Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages by Johannes Fried, former professor of medieval history at the University of Frankfurt, was originally published in German and has recently been translated into English by Peter Lewis. The medieval period is a perennially fascinating subject. The mystique of a bygone “Dark Age” accounts for some of the fun in learning about this time in western history. We know, however, that the Middle Ages were not strictly a dark time in Europe. There was a great deal of diligent and intensive scholarly work on a variety of topics including logic and ecclesiastical topics. Tremendous efforts were expended to preserve and carry forward some of the spirit of the Greco-Roman heritage. This effort continued on for a thousand years throughout the early, high and late middle ages. Sure the collapse of the Roman Empire came with its accompaniment of destruction, tears and wailing but the situation ameliorated due in large part to the growth of two stabilising forces: church and crown.

Fried begins his narrative quiet early with the “barbarian” Ostrogoth King Theodoric and the death of Boethius. For those unfamiliar with the story, Boethius was a member of a rich and powerful Roman patrician family. He was considered a highly intelligent man in his day—but the sentiment doesn’t do the man justice. The fact that Boethius was sensitive to the failing standards of excellence in every facet of the disappearing Roman world, and that he tried desperately to fix the situation by translating Greek masterpieces of learning into Latin for future generations makes him extraordinary. Unfortunately, Boethius had only started on this grand and noble project when Theodoric, suspicious of this well connected Roman, had Boethius imprisoned and killed.

From the death of Boethius the story continues on to the relationship between the growing influence of the Papacy and the rising, centralizing power of the Franks. The church and crown dynamic will run through the rest of the Middle Ages and does a lot to define the era.  This great political tango to forge a mutually beneficial relationship between Pope and Emperor (and later, the various monarchs of Europe) is one of those endlessly debated topics in western political-cultural history. Sometimes the relationship was cordial other times it was hostile. For better and for worse the Papacy and the Monarchies needed each other. The political splintering of the Holy Roman Empire and, eventually, the religious splintering ended the uniformity of culture and belief that some have called Christendom.   

Fried has organized the book into major chapter headings, not necessarily by date but rather by larger historical currents. For example, in the chapter titled The End of Days Draws Menacingly Close, Fried looks at the idea popular at the time of the imminent end of days. Though the anxieties are discussed the chapter delves much more into cultural transitions in the church, and the growth in ideas of nobility. In another chapter, The True Emperor Is the Pope, Fried discusses the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of Europeans fought between the papacy and monarchs to determine who would have ultimate power on the continent.  The Epilogue may be the best part of the book in the way it dismantles the whole notion of the Middle Ages as a time of uninterrupted ignorance and superstition.

Fried’s narrative style has flashes of eloquence but not enough of them. What I want from a book on Medieval history, metaphorically speaking, is to walk through a cathedral and witness the play of light on carved stone. Reading Fried’s Middle Ages sometimes felt like I was climbing up a flight of grey, concrete stairs. Not that the language is overly technical or strained, but that it is too conventional: this happened, and then this happened, and the result was that this happened. I don’t want to give the impression that the book is poorly written, it is not, but the experience was not all it could be. The pace and presentation was done with learnedness as the dominant guiding principle rather than the communication of a fascinating period in history. When these two elements coalesce, scholarship and narrative flare, then you get that time-travel magic. If you are looking from a comprehensive and erudite intellectual history of the Middle Ages this is a good one.

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