Middle Ages

period of European history from the 5th to the late 15th-century
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In European history, the Middle Ages, or Medieval period, lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: Antiquity, Medieval period, and Modern period. The Medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, the High, and the Late Middle Ages.


Saint Christopher, late 14th century, Saint Remigius Church
  • Thou sayest, 'Well discern I what I hear;
        But it is hidden from me why God willed
        For our redemption only this one mode.'
    Buried remaineth, brother, this decree
        Unto the eyes of every one whose nature
        Is in the flame of love not yet adult.
    Verily, inasmuch as at this mark
        One gazes long and little is discerned,
        Wherefore this mode was worthiest will I say.
    Goodness Divine, which from itself doth spurn
        All envy, burning in itself so sparkles
        That the eternal beauties it unfolds.
    Whate'er from this immediately distils
        Has afterwards no end, for ne'er removed
        Is its impression when it sets its seal.
    Whate'er from this immediately rains down
        Is wholly free, because it is not subject
        Unto the influences of novel things.
La commedia illumina Firenze
(The Comedy Illuminates Florence)
wall of Florence Cathedral
by Domenico di Michelino
Representation of the Universe in the Overview of the Divine Comedy (1855)
attr. Michelangelo Caetani
  • Thou sayst: 'I see the air, I see the fire,
        The water, and the earth, and all their mixtures
        Come to corruption, and short while endure;
    And these things notwithstanding were created';
        Therefore if that which I have said were true,
        They should have been secure against corruption.
    The Angels, brother, and the land sincere
        In which thou art, created may be called
        Just as they are in their entire existence;
    But all the elements which thou hast named,
        And all those things which out of them are made,
        By a created virtue are informed.
    Created was the matter which they have;
        Created was the informing influence
        Within these stars that round about them go.
    The soul of every brute and of the plants
        By its potential temperament attracts
        The ray and motion of the holy lights;
    But your own life immediately inspires
        Supreme Beneficence
    , and enamors it
        So with herself, it evermore desires her.
    And thou from this mayst argue furthermore
        Your resurrection, if thou think again
        How human flesh was fashioned
    at that time
    When the first parents both of them were made."
  • The existence of God may be proved in five ways. The first and most manifest way is the argument from motion. ...Whatever is in motion is moved by another, for nothing can be in motion except it have a potentiality for that toward which it is being moved. ...It is ...impossible that from the same point of view and in the same way anything should be both moved and mover, or that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. This cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover; as the staff only moves because it is put into motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a First Mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.
"Many books were written in the middle age; but... sometimes the more copies, the more variations there were from the original."
Image: Pisan lelivredestroisvertus
  • We know Chaucer in the only way in which the greater authors generally have cared to be known. ...All we need further in the way of fact is some knowledge of the literary conditions of his time. Publication in our modern sense there was none. So long as copies were still made laboriously by hand, circulation was very slow and very limited. Authors wrote for few readers; they had to depend largely for the spread of their works on patrons in positions of influence; and they were never certain that any two copies would be exactly alike. Many books were written in the middle age; but only the most popular of them were circulated in many copies, and sometimes the more copies, the more variations there were from the original. ...authors were at the mercy of the scriveners, or copyists... If the books that a medieval author wrote were thus scarce, dear and inaccurate, so often were the books that he read. The change wrought in this respect by the printing press is too great for us to realize without a strong effort of imagination. ...in Chaucer's time twenty books were a considerable collection, such as would not often be seen outside of the monastic and cathedral libraries ...Nor were even the libraries of cathedrals and monasteries either large or accessible according to our modern habits. ... Adding to the situation the slowness and difficulty of travel, one begins to realize that in the middle age wide reading was easy in only a few centers, and that even in these a man must sometimes have studied not so much what he wanted as what he could get.
  • Music historians have learned that the language and approach of musical theory in the Middle Ages were borrowed directly from medieval grammar and rhetoric.
    • Thomas Binkley Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music (1997) "The work is not the performance"
  • My own case for Christianity is rational; but it is not simple. It is an accumulation of varied facts, like the attitude of the ordinary agnostic. But the ordinary agnostic has got his facts all wrong. He is a non-believer for a multitude of reasons; but they are untrue reasons. He doubts because the Middle Ages were barbaric, but they weren't; because Darwinism is demonstrated, but it isn't; because miracles do not happen, but they do; because monks were lazy, but they were very industrious; because nuns are unhappy, but they are particularly cheerful; because Christian art was sad and pale, but it was picked out in peculiarly bright colours and gay with gold; because modern science is moving away from the supernatural, but it isn't, it is moving towards the supernatural with the rapidity of a railway train.
"The medieval saint's body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive."
Image: Sant'AndreafolleinCristo
  • No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint always has a very sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The medieval saint's body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real community of spirit between forces that produced symbols so different as that.
  • This volume, it is believed, contains all the most important tales which formed the great body of mediaeval legend or folk lore. ...for all who read them they must possess their old interest; and even over those who are unacquainted with the time-honoured romances, the heroes whose names they bear exercise in some faint measure the power of old associations. The wisdom of Merlin, the bravery of Bors and Guy, have almost passed into proverbs; and to not a few, probably, the name of Olger will bring up the image of the mighty Dane wrapped in the charmed slumber in which he lifts his mace once only in seven years. But a more potent spell is linked with the thought of Roland the brave and true, the peerless Paladin who fell on Roncesvalles. ...readers ...will obtain from it some adequate knowledge of the tales without having their attention and their patience overtaxed by a multiplicity of superfluous and therefore irksome details. Of the present version of the Arthur story, the most celebrated perhaps of all, it may be enough to say that it relates many important episodes which have been omitted in the versions recently published, while no attempt has been made to impart to the romance a more historical complexion than that which it received at the hands of Caxton's friend.
