Middle Ages

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In European history, the Middle Ages, or Medieval period, lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: Antiquity, Medieval period, and Modern period. The Medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, the High, and the Late Middle Ages.


"Many books were written in the middle age; but... sometimes the more copies, the more variations there were from the original."
Image: Pisan lelivredestroisvertus
  • We know Chaucer in the only way in which the greater authors generally have cared to be known. ...All we need further in the way of fact is some knowledge of the literary conditions of his time. Publication in our modern sense there was none. So long as copies were still made laboriously by hand, circulation was very slow and very limited. Authors wrote for few readers; they had to depend largely for the spread of their works on patrons in positions of influence; and they were never certain that any two copies would be exactly alike. Many books were written in the middle age; but only the most popular of them were circulated in many copies, and sometimes the more copies, the more variations there were from the original. ...authors were at the mercy of the scriveners, or copyists... If the books that a medieval author wrote were thus scarce, dear and inaccurate, so often were the books that he read. The change wrought in this respect by the printing press is too great for us to realize without a strong effort of imagination. ...in Chaucer's time twenty books were a considerable collection, such as would not often be seen outside of the monastic and cathedral libraries ...Nor were even the libraries of cathedrals and monasteries either large or accessible according to our modern habits. ... Adding to the situation the slowness and difficulty of travel, one begins to realize that in the middle age wide reading was easy in only a few centers, and that even in these a man must sometimes have studied not so much what he wanted as what he could get.
  • Music historians have learned that the language and approach of musical theory in the Middle Ages were borrowed directly from medieval grammar and rhetoric.
    • Thomas Binkley Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music (1997) "The work is not the performance"
  • My own case for Christianity is rational; but it is not simple. It is an accumulation of varied facts, like the attitude of the ordinary agnostic. But the ordinary agnostic has got his facts all wrong. He is a non-believer for a multitude of reasons; but they are untrue reasons. He doubts because the Middle Ages were barbaric, but they weren't; because Darwinism is demonstrated, but it isn't; because miracles do not happen, but they do; because monks were lazy, but they were very industrious; because nuns are unhappy, but they are particularly cheerful; because Christian art was sad and pale, but it was picked out in peculiarly bright colours and gay with gold; because modern science is moving away from the supernatural, but it isn't, it is moving towards the supernatural with the rapidity of a railway train.
"The medieval saint's body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive."
Image: Sant'AndreafolleinCristo
  • No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint always has a very sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The medieval saint's body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real community of spirit between forces that produced symbols so different as that.
  • This volume, it is believed, contains all the most important tales which formed the great body of mediaeval legend or folk lore. ...for all who read them they must possess their old interest; and even over those who are unacquainted with the time-honoured romances, the heroes whose names they bear exercise in some faint measure the power of old associations. The wisdom of Merlin, the bravery of Bors and Guy, have almost passed into proverbs; and to not a few, probably, the name of Olger will bring up the image of the mighty Dane wrapped in the charmed slumber in which he lifts his mace once only in seven years. But a more potent spell is linked with the thought of Roland the brave and true, the peerless Paladin who fell on Roncesvalles. ...readers ...will obtain from it some adequate knowledge of the tales without having their attention and their patience overtaxed by a multiplicity of superfluous and therefore irksome details. Of the present version of the Arthur story, the most celebrated perhaps of all, it may be enough to say that it relates many important episodes which have been omitted in the versions recently published, while no attempt has been made to impart to the romance a more historical complexion than that which it received at the hands of Caxton's friend.
  • In reality, the so called science of the middle ages is scarcely worthy of the name. Infinitely inferior as compared with modern science, it was still more crude, more distorted, more fantastic and illusory than that of ancient times. Medieval man had no clear-eyed perception of the visible world, actuality possessed for him little value, that which really is and happens was without special significance in his eyes. What the medieval man saw he interpreted as a symbol, what he heard he understood as an allegory. Dante himself is our best witness that cultivated men of his age esteemed the speculative life vastly superior to the practical.
  • I have chosen the middle ages because, in spite of many diversities, they have a certain great stamp of unity, and, above all, of simplicity. The Englishman of the twelfth century had much more in common with the Frenchman and the German of his day than is the case now. They were all one in one faith, and all acknowledged one supreme spiritual head. The papal court was a common meeting place for the best intellects from all lands. There was one common language for all formal interchange of thought. There was one great system which separated all Europe into classes, and made all the members of a given class akin. A nation... had little influence on its neighbour, mingled seldom in that neighbour's quarrels.
