that science was a tool that lay squarely in the service of man for the purpose of enacting his dominion over the earth. Newton then came along and cobbled all of this into his theory of the universe as a grand Clockwork Mechanism, whose laws could become known (and mastered) by investigation. From that time on, nothing would stand in the way of man’s mastery over nature. To the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the role of philosophy was to change the world, not just discuss it; rationalism was a scientific method that could be applied to everything, including religion and politics. The Enlightenment, with its handmaiden of the Scientific Revolution, formed the Great Divide between the Old World and the New, between East and West, between Faith and Reason, and between mystical societies who revered man’s relationship with nature, and the scientific societies of the West who manipulated it to their material advantage and spiritual detriment. The trick has been to learn from both, as to how to develop our God-given patrimony without destroying ourselves in the bargain.

Middle Ages/Culture/Courtly Love

Alas, the idyll of courtly love was considerably at variance from the gritty reality of romance in the Middle Ages. In most cases, love counted for little, and when a young man asked about his upcoming marriage, he was frequently reprimanded by his father and told to mind his own business! Courtship was but a curiosity, and marriage was purely a tool of alliance with another family, and was negotiated with all the flinty-eyed obsession with the bottom line that the barter of a camel for a herd of goats commanded.

Middle Ages/Culture/12th-Century Renaissance

You’ve got to start somewhere, and if from within the gloomy folds of the Dark Ages people took it into their heads that the way out of this place was lit by hope for a better day, a sense of justice and fair play, and knowledge… why, they were halfway there already!

Middle Ages/Culture/Arthurian Legends

Myth is imagination writ large by culture and society, essential to forming the emotional precepts of culture—much as the Arthurian legends may have signified the ascendancy of chivalry and virtue in otherwise barbarous times. I’m not sure where literature blends into mythology and religion, but I would submit that it’s all cut from the same bolt of cloth—namely, the fabric of belief systems. Reality is personally construed, and what you imagine, believe, and expect is what you get. Imagine… above all—that’s the key word, for imagination is the precursor of personal reality, and in order for something to become material, it must first be imagined, then progressively invested with the emotional force that puts the meat on the bones, so to speak. In societies—ancient or modern–that are ordered around divine or kingly authority, myth serves that all-important purpose of expressing collective imagination in building culture.

Middle Ages/ Culture/Bede

I find it ironic that the philosophes of the 18th-century Enlightenment, who widely condemned the Church for fostering superstitious ignorance, owed their own intellectual heritage in large part to the scholarly labors of Bede and the Celtic monks of the Carolingian Renaissance; it was thanks to their efforts in laboriously copying the ancient manuscripts of Aristotle and such-like that the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition was safeguarded from the tide of darkness, disorder, and violence that settled over Europe for the next thousand years.

Middle Ages/Culture/Carolingian Renaissance

Charlemagne’s plan was to restore the glory of Roman civilization to Europe, a job big enough—given the times–to require the assistance of God Himself. The theory was that church and state were two arms of one body, directed by one head: Christ. Charlemagne’s coronation by Leo in the papal city on Christmas Day 800 was looked on as the greatest event since the birth of Christ. The emperor in Constantinople was not pleased, to put it mildly. Charlemagne’s claims to fame stem more from his brave attempts to restore learning and stable government to Europe than from the glory of his office. He reinstalled the Roman counts as representatives of the king in the provinces, and invented the missi dominici to check up on the counts and report directly to the king. But knowing that people’s hearts were captivated more by God than by government, Charlemagne preoccupied himself with patching up the severely disheveled church. Many of his most trusted officials were picked from the clergy, a practice that would predictably lead to problems. Though he himself could not sign his own name, Charlemagne admired learning, and he gathered at his court men of learning—notably one Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon monk of great ability, who directed the palace school for clergy and officials set up by the king. And so, for the first time in several hundred years, something that resembled higher education was made available to a select few. And though he wasn’t devout himself, Charlemagne fostered piety in others. At his orders, many new parishes were founded, including dozens of new monasteries where monks laboriously copying ancient manuscripts that ensured the survival of the Greco-Roman intellectual heritage when the tide of darkness, disorder, and violence inevitably returned.

Middle Ages/Culture/Carolingian Miniscule

The role of Carolingian miniscule was writ large in the monasteries of Charlemagne’s Renaissance, whose monks laboriously copied the ancient manuscripts that ensured the survival of the Greco-Roman intellectual heritage against the gathering tide of darkness, disorder, and violence.