  • Why do philosophers call aboutness intentionality"? ...[M]edieval philosophers ...coined the term, noting the similarity between such phenomena and the act of aiming an arrow at something (intendere arcum in). Intentional phenomena are equipped with metaphorical arrows... aimed at... whatever... the phenomena are about or refer to or allude to. But... many phenomena that exhibit this minimal... intentionality do not do anything intentionally... Perceptual states, emotional states, and states of memory... can be entirely involuntary or automatic responses... The medieval theorists noted that the arrow of intentionality could... be aimed at nothing... in a rather particular way. They called the object of your thought, real or not, the intentional object. ...Any intentional system is dependent on its... thinking about—perceiving, searching for, identifying, fearing, recalling—whatever... its "thoughts" are about. ...[T]he best way to confuse a particular intentional system is to exploit a flaw in its way(s) of perceiving or thinking ..[C]onfusing other intentional systems is a major goal in the life of most intentional systems. After all, one of the primary desires... is... for... food ...[and] to avoid becoming the food of another intentional system. ...But ...[t]here is no taking without the possibility of mistaking. That's why it's so important for ...theorists to ...identify and distinguish the ...varieties of taking (and mistaking) ...to have an accurate picture of ...capacities for distinguishing ..."thinking about" things.
    • Daniel Dennett, Kinds of minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness (1996) pp. 36-37.
  • Medieval Islam was technologically advanced and open to innovation. It achieved far higher literacy rates than in contemporary Europe; it assimilated the legacy of classical Greek civilization to such a degree that many classical books are now known to us only through Arabic copies. It invented windmills, trigonometry, lateen sails and made major advances in metallurgy, mechanical and chemical engineering and irrigation methods. In the middle-ages, the flow of technology was overwhelmingly from Islam to Europe rather from Europe to Islam. Only after the 1500s did the net direction of flow begin to reverse.
  • In reality, the so called science of the middle ages is scarcely worthy of the name. Infinitely inferior as compared with modern science, it was still more crude, more distorted, more fantastic and illusory than that of ancient times. Medieval man had no clear-eyed perception of the visible world, actuality possessed for him little value, that which really is and happens was without special significance in his eyes. What the medieval man saw he interpreted as a symbol, what he heard he understood as an allegory. Dante himself is our best witness that cultivated men of his age esteemed the speculative life vastly superior to the practical.
  • Those who regard the Crusades, with indignation, as among the most extravagant episodes of the 'dark' Middle Ages, have not even the slightest suspicion that what they call 'religious fanaticism' was the visible sign of the presence and effectiveness of a sensitivity and decisiveness, the absence of which is more characteristic of true barbarism.
  • The ancient and medieval theory can be called an "organismic" theory: it treated the motion of inanimate bodies (such as rocks) by analogy with the motions of animals. Just as... a dog... performs a certain motion... to obtain... meat, medieval mechanics assumed that a stone fell in order to reach its "natural place." ...Beyond the ring of fire... began the realm of celestial bodies or of [seven] planetary spheres, regarded as rotating. These celestial bodies consisted of a much more subtle matter than terrestrial bodies. To each... belonged a spirit, a kind of god. ...they consisted of a nonterrestrial material. ...described by some authors as crystalline spheres. ...they moved in a most perfect way—in permanent, uniform, circular motion. ...The eighth sphere [was] of the fixed stars... supposed to be fixed on... it. Beyond the eighth sphere was heaven. ...Eventually the idea of a "prime mover" or "primum mobile" developed—that beyond the eighth sphere was a ninth which did not move itself, but which moved everything.
    • Philipp Frank, Philosophy of Science: The Link Between Science and Philosophy (1957) pp. 93-94.
  • The long period of the dark ages... is due... in a very considerable degree, to the celebacy enjoined by religious orders on their votaries. Whenever a man or woman was possessed of a gentle nature that fitted... deeds of charity, to meditation, to literature, or to art... they had no refuge elsewhere than in the bosom of the Church. ...celibacy. ...thus, by a policy so singularly unwise and suicidal... the Church brutalized the breed of our forefathers. ...as if she had aimed at selecting the rudest portion of the community to be alone the parents of future generations. She practised the arts which breeders would use, who aimed at creating ferocious, currish, and stupid natures. ...
    The policy of the religious world in Europe... by means of persecutions... brought thousands of the foremost thinkers and men of political aptitudes to the scaffold, or imprisoned them during a large part of their manhood, or drove them as emigrants into other lands. ...Hence the Church, having first captured all the gentle natures and condemned them to celibacy, made another sweep of her huge nets ...to catch those who were the most fearless, truth-seeking, and intelligent ...and therefore the most suitable parents of a high civilization, and put a strong check, if not a direct stop, to their progeny. Those she reserved... to breed the generations of the future, were the servile, the indifferent, and again, the stupid. Thus, as she... brutalized human nature by her system of celibacy applied to the gentle, she demoralised it by her system of persecution of the intelligent, the sincere, and the free.
  • [E]normous activity, the new spirit... had come... through the Renaissance. ...[A] new authority appeared... independent of Christian religion or philosophy or... the Church, the authority of experience, of the empirical fact. One may trace this... into the philosophy of Occam and Duns Scotus, but it became a vital force... only from the sixteenth century onward. Galileo did not only think about... the pendulum and the falling stone, he tried out by experiments, quantitatively, how these motions took place. ...[E]mphasis on experience was connected with a slow and gradual change in the aspect of reality. While in the Middle Ages... the symbolic meaning of a thing was... its primary reality, the aspect of reality changed... What we can see and touch became primarily real. And this... could be connected with... experiment... [T]his... meant a departure... into an immense new field of... possibilities, and... the Church saw in the new movement the dangers rather than the hopes. ...[R]epresentatives of natural science could argue that experience offers an undisputable truth... made by nature or...in this sense, by God. ...[T]raditional religion ...could argue that... we lose the connection with the essential values... that part of reality beyond the material world. These two arguments do not meet and therefore the problem could not be settled by any... agreement or decision.
    • Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (1958) pp. 169-170. Lectures delivered at University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Winter 1955-56.
  • I have chosen the middle ages because, in spite of many diversities, they have a certain great stamp of unity, and, above all, of simplicity. The Englishman of the twelfth century had much more in common with the Frenchman and the German of his day than is the case now. They were all one in one faith, and all acknowledged one supreme spiritual head. The papal court was a common meeting place for the best intellects from all lands. There was one common language for all formal interchange of thought. There was one great system which separated all Europe into classes, and made all the members of a given class akin. A nation... had little influence on its neighbour, mingled seldom in that neighbour's quarrels.
  • The capacity to resist coercion stems partly from the individual's identification with a group. The people who stood up best in the Nazi concentration camps were those who felt themselves members of a compact party (the Communists), of a church (priests and ministers), or of a close-knit national group. The individualists, whatever their nationality, caved in. The Western European Jew proved to be the most defenseless. Spurned by the Gentiles (even those within the concentration camps), and without vital ties with a Jewish community, he faced his tormentors alone—forsaken by the whole of humanity. One realizes now that the Ghetto of the Middle Ages was for the Jews more a fortress than a prison. Without the sense of utmost unity and distinctness which the ghetto imposed upon them, they could not have endured with unbroken spirit the violence and abuse of those dark centuries. When the Middle Ages returned for a brief decade in our day, they caught the Jew without his ancient defenses and crushed him.
    • Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951) Ch.13 Factors Promoting Self-sacrifice, §45
"The notion that the existence of God, the truth of Christianity and the teaching authority of the Church should be a matter of hesitation or doubt, would have made any average medieval turn in his grave."
Image: Reims Cathedrale Notre Dame
  • I feel a curious kinship, though, with the Middle Ages. I have been more successful in selling tales laid in that period of time, than in any other. Truth it was an epoch for strange writers. Witches and werewolves, alchemists and necromancers, haunted the brains of those strange savage people, barbaric children that they were, and the only thing which was never believed was the truth. Those sons of the old pagan tribes were wrought upon by priest and monk, and they brought all their demons from their mythology and accepted all the demons of the new creed also, turning their old gods into devils. The slight knowledge which filtered through the monastaries from the ancient sources of decayed Greece and fallen Rome, was so distorted and perverted that by the time it reached the people, it resembled some monstrous legend. And the vague minded savages further garbed it in heathen garments. Oh, a brave time, by Satan! Any smooth rogue could swindle his way through life, as he can today, but then there was pageantry and high illusion and vanity, and the beloved tinsel of glory without which life is not worth living.
  • Humanity in the past did certain things which fill us with horror. But on the other hand we are doing things now which would have filled humanity in the past with equal horror. If to us medieval intolerance causes creeps down the back, surely the tolerance of modern times, with the indifferentism inseparably bound up with it, would also have caused creeps down the back of the medieval. The notion that the existence of God, the truth of Christianity and the teaching authority of the Church should be a matter of hesitation or doubt, would have made any average medieval turn in his grave. To him these truths were as clear as the sun at noonday; so much so that any man who called them into question must be either hopelessly insane or hopelessly wicked.
  • Trees still dominated and it was the Teutonic farmers who first moved on to heavy soils... which entailed a heroic work of pioneering. The Saxons in England, in particular... exploited their new soils by means of the open-field system and a three-course rotation. ...to each township belonged a given area of land, the greater part of which was unreclaimed waste and not divided according to the share system, being common to all the villagers. Part of this untilled land was composed of meadows, and each householder had his turn at grazing stock or cutting grass... Arable strips were scattered all over the village holding, on the most suitable soils and sites, and a householder's share consisted of a number of strips, distributed fairly, so that he would have some good soil, some indifferent and some poor. There were cases in which villagers were shuffled round at intervals, moving on to a new holding, in order that equity might be even more rigorously observed. ...the householder's absolute right over his share endured only during the season of cultivation, to lapse after harvest, when his strips reverted into the common field, and to be resumed in the following ploughing time. Moreover, even during the season of cultivation, his right was limited by custom and the decision of the tenants in council as to what should be sown, when, how cultivated and when the harvest should be carried. Thus, the rotation of the crops on all arable land of the village was managed as one piece, and each shareholder grew the same crop in a given season. The rule was wheat, followed by beans or oats, followed by fallow. Manuring consisted of driving the cattle belonging to all the villagers on to the stubble after harvest. This system would not have done much to improve the soil, but nor would it have consumed it, or only very slowly. Generally speaking, the men and the soil of the whole medieval period held each other in balance, and there is not much evidence that the weight and quality of crops were any less at the end of than at the beginning of the period. It seems probable, however, that there was a very slow consumption of soil fertility, and that the stability of the manorial land-tenure practice, its very long endurance, was in itself mildly pernicious.