  • The capacity to resist coercion stems partly from the individual's identification with a group. The people who stood up best in the Nazi concentration camps were those who felt themselves members of a compact party (the Communists), of a church (priests and ministers), or of a close-knit national group. The individualists, whatever their nationality, caved in. The Western European Jew proved to be the most defenseless. Spurned by the Gentiles (even those within the concentration camps), and without vital ties with a Jewish community, he faced his tormentors alone—forsaken by the whole of humanity. One realizes now that the Ghetto of the Middle Ages was for the Jews more a fortress than a prison. Without the sense of utmost unity and distinctness which the ghetto imposed upon them, they could not have endured with unbroken spirit the violence and abuse of those dark centuries. When the Middle Ages returned for a brief decade in our day, they caught the Jew without his ancient defenses and crushed him.
    • Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951) Ch.13 Factors Promoting Self-sacrifice, §45
"The notion that the existence of God, the truth of Christianity and the teaching authority of the Church should be a matter of hesitation or doubt, would have made any average medieval turn in his grave."
Image: Reims Cathedrale Notre Dame
  • Humanity in the past did certain things which fill us with horror. But on the other hand we are doing things now which would have filled humanity in the past with equal horror. If to us medieval intolerance causes creeps down the back, surely the tolerance of modern times, with the indifferentism inseparably bound up with it, would also have caused creeps down the back of the medieval. The notion that the existence of God, the truth of Christianity and the teaching authority of the Church should be a matter of hesitation or doubt, would have made any average medieval turn in his grave. To him these truths were as clear as the sun at noonday; so much so that any man who called them into question must be either hopelessly insane or hopelessly wicked.
  • Trees still dominated and it was the Teutonic farmers who first moved on to heavy soils... which entailed a heroic work of pioneering. The Saxons in England, in particular... exploited their new soils by means of the open-field system and a three-course rotation. ...to each township belonged a given area of land, the greater part of which was unreclaimed waste and not divided according to the share system, being common to all the villagers. Part of this untilled land was composed of meadows, and each householder had his turn at grazing stock or cutting grass... Arable strips were scattered all over the village holding, on the most suitable soils and sites, and a householder's share consisted of a number of strips, distributed fairly, so that he would have some good soil, some indifferent and some poor. There were cases in which villagers were shuffled round at intervals, moving on to a new holding, in order that equity might be even more rigorously observed. ...the householder's absolute right over his share endured only during the season of cultivation, to lapse after harvest, when his strips reverted into the common field, and to be resumed in the following ploughing time. Moreover, even during the season of cultivation, his right was limited by custom and the decision of the tenants in council as to what should be sown, when, how cultivated and when the harvest should be carried. Thus, the rotation of the crops on all arable land of the village was managed as one piece, and each shareholder grew the same crop in a given season. The rule was wheat, followed by beans or oats, followed by fallow. Manuring consisted of driving the cattle belonging to all the villagers on to the stubble after harvest. This system would not have done much to improve the soil, but nor would it have consumed it, or only very slowly. Generally speaking, the men and the soil of the whole medieval period held each other in balance, and there is not much evidence that the weight and quality of crops were any less at the end of than at the beginning of the period. It seems probable, however, that there was a very slow consumption of soil fertility, and that the stability of the manorial land-tenure practice, its very long endurance, was in itself mildly pernicious.
  • During the Middle Ages, human life was generally held in small respect; various judicial institutions—if not altogether secret, at least more or less enveloped in mystery—were remarkable for being founded on the monstrous right of issuing the most severe sentences with closed doors, and of executing these sentences with inflexible rigour on individuals who had not been allowed the slightest chance of defending themselves. While passing judgment in secret, they often openly dealt blows as unexpected and terrible as they were fatal. Therefore, the most innocent and the most daring trembled... terrible as these mysterious institutions were, the general credulity, the gross ignorance of the masses, and the love of the marvellous, helped not a little to render them even more outrageous and alarming than they really were.
  • The Gothic... stands out as exclusively a western style, but even this came as a short summer time, fulfilling a long growth from widespreading roots, nourished by the rivers of Eden. There is much more of the East in Gothic, in its structure and fibre, than is outwardly visible. To account for Gothic we have to account for its historic basis and for the whole atmosphere of mysticism, chivalry, and work-enthusiasm, with all the institutions, monastic, romantic, and social, which formed its environment. Looking at the slow preparation for, and the rapid passing of, western gothic art, and considering the sudden and entire breakdown of its traditions and ideals, I am drawn to the conclusion that the causes which underlay this art are to be found in a long infiltration of the Oriental spirit to the point of saturation, and then the bursting out of the new, yet old, energy shaped to northern requirements.