Middle Ages/Culture/Carolingian Decline

Charlemagne’s claims to fame stem more from his brave attempts to restore enlightenment to Europe than from the glory of his office. Though he himself could not sign his own name, Charlemagne admired learning, and he gathered at his court men of learning who made something that resembled higher education available to a select few. And though he wasn’t devout himself, Charlemagne founded dozens of new monasteries where monks laboriously copying ancient manuscripts that ensured the survival of the Greco-Roman intellectual heritage when the tide of darkness, disorder, and violence inevitably returned. Sadly, it’s so often the case that men who have their heads (or if not their heads, then at least their hearts) in the ivory tower have little taste for playing the hardball it takes to keep an empire from coming undone before the onslaught of the wolves that are forever slavering after power and wealth. Charlemagne’s first mistake was in leaving his empire to an idiot son, who just as idiotically divided it among his three sons. Naturally, fraternal war soon ensued. Smelling blood, the wolves soon arrived from all around: Vikings, Magyars, and Muslims–though none would prevail for long, leaving Europe to once again fragment and founder in the throes of feudalism.

Middle Ages/Culture/Gerbert of Aurillac

I find it ironic that the philosophes of the 18th-century Enlightenment, who widely condemned the Church for fostering superstitious ignorance, owed their own intellectual heritage in large part to the scholarly labors of Gerbert of Aurillac and the Celtic monks of the Carolingian Renaissance; it was thanks to their efforts in keeping the lamps of learning alight–laboriously copying the ancient manuscripts of Aristotle and such-like–that the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition was safeguarded from the tide of darkness, disorder, and violence that settled over Europe for the next thousand years. Such greats of the Carolingian and Ottonian renaissances as Gerbert were both Mechanics and Magicians. While their prepossession with mathematics and science aroused suspicion, they were also very much magicians, altogether taken with Hermetic magic and alchemy. With both magic and mechanics, we’re really talking about the same thing here: the Hermetics saw the world as the living embodiment of divinity, and man could use his own spark of divinity to work magic (especially mathematical magic) to control and dominate the natural world–the same objective that would be advanced, in the fullness of time, by the Scientific Revolution.

Middle Ages/Culture/Guibert de Nogent

Far from being just the story of stuffed shirts and their various treaties and battles, history is most of all the record of how ordinary folks like me and thee lived their lives. With his richly detailed accounts of such people as they lived, thrived, and died in medieval Europe, we have Guibert de Nogent to thank for packing much of the meat around the bones of many of those skeletons rattling away in history’s closet.

Middle Ages/Cultural/Latin

Latin reminds me of Chinese. It too is a language that is supremely ill-suited to science and technology–the Chinese term for “cement” is “foreign dust;” for “theater,” it is “electric shadow-hall”—but which is very well suited indeed to poetry, philosophical epigrams, and the cultivation of an artistic turn of mind. At the same time, it accords well (as with your Latinists) with the Chinese veneration of the ancient idyll, and with the Chinese concept of the highest and best qualities of its culture and the literati who best represent them.

Middle Ages/Culture/Music

Schopenhauer once wrote that instrumental music serves the purpose of eliciting the inner, metaphysical reality of natural forms. In the same vein, it seems to me that the sonorous chants of the Gregorian and Benedictine brethren are no less effective in bridging the chasm between the physical and metaphysical–how can the listener fail to be transported?

Religion


Middle Ages/Religion/Great Schism

The power of the church ultimately lay in its ability to unify the body of opinion and enact decisions. Its legitimacy lay in divine provenance, and political infighting was anathema. The Council of Constance proclaimed that all questions of faith had been resolved for all time, and that the power of the pope was beholden to neither man nor God. In promising, however, that matters would be reviewed at another council in ten years’ time, the Council of Constance offered a distraction from the growing corruption of the Church.

Middle Ages/Religion/Scholasticism

It’s ironic that there developed a body of thought, such as Scholasticism, that sought to parse the finer points of logic in pursuit of a rational settlement of the often-dismal dogma of medieval theology… but then again, this was also the age of alchemy.

Middle Ages/Religion/Cluny

The monks of the Middle Ages were a lusty and dissolute lot, in many cases so given to drink, gluttony, and womanizing that the local monastery was often regarded in the same light as a bordello, and as such, this state of affairs offered fertile ground for reform-minded chaps like Cluny. In the fullness of time, these holy lechers would father more than just bastard offspring, and would engender the Reformation itself.

Middle Ages/Religion/Crusades

The Crusades took less than 200 years to accomplish an enmity that has endured between Islam and the West for nearly a thousand years. Granted that the incursion of Islam into the then-Christian lands of Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and southern Europe (and then via the Tatars into Central Asia and Russia and by way of the Turks into the Balkans) that set the stage for the confrontation between Christianity and Islam, and it was a Muslim madman’s rout of Jerusalem’s Christian population that provoked the first of the Crusades into the Holy Land. But it was Richard the Lionhearted’s wanton slaughter of Muslims in Acre, and the subsequent sack of Jerusalem, that underpinned the legacy of Muslim-Christian relations, and everything that proceeded from that came in the form of humiliation and retribution, establishing a pattern that persists to this day.

