Many believe that the Middles Ages were Dark Ages, a black abyss that divided the classical Greek and Roman antiquity from the “new lights” of the Modern Age. Even more, many see in religion the cause for the backwardness, precariousness, and ignorance that the medieval society allegedly lived.
In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth! The ten centuries that divided the sack of Rome in 475 AD from the beginning of the 14th century AD, when the “modern age” began, were not only incomparably brilliant, but brought a literary, philosophical, and scientific culture that would makr and shape the Western worldview.
Although it is true that the Early Medieval Period (5th to 11th century AD), lost much of the scientific vigor that characterized the ancient world, this reality was not a consequence of religion’s influence. To refute this argument, during the same time the Islamic world —which inherited the Greek tradition— made significant progress in different sciences. The cause of the backwardness in the cultivation of the intellect may be found, perhaps, in the disorder that followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and in the fact that it had not completely assimilated the Greek scientific culture from which it would later have to be recovered.
When social and economic conditions improved from the 11th century AD onward, a society with a faith as fervent and active as it had been in the previous centuries produced an intellectual flourishing that opened the doors to the Modern world.
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1. The cities
The medieval city, which appeared during the Feudalist period, was the most complete realization of the social ideals of the Middle Ages. Medieval political philosophy was characterized by the idea of unity, in such a way that society was conceived as a body where each member performed an indispensable function. In this conception, each member of the social body was and end in himself, and his or her function was a way of serving God, thus participating in the common life of the entire social body. The medieval city configured an authentic and effective communion and communication of social goods, where material poverty was compensated for by a broad array of communal activity.
2. Social structures: Brotherhoods and Guilds
Group force was present in medieval mentality and society. Brotherhoods were a form of such communal organizations. They were true fraternal institutions bound to religious life. These brotherhoods mostly revolved around a common cult – to a patron saint, the Holy Virgin Mary, or the Holy Spirit, for example. These brotherhoods constituted an association of mutual help that assisted the most destitute members and performed an important social work – helping especially the widows and orphans.
The guilds emerged from these brotherhoods, when professional concerns joined the religious interests of their members. These guilds were characterized by their bonds of intense solidarity and a complex combination of religious and secular activities. Such activities included Masses offered for deceased brothers, religious performances during special celebrations or the communal feast; work regulation and salary, and the assistance to the members in case of sickness or misfortune.
These organizations constituted forms of reciprocal cooperation and offered an important structure of stability to their individual members.
3. Monastic Work
After the Barbarian invasions (5th century AD) that dispersed the last remains of the Western Roman Empire, intellectual life found refuge in the Church. Celtic monks —who then had a better knowledge of Latin and Greek— initiated this movement, copying manuscripts and decorating them with miniature ornaments (7th and 8th centuries AD).
The next boost came from the Carolingian Renaissance, a series of rules implemented by Charlemagne, King of the Franks (742-814 AD), advised by the Anglo-Saxon clergy Alcuin, in order to improve the intellectual life of the clergy. This reform stimulated the a for knowledge in the monasteries and churches of the continent, which ignited searches for new codexes and the multiplication of manuscripts.
While spiritual life was preserved in the monasteries, the problem of preserving and keeping the ancient culture was becoming more urgent. The labor of the intellectuals of the 5th-9th centuries AD, was merely one of compilation. The majority of the works from the Classic antiquity that have reached our hands come from copies made during this period.
4. The Universities
Universities were bodies of masters and students that emerged spontaneously starting in the 11th century AD, under ecclesial authority. Even though up to this point intellectual activity had focused on the monastic tradition, the emergence of the universities brought forth a new scientific discipline in Western culture form which countless subsequent achievements would flow.
Masters and disciples (students) from all over the Western world attended these education institutions. The former were organized into faculties and the latter, in nations. All the students had to study in the “faculty of arts” first, in order to access the higher faculties where Theology, Philosophy, Jurisprudence, Art and Medicine were taught—depending on the university. Everything was taught in Latin, which helped in the formation of a supra-national, universally European culture.
The universities of Bologna, Paris, Salerno, Montpellier, and Oxford are the most ancient. There were many other universities that formed academic circles which hosted passionate philosophical debates. We have inherited such practice of taking exams, lectures, professorship, and grading from these early organizations.
