söndag 14 oktober 2007

The benighted Middle Ages

Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France (Southern facade)
Originally uploaded by Merowig.

Why is it that the Middle Ages are used as a shorthand for a time of darkness, cruelty and superstition dominated by religion, which at that time was orthodox Christianity?

In Europe, it was a period of moral and technological advance. Serfs became free men. Wars mostly affected only those who were actually in the armies. The rule of law prevailed. Universities were established. Until the Black Death, there was prosperity and growth. All sorts of inventions had their origin in the Middle Ages.

Another feature of the Middle Ages, feudalism, also has an undeservedly bad press. It is a system of land holding in a chain from the monarch, in which each land holder has duties to his superior in the chain.

Nowadays the predominant system of land holding is one of outright ownership without obligations, which, it can be shown, lies at the root of the economic and social divisions in Western societies. Which is the benighted system?

The real cruelty began in the sixteenth century with the post-Reformation religious persecutions. The seventeenth century saw devastating wars throughout the continent. The eighteenth and nineteenth saw the growth of the slave trade, the peasantry driven off the land and into the industrial slums, the excesses of the French Revolution and subsequent wars, and the great land robbery that was colonialism. The twentieth gave us murderous ideological regimes and wars on an unprecedented scale.

In the light of subsequent events, do the Middle Ages not stand out as a beacon of enlightenment?

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