Middle Ages/Religion/Gothic Cathedrals

The devotional preoccupation of Middle Ages society was implicit in its Gothic cathedrals, and in its sweeping designs of vaults and arches that enabled grander and sturdier edifices to be built. Whether they exalt God in the form of mosques and cathedrals, or a commercial ethos as did the World Trade Center, our buildings embody the vision and pre-eminent values of a society and give them a presence, immediacy, and utility that other mediums cannot convey.

Middle Ages/Religion/Romanesque Architecture

The devotional preoccupation of Middle Ages society was implicit in its cathedrals, and in its sweeping designs of vaults and arches that enabled grander and sturdier edifices to be built. The Romans were the first to use both concrete and curvilinear forms—arches, vaults, domes—which together enabled them to build things on a scale and in a style never before contemplated. With that, Rome built both the infrastructure (a 50,000-mile network of roads, aqueducts that supplied all of Rome with water) and the public buildings (the Coliseum) that bespoke empire… as well as the inspiration for Romanesque architecture that followed a thousand years later.

Medieval/Religion/Peter

During the 1,436 years from the death of Saint Peter the Apostle ‘til the Reformation, some 211 popes had succeeded him, all chosen by God and all infallible. During the Dark Ages, everything was as it had been for as long as the oldest European could remember. The center of the universe was the known world – Europe, with the Holy Land and North Africa on its fringes. The sun moved round it every day. Heaven was above the immovable earth, somewhere in the overarching sky; hell seethed far beneath their feet. Kings ruled at the pleasure of the Almighty; all others did what they were told to do. Jesus, the son of God, had been crucified and resurrected, and his reappearance was imminent, or at any rate inevitable. Every human being adored him (Jews and Muslims excepted). The Church was indivisible, the afterlife a certainty; all knowledge was already known, and nothing would ever change. Life back then was not rocket science, but a simple and straightforward struggle to survive. Christianity, too, was simpler back then. If Christianity today were practiced in accordance with how it was originally preached, its legacy might be less conspicuous, but far more profound. Everyone was welcome, and amidst the general gloom and hopelessness that besieged the ordinary mortal, it held out the promise of a better life. To be a Christian was to be part of a community of kindred souls to assist and be assisted by, and its appeal to idealism rose above the usual mundane clamor for wealth and power. One could be forgiven for wondering—as Peter would have–how values such as these might serve the purposes of statecraft, since the name and blessings of God are so often invoked to lend sanction to the most base, cynically political, and ungodly of causes.

Middle Ages/Religion/Charlemagne and Christianity

Folks like Constantine, Charlemagne, and more than a few others remind us that religion—whether Christianity or Islam–is a political proposition and a tool to gain and retain power. Whether one considers the countless millions that have been slaughtered in the name of God, or the rise of the religious right in America, the tradition of invoking the name and blessings of God are to lend sanction to the most cruel, base, cynically political, and ungodly of causes has little to do with God. If there is anything more presumptuous (and suspect) than a man who purports to speak for God, it’s the government that purports to enact His will.

Middle Ages/Religion/Church

During the Dark Ages, everything was as it had been for as long as the oldest European could remember. The center of the universe was the known world – Europe, with the Holy Land and North Africa on its fringes. The sun moved round it every day. Heaven was above the immovable earth, somewhere in the overarching sky; hell seethed far beneath their feet. Kings ruled at the pleasure of the Almighty; all others did what they were told to do. Jesus, the son of God, had been crucified and resurrected, and his reappearance was imminent, or at any rate inevitable. Every human being adored him (Jews and Muslims excepted). During the 1,436 years since the death of Saint Peter the Apostle, 211 popes had succeeded him, all chosen by God and all infallible. The Church was indivisible, the afterlife a certainty; all knowledge was already known. And nothing would ever change. (Just don’t say as much to Martin Luther.)

