What The Middle Ages Started With
Addition Of Christianity
German Conquest And The Fall Of Rome
What The Germans Added
Formation Of The Papacy
The Franks And Charlemagne
The Empire And The Papacy
Read More Articles About: Medieval Civilization
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
HISTORY is commonly divided, for convenience' sake, into three great periods - ancient, medieval, and modern. Such a division is, this extent, a natural one that each of these periods in a large view of it is distinguished by certain peculiarities from the others. Ancient history begins in an unkown antiquity, and is characterized by a very considerable progress of civilization along three or four separate lines, each the work distinct people, the its of whose labors are not combined into a common whole until near the close of period. As the period approaches its end the vitality of the ancient races appears to decline and the progress of civilization ceases, except, perhaps, along a single line.
Medieval history opens with the introduction of a and youthful race upon the stage a race destined to take up the work of the ancient world and to carry it on But they are at the beginning upon a far lower st of civilization than antiquity had reached. In or to comprehend its work and continue it, they must brought up to that level. This is necessarily a long and slow process, accompanied with much apparent close of civilization, much ignorance and anarchy, and many merely temporary makeshifts in ideas and institutions. But gradually improvement begins, the new society comes to comprehend more and more clearly the work it has to do and the results gained by its predecessors, it begins to add new achievements to the old ones, and the period closes when at last the new nations, in fairly complete possession of the work of the ancient world in literature, science, philosophy, and religion, open with the greatest energy and vigor a new age of progress. This is medieval history, the first part of it the "dark ages," if it is right to call them by that name when ancient civilization fell a prey to savage violence and superstition ; the last part of it, the recovery of that civilization, with some important additions, by the now transformed barbarians the period which we call, when it has fully opened, the age of the Renaissance.
Modern history, again, is characterized by the most rapid and successful advance along' a great variety of lines, not now, so much as in the ancient world, the distinctive work of separate peoples, but all parts of a common world civilization which all nations possess alike.
While, however, we can point out in this way distinguishing features of these larger periods, we must carefully bear in mind the elementary fact of all history, that there are no clearly marked boundary lines between its subdivisions. One age passes into another by a gradual transformation which is entirely unnoticed by the actors of the time, and which can be far more clearly pointed out by the historian as an accomplished fact than by anything in the process.
We commonly say that ancient history closed with the year 476 A.D. The great fact which marks the close of that age and the beginning of a new one is the conquest of the Western Roman Empire by the German tribes, a process which occupied the whole of the fifth century and more. But if we are to select any special date to mark the change, the year 476 is the best for the purpose. The conquest was then well under way, and in that year the title of Emperor of Rome was given up in the West, where it had been for a long time a mere shadow ; an embassy was sent to Constantinople to say that the West would be satisfied with the one emperor in the East, and to request him to commit the government of Italy to Odoaker. At the moment all the other provinces of the West were occupied, or just about to be occupied, by new German kingdoms, some faintly acknowledging the supremacy of the empire, others not at all.
When we turn to the close of medieval history we find no such general agreement as to the specific date which shall be selected to stand for that fact. For one author it is 1453, the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire through the capture of Constantinople by the Turks; for another, 1492, the discovery of America ; for another, 1520, the full opening of the Reformation. This variety of date is in itself very significant. It unconsciously marks the extremely important fact that the middle ages come to an end at different dates in the different lines of advance manifestly earlier in politics and economics than upon the intellectual side a fact which must receive more detailed attention in the proper place. Each author is under strong temptation to select for the close of the general period the date of its close in that particular field in which he is especially interested. For the purpose of the present sketch the date 1520 must be chosen, because, although upon the political side the whole Reformation period is clearly in the full current of modern international politics, still, in other directions, it just as plainly marks the transition from medieval to modern times, and so fixes the completion for the whole round of civilization of the period which we are especially to study.
This period is one, then, of something more than a thousand years, lying roughly between the dates 476 and 1520. It is an exceedingly important period to study for the purpose of gaining a conception of the greater movements of history as a whole, because, coming as an age of transition between two ages of greater apparent advance, its opening conditions cannot be understood without considerable knowledge of the results of ancient history, and its closing age carries us so far into the current of modern history that we necessarily gain some idea of the forces which determine its direction, and thus the whole course of history is, to a considerable extent, covered by any careful study of its middle period. In order to obtain such a view as this it will be a necessary part of our plan to look somewhat in detail at the situation of things in the last age of ancient history, and also in the opening age of modern history, though some-what less fully, because its character and conditions are more familiar to us.
This period is also a long one in the life of the race somewhere near a third of its recorded history. It must be in itself important, and in order to understand it thoroughly we must first of all obtain as clear a conception as possible of its place in the general history of the world.
We have already very briefly indicated what its character is. It is a transition age. Lying, as it does, between two ages, in each of which there is an especially rapid advance of civilization, it is not itself primarily an age of progress. As compared with either ancient or mod-ern history, the additions which were made during the middle ages to the common stock of civilization are few and unimportant. Absolutely, perhaps, they are not so.
