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Friday, January 26, 2007


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a. c. grayling

Dear Professor Miesel
Thank you for your interesting and valuable points. As you rightly say, medievalists now limit the term "Dark Ages" to the period 500-1000, starting it rather late no doubt, but choosing the beginning of the eleventh century on the reasonable ground that there were indeed significant stirrings, as Chartres for one among other things shows. Recent and contemporary scholarship is quite right to distinguish the first five centuries of the middle ages from the next four, as it is to distinguish these last four from the Renaissance proper (as opposed to the 12th and 13th century Renaissance, as it has recently come to be described) and the modern period. And you are also quite right to point to manuscript illumination in this later period and sculpture as signs of reviving artistic output. All this I acknowledge. But I think we could agree that the point at issue is not one about the intrinsic merits of (say) Dark Ages oral literature or late medieval illuminated manuscripts, but the contrast, the sharp contrast, between (let us say) first century Rome and sixteenth century Florence, on the one hand, and on the other hand London or Milan or Madrid anytime you care to mention between the fifth and thirteenth centuries. I think of the material culture, the poetry, the civic organisation, the architecture and technology, the level of wealth, and the ease of communications at the height of the Roman empire, and find the formerly Roman world only just beginning to recover to something like these levels of advancement in the city states of Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. My original point, challenged by Mr Olson, rested on this contrast; and the interesting thing is that it was recognised and named very early, even as it persisted: by Petrarch, in coining the idea of an intervening age that had represented a very marked decline from the world he and his contemporaries were just beginning to invoke as their inspiration for a cultural rebirth. We must note what this led to: the eventual fragmentation of church authority in the Reformation and then secularism in succeeding centuries, as an inevitable long-term consequence; and we must acknowledge that among the major features of the complex causation of the post-Roman decline into the Dark Age was the closing of the European mind by the imposition of a single hegemonic belief system. This latter was the central point I sought to make in the piece that Mr Olson challenged.
History invites interpretation, certainly: I find that I can make use of what I see as in effect concessions to my point in your remarks, not least "Yes, Tertullian famously asked "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" but he ended up a heretic. Over the first millennium, churchmen wrestled with the question of how to reconcile the two, culminating in the Renaissance of the 12th C when full texts of Aristotle finally became available." Heresy or no, Tertullian’s point stood until – in the full – Aquinas; and how many centuries elapsed before the arrival of the 12th of them!… "Art requires some economic surplus and a market. Neither is available in the dangerous, economically depressed and depopulated Dark Ages except in [certain named areas]" Yes indeed…" Knowledge of Greek was almost entirely lost after the fall of Rome" Indeed again. The advances you mention in the way of polyphonic music, formal degrees etc. are very late in the period; no one seeks to claim that the transition to the Renaissance proper (in the fifteenth century) occurred ex nihilo, though it was an immense leap, not least in consciousness (contrast the Renaissance orations on the dignity of man with the contemptus mundi literature of the medieval mind).
You mention a philosopher (Erigena), and might have mentioned two or three poets; compare the seven centuries of philosophers, poets, essayists, historians and dramatists of the classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods, and their immense sophistication and artistry. You mention suppression of usury; this reminds me of the invidious position of European Jewry. You mention the barbarians, but not the Gibbonian thesis in part explanation of their conquest. You allude to the Gothic architecture of the last centuries of this period, but not the fact that the engineering of the Basilica of Maxentius (c. 430) could not be reproduced until Brunelleschi’s dome for Florence's Duomo (1430). These contrasts are what motivate my central point. The unquestionable existence of these contrasts does not entail that the later part of the middle ages were barren – except in so many respects by comparison; but that is the precise distinction of import here. – I am most grateful to you for your comments and collegial tone. My very good wishes to you – Anthony Grayling

Teresa Polk

In addition to what Sandra Miesel and Carl Olson have written, I would like to point out that the time frame that you are discussing had some of the most dramatic advances in music, and in musical notation, of all of history. This has been the subject of study at the Abbey of St. Pierre at Solesmes, among other places. It is also the era when Kievan Russia chose Christianity with the Eastern Church's liturgy as its state religion and Kiev chant developed. Some of the artwork of the Carolingians is remarkably beautiful, once you accept the very culturally different taste and style of the era. Unfortunately, not a lot of it has lasted 1000 years. St. Willigis, who was the archbishop of Mainz in the late 10th century (one of the most important positions in the Church in that day) took the slogan "By art to the knowledge and service of God." He was one of the people to encourage the construction of beautiful churches in that era.

See this interview with Jacques-Marie Guilmard of Solesmes about the development of Gregorian chant in the 8th century and my post Faith and Reason at the Year 1000 about developments in music and notation which are considered by some to be the greatest inventions in the history of music.  Here are a few pictures of art from around that time, and a post with reference to St. Willigis from his feast day last year.

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