Why history? 5 MEDIEVAL



If you go from about the time of the sack of Rome in 410 to about the time of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, you span a phase that we call the Middle Ages, the period that comes between what we call the ancient world and the modern world.

Rome had ruled what we call Europe and when it lost Rome’s governance, the world was a mess.  England would be settled by Danes and Germans.  The now peaceful Scandinavian peoples sent out wild raiders called Vikings.  The murderous insecurity of these dark times – that we call the Dark Ages – is pictured in epics like Beowulf and The Poetic Edda.  People looked for protection.  One person would pledge loyalty to another in return for protection.  You can see this in the Mafia in the film The Godfather.  We now call this the feudal system.  Although the relations may have begun voluntarily, the burdens and benefits were passed on from one generation to the next.   They became issues of caste – whereas our law is seen to move from status to contract, here that process was reversed. The feudal system did lead to the institution of knighthood, and romantic ideas and ideals about chivalry, courtesy, and honour. Le Morte d’Arthur is very different to Beowulf.

Europe came to be dominated by the teaching of a Jewish holy man called Jesus.  The Jews believed that they had a covenant with God and that they were his chosen people.  Jesus taught that God was open to all – his teaching was therefore Catholic.  He took up with prostitutes and lepers and got right up the noses of the local religious Establishment.  He effectively signed his own death warrant when he took to the money people in the Temple. Jesus may well have breached the local religious law, but the imperial man on the spot had him crucified on a false charge of treason in an act of judicial murder.  The followers of the man called Christ – ‘Christians’ – believed that he had risen from the dead and that following him could lead to eternal life.  The creed spread very fast, in some part because of the way the Romans persecuted his followers.

As we saw, Constantine converted, and moved the empire to the east – although the church would remain firmly seated in Rome. The priests drenched the simple teaching of Jesus in Greek philosophy.  They loved casuistry. They claimed a monopoly of knowledge.  Only they knew the mystery. They even forbade people reading the words of Jesus in their own tongue.  It has always been hard for an establishment body to cope with the teaching of a man born to blow up the establishment.  The church became hopelessly corrupt and inbred.

In 570, an Arab called Mohammed was born at Mecca.  He too believed in only one God and that he had found the only way to Him.  Mohammed thought that he crowned the teaching of Moses and Jesus.  (Muslims don’t believe in the crucifixion, much less the resurrection.)  He was a fighting prophet, and he taught that his followers would go to paradise if they died fighting for their faith.  That faith was quickly carried by the sword across the north of Africa and Europe into Spain.  The surge of Islam was first stopped there and later outside Vienna.  The Arabs developed arithmetic and made paper, and served to store the bases of Western learning.

The religions of Greece and Rome look silly to us, but since they did not claim to have the answer, they were a lot more tolerant than the three that came out of the desert in the Middle East. Three does not go into one.  The German or French ruler Charlemagne was instrumental in stopping Islam’s advance into Europe.  In 800, he revived the notion of Caesar when the pope crowned him head of the Holy Roman Empire.  This curious body would endure for a thousand years, and muddy the development of the German nation.  But the church intervened more darkly to inspire crusades against Islam.

The popes also offered paradise to those who fell for Christ.  At the start of one crusade, the Christians got into practice by slaughtering Jews.  Wars between these three faiths are still going on. They all have blood on their hands. None of those religions was good for that half of humanity called women.  The Catholic Church made a woman the Mother of God, but did little for her daughters on earth.  The doctrine of Original Sin suggested that women were the source of evil, and infected the attitude of humanity to sex for millennia.  On the plus side, the Church was instrumental in setting up universities.

Genghis Khan led the Mongol hordes out of Asia in the thirteenth century.  There was then an empire from Beijing to Russia.  This opened Europe to Asia.  Marco Polo travelled in Asia and opened Asia to Europe.  One result of the Mongol risings was a drifting bunch of refuges called gypsies.  China went through a form of rebirth, but then kept to themselves behind their wall.  At least until the time when Constantinople fell to the Turks, China looked much more advanced than the West.  Some in Islam may have felt the same, but all that was about to change.

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