Far From Dark
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:
- The economic foundation of Classical civiliation was slavery.
- The expansion of Classical civilization came to a halt when the Roman Empire ran out of places to invade (and peoples to enslave).
- Because Classical civilization (in its imperial period) was not characterized by expansion in knowledge, technology, or economic productivity, once it ceased to expand geographically it was doomed.
- The late Classical period was brutal and corrupt -- fallen low from the images of intellectual purity we associate with Athenian democracy and literature.
- Rome succumbed to invasion because it had descended far into a state of advanced decay (to use Carroll Quigley's terms for the advanced stages of civilizational evolution).
- The barbarians invaders just as often settled in Roman society and mixed with Roman citizens as they raped, robbed, and pillaged.
- The collapse of Classical civilization led to the mixture of Classical, Germanic, and Gaulish elements in Western Europe, resulting in the beginnings of Western civilization.
- The gestation and expansion of the West began in the tenth century with increased trade, technological innovation, and creeping urbanization; since that time the population, economic wealth, political and military power, scientific knowledge, and technological expertise of Western civilization has expanded almost continuously (aside from the plague years of the 1300s and a few other such periods).
- European technological innovation started not during the Industrial Revolution but much earlier:
- Water mills (rare in Classical civilization, since it was easier and cheaper to work the slaves than to invest in labor-saving machinery) were common in Europe by the tenth century, followed by tidal mills in the eleventh century and wind mills in the twelfth century (all used for grinding grain, fulling, tanning, making paper, etc.); this harnessing of the powers of nature led to greater productivity for human labor, making the individual ever more valuable.
- The invention and exploitation of horse collars and heavy plows (along with other attendant improvements) led northwestern Europeans to switch from oxen to horses for animal power around the eleventh century, resulting in greater agricultural productivity and (in a kind of proto-urbanization) to concentration of people in villages of 50 to 200 families rather than the earlier hamlets of 4 to 10 families (horses move much faster than oxen, so that pastures farther afield can be reached from a more centralized location).
- The high to late Middle Ages also witnessed important developments in glass making (e.g., the invention of spectacles around 1270, leading to longer productive lives for merchants, scholars, and craftspeople), timekeeping (see Revolution in Time by David Landes), shipbuilding, navigation (the compass became common around 1200), weaponry (guns and cannons broke down the old social order based on knights and castles), textiles, paper making, and what nowadays we would call business processes such as contracts, insurance, finance, and double-entry bookkeeping (all of which required greater literacy).
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