The Medieval Mind, Research Paper Example
Words: 2310Research Paper
In a very real sense, any effort to identify and examine the “medieval mind” confronts an inevitable issue: there was, simply, no single Medieval mind, certainly not as may be seen as embodying a cultural or societal type. If anything truly renders the Medieval mind distinct, in fact, it has less to do with the subject than it does to how the entity itself arose. Namely, that which we consider Medieval, in terms of how people lived and thought, was largely a consequence of what created it: the slow and eventual collapse of the Roman Empire. This was a culture and society so vast, in encompassed the totality of Western European life for long centuries, providing a foundation of order and a central authority. If that authority was less strong in some regions, as in Britain, it nonetheless pervaded all Western living. The Medieval, consequently, is what emerged from its ashes.
It is also a “mind” of many minds and cultures as, with the loss of the Roman presence, specific societies and ways of living began to develop over the course of centuries. The Medieval mind is not only then defined by what gave birth to it, but by a fragmentation of identity occurring over immense periods of time. With the Romans gone. France could become France, as the English could begin to evolve, reverting back to British customs and ways of life long abandoned, and changing through Viking invasions eventually becoming settlement. To identify a single Medieval mind, then, seems both impractical and pointless. Nonetheless, with a broad view taken, it may be argued that this Medieval mind did exist in one, consistent aspect. No matter the diverse paths taken by various Medieval peoples over long centuries, there may be seen a common thread: the Medieval mind reflects an urgency to create and maintain order in a world where the formerly all-encompassing ruling power was gone.
It is generally accepted that the fall of the Roman Empire was a lengthy process, occurring over hundreds of years. It is also established that the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476 C.E. by the Goths, effectively ending the last vestiges of the remains of Roman governance.1 From here on, popular thinking has the onset of the Dark Ages, wherein the Barbarian hordes that had so consistently beaten down Rome from the North now took control, and replaced Roman order with violent and unjust rule. To some extent, this is valid; the Frankish Merovingian kings were notoriously bloodthirsty, famous for gaining various kingdoms by means of the murder of relations. At the same time, the very turbulence of the Dark Ages paved the way for the Middle Ages and, eventually, that commonality within the Medieval mind mentioned. Clovis, the first Frankish monarch, perhaps inadvertently created a process by which the Medieval could emerge, in his joining with the Catholic Church in 496. This was vastly important, in that the only surviving form of empirical power – and expanse – was reconfirmed. It also generated increased hostility within warring factions, as the potential territories set in place by this embracing of Catholicism created unprecedented opportunity. In a sense, this union of the Franks with the Church offered a chance to build a new empire. It was not a chance that could succeed, because the natures of the Franks and the Goths were not those of the Romans. What occurred instead was conflict between kings so consistent and aggressive, the power of kingship itself was greatly reduced. It was the mayors, not the kings, who were exercising the authority by the 8th century.2 The timing is both critical and interesting, as that century was the dawn of the Middle Ages.
For many years, both the public and society of the West have viewed the Middle Ages as little more than an extension of the Dark Ages, if not synonymous with the earlier era. Civilization, it was believed, was at a standstill for centuries, and the peoples of all regions had only one concern: basic survival in a world with no overriding authority to guide and protect their lives. More modern research reveals something of a different story, and one indicating that the Medieval mind had other concerns. There was tumult, just as no real government, regal or otherwise, was in place. Men and women, even viewing the Church as a guiding force, also reverted to pagan belief systems, which indicates ways of life and thinking linked solely to the land and consequently focused on the basics of existence. Nonetheless, evidence serves to reveal that, within the variety of culture arising in the Middle Ages, the people themselves made efforts to secure or adhere to order. If life was difficult and treacherous, the Medieval mind was still seeking a means to establish security.
It was long assumed, for example, that there being no real law or system of justice in place was a given in Medieval life, and that barbarism inevitably flourished. This overlooks the immense power of the Church in these years, which functioned very much as a legislative authority. That church and state have long been combined in Europe seems to have led historians to believe that the absence of the latter rendered the former ineffectual. The reality, however, is that the Catholic Church enacted a very specific form of governance all its own, and one made more powerful by the lack of any competing, state authority. Rome was gone, but the Church lost little time in taking its place as a form of rule, and it is interesting to note how accepted, if not embraced, this rule was. Moreover, it reached to England more effectively than had Roman control. Vast amounts of evidence supporting this has been found in the registers of Medieval bishops, who essentially acted as regents. In these detailed records, there are endless reports on the populations and activities of vicarages of England, lists of individual possessions, and accounts of will and marriage disputes settled by the clergy. More interesting, given the perception of these years as ungoverned, is that there are consistent records of compensation made for public works, such as road repair and bridge building. 3 In Medieval England, there can be no doubt that, even as invading Vikings were changing the shape of the land, and even as pagan customs were still openly practiced by the peasants, there was order imposed from a core of authority. The society had a structure, and the Medieval mind was no less desirous of that structure than the mind of today.
