Ned's Reviews > Europe in the High Middle Ages: 1150-1300

Europe in the High Middle Ages by John H. Mundy
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's review
Jul 06, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: background, current

Maybe people don't think anymore the way this author writes. Too bad.
What follows will be a reproduction of as much of the first chapter (and called the introduction) as I feel like typing. I'll probably add to it later. First published in 1973 and
Yeah, it starts like this.

"History is often beclouded, and each period has clouds specific to it. Medieval history's cloud is because Europe's culture was then ecclesiastical whereas today's is secular. Secular historians seek to find the origins of the institutions and thought they favour: when looking for today's spiritual ancestors, they vault back over the Middle Ages to Greek and Roman antiquity.
Prisoners of laicism, moderns who favour going to church, mosque or synagogue, experience there only a subculture, one threatened by secularism's greater culture. As a result, the friends of the Middle Ages are as bothersome as its enemies. They are those who, reacting against secular dominance, look back to earlier times in order to criticise the present. After recent European history, one understands their doubts about secularism, but their Middle Ages is often only partially similar to reality. Their idealised community of the medieval town, for example, is clearly partly fictional.
Modern research has defined the differences between classical, medieval and modern times, and contrasted the other-worldly emphasis of late antique and medieval thought with the this-worldly emphasis of moderns and of their predecessors in antiquity. This truthful distinction has, however, encouraged some to inscribe it in stone. To them, the latter promotes rational propositions, those within reach of natural demonstration, whereas the former's are religious, beyond, that is, the reach of the same. This causes some to make institutions coterminous with ideas: the Church [i]is[/i] religion, so to speak, and the State and other secular institutions [i]are[/i] reason. This overlooks the fact that, although there are many differences between the two ways of thinking, they have something in common, namely their love of indemonstrable propositions. Many present-day convictions about human free will, moral potential, the necessity of personal freedom for social and economic advancement, for example, and mankind's central role in the cosmos are as indemonstrable as any mystery found in Christianity, Judaism or Islam.
Using the ideas expressed in the words 'religious' or 'rational' to describe motives for human action is both traditional and valid. To reject either one of them in favour of the other, however is to misuse them. Some say, for example, that a person or group acted only for religious motives; others counter that they were animated by rational, economic, or material motives. One wonders if either one standing alone suffices to describe human actions.
These actions vary. Men and women play games. They turn prayer wheels, recite gods' names, make music, do puzzles and calculations. When done by one alone, they have little to do with the society in which a person lives, and seem instead to be means of testing one's harmony with the nature of things. When one plays with others or before an audience, however, play becomes a way of competing or joining with other men and women.
People hope that there is a natural order to which they can fit themselves, or of which they can make use. The desire is tied to society, but, rather like play, transcends the particular social world in which they live because the problems it tries to handle are uniform throughout history. These problems are those caused by birth, exuberant growth, sickness and death as well as hopes for freedom and love, and are expressed by a mixture of rational and religious passions and ideas. The desire to avoid death, for example, causes humanity both to people the other world with possibly imaginary souls and to work rationally to prolong life in this one.
The particularities of periods in which individuals live attract historians especially because they distinguish one age from another. They also bulk large in the sources for historical study, probably because humans spend little time being born, loving or dying and much in life's routines. Only sleep takes more time than these. Experience nevertheless teaches that the primal activities are more consequential because humans are mostly moved by the need and desire to attain love and retain life by finding and using the right order of things.
Historians should therefore try to recognise the similarities of human desire and need in the many languages, secular or ecclesiastical, technical or commonsensical, scientific or mystic, lent them by transient institutions, philosophies and religions. One recalls, for example, debates among even 'materialist' thinkers as to whether the ideas of their favourite intellectual forebears were mainly drawn from the thought of their time, or instead arose within themselves, having few or no outside sources. Such debaters, one guesses, rehearse arguments as indemonstrable as the old scholastic ones favouring natural or innate capacity versus the need for divine grace, arguments essentially about free will and determination. Once, moreover, the similarities of some modern and medieval propositions about mankind's role in natural history or under the deity are perceived, one can comprehend why humanity is addicted to the indemonstrable.
This addiction presumably derives from need: nobody can be sure that his or her cancer will not kill, and nobody that he or she is loved. All one can do is hope and play games. Although recourse to indemonstrable propositions often inhibits human freedom, history also shows that it sometimes helps it. Most institutions have been built on humanity's natural, reasonable and demonstrable needs for health, material welfare and a measure of freedom in the disposition of talents and goods. In late Rome, however, these normally healthy drives and their concomitant institutions were so overwhelmed by internal disruption and external attack that they became oppressive. Then, the need for relief or freedom forced the people to turn to the other world, the world of the indemonstrable. Although Christianity's obscurantism partly reflected a failure of nerve, it was also a liberating secession from service to State and society and from the often self-defeating race for wealth, learning and well-being. Rome's peoples rejected Greco-Roman earth-centered reason, religion and society."

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