The medieval period yielded prolific literary production, with a variety of genres that can be divided according to social groups. Cathedral schools, convents, and the universities produced works of Religion, History, Philosophy, Theology, and Science. Knights and castles spread the Epic genre, Lyric poetry, and knightly romances. The cities and bourgeois sectors spread the Drama and the Fabliau (short narrative poems).
French literature gave us the Oaths of Strasbourg (842 AD), which set the foundation for the development of The Song of Roland (1000 AD), one of the most important epic poems – a literary poem that celebrated the legendary deeds of a hero. Likewise, Spanish literature gave us the famous Poem of the Cid, written between 1140 and 1207 AD.
Afterwards, beginning in the 14th century, the urban factor prevails, resulting in a realistic, critical, and mordant literature. The most characteristic works of this time include The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri, Canzoniere, by Francesco Petrarch, and The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio.
Contrary to what many believe, the Middle Ages experienced some important intellectual debates. The central problems that fascinated the intelligence of that time focused on three main topics: 1. Creation, and whether it was self-sufficient or it should be kept by God. 2. The “Problem of the Universals”, that is, the identity that corresponded to gender and species. 3. Reason and the object to which it should be applied.
In general terms, Medieval philosophy, can be divided in two periods: The first, influenced by the patristic tradition, from Augustinian and Neoplatonic origins. The second, probably the most prolific, begins with the gradual emergence of Aristotelianism, which had been kept by the Islamic intellectuals and spread into Europe through close contacts with the Muslim world.
The philosophical current most characteristic of the Medieval period was Scholasticism, whose main representative was Saint Anselm (1033-1109 AD). Scholastic knowledge was fundamentally philosophical and theological, and was cultivated in schools. A distinctive mark of this current was collective work, as a team, which constituted a unitary knowledge conserved as a common good that brought together the contributions of diverse thinkers.
The main medieval philosophers were: Saint Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, John Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon, and John of Salisbury among others.
Art, besides having a devotional purpose characteristic of a deeply religious society, was essentially pedagogic (meant to teach). Medieval Christian art was not an art of forms, but an art of ideas, and became a symbolic language that was applied to diverse aspects with the aim of educating the spectator.
Virtue was the prevailing value represented in art. It was considered the supreme aim of Man. This moral teaching represented allegories of virtue and its opposite sins.
Second to art was science —understood as manual and intellectual work— whose main function was to redeem the Christian Man, through the cooperation of the sacrifice of Christ with the work of Man, worthily accepted.
Finally, there was nature which, in the Middle Ages, was understood in relation to the transcendental. In this sense, from a divine perspective, individuals sought nature not as an end in itself, but as a way to find God.
The first steps of the Western world towards the development of the sciences were motivated by contact with the Arab scientific tradition and the influence of the Greek sciences. Intellectuals like Adelard of Bath translated into Latin Euclid’s Elements or Arithmetic by Al-Khwarizmi. Similarly, Robert of Chester translated Algebra, by the same Arabian author. Meanwhile, in the 12th century AD, in Toledo, Almagest —a mathematical and astronomical treatise— was translated by Ptolemy, and Physics by Aristotle. In the Natural Sciences, the model of the Natural History by Pliny, followed after. This would set the foundation for future works.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, the philosophic humanism of Saint Thomas appeared, which would become the origin of Western philosophy as well as of the scientific idealism of Roger Bacon, which marked a new scientific ideal for the Western world. Bacon can be considered the founder of Positivism. He applies Math to Physics and creates optic instruments. His works Opus minus and Opus testium compiled the scientific knowledge of the time. His teacher, Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt, wrote a treatise about the magnet, while others like Leonardo of Pisa, Jordanus de Nemore, and Robert Grosseteste, developed western mathematics. Astronomy would make great advances in the hands of Bernard of Verdun, Guillermo of San Clodio, and John of Sicily.
This post originally appeared here for Catholic-Link Spanish. It has been translated into English by Lorena Tabares.
If you want to learn more about these topics, here are two sources that served as reference for this article and others of relevance to the Middle Ages:
Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson.
Medieval Cities, by Henri Pirenne.
History of Christendom series by Warren Carroll.
Positively Medieval by Jamie Blosser.