  • History knew a midnight, which we may estimate at about the year 1000 A.D., when the human race lost the arts and sciences even to the memory. The last twilight of paganism was gone, and yet the new day had not begun. Whatever was left of culture in the world was found only in the Saracens, and a Pope eager to learn studied in disguise in their unversities, and so became the wonder of the West. At last Christendom, tired of praying to the dead bones of the martyrs, flocked to the tomb of the Saviour Himself, only to find for a second time that the grave was empty and that Christ was risen from the dead. Then mankind too rose from the dead. It returned to the activities and the business of life; there was a feverish revival in the arts and in the crafts. The cities flourished, a new citizenry was founded. Cimabue rediscovered the extinct art of painting; Dante, that of poetry. Then it was, also, that great courageous spirits like Abelard and Saint Thomas Aquinas dared to introduce into Catholicism the concepts of Aristotelian logic, and thus founded scholastic philosophy. But when the Church took the sciences under her wing, she demanded that the forms in which they moved be subjected to the same unconditioned faith in authority as were her own laws. And so it happened that scholasticism, far from freeing the human spirit, enchained it for many centuries to come, until the very possibility of free scientific research came to be doubted. At last, however, here too daylight broke, and mankind, reassured, determined to take advantage of its gifts and to create a knowledge of nature based on independent thought. The dawn of the day in history is know as the Renaissance or the Revival of Learning.
  • Why do I feel so exercised about what we think of the people of the Middle Ages?...I guess it's because so many of their voices are ringing vibrantly in my ears – Chaucer's, Boccaccio's, Henry Knighton's, Thomas Walsingham's, Froissart's, Jean Creton's... writers and contemporary historians of the period who seem to me just as individual, just as alive as we are today. We need to get to know these folk better in order to know who we are ourselves.
  • The personal mystery of medieval man has been largely destroyed by capitalistic technicism and bourgeois scientism. There was always something mystical in personal creation as well as a "secret" in manual, artistic skills; convents and monasteries jealously kept the secret of their liquors; craftsmen had their secrets and so had doctors, alchemists, astrologers, and pharmacists in their more or less dark trades. Mystics, hermits, midwives, cooks, and violin builders harbored their secrets. Nature was full of unpenetrable mysteries and strange events; the scarcity of written documents furthered the growth of sagas, folklore, and legends.
  • During the Middle Ages, human life was generally held in small respect; various judicial institutions—if not altogether secret, at least more or less enveloped in mystery—were remarkable for being founded on the monstrous right of issuing the most severe sentences with closed doors, and of executing these sentences with inflexible rigour on individuals who had not been allowed the slightest chance of defending themselves. While passing judgment in secret, they often openly dealt blows as unexpected and terrible as they were fatal. Therefore, the most innocent and the most daring trembled... terrible as these mysterious institutions were, the general credulity, the gross ignorance of the masses, and the love of the marvellous, helped not a little to render them even more outrageous and alarming than they really were.
  • Among the principal criticisms leveled against the merchants was the charge that their profit implied a mortgage on time, which was supposed to belong to God alone. For example, we have the following remarks of a lector-general of the Franciscan order in the fourteenth century concerning a disputed question: "Question: is a merchant entitled... to demand a greater payment from one who cannot settle his account immediately than from one who can? The answer argued for is no, because in doing so he would be selling time and would be committing usury by selling what does not belong to him."
    ...The whole of economic life at the dawn of commercial capitalism is here being called into question.
  • The Gothic... stands out as exclusively a western style, but even this came as a short summer time, fulfilling a long growth from widespreading roots, nourished by the rivers of Eden. There is much more of the East in Gothic, in its structure and fibre, than is outwardly visible. To account for Gothic we have to account for its historic basis and for the whole atmosphere of mysticism, chivalry, and work-enthusiasm, with all the institutions, monastic, romantic, and social, which formed its environment. Looking at the slow preparation for, and the rapid passing of, western gothic art, and considering the sudden and entire breakdown of its traditions and ideals, I am drawn to the conclusion that the causes which underlay this art are to be found in a long infiltration of the Oriental spirit to the point of saturation, and then the bursting out of the new, yet old, energy shaped to northern requirements.
  • The human imagination has seldom had before it an object so sublimely ordered as the medieval cosmos. If it has an aesthetic fault, it is perhaps, for us who have known romanticism, a shade too ordered. For all its vast spaces it might in the end afflict us with a kind of claustrophobia. Is there nowhere any vagueness? No undiscovered by-ways? No twilight? Can we never really get out of doors?
  • Know that this Universe, in its entirety, is nothing else but one individual being; that is to say, the outermost heavenly sphere, together with all included therein, is as regards individuality beyond all question a single being like Said and Omar. The variety of its substances—I mean the substances of that sphere and all its component parts—is like the variety of the substances of a human being: just as, e.g., Said is one individual, consisting of various solid substances, such as flesh, bones, sinews of various humours, and of various spiritual elements; in like manner this sphere in its totality is composed of the celestial orbs, the four elements and their combinations; there is no vacuum whatever therein, but the whole space is filled up with matter. Its centre is occupied by the earth, earth is surrounded by water, air encompasses the water, fire envelopes the air, and this again is enveloped by the fifth substance (quintessence). These substances form numerous spheres, one being enclosed within another so that no intermediate empty space, no vacuum, is left. One sphere surrounds and closely joins the other. All the spheres revolve with constant uniformity, without acceleration or retardation; that is to say, each sphere retains its individual nature as regards its velocity and the peculiarity of its motion; it does not move at one time quicker, at another slower. Compared with each other, however, some of the spheres move with less, others with greater velocity. The outermost, all-encompassing sphere, revolves with the greatest speed; it completes its revolution in one day, and causes every thing to participate in its motion, just as every particle of a thing moves when the entire body is in motion; for all existing beings stand in the same relation to that sphere as a part of a thing stands to the whole. These spheres have not a common centre; the centres of some of them are identical with the centre of the Universe, while those of the rest are different from it. Some of the spheres have a motion independent of that of the whole Universe, constantly revolving from East to West, while other spheres move from West to East. The stars contained in those spheres are part of their respective orbits; they are fixed in them, and have no motion of their own, but participating in the motion of the sphere of which they are a part, they themselves appear to move. The entire substance of this revolving fifth element is unlike the substance of those bodies which consist of the other four elements, and are enclosed by the fifth element.