We shall be able by the time our work is finished to make a considerable catalogue of things which have been gained during these centuries in the way of institutions, and of ideas, and of positive knowledge. But the most important of them fall within the last part of the period, and they are really indications that the age is drawing to a close, and a new and different one coming on. Progress, however much there may have been, is not its distinctive characteristic.
There is a popular recognition of this fact in the general opinion that the medieval is a very barren and uninteresting period of history the "dark ages" so confused and without evident plan that its facts are a mere disorganized jumble, impossible to reduce to system or to hold in mind. This must be emphatically true for every one, unless there can be found running through all its confusion some single line of evolution which will give it meaning and organization. If we can discover what was the larger general work which had to be done during this period for the civilization of the world, then we shall find the smaller details the individual steps in the doing of that work falling into place, becoming systematic, and orderly, and easy to remember. And most certainly there must be some such general meaning of the age. The orderly and regular progress of history makes it impossible that it should be otherwise. Whether that meaning can be correctly stated or not, is much more uncertain. It is the difficulty of doing this which makes medieval history seem so comparatively barren a period.
The most evident general meaning of the age is that which has been hinted at above. It is assimilation. The greatest work which had to be done was to bring the German barbarian, who had taken possession of the ancient world and become everywhere the ruling race, up to such a level of attainment and understanding that he would be able to take up the work of civilization where antiquity had been forced to suspend it and go on with it from that point.
Progress had ceased in the ancient world. Having brought civilization up to a certain point, the classical peoples seem to have been able to carry it no further. Even in those fields where the most remarkable results had been attained, as in that of the Roman law, nothing further seemed to be possible, except to work over the old results into new forms. Only in a single line, and that more or less in opposition to the general society of which it formed a part only in the Christian church was there any evidence of energy and hopeful life. The creative power of antiquity seems to have been exhausted.
But in this statement the word seems must be made emphatic. We have no right whatever to assert dogmatically that it was so. The analogy between the life of a man and the life of a race childhood, middle life, old age, death is an attractive one, but it is necessary to remember that it is the merest analogy, without any sup-port in facts. History gives us no clear case of any nation perishing from old age. It is altogether probable that if the Roman world had been left to itself had not been conquered and taken possession of by a foreign race it would in time have recovered its productive power and begun a new age of advance. Some early in-stances of revived strength, as under Constantine and Theodosius, show the possibility of this. The Eastern Roman Empire, under far less favorable conditions than the Western would have had, did do this later to a limited extent. The West would certainly have accomplished much more.
But the opportunity was not to be granted it. Ever since the days of the first Caesar the Germans had been trying to force their way to the west and south. Watching for any unguarded point, attacking with constantly increasing boldness and frequency, as the power of resistance declined, they finally found the empire too weak to repel them any longer, and breaking through the outer shell had every thing their own way. They took possession of the whole Western Empire. Province after province passed into their hands. Everywhere they over-threw the existing government and set up kingdoms of their own, some of them short-lived and crude, others full of promise and of longer continuance, but every-where they became the ruling race the Roman was the subject.
But if they were physically the stronger race, and gifted with some legal and political notions worthy to join with those of the Romans in equal partnership, they were in other regards rude and barbarous children in knowledge and understanding in the actual point of civilization which they had reached by themselves, scarcely, if indeed at all, above the level of the best tribes of North American Indians. In capacity for civilization, in their ability to meet a corrupt civilization of a higher grade than their own, and not be permanently injured by it though certainly some of the best of them, the Franks, for instance, seem to have had quite as great a capacity for absorbing the bad as the good in the rapidity with which they responded to the stimulus of new ideas and experiences they were apparently superior even to the Cherokee.1 Yet in very many ways in ideas, in dress, in habits and ways of living, in methods of warfare and diplomacy the parallel is very close and interesting,1 and if we can imagine a civilized land taken possession of by bands of warriors not materially above the best of our Indians in actual attainment, though superior to them in spirit and in moral tone, the picture will not be far wrong.
They were filled with wonder at the evidences of skill and art which they saw on all sides, but they did not understand them and they could not use them. The story of the German warrior who, astonished at seeing ducks apparently swimming on the floor of the ante-chamber in which he was waiting, dashed his battle-axe at the beautiful mosaic to see if they were living, is thoroughly typical of the whole age. Much they destroyed through ignorance, and much in merely childish or savage moods. Much more was forgotten and disappeared be-cause no one any longer cared for it or demanded its use. Art, which had long been slowly dying, at last perished. Science, no longer of interest to any one, disappeared. The knowledge of the Greek language was forgotten, almost the knowledge of the Latin. Skill of handicraft was lost. Roads and bridges fell out of repair. Inter-communication became difficult ; commerce declined. Few common ideas and interests were left to bind the different parts of the empire, or even of a province, together. The new governments were rarely able to en-force obedience everywhere, and often hardly cared to try. Crimes of violence became common. Force reigned where law and order had been supreme, and life and property were far less secure than they had been.
