The Middle Ages

Antioch was finally taken in June 1098. The Christian army then moved cautiously toward Jerusalem. By any modern standards, it was a tiny force, numbering by then perhaps 12,000, including 1,200 or 1,300 cavalry. The invaders were shocked to find Canaan a stony, barren land. There is an old Eastern story that at the Creation the angels were transporting the entire world’s supply of stones in a sack, which burst as they flew over Palestine. No milk and honey flowed in the gray gullies, not even water.

Art and architecture were a single unit; only later did they take separate courses. (It is curious that today, with all our wealth, our builders cannot afford the decorative beauty customary in the relatively poor Middle Ages.)

At Bologna, the students held control of their university, hired and fired professors, fined them for unexcused absences or lateness, for wandering from their subject, and for dodging difficult questions.

At Treviso in 1214 was held a Court of Solace and Mirth. A Castle of Love was built, and defended by ladies against an assault by two rival bands of gentlemen from Padua and Venice, who used cakes, fruits, and flowers as missiles. But the mimic war turned into a real battle between the Paduans and the Venetians, and the police had to intervene to stop it. In Florence were brigades of young gallants, dressed in white, with their leader, a Lord of Love.

A young gentleman, inspired for whatever motive to take the cross, had first to raise his passage money, often by mortgaging his land or by ceding some feudal rights. He heard a farewell sermon in his village church and kissed his friends and kinsmen good-by, very likely for ever. Since the road across Asia Minor had become increasingly unsafe, he rode to Marseilles or Genoa and took passage with a shipmaster. He was assigned a space fixed at two feet by five in the ‘tween decks; his head was to lie between the feet of another pilgrim. He bargained for some of his food with the cargador, or chief steward, but he was advised to carry provisions of his own - salt meat, cheese, biscuit, dried fruits, and syrup of roses to check diarrhea.

But why did Rome fall? We have far too many answers. There is the intellectual answer: Montesquieu said that the Romans conquered the world with their republican principles, they changed their principles to fit an empire, and the new principles destroyed it. There is the moral answer: license, luxury, and sloth, a decline in character and in discipline. The Christian answer of Saint Augustine: Sinful Rome fell to prepare for the triumph of the City of God. The rationalist answer of eighteenth-century freethinkers: Christianity, teaching nonresistance, other-worldliness, disarmed the Romans in the face of the barbarians. The political answer: Caesarism, loss of public spirit, the failure of the civil power to control the army. The social answer or answers: the war of classes and the institution of slavery, which suppresses incentives toward change and progress. The economic answer: trade stagnation, low productivity, scarcity of gold and silver. The physical answer: soil depletion, deforestation, climatic change, drought. The pathological answer: plague and malaria, or even lead poisoning from cooking pots and water pipes. The genetic and racial answers: the dwindling of the old Roman stock through war and birth control and its mingling with Oriental and barbarian breeds. And the biological-cyclical-mystical answer: An empire is an organism, and like a living creature, it must pass through stages of growth, maturity, and decline, to death.

Charlemagne’s educational and cultural campaign was momentous for its preservation of the classical past and for its effects on medieval society. The level of literacy never again sank as low as it had in pre-Carolingian times.

Conscious symbolism governed medieval representation. Grammar, for instance, was pictured as an old woman with a knife and file to operate on students’ mistakes. Rhetoric was an imposing woman whose dress was ornamented with the figures of speech.

Furniture was scanty - demountable tables and benches eased only by “bankers,” cushions or embroidered cloths. Usually the noble host alone had a chair; hence our chairman is the person who presides at meetings.

He concluded one of his books with the words: “He seems to me a very foolish man and very wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.

Joan then turned on Paris. The campaign was hampered by the new king’s indecision - or cowardice. In the attack, Joan was wounded in the thigh by a crossbow bolt. (A plaque on the Café de la Régence in the Place du Palais-Royal marks the spot.)

Ninety percent of our earliest examples of Latin classical writings are Carolingian copies.

Once the crusaders had taken control of the city, they began to massacre the inhabitants. “Some of our men,” wrote the twelfth-century chronicler Raymond of Agiles, “cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much at least, that in the temple and portico of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God, that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, when it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.

The adept of courtly love, fresh from sighing at his unapproachable lady’s feet, could pause on his homeward journey to tumble a shepherdess in her meadow, a fresh-faced village girl under a hedge. The Muslims in Spain and Syria were shocked by the licentiousness of the French.

The Byzantines mounted catapults on their ships; they also introduced the West to Greek Fire, apparently a mixture of petroleum, quicklime, and sulphur. The quicklime in contact with water ignited the bomb, a primitive napalm.

