Thursday, August 06, 2009

Reawakening the West

‘When the wisdom of the ancient times was dead and had passed away, and our own days of light had not yet come, there lay a great black gulf in human history, a gulf of ignorance, of superstition, of cruelty, and of wickedness. That time we call the dark or Middle Ages.’

‘Popular opinion, journalistic cliché and misinformed historians aside, recent research has shown that the Middle Ages were a period of enormous advances in science, technology and culture’

‘A series of interlocked technical innovations—an agricultural revolution, new military technologies, and a dependence on wind and water for the generation of power—shaped the history of medieval Europe.....Europe transformed itself from a cultural backwater based on an economy scarcely more advanced than that of traditional Neolithic societies to a vibrant and unique, albeit aggressive, civilization that came to lead the world in the development of science and industry.’

The twelfth century is often referred to as the first renaissance for the Latin West, a time of great intellectual revitalisation in Europe. There were a few attempts from the period around 600 to 1000 to try to reorganise and reignite Latin culture in Europe after the traumatic collapse of Roman civilisation, but these tended to be largely local and short lived. The first real attempt was by Charlemagne who was crowned first king of the Franks and then in 800, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The so called ‘Carolingian Renaissance’ did have some effects, the most important being the edict he made stating that every cathedral and monastery must open a school. Charlemagne himself opened a palace school in his palace at Aachen and imported the English scholar Alcuin of York (705 - 804). The York school was renowned as a centre of learning not only in religious matters but also in the seven liberal arts. Sadly these nuances were lost on the Danish Vikings of Ivar the Boneless who managed to sack it in 866.

Alcuin was a superb teacher and scholar who copied out classical texts. He also wrote educational manuals, (rather homo-erotic) poetry and a large number of letters. Deciding that ‘the Lord was calling me to the service of King Charles’ , and with the support of Theodulf of Orleans, Alcuin brought in Anglo Saxon teaching methods, helped run a school for both clerical and laypeople and in addition, developed a new style of writing. The Carolingian script as it came to be called was easier to write and read and was also supposed to reproduce the way the Ancient Romans wrote (which it didn’t). Charlemagne’s edict was partially urged on by his concern that even the clergy were not well educated and it took some time for it to take effect. Alcuin had written to Charlemagne that ‘If your zeal were imitated by others, we might see a new Athens rising up in Francia, more splendid than the old’ yet reviving the intellectual culture was a rather sluggish process because of the instability of Europe in this period up until the 11th century.

(It was also Alcuin who said ‘those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness’, something that remains true today, as evidenced by the Guardian’s comment is free section.)

The cultural flowering of the 12th century was sparked by a number of different factors. The first was that the barbarian raids dramatically declined in frequency. These raids, a long torment of rapine, invasion and plunder by enemies from all sides, had contributed to the gradual attrition and collapse of the Roman Empire and continued throughout the Early Middle Ages. By the Tenth century they had begun to dwindle. This allowed for the resumption of a stable coastal life and trade once again.

The second factor was the surge of the European population in the 1100s. It is very difficult to estimate what the population of Europe was in the Middle Ages, but scholars have suggested that it doubled in that century. It may even have quadrupled in a very short period of time. This meant more urbanism which allowed more division of labour. More division of labour brought more leisure time, all of which meant more space for intellectual development (Interestingly the Greek word ‘schole’ from which scholar emerges means ‘leisure’, because scholars are leisured people; apparently).
How was this population supported?. It has been suggested that there was a widespread climactic change in the period from about 1000 to 1200 in which the weather was warmer and wetter than usual. There is some evidence this is actually the case (this was the time when the Norsemen were able to colonise Greenland and sail to North America).

A critical development was the enhancement of technology which was greatly improved at the time and is covered in chapter one of ‘God’s Philosophers’. One important innovation was the horse collar. This proved superior to the old method of harnessing which used a bar across the chest of the horse (the throat-girth harness). This meant that as soon as the horse started pulling it would cut off its windpipe, thus meaning the Romans, who had used it, could not extract the maximum work from their animals. The arrival of the horse collar would allow the full use of horse power.