  • Through the constant revolution of the fifth element, with all contained therein, the four elements are forced to move and to change their respective positions, so that fire and air are driven into the water, and again these three elements enter the depth of the earth. Thus are the elements mixed together; and when they return to their respective places, parts of the earth, in quitting their places, move together with the water, the air and the fire. In this whole process the elements act and react upon each other. The elements intermixed, are then combined, and form at first various kinds of vapours; afterwards the several kinds of minerals, every species of plants, and many species of living beings, according to the relative proportion of the constituent parts. All transient beings have their origin in the elements, into which again they resolve when their existence comes to an end. The elements themselves are subject to being transformed from one into another; for although one substance is common to all, substance without form is in reality impossible, just as the physical form of these transient beings cannot exist without substance.
    • Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed (ca. 1190 AD) Part I, Ch. LXXII, A Parallel Between the Universe and Man, as in The Guide of the Perplexed of Maimonides (1881) pp.294-295, Tr. Michael Friedländer.
  • [T]he principal part in the human body, namely, the heart, is in constant motion, and is the source of every motion noticed in the body; it rules over the other members, and communicates to them through its own pulsations the force required for their functions. The outermost sphere by its motion rules in a similar way over all other parts of the universe, and supplies all things with their special properties. Every motion in the universe has thus its origin in the motion of that sphere; and the soul of every animated being derives its origin from the soul of that same sphere.
    • Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed (ca. 1190 AD) Part I, Ch. LXXII, A Parallel Between the Universe and Man, as in The Guide of the Perplexed of Maimonides (1881) p. 296, Tr. Michael Friedländer.
  • I am of course aware that there were other influences on Scott besides medieval literature and that sometimes there are alternative sources for a particular motif or detail or point of style. I cannot always pin Scott down to a medieval source to the exclusion of other possible sources. In such cases it is altogether conceivable that three or four or more literary works from different periods of literary history were on his mind at the same time. If so, I am inclined to believe that medieval romance weighed most heavily because of his utter fascination with literature of this sort during his formative years. Although he also read widely in other literature at an early age, ballads and old romances were his passion. ...I point out what Scott has borrowed and show how he has used the borrowing. When he has covered his tracks, I cannot always say which romance is involved... but the accumulation of interesting parallels provides good circumstantial evidence in support of my belief that medieval romance is the most important source for the Waverly Novels.
    • Jerome Mitchell, Scott, Chaucer, and Medieval Romance: A Study in Sir Walter Scott's Indebtedness to the Literature of the Middle Ages (1987)
"It was the individual who... was important in the eyes of God, not the community."
Fresco detail of The Effects of Good Government (1338)
  • There were no intellectuals as such in the Middle Ages; for the medieval man... society and its structures were once and for all given, namely as a reflection of the divine order, analogous in heaven and on earth. It was the individual who, through his participation in the mystical body of Christ and through his membership in the Church, was important in the eyes of God, not the community; it was the individual whose fate, sins, repentance, and salvation were the important matter; his submission to or defiance of the social order were not weighed in terms of benefit or loss to the latter, but in terms of whether he did or did not follow the divine decrée. ...the community was considered an instrument helping or hindering the individual's earthly course, not a goal in itself, but a testing ground for individual virtue or weakness.
    • Thomas Molnar, The Decline of the Intellectual (1961) Ch. 11 "Intellectual and Philosopher"
  • The alchemical conception of different substances as forms of the one thing, that is, portions of the same entity concealed in different wrappings, prevailed throughout the Middle Ages, and did not wholly disappear until towards the end of the eighteenth century.
  • One... characteristic of medieval space must be noted: space and time form two relatively independent systems. First: the medieval artist introduced other times within his own spatial world, as when he projected the events of Christ's life within a contemporary Italian city, without the slightest feeling that the passage of time has made a difference, just as in Chaucer the classical legend of Troilus and Cressida is related as if it were a contemporary story. When a medieval chronicler mentions the King... it is sometimes difficult to find out whether he is talking about Caeser or Alexander the Great or his own monarch: each is equally near to him. ...the word anachronism is meaningless when applied to medieval art... in Botticelli's The Three Miracles of St. Zenobius, three different times are presented upon a single stage.
  • Because of the separation of time and space, things could appear and disappear suddenly, unaccountably: the dropping of a ship below the horizon no more needed an explanation than the dropping of a demon down the chimney. There was no mystery about the past from which they had emerged, no speculation about the future toward which they were bound: objects swam into vision and sank out of it with something of the same mystery in which the coming and going of adults affect the experience of young children, whose first graphic efforts so much resemble in their organization the world of the medieval artist. In this symbolic world of space and time everything was either a mystery or a miracle.
  • In the warrior societies of the Middle Ages, the killing of enemies in combat and genocidal campaigns are frequently very hard to separate. In the West, notions of chivalry on the battlefield mixed with the barbarous readiness to eliminate whole groups of enemies, often with religious (“Christian”) justification as the backdrop. In the east, Mongol warriors also slaughtered enemies, sometimes as whole groups, because of perceived slights or resistance to the inevitability of Mongol overlordship. The twenty-first-century observer has to be careful not to make the particularities of a distant world, in this case that of the Crusaders or the Mongol warriors, blend too easily with those of their modern counterparts. But the wholesale massacres of civilians that the warrior societies of the past engaged in also should not be separated from the genocides of the modern world in any hard- and- fast way.
  • The reason for this contrast between the French and the Italian mediaeval literature is not far to seek. Allegory is a characteristically mediaeval form; and in Italy the Middle Ages began so late and the Renaissance came so early that that country never had the opportunity to fall completely under the spell that held France from the time of the Roman de la Rose till the end of the fifteenth century. Thus Petrarch, in spite of the fact that he wrote perhaps more pure allegory than any other Italian, was at the same time an enthusiast for the New Learning.