The character of a great Gothic church is to be soaring, open, spiritual, defiant of earth’s gravity, reaching to heaven, not because of, but “in spite of the stone,” as the art historian Wilhelm Worringer has said.

The crusades began with grotesqueries, comic and horrible. A band of Germans followed a goose they held to be God-inspired. Peter the Hermit, a fanatic, filthy, barefoot French monk, short and swarthy, with a long, lean face that strangely resembled that of his own donkey, preached a private crusade - known as the Peasants’ Crusade - and promised his followers that God would guide them to the Holy City.

The crusades were a great historical novelty; they were the first wars fought for an ideal. Naturally the ideal was promptly corrupted and falsified. But the fact remains that the crusades were conceived as a service to the Christian God, and the crusaders thought themselves, at least intermittently, the consecrated servants of holy purpose. The crusades were many things, but originally they were a beautiful, noble idea.

The culture of a given time and place is a product of inherited tradition, of the recovery of lost or obscured forms of thought, of innovation. Such seeds, fertilized by prosperity, tended by leisure, and warmed by the sun of peace, may produce an abundant bloom.

the family feuds of the nobles were beyond control. Revenge was regarded rather as an act of private justice than as a crime. The remotest members of a clan were bound by the obligations of the vendetta, which had its special home in Italy. Its history in the Middle Ages is largely one of family feuds that turned into wars. These ended either by the extermination of one party or by the intervention of the emperor or the church, imposing reconciliation and indemnities.

The Florence flood of 1333 was ascribed by clerics to God’s wrath at the use of glass windows and other luxuries.

The home and school of courtly love was at Poitiers, in the court of the renowned Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of Henry II of England. Toward the end of the twelfth century, Eleanor presided over an actual Court of Love, wherein ladies and gentlemen judged questions of behavior, issued decisions, and composed a casuistic code for the guidance of others. Her daughter’s chaplain, Andreas Capellanus, set down the results of their meetings in a treatise, De Arte Honeste Amandi (The Art of Courtly Love). True love, he says, must be free; it must be mutual; it must be noble, for a commoner could not experience it; it must be secret. If the lover meets his lady in public, he must treat her almost as a stranger and communicate with her only by furtive signs. But when he catches sight of her, his heart palpitates, and he turns pale, and thus risks betraying his dear secret. He eats and sleeps very little. Clearly this true love is incompatible with marriage; “everybody knows that love can have no place between husband and wife.

The idea of a crusade owes something to the Old Testament, something to the Muslim example of a jihad, or holy war. It owes something, too, to the inflammatory preaching of illuminate monks, and a great deal to the beginning of the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Moors; this combined the triumph of the faith with the acquisition of rich properties.

The lance or spear was the traditional weapon of the horseman, and it lingers to our own times as a symbol of the mounted knight. In 1939, the Polish cavalry, with ridiculous gallantry, carried lances into battle against German tanks.

The Middle Ages is an unfortunate term. It was not invented until the age was long past. The dwellers in the Middle Ages would not have recognized it. They did not know that they were living in the middle; they thought, quite rightly, that they were time’s latest achievement. The term implies that the Middle Ages were a mere interim between ancient greatness and our modern greatness. Who knows what the future will call it? As our Modern Age ceases to be modern and becomes an episode of history, our times may well be classed as the later Middle Ages. For while we say time marches forward, all things in time move backward toward the middle and eventually to the beginnings of history. We are too vain; we think we are the summit of history.

The Picts poured over Hadrian’s Wall in the north; Scottish tribes harried the coasts from their homes in Northern Ireland. The Saxons, or Anglo-Saxons, came from the coast of Denmark and Germany to ravage England’s eastern shores, and finding the land good, established permanent settlements.

The romantic idealization of love and the beloved had no source in Roman or Germanic tradition. It came apparently from Islamic Spain, where women had a good deal of freedom and were often poets in their own right. It was there that a mystical doctrine of love as a holy passion, pure and uplifting, developed. Arabic literature is full of parted and thwarted lovers, totally faithful and devoted. Its poetry is mostly love poetry, foreshadowing the themes and styles of the French troubadours.

(Virginity was regarded with superstitious awe, perhaps because there was so little of it.)

What can a historian say of this almost incredible tale of an illiterate peasant girl who altered the course of history, who daunted kings, who outgeneraled generals, who rose above human capacities to sainthood? Was Joan an agent of divine purpose, or does she illustrate the extraordinary secret powers of the human spirit?

When Charlemagne’s driving impulse passed, his Renaissance faded. For 200 years after his death, there is not much to record in Western Europe in the way of creative thought.