The Middle Ages were brilliant

One of the standard paradigms of modern Western culture is that the Middle Ages were a dark, primitive time.  While that’s true for the era between Rome’s fall and about 1,000 A.D., after 1,000 A.D. Europe enjoyed an explosive, intellectually vibrant time.  (To understand the groundwork for this intellectual explosion, I highly recommend Thomas Cahill’s completely delightful How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, which tells how Irish monks, by preserving and spreading Christianity, set the West on its path to modernity.)

Interior Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Interior Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Recognizing that the Middle Ages were a splendid, dynamic isn’t just a matter of setting the historical record straight.  Every PC-educated school child will tell you that Islam is good because, during the Middle Ages, when the West was mired in filth and ignorance, the Islamic world was a paradise of tolerance, beauty and learning.  I’m not going to denigrate the medieval Islamic world.  Certain parts of the medieval Islamic world were indeed places were Jews and Christians, although second class citizens, were able to thrive intellectually and economically; the art and architecture were beautiful (one word:  Alhambra); and the culture was sophisticated and rich.  The medieval Muslim world should be accorded recognition for its achievements.

Alhambra, Spain

Alhambra, Spain

The problem is that PC education, to ensure Islam its proper place in the scheme of things, then dishonestly paints the Middle Ages as a primitive, ugly, antisemitic, misanthropic world.  This is true, but such a fragmented part of the truth that it distorts the whole.  The fact is that medieval Europe was different from, but just as bad as — and just as good as — medieval Islam.  Both were worlds of explosive intellectual growth, celebrations of God and nature, travel and conquest, artistic beauty, misogyny and antisemitism, religious bullying, and all the other stuff that makes medieval cultures fascinating and frustrating, enticing and off-putting.  The crucial difference is that the European Middle Ages were a springboard, whereas the Islamic Middle Ages were an apex.

With that as a brief and scrambled intro, you might enjoy this short video about the brilliant Middle Ages.

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  • Danny Lemieux

    In his book, “For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery”, Rodney Stark lists five major inventions that took place in the Middle Ages that enabled the West to vanquish Islam and predominate into the Renaissance and beyond.
    If my memory serves me right, they were a) the water wheel (which set the stage of mechanization), the clock (which enabled efficiency), the printing press, modern gunpowder manufacturing techniques and the stirrup (which enabled armored Crusaders to run down Muslim hordes with lances…the armored divisions of their time).

  • David Foster

    The water wheel was not *invented* during the Middle Ages; it was known to the Greeks and Romans and was exploited to some extent…but why worry about waterpower too much when you have the availability to cheap *slave* power?
    The Middle Ages went much further in using the water wheel, not only for the milling of grain, but for the fulling of cloth, the making of beer, the powering of furnace bellows and trip hammers in metallurgical operations, etc. Monasteries played an important role in all this.
    A very interesting book about the history of waterpower is Stronger Than a Hundred Men, by Terry Reynolds. He suggests tentatively that the biblical portrayal of Jesus Christ as a carpenter helped to overcome the aristocratic disdain for practical work that had been present in the ancient societies.

  • Ymarsakar

    The Muslims and Arabs didn’t invent much of anything. they stole all of it from their slave races. You didn’t watch the video presentation did you?
    Arabic numerals came from the Indians, and were acquired after various raids into Indian territory.

  • Jose

    This is the best of Cahill’s books that I have read.  I’d also recommend The Gifts of the Jews.
    One of the things that sticks with me is that the Irish were so far from Rome that communication was completely severed for a time.  The Irish had no idea who the Pope was, and when communication was re-established, there was some negotiation before they could be persuaded to submit, once again, to Rome’s authority.

  • JKB

    I do like that he dispels the myths of “education”, i.e., the collapsing of thousands of years of history into a few short but wholly erroneous tidbits.  Tidbits, such as the belief the world was flat.
    But he, himself, glosses over an unseemly truth.  Namely, the medieval universities were co-ops for the protection, tax advantage, support, et al, of the “professors” who were not terribly concerned about imparting knowledge to most of their students.  Well, not unlike the universities of today but much different than the Scottish Universities who did put the transfer of knowledge first.  Much to our advantage as they brought forth the Adam Smiths and many of the men who brought steam power into useful work.  
    An aside, neither was the steam engine “invented” in England in the 17th and 18th centuries.  The steam engine was in use in 1 CE Egypt….in toys, not for useful work.  
    I’ve been surveying Development Economics over at MRU University (online).  I found the segment on institutions and how they are historically developed to be very interesting.  They compare institutions developed in “Spanish” Americas to those that developed in North America.  Spanish Americas were dominated by aristocratic holdings based on extraction (minerals and workers lives).  North America was not so good for large land holder.  Better for the yeoman farmer.  The institutions formed to support these manners still influence today.
    If we apply a view of institutions to a superficial comparison of the Islamic world and Medieval Europe, we can see, the Islamic world of the time was rich and a crossroads due to controlling the trade routes to the East.  This is conducive to a top down, militaristic set of institutions, along with a religion of dominance.  Medieval Europe not so much, as methods of transport and communications advanced, the despot lost his hold.  Medieval Europe prepped by private initiative for the coming change, namely seagoing trade to the East.  But since Europe is a peninsula and has a decent interior water transportation system, no one individual or nation could be assured of dominance.  Once the sea trade developed, most of the cosmopolitan advantages moved from the middle east cities sitting astride the trade routes to the port cities of Europe with the advantage of if one got a bit to constricting one had only to move a few hundred miles to another port/trade city.