Middle Ages/Religion/Benedictine Monks

Things were simpler then. During the Dark Ages, everything was as it had been for as long as the oldest European could remember. The center of the universe was the known world – Europe, with the Holy Land and North Africa on its fringes. The sun moved round it every day. Heaven was above the immovable earth, somewhere in the overarching sky; hell seethed far beneath their feet. Kings ruled at the pleasure of the Almighty; all others did what they were told to do. Jesus, the Son of God, had been crucified and resurrected, and his reappearance was imminent, or at any rate inevitable. Every human being adored him (Jews and Muslims excepted). The Church was indivisible, the afterlife a certainty; all knowledge was already known. And nothing would ever change (just don’t say as much to Martin Luther). As the Benedictines well appreciated, there’s a world of difference between religion–the glue of society–and spirituality. Religion serves the very practical purpose of drawing up the slate of values that holds society together and keeps everyone on the same page, so to speak, and sanctifying those values with the blessing of God (though I’m not sure how any man can hope to speak for God). Spirituality tends to be value-neutral, since a man’s spiritual justification for his actions is always well intentioned, however misguided (consider how many wars have been waged for God’s glory). It is only by shunning society and the tangle of social and political complications that conventional religion is meant to sort out that the monastic tradition is able to focus on spirituality and enable its adherents to find their own way to God, knowing that the main thing is that they find Him–God cares not by which name He is known.

Middle Ages/Religion/Cistercian Monks

Ever since the serpent ingratiated itself with Eve, women have been tarred as the minions of Satan and detractors from the innately virtuous nature of men. Hilda of Whitby helped Christianity rise above the gutter to accord women a prominent role in propagating the faith. To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it… and what better example of the contributions of women to civilization than Hilda and the power of her good works and intellectual accomplishment? Hilda’s role in placing learning at the front and center of the monastic tradition anticipated the monasteries of Charlemagne’s Renaissance, whose Irish monks laboriously copied the ancient manuscripts that ensured the survival of the Greco-Roman intellectual heritage against the gathering tide of darkness, disorder, and violence.

Middle Ages/Religion/Paganism

The pagan cults that succeeded Roman Christianity didn’t weaken Christianity, but had instead the opposite effect; by co-opting some of the superficial features of these cults—their rituals, festivals, and other such window-dressing—Christianity was strengthened. Without tolerance, conquest will always catch up to an empire–even a religious empire such as Islam or Christianity. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation–which is why religious and cultural tolerance is so important.

Middle Ages/Religion/Pope Gregory

The personal examples of Pope Gregory and our own John Paul II remind us of how true spirituality can rise above the organizational and doctrinaire mindset of the Catholic Church. More than doctrine or dogma, it’s examples like theirs that keep the church glued together.

Middle Ages/Religion/Saints

Saints served the purpose of embodying a higher ideal than was ever attainable for the likes of me and thee, helping to bridge the otherwise imponderable chasm between the earthly muddle and the otherworldly empyrean, making God more accessible to man.

Middle Ages/Religion/Saint Anselm of Canterbury

From the early Archbishops of Canterbury and their various Kings of England, to Pope Leo III and Charlemagne, to Sir Thomas More and Henry VIII, to Billy Graham and Richard Nixon, the tradition of holy sanction for the actions of scoundrels and other such ambitious sorts has proved an indispensable part of the political tradition. All too predictably, the name and blessings of God are invoked to bless the most base, cynically political, and ungodly of causes. If there is anything more presumptuous (and suspect) than a man who purports to speak for God, it’s the government that purports to enact His will.

Middle Ages/Religion/Saint Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine executed one of the Christianity’s most dramatic U-turns in turning from the hubris of wild oat-sowing to the humility of monasticism and alms-seeking and the piety of profound reflection. But it was not without a certain amount of reluctance on his part:  “Dear God,” he cried out, “grant me chastity… but not just yet!” An excess of virtue can often arise in reaction (and revulsion) to an excess of licentiousness, and perhaps it takes a sinner to best know sin, and how to deal with it.

Middle Ages/Religion/Saint Francis of Assisi

The conversion of St. Francis from the hubris of wild oat-sowing to the humility of monasticism and alms-seeking calls to mind the U-turn that Christianity’s greatest saint, Augustine, made from promiscuity to piety. “Dear God, grant me chastity,” he cried out, “… but not just yet!” An excess of virtue can often arise in reaction (and revulsion) to an excess of licentiousness, and perhaps it takes a sinner to best know sin, and how to deal with it.

Middle Ages/Religion/Saint Theresa of Avila

Ever since the serpent ingratiated itself with Eve, women have been tarred as the minions of Satan and detractors from the innately virtuous nature of men. Saint Theresa of Avila helped Christianity rise above the gutter to accord women a prominent role in propagating the faith. To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it… and what better example of the contributions of women to civilization than Theresa and the power of her good works and intellectual accomplishment?

Power


Power/Holy Roman Empire

The existence of 1,500 or so principalities of the Holy Roman Empire would go a long way toward explaining the modern German obsession with order, wouldn’t it?