  • The human imagination has seldom had before it an object so sublimely ordered as the medieval cosmos. If it has an aesthetic fault, it is perhaps, for us who have known romanticism, a shade too ordered. For all its vast spaces it might in the end afflict us with a kind of claustrophobia. Is there nowhere any vagueness? No undiscovered by-ways? No twilight? Can we never really get out of doors?
  • I am of course aware that there were other influences on Scott besides medieval literature and that sometimes there are alternative sources for a particular motif or detail or point of style. I cannot always pin Scott down to a medieval source to the exclusion of other possible sources. In such cases it is altogether conceivable that three or four or more literary works from different periods of literary history were on his mind at the same time. If so, I am inclined to believe that medieval romance weighed most heavily because of his utter fascination with literature of this sort during his formative years. Although he also read widely in other literature at an early age, ballads and old romances were his passion. ...I point out what Scott has borrowed and show how he has used the borrowing. When he has covered his tracks, I cannot always say which romance is involved... but the accumulation of interesting parallels provides good circumstantial evidence in support of my belief that medieval romance is the most important source for the Waverly Novels.
    • Jerome Mitchell, Scott, Chaucer, and Medieval Romance: A Study in Sir Walter Scott's Indebtedness to the Literature of the Middle Ages (1987)
"It was the individual who... was important in the eyes of God, not the community."
Fresco detail of The Effects of Good Government (1338)
  • There were no intellectuals as such in the Middle Ages; for the medieval man... society and its structures were once and for all given, namely as a reflection of the divine order, analogous in heaven and on earth. It was the individual who, through his participation in the mystical body of Christ and through his membership in the Church, was important in the eyes of God, not the community; it was the individual whose fate, sins, repentance, and salvation were the important matter; his submission to or defiance of the social order were not weighed in terms of benefit or loss to the latter, but in terms of whether he did or did not follow the divine decrée. ...the community was considered an instrument helping or hindering the individual's earthly course, not a goal in itself, but a testing ground for individual virtue or weakness.
    • Thomas Molnar, The Decline of the Intellectual (1961) Ch. 11 "Intellectual and Philosopher"
  • The reason for this contrast between the French and the Italian mediaeval literature is not far to seek. Allegory is a characteristically mediaeval form; and in Italy the Middle Ages began so late and the Renaissance came so early that that country never had the opportunity to fall completely under the spell that held France from the time of the Roman de la Rose till the end of the fifteenth century. Thus Petrarch, in spite of the fact that he wrote perhaps more pure allegory than any other Italian, was at the same time an enthusiast for the New Learning.
"We may grant the love discussions... an immense influence upon knightly conduct"
Image: Altstetten
  • I do not mean to say... that these love discussions... were without their influence upon the conduct and ideals of courtly life in the Middle Ages. ...the question of the existence of Courts of Love comes down to a question of jest or earnest, and the line between these is no easy one to draw. In our modern life we see men take to sport with all the seriousness of which they are capable, while others, quite literally, "play the game" of politics. An international yacht race moves men as deeply as a national election, and affects as permanently, ideals of conduct and the sense of honor. There is no reason to believe that business and play were any more clearly divided in the Middle Ages; and we may grant the love discussions of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter an immense influence upon knightly conduct without in any way invalidating the contention that these ladies and their courtiers were only playing a game.
  • The medieval social organization was a personal one. The relations between the squire and serf, between master and artisan, were direct, and sometimes intimate. The personal quality mitigated and obscured the social injustice and inequality...
    • Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932)
  • I have taken up the account of the production of books in Europe from the time of the downfall of the Empire of the West. I have endeavoured to show by what means, after the disappearance of the civilisation of the Roman State, were preserved the fragments of classic literature that have remained for the use of modern readers, and to what agencies was due the maintenance, throughout the confusion and social disorganisation of the early Middle Ages, of any intellectual interest or literary activities. I find such agencies supplied in the first place by the scribes of the Roman Church, the organisation of which had replaced as a central civilising influence the power of the lost Roman Empire. The scriptoria of the monasteries rendered the service formerly given by the copyists of the book-shops or of the country houses, while their armaria, or book chests, had to fill the place of the destroyed or scattered libraries of the Roman cities or the Roman villas. The work of the scribes was now directed not by an Augustus, a Mæcenas, or an Atticus, but by a Cassiodorus, a Benedict, or a Gregory, and the incentive to literary labour was no longer the laurel crown of the circus, the favours of a patron, or the honoraria of the publishers, but the glory of God and the service of the Church. Upon these agencies depended the existence of literature during the seven long centuries between the fall of the Western Empire and the beginning of the work of the universities, and, in fact, for many years after the foundation of the universities of Bologna and of Paris, the book-production of the monasteries continued to be of material importance in connection with the preservation of literature. ...In 1450 comes the invention of printing, which in revolutionising the methods of distributing intellectual productions, exercised such a complex and far-reaching influence on the thought and on the history of mankind.