  • Gringo

    While I am not a churchgoer, and  as far as I can tell there hasn’t been a Catholic in my family tree for 400 + years, I am glad to acknowledge the role of the Catholic Church in maintaining and advancing civilization.
    Recommended reading:
    The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages
    Cambridge Medieval History Vol, 1-5 Bargain!

  • Michael Adams

    I would also recommend Cathedral, Forge and Water Wheel, by Frances and Joseph Gies.  Also, Plagues and Peoples, by William McNeil provides a good deal of really useful background.
    I am very sorry to say that Protestantism has been a big knife separating us from our Medieval past, with Rousseau wielding that knife, or one like it,  with great enthusiasm. He was no Protestant, of course, but he did actually come from a Protestant background in Switzerland. Nevertheless, no amount of good upbringing can overcome Bipolar Affective Disorder.

  • lee

    I have maintained for some time that the dividing line was the Plague years, 1348-1350. I think this had an ENORMOUS effect on the philosophical approach to just about everything: art, science, philosophy, literature, theology, etc. My idea is that the plague not only killed rouhgly 505 of the population (as high as 75-80% in some areas), but it killed God as well. Not in the Nietsche “God-is’Dead” sort of way.
    God had been at the center of most things. Much art, philosophy, literature focused on God. Science was seen as a better way of understanding the Divine. God was celebrated, feared, loved. God was the center of life. The Plague killed God because if God could allow the Plague… what sort of God was He? What replaced God? Man. Man became the center of everything. The art, philosophy, science, literature, etc., after the Plague and into the Rennaissance was more about Man. Not that people were suddenly atheists by any means–they were still religious people who beleived in an powerful God, but he had been pushed from the center of what life was about.
    I also think that the 20th Century of Wars and Genocide killed off Man as the center of everything. Starting with the Anglo-Boer War, World War I, the Armenian Genocide, World War II, the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Chinese Civil Wars, the great Leap Forward…  Some what along the same line of thinking as in 1350: If Man is responsible for all this, what sort of Man is he? Let’s find something ELSE!
    I had been trying to figure out what had replaced Man, as Man had replaced God. I am starting think that is is Bureaucratic Government. (Like that wasn’t what was REALLY behind the enormous death toll of the 20th century. Sovet Union? Nazi Germany? China? Ottoman Empire? MAJOR bureaucratic governments…) Or maybe just anarchy…
    Maybe nonsense… With “art” like Millie Brown (she vomits colored milk on canvas) and “theater” like “The Book of Mormon” and philosophy like PostModernism, not to mention the politics of today… (The EU, the UN, are both crazy. And the US is getting to be.) It’s like we can’t figure out what is worth centering on. So, the whole idea is to have the riduculous as the center of art, philosphy.
    Me, I will take Man or God over whatever we have now…

  • Danny Lemieux

    Insightful comments, lee. Much to think about.

  • Jose

    One interesting theory is that a side effect of the Plague was increased literacy.  James Burke, in his BBC series Connections, stated that the large number of plague victims provided ample supplies for “rag pickers” of the times.  Those rags provided a large and inexpensive source of raw material to paper makers.  Roughly coinciding with the invention of the printing press, books and other printed materials became more plentiful and affordable than they would otherwise have been.

  • Gringo

    After a long absence, I have been returning to my childhood passion- history. In reading about the Middle Ages compared to the Roman Empire, I am struck at how much more familiar to me the Middle Ages are compared to Rome. Probably  what makes the Middle Ages more familiar to me is the Church. The few times I have attended a mass I have thought to myself- the Church has been around for 2,000 years. That is a LONG time. An institution which survives 2,00 years has learned something in its survival.
    Good comments on the Plague. Another consequence of the Plague was that it facilitated the breakup of the serf system. The great loss of population from the Plague created a labor shortage, which raised wages. This motivated serfs to leave for the towns and cities where, if they were free for a year and a day, they could legally remain. This also prompted the lords to give the remaining serfs better deals so they would remain.

  • mkat68

    The only really bad thing about the Middle Ages period is that the Muslims loved it so much they never left it.

  • Mike Devx

    I’d like to second Gringo’s points in #11 concerning the plague’s effect on serfdom.  I believe serfs were legally *tied* to the land up until that point.  The plague, as terrible as it was, shattered the extremely rigid social structures of the Dark Ages.  Vast social upheaval.  I think it’s quite likely that without this social upheaval caused by the plague, we would not have seen the subsequent Enlightenment.

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  • Bullsie

    Thanks, I went to the Alhambra and never can believe in mandatory reception again.