Power/Holy Roman Empire/Barbarossa

The myriad and endlessly intriguing dukedoms and principalities of central Europe—cobbled together to create Barbarossa’s new and improved Holy Roman Empire—would go a long ways toward explaining the modern German obsession with order and control (along with Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm, Herr Hitler, and the other heirs to that obsession), wouldn’t it?

Power/Holy Roman Empire/Otto I

Otto set the precedent for German domination of the papacy, which in turn paved the way for the papacy to dominate the German states (and much of central Europe) once the tides of political power in that uneasy relationship began to shift. The upshot of all this meddling and mingling of church and state? Well, the existence of 1,500 or so principalities of the Holy Roman Empire would go a long ways toward explaining the modern German obsession with order and control (along with Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm, Herr Hitler, and the other heirs to that obsession), wouldn’t it?

Power/Holy Roman Empire/Investiture Controversy

The Investiture Controversy might have marked the Great Divide between religion and politics, as the church finally mustered the will to tell the power-mongerers where to get off. If only it were so. As Western civilization matured politically, religion became less a matter of spirituality and goodwill among men, and the bickering that beset Germany during those fifty years that the controversy raged on reaffirmed religion as the nakedly political force that it had become and would long remain.

Middle Ages/Power/Communes

The commune has always been first and foremost a creature of politics, being the way in which men organize themselves for the purpose of power (and its further purposes of self-defense and political and commercial sovereignty). The politics of the time—-whether with the manors and monasteries of medieval times and the Middle Ages, the Paris Commune of the second French Revolution, or the communes that informed the putative rationale for communism–lent their particular flavor to the inspiration of the commune. Communes have along been associated with the lunatic fringe of dreamers and rabble-rousers, and it must be admitted that the modern-day agitators on behalf of a better way to organize society didn’t help that perception. But the idea of an enlightened social welfare, educational, and tax regime and a state-managed economy that restrained the excesses of capitalism in favor of providing equitably for society’s less fortunate was well-intentioned. Back in the Middle Ages, however, priorities were far more elemental, and safety and (ironically) self-interest were best served by numbers. With his vision of communes and communism, poor old Karl Marx probably never intended for his name to become associated with uproar and subversion. After all, he was onto something that was either light-years ahead of his time, or ages behind it, in his understanding of something that the ancient Hawaiians knew all along, that the earth can no more be divided and owned than can the sky and the sea.

Middle Ages/Power/Manorialism

“Nasty, brutish, and short” sums up peasant life in the Middle Ages as well as anything. Thankfully, we’ve come a very long ways from wallowing in the filth, famine, and desperation of those times, though it didn’t happen all of a sudden. The stability and security that feudalism offered came only at the expense of surrendering virtually every other aspect of life to its embrace. Most chose serfdom because they lacked the resources and money to start up a business of their own, and few questioned their paucity of options in a world where life was nasty, brutish, and short. Manorialism offered a halfway house of sorts between the communal group-grope of ancient times and the intimidating autarky of our modern economic condition.

Middle Ages/Power/Serfdom

Would life be better free-lancing (or being lanced), or under the protection of a lord and master who would account for every moment and measure of a man’s freedom? The stability and security that feudalism offered came only at the expense of surrendering virtually every other aspect of life to its embrace. Most chose serfdom because they lacked the resources and money to start up a business of their own, and few questioned their paucity of options in a world where life was nasty, brutish, and short.

Middle Ages/Power/Doges

The arcane process by which the doges of old Venice were chosen calls to mind the white smoke/black smoke business that signified the selection of a pope in our own day. Personally, I find this no less credible a way of doing things than democracy, which Winston Churchill castigated as being “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps there is a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications. The policies of this nation—and their consequences–are too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics, or remain under the sway of the self-interested leeches that have profited from Mr. Bush’s leveraged buyout of the White House, using the promise of tax cuts to the swell the Republican campaign coffers and to buy the votes of those who could not see beyond the prospect of their own payoff to consider the well being of the nation. But in a democracy, people deserve the government they get. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Middle Ages/Power/War/Chain Mail

Man is always at his most clever and ingenious when it comes to devising ways to slaughter his fellow human creature, and I have great faith that warfare will soon become so computerized that it will be waged largely by drones operated from computer consoles in the Pentagon. There are already pilotless combat aircraft and crewless submarines on the drawing board, and the army is trying to develop mechanical combat units to replace human soldiers. But there was a time when the cutting edge of military technology was represented by a set of chain mail–all 40 pounds of it rusting away on one’s back. As clever as we are, why oh why haven’t we invested more of our talents in coming up with ways to avoid war?Power/War/Defenestration of Prague: They say that history repeats itself, and with the worsening state of relations between Red and Blue Americans, perhaps that whole business in Prague will be repeated in the White House… with W tossed into a manure pile beneath the window. Personally, I’d like that.