It is not strange that these things happened, or that the ages which followed them should seem to be dark ages. How could it possibly be otherwise ? Upon a society in which the productive force was already declining a decaying and weakening civilization came a mighty deluge of ignorance, an army of barbarians, to take control of everything, thinking of nothing beyond the physical life of the moment, knowing nothing of art or science or skill, and caring nothing for them. How could these things be preserved under such conditions as a part of the conscious possession of men? The de-cline, which had begun before the Germans came, must now go on still more rapidly until everything seemed to be forgotten. The whole western world fell back into a more primitive stage of civilization which it had once passed by, and became more material, ignorant, and superstitious than it had been. It would have required a greater miracle than is anywhere recorded to have kept alive in the general population of the west the civilization of Greece and Rome during such times, for it would have required the reconstruction of human nature and the modification of all historical laws.
The larger part of all that the ancient world had gained seemed to be lost. But it was so in appearance only. Almost, if not quite, every achievement of the Greeks and the Romans in thought, in science, in law, in the practical arts, is now a part of our civilization, either among the tools of our daily life or in the long-forgotten or perhaps disowned foundation-stones which have disappeared from sight because we have built some more complete structure upon them, a structure which could never have been built, however, had not these foundations first been laid by some one. All of real value which had been gained was to be preserved in the world's permanent civilization. For the moment it seemed lost, but it was only for the moment, and in the end the recovery was to be complete. By a long process of education, by its own natural growth, under the influence of the remains of the ancient civilization, by no means small or unimportant, which worked effectively from the very first, by widening experience and outside stimulus, the barbarian society which resulted from the conquest was at last brought up to a level from which it could comprehend the classic civilization, at least to a point where it could see that it had very much still to learn from the ancients, and then, with an enthusiasm which the race has rarely felt, it made itself master in a generation or two of all that it had not known of the classic work of its thought and art and science and from the beginning thus secured, advanced to the still more marvellous achievements of modern times.
This age of final recovery the age of the Renaissance marks thus the completion of that process of education —the absorption of the German in the civilization which he had conquered, so completely that h e is able to take it up at the point at which the Greek and the Roman had been obliged to drop it, and to carry it on to still higher results. And so the Renaissance age is the last age of medieval history, and medieval history is the history of that education and absorption, of the process by which the German was brought into the classical world, and by which out of the two the Roman civilization and the German energy and vigor and productive power, and new ideas and institutions a new organic unity was formed modern society. This was the problem : To make out of the barbarized sixth century, stagnant and fragmentary, with little common life, without ideals or enthusiasms, the fifteenth century in full possession again of a common world civilization, keen, pushing, and enthusiastic. This was what the middle ages had to do, and this was what they did.
It was a slow process. It occupied nearly the whole of a thousand years. And it was necessarily slow. Rome had civilized the Celts of Gaul and made thorough Romans out of them in a hundred years; but in the case of the Germans there were at least two very good reasons why no such speedy work could be done. In the first place, they were the conquering race, not the conquered, a fact which made enormous difference. It was their governments, their laws and institutions, their ideas, their idioms even, which were imposed upon the Romans, not the Roman upon them ; and although the higher civilization of their subjects began its work upon them at once, it was only such parts of it as especially impressed them, not the whole round of it with much of it, indeed, they never came in contact. In the second place, the Rome of the fifth century was no longer the Rome of the first. Her digestive and assimilating power was gone, indeed in the interval the process had even been reversed, and she had herself already become barbarized, and Germanized also, unable to resist any longer the influence of the constantly increasing number of barbarians introduced into the empire through her armies and her slave-pens. If Rome in the fifth century, characterized as she then was, had conquered Germany, she could hardly have Romanized it in much less time than was actually required.
But this work, however slow, began at once. From the moment when the German came into close contact with the Roman, whether as subject or as master, he recognized the fact that there was something in the Roman civilization superior to his own, and he did not consider it beneath him to borrow and to learn, in the majority of cases, no doubt, without any conscious purpose, some-times certainly of deliberate intention.' If we compare with modern times the amount of advance made in the five centuries following the fifth, it certainly seems very like " a cycle of Cathay ; " but if we judge it according to the conditions of the time, the gain was really large, and the amount of the Roman civilization. preserved was greater than we could have expected theoretically. We shall see, almost before the political system gets into any settled shape, decided improvement in knowledge, and interest in science, the beginning of a steady progress which never ceases.
Here, then, is the work of the middle ages. To the results of ancient history were to be added the ideas and institutions of the Germans ; to the enfeebled Roman race was to be added the youthful energy and vigor of the German. Under the conditions which existed this union could not be made --a harmonious and homogeneous Christendom could not be formed, except through centuries of time, through anarchy, and ignorance, and superstition. In other words, the work of the middle ages was not primarily progress, it was to form the organically united and homogeneous modern world out of the heterogeneous and often hostile elements which the ancient world supplied, and so to furnish the essential condition for an advance beyond any point possible to the ancients. That this work was thoroughly done the nineteenth century abundantly testifies. It will be our task to follow its accomplishment, step by step, from the day when the barbarian warrior supplanted the Greek philosopher and the Roman statesman, until we reach the full tide of modern progress.