Sunday, August 28, 2016

Long Shadows and the Dark Ages (Notes: 29)

Tabletop gaming, anyone? Yes? Too bad! This is NOT what this series of notes is about.

(Today, we being a new series of notes from my engagement with 'The Early Middle Ages' Great Course; it is hosted and narrated by professor Philip Daileader and spans some 24 lessons.)

In terms of historical memory, 300-1000 A.D is the period of history known as the Dark Ages. Because of its lack of resources many medieval scholars prefer to specialize either in the high (1100-1300) or late periods (1300-1500) of the Middle Ages. Why is it called the Dark Age? Some scholars call it that because of the aforementioned lack of information that we know of about the period. Others still call it ‘dark’ because of the myriad of social ills which plagued the epoch, from plummeting literacy rates, growing isolationism, and the decline of urban environments. Because of this, many scholars either see it was “too depressing” or simply, more realistically, do not want to deal with the relative difficulty of simply finding information to work with and prove theories/hypothesis.

Professor Philip Daileader asks his audience why people should study the early medieval world; his answer is three-fold: first, he asks a series of questions which command our attention and which can only be solved by taking a study recourse to this period: why did the Roman empire collapse, why did Christian monotheism become the dominant religion in Europe?; secondly, because of some of the people that lived during this time would command a domineering presence long after their death and direct the thinking of the post-early medieval world. Figures like King Arthur and King Charlemagne, for example are impossible to understand without understanding the early medieval world. Thirdly, we need to understand the early Middle Ages in order to understand how the material reality of the later medieval periods were possible and what they owed to the early middle age.

Englishman Edward Gibbon and Belgian Anacreon Perion stand among the most demanding historians of this period which contributed to our understanding of the late Roman Empire and the early medieval world. 

Born in 1737, dies in 1794, Gibbon led a privileged life. He served as a member of parliament and a protestant. He is a member of the intellectual class as marked by his affiliation with the European Enlightenment. He spends much time on the continent where he “rubs shoulders” with thinkers like Voltaire; however, he thought that Voltaire, and indeed many of the French Enlightenment, went too far in their critique of institutions. But Gibbon was hostile to the so-called Revealed Religions and was especially critical of Christianity, it being the most widespread Revealed Religion. He considered Christianity a superstition and wished that his contemporaries relied more on themselves and their own analytical power to explain the world around them instead of relying on religious dogma. Being not a humble man, Gibbon wanted a topic to study which presented challenges and which would make a name for himself: enter, the study of the Roman ruins. He soon knew though that he could not merely study the ruins in isolation and had to study all of the Roman Empire; and so he wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a testament to his study. Gibbon’s book was well-received by his contemporaries: they liked his powerful writing style and his explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire, that the Romans lost their civic virtue—something lifted from 4th and 5th century Roman Moralists—resonated well with his peers. Indeed, they would be of foundational importance for many thinkers to follow.

But to move onto Anacreon Perion’s life account. He was born in 1862 and died in 1935. He is a cosmopolitan figure and studies in France and Germany (in addition to Belgium). Perion, however, was not well-born and had to work for a living, hence his teaching at the University of Ghent 1836-1930. Perion’s life was interrupted by the First World War; he was subsequently crushed when his youngest son died fighting the German’s during their invasion of Belgium. In 1916 he is imprisoned by the Germans for his resistance to re-opening the university under German rule. He is not released until the end of the war in November of 1918. From 1922-3, Perion would publish some articles which explained the transition from the ancient to the medieval world not in a moral sense but in an economic sense (The so-called “Perion Thesis”) and so eschewed the personal and collective dimensions of previous scholarship on the matter. He challenged the notion that the collapse of the empire came from the Germanic invasions or because of the abdication of the office of Emperor. Life for the daily person post-these events remained much the same—whether or not an emperor existed did not affect very much the common folk, whereas, the Germanic invaders were not coming to destroy Roman culture but rather partake in its benefits. Economic trade, likewise, did not break down. The real break lied with the 7th century and with the Arabs with the conquest of Spain, North Africa, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and much of Asia Minor (Turkey). Such events ruptured the economic integrity of the Mediterranean. Europe became, as Perion put it, “Blockaded by the Arabs” and so the Roman Empire, now so dependent on the trade from those regions, could no longer survive as it once had with the Arab conquests now firmly entrenched. Europe thus become highly agrarian in nature and autarkic. Perion’s case rested on the vanishing of certain items such as gold coins which had to be done outside of Europe. What he views as clear evidence as losing access to certain parts of the world.

The influence of both of these writers are large even today. It will not be an issue of accepting or rejecting their theories, but of seeing what aspects of their theories work and what does not work as backed up by modern scholarship intermixed with an understanding of the social, political, religious, and economic realities of the time and place. The course, as prof. Daileader remarks, is divided into two sections: part one is Late Antiquity (300-630), while part two is focused on more distinctly medieval period as the first part is overlapped with the ancient world, so this is the middle of the seventh century to the year one-thousand.

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