Middle Ages/Power/Vikings

You know what they say: if you can’t beat them, have them join you (or some such thing). Ultimately, the Vikings turned their own bloody tide on themselves by assimilating themselves into the communities of their reluctant hosts and adopting their Christianity. Ironically, they in time became not only guardians of their adopted settlements (against the likes of themselves, no doubt), but the most ardent propagators of the One True Religion. Skeptical of their newly-minted Christianity perhaps, and seeing that what passed for local royalty was not up to the job of defending against these unruly Norsemen, the terrified locals sought out the protecting embrace of the lesser aristocrats, and in so doing, precipitated the formation of feudal arrangements that would provide the inspiration of European social and political organization throughout the Middle Ages.

Middle Ages/Power/War/Thirty Years’ War

One of the legacies of the Thirty Years War was the break-up of Germany after the war, seems to have contributed to its fractious character and propensity for iron-fisted rulers like Frederick, Bismarck, and Hitler who can weld the Germans into a strong national polity… to the detriment of the rest of Europe. I believe it was Churchill who said of the Germans, “The Hun is either at your throat or beneath your boot.” Small wonder that Europe has been such a snake pit of conflict. When you add the internecine rivalries of countless kingdoms, principalities, and petty rulers to fundamental religious differences, territorial disputes, and ethnic hatreds—all in very close quarters, you have the recipe for a lethal difference of opinion that has endured throughout Europe’s history. Will the present-day European Union put an end to it all? History weighs against it, but it’s a good beginning.

Middle Ages/Power/Blanche of Castile

Blanche of Castile’s story offers an excellent case in point of how statecraft was conducted back in those days. In addition to sustaining all the usual indignities, women were made to facilitate the dark cabals of diplomacy by anchoring marriages between dynasties… and were made to suffer the consequences when the anchor chain broke, as it often did in the treacherous crosscurrents of court intrigues.

Middle Ages/Power/Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor’s story offers an excellent case in point of how statecraft was conducted back in those days. In addition to sustaining all the usual indignities, women were made to facilitate the dark cabals of diplomacy by anchoring marriages between dynasties… and were made to suffer the consequences when the anchor chain broke, as it often did in the treacherous crosscurrents of court intrigues.

Middle Ages/Power/Huns

The highest civilizations often prove to be the easiest prey to the barbarian hordes. Witness the downfall of not just Rome, but of Egypt, the Minoans, the middle dynasties of China, and Islam. But the triumph of the barbarian—absent the enduring graces of civilization–is typically brief. Though Attila had the good sense to take his leave upon arriving at the gates of Rome, more often the barbarian disappears by being absorbed and transformed by the civilization he has conquered. Just as the barbarian Manzhous became China’s Qing dynasty (and the most diligent imitators and guardians of classic Chinese culture), the Mongols embraced the Islamic civilization they nearly destroyed and became its most ardent proponents… seeing to it that the empire of Islam soon reached its greatest extent ever. As the Germanic invaders of Rome did, the barbarian often infuses a dying civilization with new blood and the martial vigor that it had neglected in the process of becoming so civilized, and becomes its most ardent defender and propagator, but only if the patient survives the surgery (as Egypt and Rome did not).

Middle Ages/Power/Visigoths

The highest civilizations often prove to be the easiest prey to the barbarian hordes. Witness the downfall of not just Rome, but of Egypt, the Minoans, the middle dynasties of China, and Islam. But the triumph of the barbarian—absent the enduring graces of civilization–is typically brief. Though Attila had the good sense to take his leave upon arriving at the gates of Rome, more often the barbarian disappears by being absorbed and transformed by the civilization he has conquered. Just as the barbarian Manzhous became China’s Qing dynasty (and the most diligent imitators and guardians of classic Chinese culture), the Mongols embraced the Islamic civilization they nearly destroyed and became its most ardent proponents… seeing to it that the empire of Islam soon reached its greatest extent ever. As the Gothic invaders of Rome did, the barbarian often infuses a dying civilization with new blood and the martial vigor that it had neglected in the process of becoming so civilized, and becomes its most ardent defender and propagator, but only if the patient survives the surgery (as Egypt and Rome did not).

