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Posts Tagged ‘Middle Ages

“Study the past if you would define the future”*…

 

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A segment of Danse Macabre, Bernt Notke, late 15th century

 

“If the Black Death caused the Renaissance, will COVID also create a golden age?”

Versions of this question have been going around as people, trying to understand the present crisis, reach for history’s most famous pandemic.  Using history to understand our present is a great impulse, but it means some of the false myths we tell about the Black Death and Renaissance are doing new damage, one of the most problematic in my view being the idea that sitting back and letting COVID kill will somehow by itself naturally make the economy turn around and enter a period of growth and rising wages.

Brilliant Medievalists have been posting Black Death pieces correcting misconceptions and flailing as one does when an error refuted 50 times returns the 51st (The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad compared to the Renaissance!!!).  As a Renaissance historian, I feel it’s my job to shoulder the other half of the load by talking about what the Renaissance was like, confirming that our Medievalists are right, it wasn’t a better time to live than the Middle Ages, and to talk about where the error comes from, why we think of the Renaissance as a golden age, and where we got the myth of the bad Middle Ages.

Only half of this is a story about the Renaissance.  The other half is later: Victorian Britain, Italy’s unification, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, ages in which the myth of the golden Renaissance was appropriated and retold.  And yes, looking at the Black Death and Renaissance is helpful for understanding COVID-19’s likely impact, but in addition to looking at 1348 we need to look at its long aftermath, at the impact Yersinia Pestis had on 1400, and 1500, and 1600, and 1700.  So:

• This post is for you if you’ve been wondering whether Black Death => Renaissance means COVID => Golden Age, and  you want a more robust answer than, “No no no no no!”

• This post is for you if you’re tired of screaming The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad! and want somewhere to link people to, to show them how the myth began.

• This post is for you if you want to understand how an age whose relics make it look golden in retrospect can also be a terrible age to live in.

• And this post is for you if want to ask what history can tell us about 2020 and come away with hope. Because comparing 2020 to the Renaissance does give me hope, but it’s not the hope of sitting back expecting the gears of history to grind on toward prosperity, and it’s not the hope for something like the Renaissance—it’s hope for something much, much better, but a thing we have to work for, all of us, and hard…

University of Chicago historian, novelist, and composer Ada Palmer (@Ada_Palmer): “Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages.”

* Conficius

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As we look back, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to al-Ghazali; (he was born (as nearly a scholars can figure) on this date in 1057.  One of the most prominent and influential philosophers, theologians, jurists, and mystics of Sunni Islam, he published prolifically– perhaps most notably here, the Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (“Incoherence of the Philosophers”), a significant landmark in the history of philosophy, as it advanced the critique of Aristotelian science developed later in 14th-century Europe.  Indeed, al-Ghazali has been credited with kicking off what has been called “the Golden Age of Arabic philosophy.”

Al+Ghazali+2 source

 

Written by LW

July 5, 2020 at 1:01 am

“At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles”*…

 

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Medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating. And concentration was their lifelong work! Their tech was obviously different from ours. But their anxiety about distraction was not. They complained about being overloaded with information, and about how, even once you finally settled on something to read, it was easy to get bored and turn to something else. They were frustrated by their desire to stare out of the window, or to constantly check on the time (in their case, with the Sun as their clock), or to think about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God. They even worried about getting distracted in their dreams.

Sometimes they accused demons of making their minds wander. Sometimes they blamed the body’s base instincts. But the mind was the root problem: it is an inherently jumpy thing. John Cassian, whose thoughts about thinking influenced centuries of monks, knew this problem all too well. He complained that the mind ‘seems driven by random incursions’. It ‘wanders around like it were drunk’. It would think about something else while it prayed and sang. It would meander into its future plans or past regrets in the middle of its reading. It couldn’t even stay focused on its own entertainment – let alone the difficult ideas that called for serious concentration.

That was in the late 420s. If John Cassian had seen a smartphone, he’d have forecasted our cognitive crisis in a heartbeat…

And he’d have had helpful hints– “How to reduce digital distractions: advice from medieval monks.”

* Ralph Waldo Emerson

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As we focus on focusing, we might recall that it was on this date in 1960, at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, a small Off-Broadway theater in New York City’s Greenwich Village, that The Fantasticks premiered.  A musical by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, based on the play The Romancers (Les Romanesques) by Edmond Rostand (who wrote the rather better known Cyrano de Bergerac), it ran for a total of 42 years (until 2002) and 17,162 performances, making it the world’s longest-running musical.

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Original Off-Broadway cast album cover

source

 

“I like a bad reputation”*…

 

middle-ages

 

There can be few more damning or more useless terms than “the Dark Ages.” They sound fun in an orcs‐and‐elves sort of way and suggest a very low benchmark from which we have since, as a race, raised ourselves up into the light—with the present day using as its soundtrack the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. But the damage the term does is immense. A simple little mental test is just to quickly imagine a European scene from that era. Now: was the sun shining? Of course not. The default way of thinking about the long, complex era that lasted from the final decades of the Roman Empire to somewhere around the Battle of Hastings is to assume it all looked like the cover of a heavy metal album.

