Wednesday, November 30, 2016

An Escape Into Another Dark Time

I find that I'm overwhelmed by the urge to comment on things which have nothing to do with the increasingly grotesque politics of our Great Republic and the bizarre person soon to become its enormous, orange head.  So bear with me if you please as I turn from one kind of darkness to another.

I've heard since I was in college (that is a long time ago, alas) that what is called the Dark Age of Europe wasn't nearly as dark as commonly thought.  Unsurprisingly, I've heard this claim from scholars of the Dark Ages, both professors and students.  I happened to hear a lecture to that effect by a learned professor while driving home one night.  What the professor referred to, though, were events and persons which took place and lived from roughly the 11th century to the 14th centuries.  If those are unjustly considered the Dark Ages, I wonder what we call, or should call, when considering the history of Europe (the Latin West) the period from the end of the 5th century to the 11th century.  In other words, the period from the fall of the Western Roman Empire traditionally thought to take place around 475 C.E. to the bright, brilliant, not at all dark period commencing sometime in the 11th century, when, as the professor noted, Aristotle was rediscovered in Europe, Abelard and Heloise loved and thought, etc.

Do those 5 or 6 centuries constitute something different from what are called the Dark Ages according to learned academics of our time?  Are they, for example, the Really Dark Ages, or the Very Dark Ages?

I can understand that it's appropriate to note that some good and interesting, and indeed admirable, events took place from the loosely defined Fall of Rome in the West to the Renaissance.  There were significant achievements during the Medieval Period and significant people lived during those times.  We have a tendency to identify as significant persons--as worthy of note--the influential thinkers, rulers, artists who appear in history.  Events we tend to identify as significant are usually military battles and conquests, political revolutions, inventions, and laws.  Especially during what are delightfully referred to as the "High" Middle Ages, (usually considered the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries) it's easy enough to identify "significant" history.  What of that part of those Ages which wasn't High?

Identifying what and who were significant in that period isn't as easy, unless it's easy by virtue of the fact that there are few events and people typically considered significant to history during those times.  Again, I refer to Europe and specifically Europeans, not Byzantines or Muslims.  Augustine of course didn't live to see the traditional End of the Roman Empire.  The next significant philosophical figure would, I suppose, be Boethius.  Boethius had a wonderfully Roman name:  Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.  He's sometimes called the Last of the Romans.

Boethius served as minister to Theodoric the Great, an Ostrogothic king, but one of several of what I think can fairly be called the quasi-Roman rulers in Europe who reigned after the Western Empire fell.  These kings and their kingdoms are justly considered Roman successor states, I believe.  They mimicked the Empire in various respects, even in the manner of their administration.  Boethius served until he was imprisoned by Theodoric and later bludgeoned to death by his minions.  While in prison he wrote his famous Consolation of Philosophy, and it's to be hoped he was consoled by it, particularly as he was beaten to death.

The Europeans seemed to have busied themselves primarily  by fighting off the infidels and fighting among themselves until the Frankish kings came along and, eventually, one Frank in particular, Charlemagne, became the (first) Holy Roman Emperor.  While he ruled, the Holy Roman Empire may not have been holy, but was in fact an empire and was in fact rather Roman.  The ghost of Rome certainly was regularly seen in those times and haunts us still today.

It was during Charlemagne's relatively benign and enlightened rule, and the fitful peace that resulted, that what is considered dark became less dark.  So we see such thinkers as Duns Scotus appearing, a greater appreciation of learning and writing (needed for administering a large territory).  We may owe to Charlemagne what there is of Latin Christian learning, knowledge and art during the less-than-high Middle Ages.

Naturally, Europe was impacted as well during the time of the less-than-high or darker Middle Ages by the incursions of the Byzantines while Justinian was Emperor of the East.  Justinian aspired to be Emperor of the West, and due to the ability of his generals Belisarius and Narses actually conquered portions of the old Western Empire, but only for a relatively short time.  The Arabs of course had taken North Africa and the Spanish peninsula, and held Spain until the Reconquista. 

Just what is "Dark" and how dark were the Middle Ages in Europe?  It seems there can be no question that something very bad happened after the Western Roman Empire fell, no matter what is said regarding those times.  Even what we today consider simple things, such as the provision of flowing water to people and the handling of their waste, disappeared.  Such things didn't reappear in cities like Paris until Napoleon's reign. 

It must have been a remarkably dirty world after the Roman baths stopped functioning. Roman moralists used to claim that the baths, which were frequented by many who relished soaking in the hot and cold water rather than merely washing themselves hurriedly, sapped the strength and weakened the sense of stern morality fostered by their ancestors. I think it's likely, though, that even the most censorious moralist would have been more appalled by people who either didn't bathe at all or did so only rarely. The effect on health and hygiene must have been profound. The poor have always been poor and miserable, but it's likely that they became more miserable during the Middle Ages, and less of them were educated and more died by hunger, disease and war.  Urban life was almost nonexistent for a time.

People no longer knew how to do certain things. The legions were gone, and the work they would do to build and maintain infrastructure when not making war was not done by anyone else. People began to borrow stone and marble from old buildings in order to construct anything new, not having the knowledge or skill--or perhaps even the opportunity--to do otherwise. Knowledge of the natural world wasn't encouraged, the world being less important than it was to those of the past.

It may be that the Renaissance led many to think of the Middle Ages as being Darker than they were in fact.  But it's difficult to think they were not darker times than what came before and what came after, in many important respects.  Why and how they were darker is an important question to be addressed.

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