Middle Ages/Power/Castles

The evident prosperity of the Roman Empire masked some very serious fault lines that were growing beneath the surface, and Rome was turning a blind eye to the fact that every economic empire is built upon an agricultural base. More and more small farmers were giving up and selling out for the sake of securing an assured livelihood of some kind on the large villas that engorged themselves on the lands that the small farmers were abandoning. In time, the villas would come to resemble fiefdoms and their subjects serfs (which in fact is what they became), and the inevitable culmination of all that was the castle—the capital of what in effect had become an independent state and fortress of its master. In offering the dispossessed small farmer sanctuary from oppressive taxation, military conscription, and the mayhem of the decaying empire, these domains grew increasingly independent of central government authority and in time formed the basis of feudal societies that would characterize life in the Middle Ages. The concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the maldistribution of resources, and the destitution of the farmer in ancient Rome offered lessons that we here in America chose to ignore at our own peril during the Roaring Twenties, a time of booming prosperity that also disguised some things that would soon rear their ugly heads in the form of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. If our wealth gap continues to widen, might our present-day gated communities become the castles of the future?

Middle Ages/Power/Frederick

As a holdout against the hateful fervor of the Crusades, Frederick must have felt himself a lonely man indeed, and one of the few who kept the lamp of Western cultural ethos lit while Europe foundered in the Dark Ages. He must have appreciated the significance of his position at the nexus of European, Byzantine, and Muslim culture, and kept a special place in his heart for the last of these. For in addition to keeping the torch of Western civilization flickering, the Muslims added their understanding of medicine, geography, mathematics, and astronomy to the larder of old wives’ tales that largely comprised Western knowledge of these disciplines, and Europe’s cultural backwater positively reeked in comparison with the incomparable grace of Islamic art. But speaking of old wives’ tales, it’s true what they say… that what goes around comes around. Time seems to proceed less in a linear than in a circular fashion that brings us time and again back to whence we came. If the Islamic world has since lost its way, is it not for us, then, to return a favor long forgotten… by acknowledging–and even celebrating–the legacy of a civilization that was once the most splendid in the West? Has not the present climate of fear and loathing ushered in a shroud of darkness and gloom that is at least as stultifying as the Dark Ages that once threatened to extinguish our own civilization?

Middle Ages/Power/Knights

Knights ruled the roost until the emerging nation-states of the 17th century drummed up their own standing armies. For all the bit-part players in the feudal pecking order, though, the question remained: Would life be better free-lancing (or being lanced), or under the protection of a lord and master who would account for every moment and measure of a man’s freedom? The stability and security that feudalism offered came only at the expense of surrendering virtually every other aspect of life to its embrace. Most chose serfdom because they lacked the resources and money to start up a business of their own, and few questioned their paucity of options in a world where life was nasty, brutish, and short. And when that day came, knights became victims of a social, political, and economic revolution that necessitated a top-to-bottom reinvention of themselves.

Middle ages/Power/Knights/Hospitalers

Knights of whatever stripe ruled the roost until the emerging nation-states of the 17th century drummed up their own standing armies. And when that day came, knights became victims of a social, political, and economic revolution that necessitated a top-to-bottom reinvention of themselves. The Hospitalers got a jump on that trend, taking up the charitable life on the island of Malta while knights elsewhere were still busy knocking the stuffing out of each other. That decision not only benefited the sick and wounded who came under their care, but ensured that they themselves would long outlive the combative tradition of knighthood, and even make the transition to the New World with tradition intact.

Middle Ages/Power/Knights Templar

The story of the Knights makes for tantalizing intrigue, all the more so because of their unsavory association with the Jews and the threat that their wealth posed to the Catholic Church. You’ve got the makings of another history bestseller here if you’re up to the challenge.

Middle Ages/Power/Knights/Jousts

As they tilted away at each other amidst the fanfare of the medieval joust, the knights must have thought themselves impregnable. Alas, not all the armor in Christendom could keep the knight from toppling before the forces of social change: knights of whatever stripe had ruled the roost until the emerging nation-states of the 17th century drummed up their own standing armies. And when that day came, knights became victims of a social, political, and economic revolution that necessitated a top-to-bottom reinvention of themselves.

Middle Ages/Power/War/Battle of the Golden Spurs

The Battle of the Golden Spurs was emblematic of Europe’s emerging transition from feudalism—and its private bands of knights—to the standing armies whose expense and complexity spawned the tax regimes to pay for them, the bureaucracies to administer them, and the nation-states for them to die for.

Economy


Middle Ages/Economy/Nails

We here in Hawaii have a special appreciation for the impact of nails upon civilization. Iron in the form of various shipboard hardware and implements was first brought to Hawaii by the expedition of Captain James Cook that discovered Hawaii for the outside world in 1778, and the nails that held his ships together were pulled from the ship’s timbers and bartered away by the men for the favors of the local women… so much so that the ships literally fell apart when they tried to depart the islands to continue their mission to find the Northwest Passage. Forced to return to Hawaii in a state of massive and conspicuous disrepair, the natives soon realized that these visitors had not been the gods they had supposed them to be, but ordinary mortals. Their much-diminished stature led to a fatal fraying of relations that set the pattern for the testy relationship that has prevailed between Hawaiians and Westerners ever since.