One problem is that the older the period the more chances there are for its material production to be destroyed. Across Lotharingia [ed. note: one of three filial kingdoms born of the Carolingian Empire]  there has been century after century of rebuilding (with the re‐use of every available piece of old dressed stone) with most evidence of earlier churches and palaces removed in the process. In practical terms one cannot imagine that the vast, humorless bulk of Cologne Cathedral is merely the latest in a series stretching back to a Roman temple. Many of the great religious buildings of the Rhine have a display table showing somewhat conjectural models of their ancient predecessors, usually starting with a patronizing little wooden block, looking something like a skew‐whiff Wendy-house.

So great is the weight of “the Dark Ages” on our shoulders that it is almost impossible not to think of the makers of this wonky church slithering about on the mud floor cursing the way the roof was leaking and how nobody could design a door that shut properly, resigned to the occasional fiasco when the walls would simply fall in on the gurning, fur‐clad, battle‐axe‐wielding communicants. In practice, these now non‐existent buildings would have been extremely beautiful—drawing on Roman and Byzantine models, and stuffed with all kinds of wonderful stuff from the Roman Empire which now no longer exists…

History flickers in and out of darkness, regardless of the period: “The ‘Dark Ages’ weren’t as dark as we thought.”

* Joan Jett

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As we rehabilitate history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1336 that Petrarch— the father of Humanism, and the man whom many credit with launching the Renaissance– climbed Mt. Ventoux…  not because he needed to, but because he wanted to experience it.  His letter recounting the ascent, still widely cited in books and journals devoted to mountaineering, is cited by scholars as a “strikingly modern” attitude of aesthetic gratification in the grandeur of the scenery.

But more importantly, Petrarch climbed with a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions.  He read from it on his trek, and wrote

I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. […] [W]e look about us for what is to be found only within. […] How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation…

James Hillman argues that this rediscovery of the inner world is the real significance of the Ventoux event. The Renaissance begins, Hillman suggests, not with the ascent of Mont Ventoux but with the subsequent descent—the “return […] to the valley of soul.”

 source

 

 

Written by LW

April 26, 2019 at 1:01 am

“How does it happen that trade, which after all is nothing more than the exchange of products of various individuals and countries, rules the whole world”*…

 

Expandable version here

The map above is probably the most detailed map of Medieval Trade Routes in Europe, Asia and Africa in the 11th and 12th centuries you can find online. It includes major and minor locations, major and minor routes, sea routes, canals and roads.

martinjanmansson [see here] explains that:

Even before modern times the Afro-Eurasian world was already well connected. This map depicts the main trading arteries of the high middle ages, just after the decline of the Vikings and before the rise of the Mongols, the Hansa and well before the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope…

Explore the global markets of the Middle Ages at: “An Incredibly Detailed Map Of Medieval Trade Routes.”

See also Michael Frachetti’s fascinating Long Now Seminar talk, “Open Source Civilization and the Unexpected Origins of the Silk Road.”

* Karl Marx, The German Ideology

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As we contemplate commerce, we might spare a thought for Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he died on this date in 1778.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.

 source

 

Written by LW

May 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!”*…

 

According to the Aberdeen Bestiary: “There is an animal called the Yale. It is black, as big as a horse, with the tail of an elephant, the jaws of a boar and unusually long horns, adjustable to any movement the animal might make. For they are not fixed but move as the needs of fighting require; the Yale advances one of them as it fights, folding the other back, so that if the tip of the first is damaged by a blow, it is replaced by the point of the second.”

Also from the Aberdeen Bestiary, “in Asia an animal is found which men call Bonnacon. It has the head of a bull, and thereafter its whole body is of the size of a bull’s with the maned neck of a horse. Its horns are convoluted, curling back on themselves in such a way that if anyone comes up against it, he is not harmed. But the protection which its forehead denies this monster is furnished by its bowels. For when it turns to flee, it discharges fumes from the excrement of its belly over a distance of three acres, the heat of which sets fire to anything it touches. In this way, it drives off its pursuers with its harmful excrement.”

From a 13th century Bestiary by Hugh of Fouilloy: “There is a beast in the sea which is called a Sawfish, and has immense wings. When this beast has seen a ship making sail on the ocean, it raises its wings above the water and competes with the ship in sailing. (But when it has competed in sailing or racing against the ship) for 30 or 40 furlongs, being unable to sustain the exertion, it gives up, and lowering its wings draws them in. And the waves of the sea carry it back again, tired out, to its own place in the deep.”

These and other curious critters that may or may not have ever existed– but were featured in medieval Bestiaries— at “Ten Strange Medieval Animals You Might Not Have Heard Of.”

* William Golding, Lord of the Flies

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As we contemplate cryptozoology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1953, on the death of her father, George VI, that Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, became Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom (and of 16 of the 53 member states in the Commonwealth of Nations), and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

 source

 

Written by LW

February 6, 2015 at 1:01 am

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