Thursday, December 14, 2006

Those nasty Middle Ages

As an historical period, the Middle Ages don't get a lot of respect these days. Come to think of it, they haven't gotten much since the Renaissance, when the intellectual elites first adopted their permanent sneer when looking back into the immediate past. They idolized and idealized the world of Greece and Rome, and so the culture of the centuries since the end of the Roman Empire just had to be all bad -- a catalog of unmitigated ignorance and disaster -- because it was, well, not Roman.

That's how the period got to be thought of an age of simply marking time, an age of no other significance than that it was between the glories of pagan Rome and the glories that the elites were now going to build in emulation of Rome. The period got another drubbing during the Enlightenment, notably at the hands of Gibbon and Voltaire. Modern authors occasionally decide to take another swing at it, e.g., William Manchester's well-written monument to his own bias and ignorance, A World Lit Only by Fire. (From the first time I heard of it, I've always thought that his title was absurd. What did he think the cities and homes of Greece and Rome had been lit by? Compact fluorescents?).

"Feudal" is another word that's now become a term of contempt; if some corner of the world is thought to be particularly backward, it is often (absurdly) said to be a feudal society. And since the Catholic Church's period of greatest cultural influence occurred during the Middle Ages, in whose early centuries feudalism was the primary organizing pattern of European politics, the Church is often tarred with the same brush that has turned feudalism very black indeed in common wisdom. Our modern world is, of course, so much more civilized and humane than those nasty, feudal Middle Ages. Isn't it?

Maybe not so much. Here's something from one of the few college textbooks I've hung on to through all these years, Prof. Robert Hoyt's Europe in the Middle Ages (first published in 1957, before the PC roof fell in on American education):

It has been said that feudalism "would have been a very excellent device if it had been administered by archangels." In other words, theory and practice diverged, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, even as they do today. But feudal strife should not be exaggerated; armies were small, wars were local, and fighting rarely extended beyond the summer months. The feudal age knew no total war, no genocide, no mass destruction of life or property -- all characteristics of a more modern civilization. In a world where violence and hardship were normal, where the danger of invasion was perennial, rather than recurring from one generation to another as in the twentieth century, feudal lords and vassals accomplished much without benefit of archangels and without being angelic themselves.

So, Beatles fans, imagine. Imagine there's no total war. Imagine there's no genocide. Imagine there's a Church that is far and away the dominant influence in human society.

Imagine the Middle Ages.