Those dreary, stagnant Middle Ages

"and from the 11th century until the slump and crisis of the 14th and 15th centuries stretch the High Middle Ages, and epoch of economic growth, territorial expansion and dynamic cultural and social change.

"The vitality of European society between the late 10th and early 14th centuries can be seen in many spheres of life. The scale and speed of production and distribution were transformed: the population grew, the cultivated area expanded, urbanization and commercialization restructured economic and social life. Alongside the spread of money, and of banking and business devices, there developed in some areas a level of manufacturing activity that had never previously been attained. The same creativity is found in social organization. in many areas of life fundamental institutions and structures were given their decisive shape in the centuries: the incorporated town, the university, central representative bodies, the international orders of the Roman Catholic Church--all date from this epoch." -- Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe, p. 2


  1. The spread of money, yes, this is crucial.

    But vitality?? By their standards, sure. Not by ours. If we're speaking today of the vitality of an earlier age, we might want to stress that what they saw as vitality, we would see as an economic ice age.

    Is it an old book, Bartlett's book?

    1. Nope, Arthurian, absolutely not. It is a fairly recent book. It is you who are behind the times in your understanding of the Middle Ages. Of course, it did not have the frenzied pace of our age, but it was as creative as any previous time in human history.

    2. It is very interesting that you suspect it must be an old book to have dispute: The exact opposite is true. The view of the middle ages as backward and stagnant was the creation of enlightenment philosophes, and it has been steadily debunked by the last 100 years of historical scholarship.

    3. Whoops, Siri: "dispute " was supposed to be "that view."

    4. "The view of the middle ages as backward and stagnant was the creation of enlightenment philosophes…"

      You should a post summarizing the major points where the Enlightenment philosophers went wrong.

  2. Gene, I think one of the reasons that Enlightenment thinkers saw the Middle Ages as stagnant is that pretty much all the (pre-Enlightenment) works they were trying to refute/improve upon had been written by people living well before the fall of the Roman Empire. If they were mistaken about the intellectual stagnation of the Middle Ages, then what's the real explanation for why Aristotle's physics was dominant for two millennia with only small tinkering around the edges? Why was Immanuel Kant able to find a missing step in the proof of the first theorem of Euclid's Elements, which countless generations of geometers hadn't noticed?

  3. Forgive me GC. I am always looking for people from whom I can learn. But I don't present my thoughts as though they were tentative.

    "It is you who are behind the times in your understanding of the Middle Ages."

    No doubt :) I am behind the times today as well. // Actually I wasn't thinking Bartlett's book is old; I was thinking it's NOT old. I like the older view (I suppose I was brought up on it).

    If one thinks of the world as a sphere, then people on the opposite side are upside-down compared to us.

    If one thinks of economic history as a cycle then, again, people on the opposite side are upside down compared to us. If the cycle is 2000 years, then 1000 years marks the opposite. 1000 years before the "Enlightenment" was the "Dark Age". I am pretty happy with this kind of thinking.

    We, ourselves, come some time after the Enlightenment. We also come some time after what Toynbee called the "modern" era, if memory serves. On the cycle, we are in motion toward another Dark Age. I find it amusing that in this post-modern, soon-to-be-dark era, people are changing the story that came out of the Enlightenment. These days, the story is that the Dark Age was somehow a time of Wisdom.

    It seems we are preparing for our Future.

    Human nature doesn't change much. Were people "creative" in the Middle Ages? Sure. But the economic environment was different. The "frenzied pace of our age" of which you speak -- the "rat race" my mother used to say -- this is the metabolism of the economy when there is soon to be crisis and decline and Dark Age. It is this metabolism that leads to those things.

    The rapid, frenetic pace explains the rapidity of the decline when it comes. After the rapid decline, the metabolism is suddenly different, suddenly much slower, almost stopped. So then it takes a very long time to rebuild. On a smaller scale we have seen this happen since the late 2000s, but that was only a ~100-year cycle, not the Cycle of Civilization.

    The rapid decline is what happens when the economic metabolism slows.

  4. Please see my new post inspired by your comments.

  5. My favourite book is the Decameron by Boccaccio. One of the reasons why is that when I read it, in 1977, I realized that everything I thought I knew about the middle ages was wrong. Gene is right, and the popular view is a myth.

    1. After I had stayed in Siena Italy for two weeks, I had to bring my kids over: here was the Middle Ages surviving in stone and wood, and I wanted to show them how beautiful their creations were.

    2. I was only in Sienna for a day alas. But in parts of York and other places in England Westminster Abbey you can still see it. Florence too.

  6. I agree with prof. Callahan that the common view of middle age as a dark age is largelly due to the 18th century "philosophes" (and mostly French). I'd add that they had an axe to grind. As Free thinkers and libertines, their ennemy was the Catholic Church (and not necessarily the monarchy or absolute power) and therefore the Middle Age, a time where the Church had enourmus power and influence, had to be the dark age of superstition and misery.
    That view was during the last third of the next century the official view spread in public schools by the French Third Republic, ferociously anti-catholic (under the cover of being anti-clericalism).
    Think of the marvelous gothic cathedrals that were erected during that age, all over Western and Central Europe. Speaking of the cathedrals, I commented elswhere that Belgian philosopher Maurice de Wulf, lamenting of the decline of Scholastic philosophy, on which rested morality, and therefore the State and true social life, wrote:
    “Shortly before the war, I saw the Cathedral of Strasbourg. A crack tore the facade of the main tower, and it was necessary to establish a scaffold to prevent the collapse of the building. A friend told me that the architects of the Middle Ages had built the cathedral on stilts made of powerful oak tree trunks, which had survived the centuries because they had been bathing in layers of water, but that recent drainage works had this unexpected result to dry the ancient trunks and compromise their strength. — Invisible and underground, they had hitherto supported the wonderful Gothic jewel, without anyone suspecting their vital function of their presence.”
    Doesn't our vitality rest on what was built in those past ages ? After all, even from an economic point of view, our age is (in the west) so productive because we have so much accumulated capital, starting with the agricutural land that wouldn't be productive without the sweat with which our forefathers fertilized the land.
    (De Wulf's original paper is in French, an "old article" : De Wulf Maurice, L’individu et le groupe dans la scolastique du XIIIe siècle. In: Revue néo-scolastique de philosophie. 22° année, N°88, 1920. pp. 341-357. )


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