Appreciating the Middle Ages

One thing that I’ve learned in my research for my diss topic is that the Middle Ages was *far* from being the Dark Ages, intellectually and spiritually. It’s really cool having two medieval historians as housemates (The Bunny the Ph.D. and Boxing Alcibiades the Dual-MA), which help to clarify the popular but mistaken notion that the Middle Ages was some dark sucking hole of ignorance and then everything became better with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

For one thing, the university was born in the end of the 11th century, in Salerno and Bologna, Italy, and Paris, France, all built, funded, staffed, and taught by members of the Catholic Church (which, was, in Western Europe, the *only* Christian denomination — the other was the Orthodox Church, after the big East-West split in 1054). The curriculum was the “Seven Liberal Arts”: The Trivium (the Three Humanities) — grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (or aka philosophy), and the Quadrivium (the Four Sciences) — mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy. Any school who calls itself a “liberal arts school” or who has a liberal arts core curriculum is a descendent of the medieval universities.

If you were Christian, you were well-learned in that faith (and other things), either because you were 1) in the aristocracy, 2) in the clergy, or 3) in “government” and had a good institutional education (again, built, funded, staffed, and taught by Catholic clergy) or you were a regular working Joe but you were still educated in the faith by 1)liturgy, 2) statuary, 3) paintings, 4) stories, including elaborate medieval Biblical dramas sponsored and even performed by regular Joes like yourself.

Of course, technology back then was limited — without the inventions that would come with the Renaissance (microscope, telescope, 3-D perspective, incendiary devices, chemistry, etc). But, given the technology they *did* have — windmills, waterwheels, power hammers, smelting of complex ores, horse-collared plow, crop rotation, water-proof glue, medicine (curing gout, goiter, etc.), understanding of diet and psychology, Occam’s Razor, world navigation — one could see that the Renaissance came about from the foundations of the Middle Ages.

Granted, there were lots of sucky sucky stuff back then — but there has always been lots of sucky sucky stuff in human history: Organized witch-hunts and the Mafia-esque stylings of the Medici in the Renaissance (1500s-1700s), the French Reign of Terror and wars over religion in the Enlightenment (1700s-1800s), institutionalized child-labor laws (children can work) and the great loss of faith in established religions in the Romantic Age(1800s), and lets not forgot the horrible things that happened in the 20th century, the century that had two world wars, Jewish Holocaust, Communist states that smashed the invididual’s rights over the collective “people”‘s good (whether “the people” wanted that good or not) like the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary and the 1989 crackdown of Chinese democracy in Tianaman Square– a century so BAD that Flannery O’Connor was hankering for the days of the Middle Ages and, in my diss, I show how much O’Connor appreciated the Middle Ages, through her use of medieval Biblical exegesis and medieval theological drama.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m glad that I was born in the latter part of the 20th century. But the older I get (in age and in my education), the more I realize that human beings in *any* time period did extraordinary and wonderful things and, at the same time, did horrible and evil things. And so, I have learned to appreciate the Middle Ages — both its wonders and problems.

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