Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"In Anno Domini ..." - Why The Middle Ages Rocked (and Why We Suck In Comparison)

You all knew it was only a matter of time before you heard something like this from me.

If there is one victim of groundless and irrational hatred on the part of Modernity, it would be the Medieval era.  You hear it/read it/see it everywhere - how the "Dark Ages" was nothing but a time of unrestrained tyranny, filth, superstition, intolerance, misogyny, and ignorance.  Hell, even the word "medieval" has become synonymous with images of disease-ridden peasants being hounded by fat corrupt clerics and nobles into terrorizing women, free-thinkers, and Jews - before they all fall dead of failing to wash their hands.  Thank Almighty Reason that the Enlightenment happened!  What I find simultaneously hilarious and infuriating (seriously, I twitch in a homicidal manner when listening to "enlightened moderns" engage in medieval-bashing) about this scenario is that the very civilization they are tearing into is also where half of what they take for granted as "modern" came from in the first place.  Seriously.  Keep making yourself feel good about your moral relativism and your secularism by flinging ideological mudpies at the very men and women that without whom, our own civilization would have never even gotten off the ground.  In the following, I intend to take on each overused trope that most (undeservedly) self-righteous Moderns continue to tack onto the incredible monument that is Western Medieval civilization and, at the same time, show why our own criminally overrated civilization has utterly failed in comparison.

Before I get started, yes, I am totally aware that there have been a few other pieces written on this subject (hell, even Cracked.com made an attempt).  However, all the ones I've read still fall short of the mark - mostly for one reason that I will cover later.  So, in other words, I am fully aware that I'm not the first person to write about this, but mine will be better than them - deal with it.

"Medievals were ignorant"

Generally, this is the most common accusation thrown at the Middle Ages, although it often takes a myriad of different forms.  There's the "because they were all a bunch of superstitious church-goers" line, the "they were afraid of anything new or different" line, the "they just wanted an excuse to hate women/Jews/gays/pagans/someotherpetfadofmodernity" line.  Overall, the general consensus demands that we all believe that, magically, the human intellect took a collective nose-dive into the allegorical basement of a special-needs children's hospice the minute the last Roman Eagle came down and humanity was left with no other institution but *spit*gag* the Church to take charge of civilization.  However, let's look at the actual facts.
English Common Law, the University System, the Scientific Method, the Golden Mean, Gothic Architecture, Banking systems (NOT started by "persecuted Jews," but actually by *shocker* the Crusading military orders) ........ ever heard of any of these?  That's right, they were given to us courtesy of the time of "filth and ignorance."  Go look them up - I've got time.  Also, how about art and culture?  First off, to all the Classicists out there, the only reason Homer, Plato, Virgil, and Cicero saw the light of day again after the last Western Emperor gracefully ditched the purple to keep from being flayed alive was because Christian monks set about preserving every scrap of the old knowledge, art, and culture they could lay their hands on.  They weren't able to get it all, but what they did get they copied and handed down - that's right, copied ... by hand.  Give that some thought the next time you brag to someone about your 45-page "masterpiece" you did at the last minute in order to graduate from college.  Oh, and the Church didn't just copy this stuff and stash it away - once the new nations gradually civilized themselves (ie. usually involving converting to *gag*choke* Christianity), the Church founded institutions of learning that eventually became so entrenched in Western civilization that the very same system is still alive today.  Furthermore, learning in the Medieval period wasn't some arbitrary progression of "levels" that everyone slogged through so they could "get a good job" - being a scholar was a life-long calling.  Scholar was an actual profession in that time - they were men (and women) whose sole purpose in life was to seek out the Truth and teach what they had found along the way to others, usually for little to no compensation.  Many of them were attached to religious orders in order to live, but this association did little to hamper their intellectual pursuits - some of them even made important *BIGshocker* scientific discoveries long before Moderns claim they were made.
In the visual and literary arts, the Medievals were unmatched.  The great Gothic cathedrals, arising from the same spiritual revitalization that inspired the Crusades, still stand as some of the greatest artistic and engineering masterpieces mankind has to offer.  The illuminated manuscripts - some dating as early as the 700s AD - are unparalleled in their painstaking intricacy and beauty ... not to mention in the skill of their creators.  What's even better about these is that they are still around and still just as relevant to men's souls as they were then.  Think about that the next time you step inside another cookie-cutter temple of modern consumerism.  The Italian Renaissance (1345 - late 16th Century) - a movement Modernity smugly claims as a historical period unto itself - is credited as one of the greatest intellectual and cultural advancements of humanity and it took full flight while both a world war (the Hundred Years War) and the worst pandemic in the history of mankind (the Black Death) simultaneously raged across Europe.  Put that in perspective - take a good look at our own "enlightened" society, throw in a world war and an unstoppable plague that wipes out a third of of our population and imagine what kind of "cultural blossoming" would occur despite it.  Pretty depressing, isn't it?