There were also hierarchies in place, and simply because the range and power of the Church provided a livelihood for untold numbers of men and women: the monasteries and convents. These establishments acted as civil agencies as well; as the Church properties required farming, work was meted out to common people outside of them, and not necessarily in the form of serfdom. As will be seen in Charlemagne’s managing of his church estates, partnerships were entered into. Many in these feudal systems were “married to the land,” but many also had acres of their own to tend, and acquired legal freedom through serving the chief estates for a number of years. As regarding the monasteries and nunneries themselves, annual supervision came in the form of visiting bishops. These inspections had more than one purpose; they were made to judge the propriety of each establishment and to see that the abbess or presiding monk maintained good religious discipline, but they were also accounting expeditions. Chaucer provides a literal example of this system in place, in the form of his Prioress, Madame Eglentyne. This medieval woman of means and power has drawn criticism for seeming too worldly, but what matters is that Chaucer is presenting an aspect of Medieval life as it was lived. In the Canterbury Tales, Eglentyne talks freely of the not entirely religious character of her nuns and her abbey, just as she clearly enjoys her rank and material comforts. Those comforts were her due, which translates to how the bishops viewed the church properties as commercial enterprises. More to the point, it is also known that there was a great deal of freedom in how the nuns under a Madame Eglentyne could assert themselves. Just as the bishop would look into household accounts and judge spending and profits, so too would he be obligated to hear any complaints made by any nun against the Prioress or another nun.4 When all of this is considered, the image of a lawless, almost brutal Middle Ages shatters. If the living was somewhat primitive and conditions subject to change, the Medieval mind nonetheless embraced order as essential.
Turning to the France of the Middle Ages, an even greater degree of order may be identified, and this is very much owed to the rule of Charlemagne. How and why this notable king emerged is apart from the subject here; what matters is how, in this Medieval length of time, an extraordinary and complex system of rule established a harmony of culture within the region, and in the midst of widespread illiteracy and poverty. Charlemagne, ruling in the 8th and 9th centuries, was notorious for directing his royal stewards in the precise management of his own estates, and this same methodology is captured in a surviving estate book of the period, from the Abbey of St. Germain des Pres, outside of Paris. In this book, exacting records reveal virtually every transaction and task of the lands, which were extensive. The Abbey required men and women to work its on farms and vineyards, and these peasants were, as in England, allowed to maintain properties of their own; their duties to the chief house translated to several days of labor per week, along with spinning, chickens, and other tangible goods.5 Every last egg and plank of wood is recorded, but of greater import is the sense presented of an actual society functioning. While the peasants were usually tied to the land, as noted, they enjoyed levels of freedom very like modern workers today. More to the point, these Medieval people were able to look beyond the needs of their “masters,” and create lives for themselves with an eye to the future. Only an ordered society could enable this, and Charlemagne devoted himself to meticulously ensuring such a degree of order. There was, of course, a caste system and peasants were peasants. It is unwise to attribute to them a quality of life clearly not possible, as intense labor marked most of their days. At the same time, it is also worth noting that more than one coeval account reports how even the plowing peasants were famous for their singing at their work. Then, both Charlemagne and the Church allowed the common people to entertain their superstitions and pagan beliefs, provided they attended Christian services.6 Here, then, the Medieval mind is not all that removed from the minds of the eras to follow, in that adherence to a humane structure was accepted, if not required, by the people.
Further evidence of the Medieval as seeking to establish order may be seen in other centuries and places. Certainly, the immense power and intricate society of Venice in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries belie any bias of the Medieval as unintelligent and aimless. It is easy to overlook that, even in the midst of the Middle Ages, commerce and international trade established Venice as the leading city of the Western world, unrivaled in riches or power. Furthermore, a strong structure of government was in place, if one as linked to the Church as elsewhere, and virtually regal in character. 7 It may be that pride and/or desires for wealth motivated the Venetians, but what matters here is that they clearly embraced a way of life that established a framework for a civilized existence. From the west of Italy, then, to the distance of England, it may be seen that the Medieval mind was not a lost entity, blindly struggling to survive in a world without order, but a very human mind taking advantage of the orders in place after the end of the Roman.
It is likely that the full impact of the end of the Roman Empire can never be fully appreciated, simply because that empire was more than a government; it was a way of life for the entire Western world. What took its place, and for centuries, was dark and barbarous. Even in that epoch, however, the seeds were sown for a new kind of Western life, as the power of the Catholic Church extended to fill the gaps of Rome’s absence. In time, and throughout Europe, this would evolve into working systems with characteristics of government, social and commercial concerns, and even the welfare of the common man. Consequently, the tarnished and lingering image of the Medieval mind as a backward and benighted one is unjust and inaccurate. Times were hard and the law was largely undefined, but culture was evolving because people then, as today, require it to suit their needs. Ultimately, an examination of the Medieval mind reflects a need in it to create and adhere to order in a world where the formerly all-encompassing ruling power is gone.
1 Heather, Peter. The Fall of the Roman Empire:A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). p. xi.
2 Stewart, Cynthia. The Catholic Church: A Brief Popular History (Winona: St. Mary’s Press, 2008). p. 114.
3 Power, Eileen. Medieval People (New York: Harper & Row, 1963). pp. 74-75.
4 Ibid., pp. 76-77.
5 Ibid., pp. 19-20.
6 Ibid., pp. 27-28.
7 Ibid., pp. 40-43.
Heather, P. The Fall of the Roman Empire:A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
Power, E. Medieval People. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Print.
Stewart, C. The Catholic Church: A Brief History. Winona: St. Mary’s Press, 2008. Print.
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