"We may grant the love discussions... an immense influence upon knightly conduct"
Image: Altstetten
  • I do not mean to say... that these love discussions... were without their influence upon the conduct and ideals of courtly life in the Middle Ages. ...the question of the existence of Courts of Love comes down to a question of jest or earnest, and the line between these is no easy one to draw. In our modern life we see men take to sport with all the seriousness of which they are capable, while others, quite literally, "play the game" of politics. An international yacht race moves men as deeply as a national election, and affects as permanently, ideals of conduct and the sense of honor. There is no reason to believe that business and play were any more clearly divided in the Middle Ages; and we may grant the love discussions of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter an immense influence upon knightly conduct without in any way invalidating the contention that these ladies and their courtiers were only playing a game.
  • The medieval social organization was a personal one. The relations between the squire and serf, between master and artisan, were direct, and sometimes intimate. The personal quality mitigated and obscured the social injustice and inequality...
    • Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932)
  • This idea of Death as the lawless one... who strikes at random, arose early in mediaeval tradition, and is represented in the well known Dances of Death... Parallel with this notion... has run in the mind of the folk a vague idea of Chance as that which obeys no rule and defies all measure and prediction. The two conceptions cross one another in the medieval representation of Death seizing the gambler's dice-box and casting the dice with him for his life.
  • Our conception of chance is one of law and order in large numbers; it is not that idea of chaotic incidence which vexed the mediaeval mind.
  • I have taken up the account of the production of books in Europe from the time of the downfall of the Empire of the West. I have endeavoured to show by what means, after the disappearance of the civilisation of the Roman State, were preserved the fragments of classic literature that have remained for the use of modern readers, and to what agencies was due the maintenance, throughout the confusion and social disorganisation of the early Middle Ages, of any intellectual interest or literary activities. I find such agencies supplied in the first place by the scribes of the Roman Church, the organisation of which had replaced as a central civilising influence the power of the lost Roman Empire. The scriptoria of the monasteries rendered the service formerly given by the copyists of the book-shops or of the country houses, while their armaria, or book chests, had to fill the place of the destroyed or scattered libraries of the Roman cities or the Roman villas. The work of the scribes was now directed not by an Augustus, a Mæcenas, or an Atticus, but by a Cassiodorus, a Benedict, or a Gregory, and the incentive to literary labour was no longer the laurel crown of the circus, the favours of a patron, or the honoraria of the publishers, but the glory of God and the service of the Church. Upon these agencies depended the existence of literature during the seven long centuries between the fall of the Western Empire and the beginning of the work of the universities, and, in fact, for many years after the foundation of the universities of Bologna and of Paris, the book-production of the monasteries continued to be of material importance in connection with the preservation of literature. ...In 1450 comes the invention of printing, which in revolutionising the methods of distributing intellectual productions, exercised such a complex and far-reaching influence on the thought and on the history of mankind.
  • Throughout the medieval period, there existed a tension between the sexual morality prescribed by religion, the sexual norms deemed appropriate by secular society, and the average person's sexual behavior. While theoretical values and belief's pertained to all people, irrespective of age, sex, or social rank, in fact, which behaviors were permitted, or tolerated, very much depended on whether one were male or female, rich or poor, or whether the behavior was being judged according to secular or religious criteria. While both value systems sought to regulate and control sexual activity outside of marriage, they did so for very different reasons.
    In the early Middle Ages, before the Church had succeeded in disseminating and enforcing its doctrines of marriage, it is more difficult to identify exactly which behaviors might have constituted sins, given that polygyny, serial monogamy, concubinage, and divorce were widely practiced by the upper ranks of society, and formal marriage was not accessible to slaves, serfs or the poorest members of society. Fundamentally, by the central Middle Ages, both secular and ecclesiastical values promoted the view that the only appropriate venue for female sexual activity was within marriage. Secular society was preoccupied with the need to ensure the legitimacy of children, in order to perpetuate lineages, secure advantageous marriage alliances, and maintain familial honor.
  • Depicting the Middle Ages as bloody and brutal serves a purpose in our collective memories. We are conditioned to see ourselves as participating in a supposedly-enlightened post-modern age. The structural narratives of our age promote the idea of progress—which is as obvious in our technology as in our social ideals. Women achieved the right to vote a hundred years ago, the civil rights movement is turning 50, the gay rights movement has achieved successes at a rate that baffles even the justices of the supreme court. Our rights are getting righter—and our wrongs are being shoved into the past.
    This makes the origin of our society—the medieval world—logically the worst of all possible places; the very nadir of western society (whatever that is): “The Dark Ages”. It is little wonder that the two crimes that are, arguably, worse than deathrape and torture—are understood to have been common features of the age (though they’re not, but that’s another article). It is such a good thing that we never do those any more, and instead are kept safely at arm’s length by being ascribed to our imaginary Middle Ages.
  • There is almost never a sharp break nor a total dissimilarity between periods which adjoin in time. Thus the Middle Ages inherited much from ancient times, and many features of our present civilization may be traced back several centuries into medieval history. This illustrates how one age dovetails into its successor, no sharp line being drawn between them, but some features of the old life continuing for some time after innovations have been made in other respects.
  • Many of the greatest accomplishments of the Middle Ages were either anonymous or the work of countless laborers.
    • Lynn Thorndike, The History of Medieval Europe (1917)
  • The Middle Ages deserve our attention, partly because they contributed much to our modern civilization and because our study of them helps to explain many existing conditions. Then grew up our modern languages, then began modern literatures and universities, then developed the Roman Catholic Church and the states of France and England, then were discovered the mariner's compass, gunpowder, and printing. But the Middle Ages also merit our study because they had institutions and ideas which are gone and which are strange to us, but the study of which serves to widen our experience, broaden our outlook, and deepen our sympathies and understanding.