The widespread use of water wheels also emerged at this time. The Romans because of their slave culture did not worry about where to get power from (there were always cheap slaves). They had begun to do some interesting things with water power in the last centuries of the empire because the supply of slaves had shrunk, but by this time it was too late; order and trade had collapsed.

In the Middle Ages ,water and wind technology started developing to a greater extent. Undershot waterwheels were constructed at many sites across the western European landscape. In England alone, there were 5,624 mills by 1086 and far more on the continent .Wind was harnessed to turn windmills and tidal flow to drive tidal mills. This required the mastery of older kinds of mechanical gearing and linkage. New kinds would have to be invented including accessories such as cranks and toothed gears. These made it possible to use power at a distance, to alter it’s direction and convert it from rotary to reciprocating motion. Millwrights were increasingly able to perform an increasing variety of tasks, to grind corn, to pound cloth, hammer metal and, most importantly, mash hops for beer. Saw mills, flour mills, and hammer mills sprung up and windmills were used to reclaim land from the sea. That combined with crop rotation produced more food, which meant less work and more leisure time and so forth.

As a result, Medieval Europe rapidly became the first great civilization not to be run primarily by human muscle power. The History and Economic Professor David S Landes goes so far as to call the society of Europe in the Middle Ages ‘one of the most inventive societies history had even known’. As James McClellen writes in ‘Science and Technology in World History’:

'Europeans perfected water- and wind-driven mills, the spring catapult (or trebuchet), and a host of other devices, and in so doing they drew on new sources of nonhuman motive power. Their civilization was literally driven by comparatively more powerful “engines” of wind and water which tapped more energy of one sort or another than anywhere else in the world. Medieval Europeans have been described as “power-conscious to the point of fantasy,” and by dint of the medieval fascination with machines, more than other cultures European civilization came to envision nature as a wellspring of power to be exploited technologically for the benefit of humankind. This distinctive attitude toward nature has had powerful and increasingly dire consequences.'

See also:

How Dark were the Dark Ages? - James Hannam
Medieval Science and Justinian I - James Hannam
Stirrups, Horse Harnesses and Richard Carrier - James Hannam
The Medieval Technology Pages - Paul J Gans
The Great Harness Controversy - Paul J Gans
The Great Stirrup Controversy - Paul J Gans

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Unknown said...

Somehow I doubt that the myth of the Dark Ages is going to disappear anytime soon. Personally, I think it is popular because of the childish desire prevalent in many people to believe that they are inherently smarter than their parents, grandparents, etc...

Humphrey said...

Well, it's something of a shrinking myth. It used to be that the whole Medieval period before the 16th century was written off as a Dark Age. Now you get people who say that 'well there was a lot happening in intellectual life from the twelve hundreds, but there was a dark age in Western Europe from 300AD to around 1250. That gives you around 1000 years of Darkness!'.

I don't know if there is a lot to say to those kinds of people. The best course of action would be to cast them adrift in the ruins of a collapsed civilisation with barbarian raiders all around them and only a copy of Bill Brysons 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' with which to rebuild society.

Unknown said...

The best course of action would be to cast them adrift in the ruins of a collapsed civilisation with barbarian raiders all around them and only a copy of Bill Brysons 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' with which to rebuild society.

Oh, I would pay to see that kind of poetic justice.

Noons said...

I remember in my Freshman year (high school) history class we had to do a critical thinking exercise on the "dark ages" asking how dark were they really. We each had to write a report on some kind of innovation during the early middle ages. Our teacher also told us that the current academic view of the "dark ages" is from sometime in the fourth century through some murky, undefined period that I can't remember, possibly between the Battle of Tours and Charlemagne. So at least where I was going to school, they were not parroting the conventional shortand history of dark ages = Fall of Rome through Columbus.