October 04, 2002

Most of us are given the impression in our history classes that first there was Egypt, then there was GreeceRome, then something in the middle happened with knights and popes and kings, then the pilgrims came over on the Mayflower and George Washington was born. At that point you get a lot of "flashback" lessons about how GreeceRome and the Magna Carta were sort of mixed together by the founding fathers and out came the Constitution like some sort of democratic poptart.

Even folks who follow history more closely tend to get the impression that the real ancestors of our modern western cultures were Greece and Rome (which do become separated when you study them for awhile), and the middle ages was when it all sort of marked time until they scrabbled their way back from the abyss the barbarians had tossed them in.

Unfortunately this impression is flat wrong. We did not inherit our western culture from Rome or Greece. For a thousand years and more those legacies were lost to the west like a box of old books left behind after a move. While we did eventually rediscover some of this knowledge, it is really just a veneer covering the core of what we in the west think most about what we are. That core, the column that holds up the roof of our modern culture, was built in the time between 500 A.D. and 1450 A.D. The dates are, of course, approximate and highly contested, but they represent the essence of the Middle Ages.

In 480 A.D. Julius Nepos, the last legitimate western Roman emperor, was assassinated in an abortive bid to wrest control of the city of Rome from the Germanic barbarian Odovacar. While this and surrounding events are usually seen as the end of the Roman empire, the heart of imperial power had long since moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul, in modern Turkey) where it continued to beat for nearly a thousand years more.

Justinian I actually did restore a large part of the western empire, but only briefly, in the sixth century. Weakend by plague and bankrupted by conquest, they were soon forced back by a fresh wave of barbarian invaders. What remaining influence Constantinople had on its putative western territories effectively ended when Islam bisected the Mediterranean basin in the eighth century. They got far too busy keeping their own skins intact to really worry much when the Bishop of Rome made an illiterate Germanic warlord the "Holy" Roman Emperor.

These two events, far more than the barbarian invasions from the steppe three centuries earlier, were in fact what ended the influence of Rome on the west. They put a period on the end of an era stretching back some twelve hundred years. There was of course some trade with other empires, other cultures, but for nearly a thousand years this represented more a fizzing on the edges rather than anything that affected the interior of the land.

Once the barbarians finally quit hanging the heads of monks on their monastic towers things did finally turn around, and in a surprisingly short period of time. But, while certainly not Roman, these people weren't that much different than the ones who surrounded them. They were still using swords and horses, steel armor and wooden bows, iron plows and feather pens, leather and flax. But there were important, and subtle, differences.

Europe had essentially jettisoned the ancient idea of slavery, and while serfdom looked an awful lot like it, the lord didn't own the peasant in the same way that, say, a sultan owned his servants. Certainly armies of slaves were unheard of by this time. There was also a decidedly practical bent to what the people of Europe were trying to accomplish.

It wasn't just about how to unscrew an enemy's head faster or more efficiently. Nearly everyone everywhere was interested in that. It was about things like how to turn grain into flour faster, grow more and better crops, and tell time accurately and automatically so you didn't go to hell just because you'd overslept Matins.

Medieval innovation wasn't just about creating things either. Adaptation played a big role as well. Precisely because one of the primary pastimes of anyone living in Europe was figuring out new and efficient ways of stealing someone else's cattle, land, peasants, castles, towns, coasts, and anything else that happened to strike their fancy, they would eagerly adapt any technologies that promised to make that job easier, no matter what god the originator happened to worship.

Had history been allowed to continue disturbed only by man's inhumanity to man, Europeans may have remained not all that much different from their neighbors. But history didn't turn out that way.

It took just one ship sailing with the tide on a warm October morning in Sicily to change the course of European history, and therefore that of the world. Because the morning was in October 1347, the ship was a Genoese cargo vessel, and its crew was carrying the Black Death.

The first great bubonic plagues of the fourteenth century didn't just kill a third of Europe. Scattered documentation continues to reveal this great pulse of horrific death affected the entire developed world of the time. From the coast of the South China Sea to the Indus River through the Caliphates of Islam all the way to Ireland it scythed a swath that was as ugly as it was random.

What made Europe unique was not the way it suffered the Death, but the way it recovered. The technological and economic innovations that are generally considered to mark the Renaissance were triggered in no small part by the catastrophic loss of both skilled and unskilled labor that occurred here, in the heart of the Middle Ages. The philosophical and religious innovations that were to tear Europe apart in just a few generations were seeded by the question, "If God let this happen..."

But even with these pressures, were it not for the innovations and developments of the Middle Ages, unique developments found only in Europe, the Black Death would've been just another catastrophe wrought by God. Eventually life would have returned to the regularly scheduled fragfest it was before.

But it didn't. The Renaissance didn't explode onto the world's stage because people suddenly began reading their classics. It was brought about because the innovations of the Middle Ages made it possible. The Black Death merely lit the fuse on a keg of powder that had been filling with explosive innovations for at least five hundred years.

These are the people who made our modern world possible, not some effete senator deploring the blood of the arena, nor some cranky old philosopher ranting about how he knew nothing at all. The re-discovery of the ancient teachings of Plato, Socrates, Galen, Pythagoras, and other ancients like them certainly helped shape what was to happen, but it did not trigger it.

It's just a damned shame we've been taught in our schools to see Romans and Greeks when we look behind us. Because to do that we have to ignore the forest of medievals standing in front of them.

Posted by scott at October 04, 2002 04:18 PM

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