I have always been fascinated with the Medieval period. When I was a professional
musician, music from that time was my favorite. I love the clothing, architecture, perhaps just the remoteness of a civilization from so many years
Of course, there's the unsavory side. The abuse of people, the gruesome and constant battles, disease and general lack of comfort for all but the very rich. And those pretty dresses probably stunk on a hot day with no deodorant, and most likely a lack of general hygiene for the common person.
In any case, here is a great little book that gives an overview of this period, each chapter discussing a different aspect of life from the fall of the Roman Empire to the 1500s. Coulton's lively discussion keeps the reader engaged; there is enough information to be interesting and enlightening, written in an uncomplicated manner without becoming tedious. It doesn't cover fashion or hygiene, but mostly deals with how the growth of the Christian Church influenced so many aspects of society.
It begins with "Chaos and Reconstruction" which provides a summary of reorganization after the breakup of the Roman Empire, and how the growing Christian Church remained the last vestige of power in Rome. After Constantine embraced it and made it the State Church, other religions were tolerated but considered superstitious. Even as barbarian invasions continued, the Church powers—bishops and priests—were generally left alone.
Coulton points out that one negative aspect of the growing power of Christianity was that it "cast overboard, as useless or even noxious, a great deal of what was noblest in ancient thought."
Another line of thought that was very influential in this period was the belief of the Second Advent, the return of Christ, and the certainty that it would happen quickly. Much personal energy went toward the salvation on one's soul, thus making the spiritual aspect of life more important than the material aspect.
"Dante leaves very few seats to be filled in his Paradise; and, if he could be recalled to earth, he would probably be less surprised at any modern invention, than that the world had lasted 600 years after his death. . . . Therefore, while the best Medieval thought was deeply serious, and penetrated with the sense of personal responsibility, yet it sometimes suffered from an impatience which was the defect of these qualities; the world-fabric might crash as any moment; what was the use of painfully beginning a long and continuous chain of facts and inferences which involves the labor of whole generations or centuries, when a few years or even weeks might bring the consummation of all things."
In "The Medieval Village," Coulton discusses the organization of society: how serfdom
came about and the ladder of hierarchy. It is interesting, and perhaps surprising that people often willingly gave up their land rights to the lord of
the manor. But there was mutual benefit in the form of protection against invaders, much better than single landowners could do on their own. In many cases this
setup worked perhaps better than we can imagine, although there were always cases where lords took advantage of their tenants and extracted from them much
more than their due.
One of the most interesting chapters is the one on monasticism, which provides a brief history on the origins of Holy Orders, such as the Benedictines, which in most cases had a corresponding order for nuns.
At first, members took lifelong vows to keep the "Three Substantials"—Obedience, Poverty, and Chastity. Breaking any of these was considered a mortal sin, which even the Pope could not absolve. There were also four Rules to which they were bound: They were not allowed to associate with the outside world; to eat butcher's meat; to own any private property; and they were required to perform steady manual labor.
However, as time went on, these rules were not only broken, but completely reversed. The monks ate meat as they wished, and began to travel as they pleased, often going to the parishes to preach or hear confessions, causing irritation with the secular priests. And as far as manual labor, not only did the monks not have to work in the fields and do their own chores, but they had hired servants, usually two per every three monks, to wait on them. And by now the monasteries were growing rich with endowments, but records show that less than ten percent went to charities or to help others.
"At Peterborough we have the inner history of thirteen consecutive years; it is a monotonous record of waste, indiscipline, and neglect even of the daily church services. In the last report, the abbot's adulteries with three separate women are reported as matters of common notoriety; and though the visiting bishop formally exonerated him, by the cheap process of exculpation known as compurgation, yet at the same time he punished two of the women; a significant contrast."
"Trade and Travel" sheds light on Medieval Gilds. And, as in our modern unions, there were both positive and negative aspects. Coulton gives an example of a specific instance in 1330 where
"the merchant guild tyrannized over the other townsfolk. They report that when wool or leather or hides are brought into the town for sale, if a member of the gild sets his foot upon the article, and offers a price for it, then nobody outside the guild will dare to buy it, nor will the owner dare to sell it except to a gild-man, nor at a higher price than he offers."
Coulton adds that examples of positive aspects of the guild would be to help a town buy
a whole cargo of a certain product, then distribute it among the people, and also to keep high standards of workmanship. And yet, many gild-men did operate
fraudulent practices, selling inferior goods and bilking their customers. The courts rarely enforced laws, and when people were fined, it was a small amount.
Therefore, the same people would pay the same fine for the same offence, year
after year, amounting to what we would consider the cost of a vendor's license.
After the Dark Ages, life began to settle down a bit into what Coulton calls the Middle Ages proper. When the world did not end in 1000 A.D. as many expected, restoration commenced as barbarian invasions died down. The energy previously spent on preparing one's soul for the Second Advent was gradually replaced, once again, with intellectual thinking, (within the limitations allowed by the Church), as explained in "Scholasticism and Free-Thought." What thought went against the Church was considered heresy, and the thinker possibly condemned to death.
There is so much fascinating information here that I could just go on and on. For anyone interested in the history of this totally captivating period, especially those just beginning to explore the Middle Ages, this book is highly recommended. It is easy to read, and offers insight into the chain of events that eventually formed our modern world.
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