Thursday 21 November 2013

What was the Middle Ages about?


By C.S Lewis's account, France was the centre of Medieval Europe - and the centre of French medieval life was scholastic philosophy (University of Paris), courtly love (the Arthurian cycle, the Song of Roland) and the Crusades - and the great Cathedrals, especially Chartres.

[CS Lewis. What France Means to You, 1944 - republished in We Remember CS Lewis edited by David Graham, 2001].

Given that this characterization also applies to at least the mainstream and high status part of English life, this explains why I can never wholly 'get behind' the Middle Ages - why I can't ever really regard it as a golden age - and certainly not as the ideal or best age.

The core of the mental life of the middle ages (with the exception of the great cathedrals) include things that I roundly dislike (courtly love) and the others about which I am decidedly ambivalent (scholastic philosophy and the cathedrals).

This even affects my appreciation of the truly great trio of English medieval poets - Chaucer, Langland and the Gawain poet.

I love them all, but not whole-heartedly - rather in selective parts; thus I cannot regard myself as a true-blue medievalist: not a solid Chestertonian, nor even a full-blown Lewisite.



dearieme said...

I've tended lately to view the defining feature of the Middle Ages as the Albigensian Crusade. Bertrand Russell described it along the lines of a campaign to eliminate heresy from southern France, along with civilisation, culture and happiness.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Yes, well, Russell was an unwise and silly man; and I don't agree for a moment that that horror story was the defining feature of the Middle Ages!

dearieme said...

Unwise, silly, friendless, and in this case right. It was a horror story, and showed up the barbarism of the lay and clerical authorities of the times.

JP said...

What was the Middle Ages about?

It was about 1,000 years long.

Ba dum bum!

Vader said...

Isn't Lewisite a chemical warfare agent?

Shenpen said...

City life was great. Guilds and distributism generally answer the problems that neither capitalism nor socialism can solve. In a medieval city if a serf flew there and worked some unskileld job, his son could gain citizenship, apprenticeship, by passing an exam join a guild and open his own shop, and if gaining enough prestige get elected to mayor. This was basically the American Dream of social mobility, without having to sail over an ocean.

As I generally assume unregulated markets work best, I struggled with the idea of price floors employed by medieval guilds. I still cannot justify them in principle. But with price floors, competition is in quality. That is both more noble and the competition is less cruel because a high quality artisan cannot put all his competitors out of business because he does not have the capacity to replace them: the people he hire will be mediocre, and there goes the competitive advantage. Therefore a high quality artisan would simply charge more but keep quantity low, and leave enough business for the others.

This sounds like a good blueprint for a non-proletarian society.

Bruce Charlton said...

@V - Yes indeed, although as a doctor working on a poisons unit many years ago I first came across its antidote British Anti-Lewisite

kirkian said...

Albigensianism was a lot of things, but cultured, happy and civilized it was not. But of course Bertie and his devotees would consider me a stupid, brainwashed Papist that can't think for himself.

Bruce Charlton said...

Bertrand Russell on the Middle Ages is, for me, about as authoritative as Bertrand Russell on the subject of baseball, or real ale.

dearieme said...

"Albigensianism was a lot of things, but cultured, happy and civilized it was not." But that's not what (my paraphrase of) Russell alleged. Russell may have been a twat, but he could think and write with precision.

Anyway, since nearly all the accounts of the Albigensians we have were written by their Roman Catholic persecutors, I wouldn't put much trust in them.