  • The medieval theologians would not be surprised at a prerequisite of a degree in physics for a degree in theology. In their time, the highest degree in philosophy—which included the most advanced knowledge of physics of the day—was a prerequisite before a student was permitted to begin study for a degree in theology ...Kenny has shown the Aquinas' Five Ways—his five proofs of God's existence—are absolutely dependent on Aristotelian physics... Aquinas... was one of the leading scholars of Aristotelian physics... and... was primarily responsible for... [its] general acceptance throughout Europe. We could call Aquinas a great physicist as well as a great theologian, for, although Aristotelian physics was wrong, it was an essential precursor of modern physics.
    • Frank J. Tippler, The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead (1994) p. 329. Ref: Anthony Kenny, The Five Ways: St. Thomas Aquinas' Proof of God's Existence (1969) p. 329.
  • The primitive creative epoch in the history of Christianity was followed in the Middle Ages by a period especially characterized by the evolution of the consciousness of opposition between God and the world, priests and laity, church and state, and, in general, between the human spirit, on the one hand, and God, the human spirit itself and nature, on the other, and hence by the evolution of the sense of the limitation and bondage of man. The period of Modern Times, on the contrary, is marked, in the main, by the development of the consciousness of restored unity, and hence of the reconciliation and freedom of the human spirit. In the patristic period, philosophic thought stands in the closest union with theological speculation, and co-operates in the development of Christian dogma. In the Scholastic period it passes into the service of theology, being employed merely to reduce to scientific form a body of dogmatic teaching for the most part already at hand, by introducing a logical arrangement and bringing to its support philosophical doctrines from ante-Christian antiquity. In Modern Philosophy it gradually acquires, with reference to Christian theology and ancient philosophy, the character of an independent science as regards both form and content.
  • Two difficulties meet one in studying the early history of the science. One is... mysticism... and the other is the custom among the early writers of ascribing their discoveries, books, etc., to fabulous names or ancient heroes and gods. This latter had two objects, the first being to shield the true author in time of persecution, and the second to gain a certain amount of credit and reputation... by the use of the names of such celebrities as Moses, Solomon, Alexander, or Cleopatra. This tendency is especially noticeable among the writers of the Middle Ages, and also the early Greek authors, and is not peculiar to authors of alchemical treatises.
  • A common entry in Domesday is that in a particular place there is sufficient pasture for the cattle; sometimes, but more rarely, the mention of sufficient wood also occurs. In these cases the quantity of waste land was not even practically unlimited, and the modes of appropriation of its benefits and proceeds had to be devised and kept up for the sake of the community to avoid destruction and to prevent unfair advantage being taken by some of the participants. In this connection the common appears as included in the territory of a definite rural community, and the right to use it is said in later legal language to be appendant to the holdings of this community, nor is there any reasonable ground for supposing that the principles on which these rights were apportioned and regulated were altogether different in earlier times. Without vouching for details, we may suppose that the customary jurisprudence of the feudal age fairly represents the main ideas which prevailed among the Saxons.
  • Whether we have a half-servile community under a lord, or a village of socmen or other free people, the essential features of the map do not vary, and the customary arrangements are made and enforced by the community, possibly with more or less pressure from stewards and powerful people, but in the main on communal lines; so communal indeed, that even the strips of the lord's shares were in many cases intermixed with the rest and thus bound to submit to the plan of management and the rules laid down by the common consent of meetings of the shareholders.
    • Paul Vinogradoff, The Growth of the Manor (1905) Book II. The Old English Period, Ch. IV The Open Field System
"the first restorers of the antient philosophical sciences in Europe... were the Arabians"
Image: Cordoba Mezquita
  • After the calamities which the state of literature sustained in consequence of the incursions of the northern nations, the first restorers of the antient philosophical sciences in Europe... were the Arabians. In the beginning of the eighth century, this wonderful people, equally famous for their conquests and their love of letters, in ravaging the Asiatic provinces found many Greek books, which they read with infinite avidity: and such was the gratification... that they requested their caliphs to procure from the emperor at Constantinople the best Greek writers. These they carefully translated into Arabic. ...The Greek poetry they rejected, because it inculcated polytheism and idolatry, which were inconsistent with their religion. ...Of the Greek history they made no use, because it recorded events which preceded their prophet Mahomet. Accustomed to a despotic empire, they neglected the political systems of the Greeks, which taught republican freedom. For the same reasons they despised the eloquence of the Athenian orators. The Greek ethics were superseded by their Alcoran, and on this account they did not study the works of Plato. Therefore no other Greek books engaged their attention but those which treated of mathematical, metaphysical, and physical knowledge. Mathematics coincided with their natural turn to astronomy and arithmetic. Metaphysics, or logic, suited their speculative genius, their love of tracing intricate and abstracted truths... Physics, in which I include medicine, assisted the chemical experiments to which they were so much addicted: and medicine, while it was connected with chemistry and botany, was a practical art of immediate utility. Hence they studied Aristotle Galen and Hippocrates with unremitted ardour and assiduity: they translated their writings into the Arabic tongue, and by degrees illustrated them with voluminous commentaries. These Arabic translations of the Greek philosophers produced new treatises of their own, particularly in medicine and metaphysics. They continued to extend their conquests, and their frequent incursions into Europe before and after the ninth century, and their absolute establishment in Spain, imported the rudiments of useful knowledge into nations involved in the grossest ignorance, and unpossessed of the means of instruction. They founded universities in many cities of Spain and Africa. They brought with them their books, which Charlemagne... commanded to be translated from Arabic into Latin: and which... being quickly disseminated over his extensive dominions, soon became familiar to the western world. Hence it is, that we find our early Latin authors of the dark ages chiefly