Looking Back

There have been people for a very long time. Lots of them have come up with ideas that they felt were better than those of the previous generation. If we look at the various names of artistic movements we can see this quite poignantly. For example, in the 1300s the musicians called what they were doing the Ars Nova (New Art). This was to be contrasted with what happened before, which they termed the Ars Antigua (Old Art). A bit later, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries we have the Renaissance (Re-Birth) implying a new way of doing things. I was told as early as elementary school that this was the beginning of the civilized era. Political science is not immune  to this type of biased, terminological value classification. When we discuss  the Enlightenment we cannot help but contrast the illumination provided by those “brilliant philosophers” of the eighteenth century with the unsophisticated barbarians of the “dark” ages. In the early twentieth century we have seen terms like contemporary, modern, post-modern, etc. All these terms say, “we’ve improved since the previous generation.” Recently we (artists at least) have dropped these monikers—perhaps having learned a lesson from the past—in favor of less descriptive and more objective terminology, i.e. late twentieth century music, early twenty-first century music, etc.


This point is that we seem obsessed with progress. We suffer from the delusion that our success somehow invalidates any progress made by our ancestors. Moreover, we feel that the fact that a previous generation failed to realize what we today realize—or to progress in a way that we ourselves have progressed—means that they were not as intelligent as we are. I believe that we in America are especially guilty of discounting the validity of ways of life or thinking beyond our own norm. I would like to propose that humans are not more or less intelligent in any particular period or place. Rather, we in the present tend to judge them negatively because we misunderstand the world in which they lived due to our own lack of historical knowledge and perspective.


No period takes the heat like the Middle Ages also known as the Medieval Period (approximately 300 AD to 1500 AD). I was taught for years that this was an absolutely horrid time to be alive for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it was a very violent period of time. If you didn’t mind your “P”s and “Q”s, you’d probably be tried for heresy or witchcraft and be tortured and burned at the stake. Secondly, people were stupid and uneducated and they dogmatically believed that the Earth was flat because their tyrannical religion insisted upon it. Lastly, the medievals had come up with the worst form of government ever. During this time you were  indentured (legally bound) to a Lord (a land owner), which meant that you would be forced to work until exhaustion on land that you would personally never profit from, and your every action was carefully governed by a tyrant that laughed as he watched the heavy burdens whither you down. You would never have the opportunity to seek a middle-class existence that can only be possible in a capitalistic economy. Your dreams and desires simply did not compare to those of the aristocrats whose existence you toiled to make comfortable. All of these negative things were cooked up by the power hungry kings and religious officials so that they could have a comfortable existence at the expense of the average Joe!


Most of this is a gross misrepresentation for how it really was and some of it is just downright false. I hope that I can refute some of these cultural misunderstandings so that we may better understand and respect our ancestors from whom we have inherited our world. Only then can we see that they were not all that different from us, certainly not less intelligent. Firstly, there were no approved trials of witches in the middle ages for the simple reason that the Church did not acknowledge the existence of witches. This didn’t mean that the occasional village mob did not arise to take down some helpless little old lady, but this is a very different thing from systematic Christian extermination of witches. (This is not to be confused with the very real extermination of alleged witches that occurred later in England and America at the hands of other Christian sects. These events however fall outside the scope of our discussion on the middle ages) Heretics on the other hand were tried, often from both religious and civil authorities simultaneously, but it was not for the reason you probably think. Most are under the impression that if your beliefs didn’t align perfectly with the Church that you were in for a rough ride, but actually you could not be brought up for heresy charges for this reason. You could only be charged with heresy for attempting to convince others to disregard the teachings of the Church. Most of the time, the heretics were never in danger of the death penalty. Almost all death sentences that did occur were ruled by civil authorities. Additionally civil authorities were always responsible for executions. The number of deaths that resulted from the inquisition are also exaggerated. According to Jon Sorensen, a well respected Catholic Apologist, only about 3000-5000 people were executed on the entire continent of Europe over about 350 years. That equals only about fourteen people per year on the entire continent. Certainly real and not to be discounted, but the average person was far from the danger of being tried as a heretic.


The charge that people were uneducated, believed in a flat Earth, and were subject to an oppressive religion that was opposed to science is likewise unfounded. I will attempt to show this to the degree that is possible in a blog post. People in the middle ages were as educated as they needed to be. Most people were involved in a great number of domestic activities daily. Cooking, cleaning, working land, etc. They were exceptionally educated in performing these actions, but it is true that the average person was less educated in reading, writing, and arithmetic. These skills would not have been useful in their daily lives. However, it is a complete myth to say that they believed that the Earth was flat. Educated men had known from 300 BC that the Earth was round. What they were unsure of was the Earth’s circumference. By Columbus’s voyage mathematicians had still been unable to answer this question. The danger of Columbus’s voyage was that the Earth might be too big and they would run out of food and water before making it all the way around. This is likely why Columbus’s crew had mutinous thoughts. During the middle ages, the idea that the Earth was round was a generally accepted fact. Finally, it has never been a teaching of the Church that the Earth was flat.


Lastly, Medieval society is often criticized for its oppressive social organization of feudalism and indentured serfdom. I will simply point out that this was not a new concept in the middle ages. This type of  structure  first developed in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC and was the primary form of social organization in all human societies until the 1700s AD. This social structure and its ubiquitous authoritarian governmental system pervaded for so long because of its amazing effectiveness at maintaining peace. (Indeed there have been more wars in the last two hundred years of “civilization” than in the previous five thousand years. In fact, the combined deaths of the two World Wars is nearly equivalent to the world’s population only two thousand years ago.) It is also unlikely that people living in a feudal society would have desired a lifestyle or standard of living beyond what they could imagine. They lived a simple existence that was likely healthy and relatively stress free and they accepted the fundamental role that they played in society. It is unlikely that they felt cheated for not having access to travel, vacation time, or vast income. Their mindset was wholly different than that of the average modern westerner. Again, it must be noted that the medievals did not invent this social system (much less for the purposes of oppression), but rather inherited it and likely never questioned it.


I believe that many of these myths survive because we modern people feel the need to justify our own existence. We like to point at past generations and say, “See, we’re not doing that bad.” Rather than discounting the medievals as backward and ignorant, we should instead look at their contribution to the modern world. Medievals left us the gothic cathedrals—like Notre Dame in Paris—still marveled at today for their incredible architecture. Men like Copernicus (a Catholic) gave us the Heliocentric model of the solar system. The basic human dignity that most of us take for granted was developed because of the Judeo-Christian influence of the middle ages on modern society. Our music theory system depends on the foundations laid in the middle ages by geniuses like Philipe de Vitry, Guillaume du Machaut, Perotinus, and Hildegard von Bingen. The legal system in most western countries was developed in the middle ages as well as the scientific method, the invention of the printing press, microscope, and many other devices that we still use today. Let us stop looking on the past with disdain and instead embrace our history as the story of us all.

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