World Poetry Project: A World Dimly Lit
Back to the poetic trenches! After a long absence, it is time to return to the World Poetry Project with the middle ages in Europe.
The medieval world was not medieval. The men and women of that time did not know they were serving merely as place markers in a valley of time between the height of pagan Rome and Greece and the height that is ourselves. Sometimes they thought they were living in the endtime, a breath away from eternal judgment, but most days they thought, as we do, that their time was a great and terrible one. They had true faith, and so were better off than the ancients, who might have been able to point to greater material accomplishments, but were unable to save their eternal souls. They had troubles--drought, famine, invasion, and storms. Their knowledge was both intensely local, for news moved slowly and unsurely, and universal, concerned with a story of salvation and interpenetrated at every point with the divine. And the divine story provided the overarching narrative of life and death for every soul.
The material world of the early middle ages, once inappropriately called the dark ages, was less prosperous and strong than that of imperial Rome. The trade routes imperial Rome had protected and founded had decayed and fallen. The single authority of the Imperial City was no more, and a thousand separate, local authorities replaced it, more or less successfully. Artisans lost their crafts, and, in many places, lost the knowledge of their craft itself. However, there was a silent work of salvation occurring in the monasteries, and laboriously, often inaccurately, monks copied and re-copied holy and secular knowledge from the past, sometimes adding their own glosses to the manuscripts in marginalia that has thrilled scholars for centuries.
In the troubled first years of what we now call the middle ages, there is a mournful, anxious thread in the writing of western Europe. The fall of Rome was anxiety creating. The Roman Empire provided the men and women who lived within it a stable system of custom, law, and organization in which the troubles and joys of their lives connected to other concerns and rhythms that did not belong to themselves alone. That system was gone, and what would replace it, what would become, was not clear as their struggles, troubles, and decisions contributed to its becoming. It was easy to see the Merovingian Franks; it was impossible, as of yet, to see France.
Nor was western Europe yet Christian. There were pagans everywhere, and along with pagans, heretics and deviants. The Church struggled to define itself, to determine what was right belief and what was a falling away from God. The Church struggled to redefine Christianity in light of the fact that, while Christ might return again sometime, he was not returning today. Life had still to be lived, society had still to be organized, and no longer for just one day, to be dissolved in holy judgment and eternal salvation tomorrow, but for a long, uncounted time to come. Disorders that did not bring armageddon had to be provided with meaning. Those of old Rome who were not Christian had, perhaps, a harder time with all this than those that were. The old beliefs had no interpretation for a world without Rome and could provide it with no meaning. For the Roman pagan, aware of former glory and a greatness that was gone, the world must often have appeared to be a place of only decay and sorrow.
To provide the authors from the early medieval period we will read with a context, here is a brief, somewhat arbitrary, timeline of the period, from the fourth through the twelfth centuries:
- 306-337, Emperor Constantine the Great.
- 313, Edict of Milan ends the persecution of Christians. Over time, Christianity gained more privileges and responsibilities within the Roman government, becoming by 39 the official religion of the Empire.
- 325, Council of Niceaea called by Constantine to define Christian doctrine
- 330, dedication of Constantinople
- 376, Battle of Adrianople, a stunning defeat of the Roman army by the Visigoths
- 404, German tribes invade Gaul (France) over the frozen Rhine
- 410, Alaric sacks Rome
- 455, Pope Leo I negotiates for the safety of Rome with Attila the Hun
- 455, Rome attacked and sacked by the Vandals
- 476, Odovacar deposes child-emperor Romulus Augustulus, kills the regent, and sends imperial regalia to eastern emperor to show the western Roman empire no longer existed
- 481-511, Clovis, king of the Franks
- 496, Clovis converts to Catholicism
- 527-565, Justinian, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire
- 522, Hij'ra: flight of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina, accepted as the foundation of Islam and the first date of the Muslim calendar
- 632, death of Muhammad, founder of Islam
- 711, Muslim invasion of Spain
- 768-814, Charlemagne, King of the Franks
- 800, Christmas Day, Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor.
- 987, Hugh Capet, Count of Paris, elected king of France, beginning the Capetian dynasty.
- 1004, Muslim Spain breaks into small Muslim states after the death of Almanzor
- 1066, William the Bastard, duke of Normandy, invades England, defeats Harold Godwineson at Hastings, and becomes King of England
- 1135-1154, the Anarchy in England occupies the reign of King Stephen
- 1135-1189, Henry II, King of England, beginning the Plantagenet line of kings that will endure until the death of Richard III at Bosworth Field.
And here the chronology ends, missing many important details (like the establishment of Normandy in France, the Viking attacks on England and Ireland, the rapid rise of the Muslim empire of the Middle East, Irish monastacism and missionary activity, and the lives, deaths and works of countless saints, kings, and churchmen). The thirteenth century was one of change, a little renaissance in western Europe preceding the Renaissance proper, and the world it created quite different from these years in which the medieval world's structures were laboriously, sometimes unwittingly, made.