"Medievals were filthy"

Somehow (again, must be that anti-Reason magic of "God-lovers"), a civilization that gave us Chartres cathedral, the Summa Theologica, Magna Carta, and the University never knew how to wash their own hands.  Doesn't make a whole lot of sense when you think about it that way.  Many Medieval cities still possessed functioning sewage systems left behind by Roman engineers.  Others simply reverse engineered effective waste removal grids from Roman era remnants.  Some still function to this day.  Walk through any major city today and you will find areas of appalling filth - it's just a human thing for some reason.  No, they didn't have air-conditioning, electric power, hand-sanitizers, antibiotics, or flushing toilets ....... but then, neither does most of the rest of the world today and humanity as a whole seems to be doing just fine.  In fact, there's some substantial (but suppressed) arguments out there that some of our "clean living" may not actually be all that good for us in the long run.
Of course, any discussion on Medieval hygiene always eventually arrives at the Black Death.  Something along the lines of "well, if they had only practiced good bathing habits instead of praying and being all religious all the time, that wouldn't have happened."  First off, Medievals had excellent personal hygiene - in fact, better than a lot of Americans I know.  Second, holding up the Black Death as being the fault of the Medieval man's actions is like saying the KT Extinction Event was somehow egged on by the dinosaurs.  It was literally a fluke catastrophe that would have been just as deadly if it struck today as it was in 1347AD.  What made it so lethal was the combination of several preceding decades of what is now known as the beginning of the "Little Ice Age" (1350-1850AD) with general malnutrition due to decades of moderately poor harvests.  Also, remember, as of 1337AD, there was currently the Medieval equivalent of a world war raging between England and France and their respective allies all across France, the Low Countries, Spain, and Northern Italy, making all those places ripe for disease to spread.  Finally, the pathogen that was mostly responsible for the overwhelming death toll wasn't even normal bubonic plague (a disease still alive and well if you talk to anyone from the Mountain States) - it was a pneumonic mutation that could kill (and still can) within days of infection.  And, somehow, despite all this, Medieval society still managed to survive, function, and even experience a cultural renewal.  Again, apply those same circumstances to our own society - where people lose their effing minds when the power is out for a few days - and quit with the "Black Death" criticism.

"The Middle Ages were ruled by tyrants/bigots/misogynists"

Once again, Modernity's flawless logical theorem that states, "Christianity is bad.  Medieval society was Christian.  Ergo, Medieval society was ... just ... bad, somehow" strikes again.  The Crusades, the Inquisitions, Male domination of society, the "persecuted" Jews ...... it's all mashed up into a smorgasbord of anti-modern, politically incorrect "tales from the crypt" that, I swear, progressives use to scare their 1.5 kids with at night.  Oh, and almost all of it is bulls**t.
Ladies first.  Ever heard of this weird, quaint little term called "Chivalry?"  You know, that thing American women keep saying is dead, right before they immediately fling themselves at the first J Crew-sporting pop-music-video wannabe douchebag that crosses their path?  That thing that made men from better generations ago open doors for women, defend women, talk politely to women, place women in lifeboats first, etc.?  That all started with the Medievals.  Before the Middle Ages, the West still operated by the Greco-Roman mentality, which pretty much viewed women as inferiors to men.  It was mostly a benevolent inferiority, but things like property rights, inheritance, and political leadership were out of the question.  Then, Greco-Roman society gave way (violently) in the West to Germanic societies in which women often held equal status with men.  This fit very nicely into Christian principles (yes - Christianity actually encouraged forms of equality) and the concept of knightly chivalry was born.  Medieval history is crammed full of women who distinguished themselves as scholars, artists, theologians, great leaders, and even commanders on the field of battle.  Jean le Bel - a knight-turned-cleric who masterfully recorded the early years of the Hundred Years War - had nothing but the highest praise for Countess Joanna de Montfort, who singlehandedly led and defended Brittany against the French crown after her husband's death.  Spirited women were celebrated in Medieval society, but they always remained women.  A key element of the chivalric code was the exaltation of women as an ideal worthy of men fighting and dying for.  Oftentimes, Courtly Romances remained platonic - a knight would fight and potentially give his life for a woman he would never get anything from due to her marriage.  Good luck finding that kind of devotion today, all you "liberated" women.