  • There is almost never a sharp break nor a total dissimilarity between periods which adjoin in time. Thus the Middle Ages inherited much from ancient times, and many features of our present civilization may be traced back several centuries into medieval history. This illustrates how one age dovetails into its successor, no sharp line being drawn between them, but some features of the old life continuing for some time after innovations have been made in other respects.
  • Many of the greatest accomplishments of the Middle Ages were either anonymous or the work of countless laborers.
    • Lynn Thorndike, The History of Medieval Europe (1917)
  • The Middle Ages deserve our attention, partly because they contributed much to our modern civilization and because our study of them helps to explain many existing conditions. Then grew up our modern languages, then began modern literatures and universities, then developed the Roman Catholic Church and the states of France and England, then were discovered the mariner's compass, gunpowder, and printing. But the Middle Ages also merit our study because they had institutions and ideas which are gone and which are strange to us, but the study of which serves to widen our experience, broaden our outlook, and deepen our sympathies and understanding.
  • The primitive creative epoch in the history of Christianity was followed in the Middle Ages by a period especially characterized by the evolution of the consciousness of opposition between God and the world, priests and laity, church and state, and, in general, between the human spirit, on the one hand, and God, the human spirit itself and nature, on the other, and hence by the evolution of the sense of the limitation and bondage of man. The period of Modern Times, on the contrary, is marked, in the main, by the development of the consciousness of restored unity, and hence of the reconciliation and freedom of the human spirit. In the patristic period, philosophic thought stands in the closest union with theological speculation, and co-operates in the development of Christian dogma. In the Scholastic period it passes into the service of theology, being employed merely to reduce to scientific form a body of dogmatic teaching for the most part already at hand, by introducing a logical arrangement and bringing to its support philosophical doctrines from ante-Christian antiquity. In Modern Philosophy it gradually acquires, with reference to Christian theology and ancient philosophy, the character of an independent science as regards both form and content.
  • A common entry in Domesday is that in a particular place there is sufficient pasture for the cattle; sometimes, but more rarely, the mention of sufficient wood also occurs. In these cases the quantity of waste land was not even practically unlimited, and the modes of appropriation of its benefits and proceeds had to be devised and kept up for the sake of the community to avoid destruction and to prevent unfair advantage being taken by some of the participants. In this connection the common appears as included in the territory of a definite rural community, and the right to use it is said in later legal language to be appendant to the holdings of this community, nor is there any reasonable ground for supposing that the principles on which these rights were apportioned and regulated were altogether different in earlier times. Without vouching for details, we may suppose that the customary jurisprudence of the feudal age fairly represents the main ideas which prevailed among the Saxons.
  • Whether we have a half-servile community under a lord, or a village of socmen or other free people, the essential features of the map do not vary, and the customary arrangements are made and enforced by the community, possibly with more or less pressure from stewards and powerful people, but in the main on communal lines; so communal indeed, that even the strips of the lord's shares were in many cases intermixed with the rest and thus bound to submit to the plan of management and the rules laid down by the common consent of meetings of the shareholders.