employed in writing systems of the most abstruse sciences: and from these beginnings the Aristotelic philosophy acquired such establishment and authority, that from long prescription it remains to this day the sacred and uncontroverted doctrine of our schools. From this fountain the infatuations of astrology took possession of the middle ages, and were continued even to modern times. To the peculiar genius of this people it is owing, that chemistry became blended with so many extravagancies, obscured with unintelligible jargon, and filled with fantastic notions, mysterious pretensions, and superstitious operations. And it is easy to conceive, that among these visionary philosophers, so fertile in speculation, logic and metaphysics contracted much of that refinement and perplexity, which for so many centuries exercised the genius of profound reasoners and captious disputants, and so long obstructed the progress of true knowledge. It may perhaps be regretted, in the mean time, that this predilection of the Arabian scholars for philosophic enquiries, prevented them from importing into Europe a literature of another kind. But rude and barbarous nations would not have been polished by the history, poetry, and oratory of the Greeks. Although capable of comprehending the solid truths of many parts of science, they are unprepared to be impressed with ideas of elegance, and to relish works of taste. Men must be instructed before they can be refined; and in the gradations of knowledge, polite literature does not take place till some progress has first been made in philosophy. Yet it is at the same time probable, that the Arabians, among their literary stores, brought into Spain and Italy many Greek authors not of the scientific species: and that the migration of this people into the western world, while it proved the fortunate instrument of introducing into Europe some of the Greek classics at a very early period, was moreover a means of preserving those genuine models of composition, and of transmitting them to the present generation.
  • Dogmatism demands for philosophical theories the submission of mind, due to those revealed religious doctrines which are to guide our conduct and direct our hopes: while Mysticism elevates ideas into realities, and offers them to us as the objects of our religious regard. Thus the Mysticism of the middle ages and their Dogmatism alike arose from not discriminating the offices of theoretical and practical philosophy. Mysticism claimed for ideas the dignity and reality of principles of moral action and religious hope: Dogmatism imposed theoretical opinions respecting speculative points with the imperative tone of rules of conduct and faith.
  • In the Middle Ages society was far more static and was essentially hierarchical in nature. As a result the causal or genetic attitude was far less important in medieval thought that it is in ours and the concept of evolution had little influence compared with the role of symbolism in the general world-view... Moreover, even the concept of time itself was of less significance to historians... For St Augustine the date of an event was of far less importance than its theological significance. His tendency to see everything in a theological rather than in a historical perspective was a powerful influence in the Middle Ages... It was not until the nineteenth century that the fundamental significance of the historical perspective came to be generally recognized. This was several hundred years after the theory and practice of perspective had been developed by painters and others. In each case a new way of looking at the world resulted.
  • Although western-European society in the Middle Ages developed no general concept of progress, many important innovations were made. ...[M]edieval inventions included... spectacles for reading, the spinning wheel, stronger iron tools... the heavy plough... flying buttresses. Some of the most important innovations in the Middle Ages were connected with the use of the horse... A more efficient harness than the crude yoke, which had been so well suited for draft-oxen, was introduced about the ninth century. ...Alfred the Great noted, with apparent surprise, that horses were used for ploughing in Norway. This would have been impossible with the yoke-harness, because as soon as the horse begins to pull with it the neck-strap presses on the animal's windpipe and thus tends not only to restrict the flow of blood... but also to suffocate it! ...Previously, the [horseshoe] had only been tied on... The first indisputable evidence of the use of nailed horseshoes goes back to the ninth century. ...[M]etal armour ...gave considerable impetus to the craft of the blacksmith. ...[T]he blacksmith was the forerunner of those who constructed the first mechanical clock. ...[T]he greatest of these, Richard of Wallingford ...in the early fourteenth century ...was the son of a blacksmith.
    • Gerald James Whitrow, Time in History: Views of Time from Prehistory to the Present Day (1988) pp. 85-86.
  • In the early and high Middle Ages it had been possible to spend many tens and even hundreds of years on erecting a single building... This was possible because human life was regarded as primarily the life of the community in which one generation quietly succeeded another... All this was destined to change in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance period. Even in painting the time factor made itself felt... causing painting a secco to replace al fresco... since the very long apprenticeship... could not be maintained, and a successful painter had to work fast...
    • Gerald James Whitrow, Time in History: Views of Time from Prehistory to the Present Day (1988) p. 111.
"These jousts, or tournaments, were the
chief delight of the middle ages" Charlotte Mary Yonge
  • It was the favourite amusement of the ladies of the castle to watch the sports and mock combats by which young men were trained, and they were often called on to declare the victor. Then the youths of two neighbouring castles would challenge each other, and gradually such contentions in prowess were held on a larger and larger scale, till they became almost battles; half the knights in the kingdom were engaged in them at once, and ladies sat in galleries ranged round to watch and encourage them, while the king himself on his throne, adjudged the prize, or threw down his staff to check the game if it became too dangerous. These jousts, or tournaments, were the chief delight of the middle ages, followed by feasts and dances, and by high honours to the most successful champion, who sometimes received his prize from the fairest of the ladies present, who was called the Queen of Beauty. Ladies were indeed of no small importance, according to the rules of chivalry. To win their favour was one of the chief objects held out to young knights, and discourtesy to them was one of the greatest offences that could be committed against the rules of the order. It was the part of the ladies to instruct the young pages in courteous manners, and also in their religious duties, and the lady of a castle stood in a far higher place of honour and confidence than women before these chivalrous days, except the few who raised themselves to eminence by their own deeds.
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