Then comes the interactions between peoples of different faiths and cultures.  Even here, the Medievals outshine us.  "But what about the *snarl*knashingofteeth* CRUSADES?!!!"  Yes, let's look at those real quick.  First off, the Crusades were a response (a rather late one, at that) to almost 500 years of non-stop Islamic aggression against the entire Western world.  The Byzantine Empire, the Old Rome's last holdout in the East and guardian of the land of Christ's birth, had suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of men sworn to "slay the infidel, wherever they are found."  The holy sites were lost and, even worse, fellow Christians were being terrorized and martyred.  In our day, the most we might do is post some infomercial for charity and say some prayers before going on with life as usual.  In those heady days of red-blooded faith, when the fires of true reform had spread from Cluny and a pope had triumphed over an emperor, men of war would pick up swords solely for the sake of an ideal and would carry the Cross back to Jerusalem.  They would then hold it for just shy of 200 years - establishing a society of religious freedom and tolerance not seen in the Levant since then.  Even Muslim writers from the times attest to this.  The Inquisitions?  Those happened locally in Spain for only a brief time before they were actually stopped by the Church and don't even remotely (even when combined with the Crusades) come close to the estimated death tolls of modern-day democides ("death by government").  Were there evil men involved with these efforts?  Of course, as with anything we fallen humans are involved with.  Answer me truthfully - how have we improved on that ... at all?  Besides Crusades and heresies, Medieval society could be incredibly cosmopolitan.  Jewish persecution was much less frequent than portrayed, and even the few times it did happen, the Church was usually the first to step in and stop it.  St. Thomas Aquinas regularly read and even met with Jewish and Muslim scholars of his day - he was especially fond of the Semitic Aristotelians whom he referenced quite often in the Summa.
Lastly, if there was one thing Medievals had no time or patience for, it was tyranny.  Too often, moderns confuse the autocratic privilege of the Enlightenment-era Old World with the Middle Ages.  The two could not be more different.  There were no "enlightened despots" cavorting about while peasants and serfs died from neglect.  The Medieval ideal of leadership was as harsh and demanding as it was unforgiving.  Men would follow leaders who inspired them, those that couldn't typically didn't end well.  With social status came incredible responsibilities.  Kings and nobles were expected to not only lead armies, but to be the first ones into the fight.  Those that didn't, like Philip IV of France or Edward II of England, were universally despised by friend and foe alike.  This started at shockingly young ages - Edward "the Black Prince" won his spurs at Crecy at the age of 16; the beloved Henry V of Agincourt-fame won his at the age of 15, commanding his father's right flank and taking a Welsh arrow to the face.  In contrast, imagine where we were at 15.  Nobles that abused their peasants often met with bloody ends and the concept of rights for all classes was not something new, even if codifying them in a Charter was.  The great Aquinas would write a thesis on proper kingship in 1267AD from which many of the central ideas would be shamelessly plagiarized by Enlightenment thinkers.  What the Medievals did not have was an idolatrous love affair with all things "democratic."  All men were equally fallen and no one class was infallible - certainly not the mob.  Each man, woman, and child had a specific role to play, and that role came with duties and responsibilities that only they were expected to fulfill.  The individual was not deified and not everyone "could grow up to be an astronaut."  At the end of the day, duty - duty for Faith, King, and family - came first for those in the Middle Ages ... and they were strangely comfortable with that.

Why They Were Better

At long last, I come to the point that no other Medieval de-bunking article would cover: why does Modernity continue to misrepresent the Middle Ages?  Why do they ignore the enormous abundance of evidence and insist on wrecking the memory of perhaps the West's finest hour?  Perhaps I just answered the question.  Modernity is founded on the ideals of progressivism - ideals that exalt the fallen individual to a god-like status, that call for total egalitarianism at the expense of true leadership, and that deny any objective truth for the sake of a culture of moral chaos.  And look where it's gotten us.  We live in a civilization in which instant gratification is king, self-entitlement is the norm, comfort comes before principle, safety comes before heroism, and the Truth is whatever everyone wants it to be.  Authority, per the guidelines of the Cult of Democracy, is questioned simply to be questioned - but leaders whose sole quality is appealing to the whims of a mob remain untouched in the highest positions of power.  Craftsmanship is nearly extinct and art is simply the self-absorbed fantasy of the artist.  Happiness and fulfillment have been delegated to consumer goods - and both are in scant supply.  Why would they want us to remember what had been?
For all their flaws (that they honestly owned up to), the Medievals knew how to live, how to love, how to fight, and how to die.  Also, he actually believed in what he claimed to.  He didn't treat the Faith like a safety blanket solely meant for his own comfort - being a Christian meant certain duties were required of him, duties that could demand of him even his very life.  It was a time of men - men who would gladly die for an ideal.  It was a time of women - women secure in their authentic femininity and who could command the respect and devotion of even the most hardened of warriors.  A time when great works were crafted for God and to help countless future generations seek out His Beauty.  A time when great artists fashioned mighty works, and then left them to posterity without even signing their name to them.
I suppose what I admire so much about the Middle Ages was how genuine they were compared to our own times.  Whether good or evil, their deeds were genuine.  To be a truly great civilization, a certain amount of humility is needed - a humility that reminds you that you cannot solve all problems and right all wrongs, that you are just as flawed and fallen as all the rest, and that, at the End of All Things, there is Another to Whom we must all answer.  Some may accuse me of finishing this by romanticizing a single period of history, but, from what I've seen of the Medieval Era, they deserve it far more than we ever will.

1 comment:

  1. I really like that you link to different articles about the things you talk about - it is very helpful!

    Great post. Insightful and coherent.

    ReplyDelete