Far From Dark

2006-01-29

The traditional picture of the Middle Ages in Europe is one of unrelieved darkness -- after the light of Classical civilization was extinguished with the sack of Rome in 476, a thousand years of poverty and ignorance ensued, ushered out by the bright age of modernity that began with the Renaissance in Italy.

I used to believe that story, too. But the more I read, the less I believe it. I'm currently reading three books on the Medieval period: The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350 by Robert S. Lopez, Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White, Jr., and The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages by Jean Gimpel. The insights I'm gleaning from these works, along with my earlier research on the topic, yield a picture that is far from dark. To wit:

What all this means is that from about 950 until about 1350, Europe underwent a tremendous period of growth in commercial sophistication, technological prowess, economic wealth, military power, and geographical reach. This is what Carroll Quigley calls the first great phase of expansion in Western civilization, what Robert Lopez calls the Commercial Revolution, what Jean Gimpel calls the Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, etc. This period laid the groundwork for later developments, and notably preceded the "rebirth of civilization" in the Renaissance. The more I read, the more I agree with Quigley's assessment that Western civilization is not a rebirth of Classical civilization but something new on the planet, mixing some Classical ideals and experiences with Northern Italian commerce, Gaulish-Germanic practicality, and Dutch-Flemish-English flexibility to produce a distinctive society. In particular, the emergence of Western civlization predates the rediscovery of Classical literature and philosophy during the Renaissance, and that rediscovery (although interesting and important) was not the proximate cause of modernity (which has emerged steadily but with ever-increasing speed since 950 or so).


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal