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Summary - Medieval Civilization
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Summary - Medieval Civilization
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
We have now followed the course of European civilization from the time when the various streams which united to form it were drawing together at the close of ancient history, until all its various elements were completely united and had begun the more rapid advance which we term modern history. t is clearly a period of preparation, not in the sense, however, in which every age in history is a preparation for the following age. t was not so much, as now, a preparation in institutions, discoveries, and ideas, though there was something of this. t was rather a preparation of men. It is a period of history in which the races that have created mod-ern civilization were brought together and united in the organic system which we call Christendom, in which the ideas and institutions which each contributed were also united into a common whole, and in which men were prepared to add to the results of distinctly medieval times, not slight in some directions, the higher products of ancient civilization which they had been unable to comprehend until near the close of the period. With this preparation completed, and this final union made, the modern spirit entered into history, and made itself master, in succession, of the various departments of civilization.
The two fundamental facts in this process of union are the Roman empire and the Christian church. The first in the order of time was the Roman empire. t united the ancient world in a common whole, which was in all essential respects as organic a union as modern Christendom. The two great classic civilizations the Greek, of art and literature and science and philosophy ; the Roman, of law and government and practical skill were blended into a world civilization in which the best elements of various tribal civilizations became the property of all men. This common whole which Rome created was never afterward destroyed. The keen sense of it, the cosmopolitan feeling which was characteristic of the best days of the empire, declined. Europe threatened at times to break into fragments, but such a result never happened. The old force which had at first maintained the union the idea of Rome grew weaker and disappeared, but not until a new one the church had arisen to take its place. Christendom is the creation of this new force upon the foundation which the Roman empire had laid.
Into this empire, in its earliest age, before it had detected the decay which had already begun, entered Christianity, spreading slowly at first, then more rapidly and among higher classes. Before its third century was completed it had become the recognized religion of the imperial court. In the age of its more rapid expansion it absorbed not only the pagan society but also pagan ideas, and became less spiritual and more formal. Ceremonies and doctrinal beliefs multiplied. The simple organization of primitive days gave place to a complicated but strong hierarchy, over which the Bishop of Rome had already begun to assert his headship and to secure, in a part of the church, its recognition. This strong organization arose, creating a real unity throughout the provinces of the West, at the moment when they were falling apart politically. When they had become wholly independent kingdoms it remained a living bond of union between them.
Before this point was reached the fatal weakness of the Roman empire had become evident. The occupation of the world by the Romans had exhausted their strength. There had been no opportunity under the empire to root out the moral and economic evils which had begun their existence in the last days of the republic, nor to recover the losses which they continually inflicted. Beyond the frontier, in every generation, a watchful enemy made trial of the Roman strength, and at last found it insufficient. In the fifth century every province of the West was taken possession of by the Germans, and the fourth great source of the elements which were to be combined in medieval times was brought into connection with the other three. Teutonic kingdoms were founded, Ostrogothic in Italy, Visigothic in Spain, Vandal in Africa, Burgundian in the Rhone valley, Saxon in England, Frankish in Gaul, and finally, Lombard in North Italy, but in the end they were all overthrown except the Frankish and the Saxon. They were the two tribes destined to be the especially active agents in the transmission of institutions and law through the middle ages.
The apparent result of the Teutonic settlement was ruinous to civilization. Disorder, ignorance, and superstition, which were already beginning, were intensified by the conquest. But the ruin was more in appearance than in reality. Even before the invasion most of the German tribes were prepared to respect many things which they found among the Romans, and almost immediately the two influences which were the chief agents in their absorption, the Christian church and the idea of Rome, began to work upon them. The process of union and recovery was slow, necessarily slow, because of the weakness of the recuperative influences, and of the roughness of the material upon which they acted. For three centuries history is filled with the shifting of peoples and the rise and fall of states, with no apparent gain of stability or security, the first requisites of progress. The first great advance which gave promise of better things was the empire of Charlemagne at the beginning of the ninth century.
The first Carolingians had restored the strength of the Frankish state, and recovered the lands conquered by the early Merovingians. On this foundation Charlemagne erected an empire rivalling in extent the Western Roman Empire. But his revival of the title Emperor of Rome was not justified alone by the extent of the territory over which he ruled. All things for which the name of Rome stood, in the minds of those who still re-membered it, were represented in that day by the Frankish empire. Order and security, general legislation, a common government for many different peoples, the fostering of schools and religion, a promise of permanence for the future, all these were connected with the name of Charlemagne, and we may add the fact of which they were less conscious the speedy union into a single people of the two races, the conquerors and the conquered. His empire was not permanent. The causes of disorder were still -too strong to be overcome, and the effort to establish governments of the old Roman or of the modern type was premature. But Charlemagne's attempt was a strong reinforcement of the bet-ter forces. t created for a moment security and a real union. t revived the influence of Rome. As men looked back upon it from a later time, it became a new golden age. From the time of Charlemagne progress was still slow, but Europe assumed a more settled character and never quite fell back into the earlier confusion.
The most prominent general feature of political civilization characteristic of modern times as compared with ancient, is the existence of independent nations, constituting a virtual federation in the place of one great empire. The creation of these nations was the work of the last half of the middle ages, but in the breaking up of Charlemagne's empire they made their first appearance. In other words, the failure of the attempt to secure settled political order by a revival of the one great empire plan, was accompanied with an attempt to secure it by the modern system of national governments. The West Franks and the Eastern German tribes fell apart, and set up governments of their own, distinguished both from each other and from the Carolingian. England emerged from the age of tribal kingdoms, and began a national life under the lead of the West Saxons. But these promises of national organizations really able to govern were not immediately fulfilled. There were as yet, even within these narrower geographical limits, too few of the elements of a common life from which states draw their sup-port to render these attempts successful. In England the Danish invasions threw the nation back into some-thing like the conditions of the first age of conquest. In Germany the national government was the most promising of any until the Norman dynasty gained possession of England, but even in Germany it was weakened by strong tribal differences, which were not entirely over-come when it entered upon the long conflict with the papacy, entailed upon it by the Holy Roman Empire. In France the feudal system had its origin, and it had usurped the powers of the general government, even be-fore the fall of the Carolingian family. The feudal king whom it set on the throne in the place of the old dynasty had only a name to reign, and the same result happened wherever in Europe the feudal system became powerful. Yet for France and for all Europe the feudal system was of the greatest service in an age when anarchy could not be entirely repressed, because it carefully preserved the form and theory of a general government, while it allowed local independence the freest hand.
The tenth and eleventh centuries were the age of extreme disintegration, when the local and the narrow prevailed universally. The papacy shared in the decline of all general power. Even the revival of the Roman empire by the Saxon kings of Germany, which looks like a return to unity and to broader ideas, was the revival of a title and a theory, hardly of a reality. But the idea of the universal supremacy of the pope was already too thoroughly worked out to remain long in abeyance. The reform led by the monastery of Cluny revived the old theories with greater precision and a clearer consciousness. It created also Hildebrand, the practical statesman, who attempted to carry out the theories by raising the papacy above all states. Meanwhile the strength of the emperor had greatly increased under the Franconian family, and immediately the two great theoretical institutions which the medieval mind had constructed upon the Roman foundation came into conflict. It was a conflict between medieval ideas, fought with medieval weapons, and it ceased only when the medieval in every direction was beginning to give place to the modern. Its net result for the history of civilization was that it prevented the realization in facts of either theory the world political empire or the world ecclesiastical empire.
At the moment when this strife was at its height the turning-point of the middle ages was reached. Europe was roused from its lethargy by a high purpose, and stimulated in the crusades to an activity which never afterward declined. Already here and there new influences had begun to work, in commerce and in a desire for learning especially. Now all classes were stirred by the general enthusiasm. The new impulse received began to show itself in every direction. The course of civilization turned away from the dark ages toward modern times.
Commerce was the first to feel the new forces, be-cause the most directly touched by the crusades. Ships were multiplied ; new articles of commerce brought into use ; new routes opened ; geographical knowledge in-creased ; villages were transformed into cities ; money came into more general use ; wealth was accumulated, and with wealth power and influence in a new class, the Third Estate. In lands the most favored, serfdom disappeared, and the agricultural laborer shared to some extent in the general improvement. These results of in-creasing commerce acted directly upon the political development of Europe. The commercial classes demanded security and order. They stood ready to aid the state in repressing feudal violence. They demanded a uniform law, which they found in the Justinian code, and by their use of it, and by their influence in the governments which were forming, they secured its prevalence over the native law, thus strongly reinforcing the tendency to centralization naturally involved in the fall of feudalism. Finally the Third Estate made its way into the government, as a class beside the other classes, and obtained an influence upon public affairs in the Diets and Estates General of the thirteenth century an influence which it never discovered how to use.
Politically the nations appeared immediately upon the crusades. Germany and Italy were defrauded of the unity which their national life would have justified and broken into contending fractions by the visionary Roman empire, which the Ottos had revived. In Spain the slow recovery of the peninsula from the Mohammedans made the united monarchy possible only at the end of the fifteenth century. But France and England reached contrasting results of the greatest interest. In France the predominant fact at the outset was the feudal system. The construction of a political unity answering to a national life was a process of breaking down feudal barriers and absorbing feudal principalities. In this process the only institution which represented a unity above the feudal divisions, the monarchy, naturally took the lead. Every element of power lost by feudalism was added to the king's authority. As soon as the geographical construction was fairly under way the institutional began. National administrative, legislative, and judicial systems were got into operation. A national taxation and a national army were formed. As a result of the line of development which it had been obliged to follow, the French nation came into existence with a closely centralized political life, directed by an absolute king. In England the predominant fact at the beginning was the uncontrolled power of the sovereign. The English barons were not feudal princes. They were so situated that they could not hope to become princes. In striving to increase their own power at the expense of the king they had recourse to the only things of which they could know anything older institutions, Saxon, Norman, or feudal which limited the king's action or offered protection against his anger. Their necessary affiance with the other classes in the nation gave still more of a popular character to the government and made it possible for the lower house of Parliament to be formed upon a really representative principle and to obtain increasing power in public affairs. The political life of the English nation expressed itself in a limited monarchy, with definitely formed institutions of public and private liberty. Politically modern history opens with the rise of conflicting interests between the newly formed states with the beginning of diplomacy and of international politics.
Intellectually the mind of Europe was wakened to an intense desire for learning before it knew where to find the materials of knowledge. The result was the formation of a great system of speculative learning, scholasticism, which seemed to its adherents so vitally important that it became a serious obstacle to the advance of real learning. With the fourteenth century the true way was found. Led perhaps by the reawakening of a genuine literary feeling, by an admiration for the writings of the ancients and a sense of the unity of the past with the present, the first humanists sought eagerly for all the remains of classic civilization. Greek, which the middle ages had never known, was recovered, as well as a better knowledge of Latin. The spirit of criticism was quickly awakened. True scientific work was begun. Careful editions of literary and historical works were pre-pared. A more accurate knowledge of the past was gained. Old beliefs were brought to the test of facts, and time-honored myths destroyed on all sides. The right of investigation and of individual judgment was established. In physical science Copernicus was provided with the material and the method which led to the first great advance in the understanding of nature. The invention of printing popularized the new learning and gave it better weapons. The discovery of America, and all the work of the century together, broadened and liberalized men's minds, and opened a future full of promise. With this the middle ages closed and modern history began.
In the ecclesiastical world less progress had been made by the beginning of the sixteenth century because the resisting power had been greater. The nations as they arose had successfully opposed the political interference of the papacy in their domestic affairs. England, France, and Germany in succession had proclaimed their independence. But the attempt, at the Council of Con-stance, to reconstruct the government of the church upon the model of the ideas and institutions which had grown up in the political progress of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had failed completely. The same result had followed the several attempts to introduce religious or ecclesiastical reform, either local or general, which had been made before the beginning of the sixteenth century. At that date the modern spirit had, in the main, possession of all the world except the ecclesiastical portion of it. But if the modern spirit had been kept under in these matters it had not been destroyed, and when it found its leader in Luther the suddenness of the revolution showed how thorough had been the preparation for it. The Reformation sought as its conscious object a return to a truer Christianity in practice and be-lief, but it accomplished more than this. t created a general atmosphere of intellectual independence and freedom which, if not always perfectly realized, has been, nevertheless, one of the most essential conditions of modern progress.
With the Reformation the history of the middle ages was closed for every department of civilization. This is the same as to say that for every department of civilization the work of waiting, of preparation, was now over, and that an age of more rapid progress, basing itself upon the results of the world's first age of similar progress, now succeeded an age of relatively slow advance. The age which lay between had had its necessary work to do. To the results of ancient civilization, it had added new ideas and institutions from other sources, and, even more important, it had brought in a new race and trained it to understand and to build upon the best productions of the ancient world. The reason why the advance of the last four centuries has been so marvellous, comparatively speaking, is because the middle ages moulded into a perfect unity, a living and organic world civilization, the best contributions of Greek and Roman, Christian and German.
In sum total the beginning of the sixteenth century shows these advances to have been made over the beginning of the fifth. A new race is on the field as the creative agent in history the Teutonic organized now in a number of independent nations, and not in one great empire, but forming an equally or even more close unity in civilization than the old empire, in which the work of each nation is immediately the common property of all. This unity was now so thoroughly established, so much a part of the world's daily habit of thought and action, that the idea of the Roman empire, upon which it had been originally based, had entirely disappeared, and if any idea of the special source of this unity had taken its place, it was that of the Christian faith as its common characteristic and foundation Christendom. The nations organized within this unity were no longer city states, but in them all parts of the land were equally organic factors in the composition of the nation. Their governments presented, with local variations, two general types, one of which, at least, was a decided advance upon any of the ancient world. One was a closely centralized monarchy, in which the functions of government, recovered from the smaller powers the feudal lords which had usurped them in a time of political confusion, were vested in an uncontrolled sovereign. The other was also in form a monarchy, but it was a monarchy which allowed full local self - government in the subdivisions of the state without loss of efficiency, that is, it was a strong national government, without close centralization. The functions of the general government, exercised at first by the king, were passing more and more under the control of the people by means of a series of institutional checks upon the royal power which were not known to the ancient world. This control was exercised by representatives of the people, under a true representative system, which was the most valuable contribution which this race had yet made to practical politics. The liberty of the individual was protected by institutions which were also new. In other words, this type of government was that of a free state well under way, its institutions of liberty already so definitely shaped as to be capable of transmission through long ages, and of adaptation to other races and other environments.
In economic civilization, as compared with the fifth century the commerce of the sixteenth was no longer confined to the Mediterranean, but the whole world was open to it, and an age of great colonies was about to begin. The slavery of Europeans had disappeared from the Christian states, and serfdom, which in the fifth century was just beginning to take the place of slavery, had also been left behind by a few of the more advanced nations. Labor had become more honorable than in ancient times. The class of free laborers had arisen, with but little influence as yet, but revealing clearly the possession of that power in its infancy which they were to exercise in the future.
Intellectually, the world had come into possession, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, of the printing-press and a greatly extended geographical knowledge. These in themselves constituted a revolution, but in hardly any other particular was there an advance over the fifth century, though the attitude of mind toward life and all intellectual problems was a great advance upon the medieval. The active mind of the middle ages had been employed in the construction of great philosophical and theological systems, valuable for their own purposes but adding little to real knowledge. The great effort of the last age, now just successful, had been to learn what the ancients had known, to regain a more just estimate of man and of his powers, and to restore more productive methods of scientific work. The first great discovery in the field of physical science was just on the eve of announcement.
In art much which the fifth century possessed had been lost never to be recovered, but much also had been added to the world's store the Divine Comedy and Chaucer, the cathedrals of Europe and the earlier works of Renaissance art.
Religiously, the opening of the sixteenth century presented, in external appearance at least, no advance upon the fifth. Those modifications of the primitive and spiritual Christianity which had been introduced at the earlier date, because of the difficulty of holding true to the higher life in a declining age, which had perhaps enabled the Christian organization to meet the perils of the age of conquest with greater safety, and to become a more effective teacher of barbarous races, through which, however, the gifted soul had always been able to see the light these modifications or corruptions still remained as the popular Christianity, hardened into a vast, and in-deed splendid, system of ceremonies and doctrinal beliefs. In place of the formative constitution of the fifth century now appeared a most highly organized absolutism, a great empire, with perfected machinery of government and a growing system of law. But if at the opening of the sixteenth century the church was still in appearance medieval, it was just on the verge of the revolution which was to make it more modern, and to mark the first long step in advance toward a truer understanding of Christianity.
The catalogue is not long of those things in which the first years of the sixteenth century surpassed those of the fifth. The great change was in the new race, the new spirit, which now entered into the possession of the results of the past. New impulses were felt by every man, and the promise of a wider future. New forces were opening the way in every direction. Humanity was entering upon another great era of the rapid conquest of nature and of truth.