Middle Ages/Economy/Farming

Horseshoes and harnesses may seem terribly low-tech, but it’s the “stuff in the ground”—crops and minerals and water and the implements that put all that into motion as it makes its way up the food chain–that predictably forms the base of any economic pyramid (and always will, no matter how high-tech we get). In time, it was freeing up the individual to do his own thing that paved the way for farming to become a paying proposition, just like industry. The concept of private property ownership–rather than farming communal village lands–lay at the heart of it, allowing owners to fence off their own land and farm as they saw fit. That meant the freedom to grow new crops that the market wanted and was willing to pay good money for, instead of growing what the village demanded for its subsistence. And the more the farmer thought about making money instead of just subsisting, the more he got interested in better ideas: using manure as fertilizer; rotating between root and seed crops; using hybrid seeds; draining their land properly. Lo and behold, it wasn’t long before farmers were starting to sound just like any other smokestack capitalist, going on about reduced unit costs, increased volume, and such, which ultimately meant more food to support more people and their diversity of trades and industry in the cities… the apex of civilization and the economic pyramid.

Middle Ages/Economy/Transition

One of the big changes that enabled the economy of the Middle Ages to emerge into the modern era was the shift in emphasis from working hard to working smart. True it’s the “stuff in the ground”—crops and minerals and water and the implements that put all that into motion as it makes its way up the food chain–that predictably forms the base of any economic pyramid (and always will, no matter how high-tech we get). But in time, it was freeing up the individual to do his own thing that paved the way for farming to become a paying proposition, just like industry. The concept of private property ownership–rather than farming communal village lands–lay at the heart of it, allowing owners to fence off their own land and farm as they saw fit. That meant the freedom to grow new crops that the market wanted and was willing to pay good money for, instead of growing what the village demanded for its subsistence. And the more the farmer thought about making money instead of just subsisting, the more he got interested in better ideas: using manure as fertilizer; rotating between root and seed crops; using hybrid seeds; draining their land properly. Lo and behold, it wasn’t long before farmers were starting to sound just like any other smokestack capitalist, going on about reduced unit costs, increased volume, and such, which ultimately meant more food to support more people and their diversity of trades and industry in the cities… the apex of civilization and the economic pyramid. And in keeping with the new entrepreneurial spirit that was taking hold at the grass-roots level, the moneymen in the cities became increasingly innovative in the business of organizing capital. Banks became joint-stock companies that enabled depositors to become investors; lending and became more available to companies and individuals and not just kings and princes; with letters of credit, funding became portable; and charging interest to compensate for risk became acceptable in the eyes of the Church. Who’d-a-thunk that getting smart with money would lead to such present-day practices as arbitrage, trading in futures and derivatives, home equity lending, the globalization of finance, and all that? Or, with Americans now saddled with some $38 trillion in debt (that’s $125,000 for every man, woman, and child), have we become too clever by half?

Middle Ages/Economy/Guilds

One of the essential differences between the guilds of olden times and the modern union is that guilds were intended to keep people out (except when invited to apprentice under a master), and to safeguard the standards that made its members artisans rather than laborers. By comparison, the union seeks strength in numbers—the more, the merrier—and their emphasis is less on standards than wages and benefits. Therein lies the difference between Old World craftsmanship and the modern industrial efficiencies that so often make for such a poor fit for us humans.

Middle Ages/Economy/Statute of Laborers

There have been many lessons that came out of mankind’s experience with government intervention in the economy, from Diocletian’s price controls to the Statute of Laborers to Prohibition. Lesson # 1 is an old chestnut that any economist regards as one of the key tenets of his arcane and dismal science: namely, that supply is driven by demand, and not vice-versa. Meddling with the market’s Invisible Hand doesn’t work: vendors that are constrained from selling goods and services at a profit will simply not sell them… and the shortages that result are bound to bid up prices for the fewer goods that are available, making the cure more destructive than the disease.

Middle Ages/Economy/Bills of Exchange

The globalization of finance owes its origins to the bills of exchange that marked the beginning of the mobility of money. Today, money moves at digital light-speed in search of the best investment opportunities worldwide, giving new meaning to that time-worn chestnut as to the Golden Rule, that he who gots the gold makes the rules. The failure of economic and political regimes, wherever they may be, to provide complete transparency and full accountability can—and usually does—result in global capital taking wing for less muddied pastures. As such, the carrot of money will always prove more persuasive than the stick of sanctions in facilitating the march of human freedom in the world’s political backwaters.


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