Friday, September 10, 2010

A Brief Summary of Medieval History

George Grant, The Last Crusader: The Untold Story of Christopher Columbus

Interestingly, that medieval period has commonly been described as the Dark Ages—as if the light of civilization had been unceremoniously snuffed out for a time. It has similarly been dubbed The Middle Ages—as if it were a sort of gaping parenthesis in mankind’s long upward march to modernity.

It was in fact, anything but dark or middling. Perhaps our greatest fault today is that we limit ourselves by a chronological parochialism. It is difficult for us to attribute anything but backwardness to those epochs and cultures that do not share our goals and aspirations.

The medieval period was actually quite remarkable for its many advances—perhaps unparalleled in all of history. It was a true nascence, while the epoch that followed was but a re-nascence. It was a new and living thing that gave flower to a culture marked by energy and creativity. From the monolithic security of Byzantium’s imperias in the east to the reckless diversity of Christendom’s fiefs in the west, it was a glorious crazy quilt of human fabrics, textures, and hues.

Now to be sure, the medieval world was racked with abject poverty, ravaging plagues, and petty wars—much like our own days. It was haunted by superstition, prejudice, and corruption—as is the modern era. And it was beset by consuming ambition, perverse sin, and damnable folly—again, so like today. Still, it was free from the kind of crippling sophistication, insular ethnocentricity, and cosmopolitian provincialism that now shackles us—and so it was able to advance astonishingly.

The titanic innovations medievalism brought forth were legion: it gave birth to all the great universities of the world from Oxford and Cambridge to Leipzig to Mainz; it oversaw the establishment of all the great hospitals of the world from St. Bartholomew’s and Bedlam in London to St. Bernard’s and Voixanne in Switzerland; it brought forth the world’s most celebrated artists from Michaelangelo Buonarotti and Albert Durer to Leonardo da Vinci and Jan van Eyck; it gave us the splendor of Gothic architecture—unmatched and unmatchable to this day—from Notre Dame and Chartes to Winchester and Cologne; it thrust out into howling wilderness and storm tossed seas the most accomplished explorers from Amerigo Vespucci and Marco Polo to Vasco da Gama and John Cabot; it produced some of the greatest minds and most fascinating lives mankind has yet known—were the list not so sterling it might begin to be tedious—Copernicus, Dante, Giotto, Becket, Gutenberg, Chaucer, Charlemagne, Wyclif, Magellan, Botticelli, Donatello, Petrarch, and Aquinas.

But of all the great innovations that medievalism wrought, the greatest of all was spiritual. Medieval culture—both east and west—was first and foremost Christian culture. Its life was shaped almost entirely by Christian concerns. Virtually all of its achievements were submitted to the cause of the Gospel. From great cathedrals and gracious chivalry to bitter Crusades and beautiful cloisters, every manifestation of its presence was somehow tied to its utter and complete obeisance to Christ’s kingdom.

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