    • Paul Vinogradoff, The Growth of the Manor (1905) Book II. The Old English Period, Ch. IV The Open Field System
"the first restorers of the antient philosophical sciences in Europe... were the Arabians"
Image: Cordoba Mezquita
  • After the calamities which the state of literature sustained in consequence of the incursions of the northern nations, the first restorers of the antient philosophical sciences in Europe... were the Arabians. In the beginning of the eighth century, this wonderful people, equally famous for their conquests and their love of letters, in ravaging the Asiatic provinces found many Greek books, which they read with infinite avidity: and such was the gratification... that they requested their caliphs to procure from the emperor at Constantinople the best Greek writers. These they carefully translated into Arabic. ...The Greek poetry they rejected, because it inculcated polytheism and idolatry, which were inconsistent with their religion. ...Of the Greek history they made no use, because it recorded events which preceded their prophet Mahomet. Accustomed to a despotic empire, they neglected the political systems of the Greeks, which taught republican freedom. For the same reasons they despised the eloquence of the Athenian orators. The Greek ethics were superseded by their Alcoran, and on this account they did not study the works of Plato. Therefore no other Greek books engaged their attention but those which treated of mathematical, metaphysical, and physical knowledge. Mathematics coincided with their natural turn to astronomy and arithmetic. Metaphysics, or logic, suited their speculative genius, their love of tracing intricate and abstracted truths... Physics, in which I include medicine, assisted the chemical experiments to which they were so much addicted: and medicine, while it was connected with chemistry and botany, was a practical art of immediate utility. Hence they studied Aristotle Galen and Hippocrates with unremitted ardour and assiduity: they translated their writings into the Arabic tongue, and by degrees illustrated them with voluminous commentaries. These Arabic translations of the Greek philosophers produced new treatises of their own, particularly in medicine and metaphysics. They continued to extend their conquests, and their frequent incursions into Europe before and after the ninth century, and their absolute establishment in Spain, imported the rudiments of useful knowledge into nations involved in the grossest ignorance, and unpossessed of the means of instruction. They founded universities in many cities of Spain and Africa. They brought with them their books, which Charlemagne... commanded to be translated from Arabic into Latin: and which... being quickly disseminated over his extensive dominions, soon became familiar to the western world. Hence it is, that we find our early Latin authors of the dark ages chiefly employed in writing systems of the most abstruse sciences: and from these beginnings the Aristotelic philosophy acquired such establishment and authority, that from long prescription it remains to this day the sacred and uncontroverted doctrine of our schools. From this fountain the infatuations of astrology took possession of the middle ages, and were continued even to modern times. To the peculiar genius of this people it is owing, that chemistry became blended with so many extravagancies, obscured with unintelligible jargon, and filled with fantastic notions, mysterious pretensions, and superstitious operations. And it is easy to conceive, that among these visionary philosophers, so fertile in speculation, logic and metaphysics contracted much of that refinement and perplexity, which for so many centuries exercised the genius of profound reasoners and captious disputants, and so long obstructed the progress of true knowledge. It may perhaps be regretted, in the mean time, that this predilection of the Arabian scholars for philosophic enquiries, prevented them from importing into Europe a literature of another kind. But rude and barbarous nations would not have been polished by the history, poetry, and oratory of the Greeks. Although capable of comprehending the solid truths of many parts of science, they are unprepared to be impressed with ideas of elegance, and to relish works of taste. Men must be instructed before they can be refined; and in the gradations of knowledge, polite literature does not take place till some progress has first been made in philosophy. Yet it is at the same time probable, that the Arabians, among their literary stores, brought into Spain and Italy many Greek authors not of the scientific species: and that the migration of this people into the western world, while it proved the fortunate instrument of introducing into Europe some of the Greek classics at a very early period, was moreover a means of preserving those genuine models of composition, and of transmitting them to the present generation.
  • Dogmatism demands for philosophical theories the submission of mind, due to those revealed religious doctrines which are to guide our conduct and direct our hopes: while Mysticism elevates ideas into realities, and offers them to us as the objects of our religious regard. Thus the Mysticism of the middle ages and their Dogmatism alike arose from not discriminating the offices of theoretical and practical philosophy. Mysticism claimed for ideas the dignity and reality of principles of moral action and religious hope: Dogmatism imposed theoretical opinions respecting speculative points with the imperative tone of rules of conduct and faith.
"These jousts, or tournaments, were the
chief delight of the middle ages" Charlotte Mary Yonge
  • It was the favourite amusement of the ladies of the castle to watch the sports and mock combats by which young men were trained, and they were often called on to declare the victor. Then the youths of two neighbouring castles would challenge each other, and gradually such contentions in prowess were held on a larger and larger scale, till they became almost battles; half the knights in the kingdom were engaged in them at once, and ladies sat in galleries ranged round to watch and encourage them, while the king himself on his throne, adjudged the prize, or threw down his staff to check the game if it became too dangerous. These jousts, or tournaments, were the chief delight of the middle ages, followed by feasts and dances, and by high honours to the most successful champion, who sometimes received his prize from the fairest of the ladies present, who was called the Queen of Beauty. Ladies were indeed of no small importance, according to the rules of chivalry. To win their favour was one of the chief objects held out to young knights, and discourtesy to them was one of the greatest offences that could be committed against the rules of the order. It was the part of the ladies to instruct the young pages in courteous manners, and also in their religious duties, and the lady of a castle stood in a far higher place of honour and confidence than women before these chivalrous days, except the few who raised themselves to eminence by their own deeds.

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