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VIDEO: In Defense of the Middle Ages

The newest 6-minute course from Prager University illuminates a much-maligned era of human history.

by
Anthony Esolen

Bio

May 28, 2013 - 9:00 am

What would we call a time of unsurpassed cultural invention? When teachers and students came together and founded the university? When poets, painters, and sculptors produced works of art utterly unlike any that had been made before?  When risk-taking merchants established international trade and banking? When chartered towns flourished under home rule, and kings were closer to governors or even mayors than to presidents or prime ministers now?

When ordinary artisans erected the most beautiful structures upon earth? When the glorious twelve-tone scale came into being, and the foundations were laid for Bach and Beethoven? When for three hundred years Europe was warmer than now, and harvests were bountiful, and grapes grew on the English hillsides?

When women enjoyed more freedom and social influence than they would again until the Industrial Revolution?  When celebrations were filled with color, and both sin and repentance were brave? When popular drama swept across a continent after more than a thousand years of slumber? When Thomas Aquinas addressed every question a man could ask, and Francis preached in saintly simplicity?

We’d call them the Brilliant Ages – and that’s what the high Middle Ages were.

Professor Anthony Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. He writes regularly for Touchstone, Crisis, The Catholic Thing, Catholic World Report, Front Porch Republic, Public Discourse, and Magnificat. His most recent books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008) and Ironies of Faith (ISI Press, 2007); his Commentary on the Roman Missal is now available from Magnificat Press. Professor Esolen is the translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy (3 volumes, Random House), Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered (Johns Hopkins University Press), and Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (Johns Hopkins University Press). Professor Esolen is available as time permits for speaking engagements (September through early May in the US). With his family, he spends summers in Nova Scotia, where he enjoys picking berries, studying dead (or nearly dead) languages, and roofing the barn.

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Top Rated Comments   
DiscoJer, serfs were not slaves. They were tied to the land, which was a development of the late Roman Empire, but they had specific rights and the exclusive use of property. They had to also work the lord's land and supply the lord's household. This system was called manorialism and was not universal over Western Europe. There were areas were manorialism never took hold and freeholding was the rule.

Feudalism was the military system set up to try and provide defense of the realm in the absence of a meaningful money economy. Most of southern Europe and Scandinavia was relatively unaffected by it.

Serfs were not starving all the time because if they were the population of Europe would have died out and we wouldn't be here. History would have been quite different.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In 2003, I visited Salisbury and York Cathedrals in England, and was amazed at the beauty and great craftsmanship of those buildings, and the reverence which inspired the creation of them. Compare the medieval cathedrals, and the many relatively humble but beautiful medieval churches in England with much of what has been built since World War II.

Alfred the Great, Henry II, Stephen Langton, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, the creators of the Luttrell Psalter-examining these medieval men and many more will show how contemptible are the members of today's "Ruling Class"--our politicians, pseudo-academics and pseudo-artists whom we are cursed with today. And those medieval examples are just a few from England. Continental Europe had so many other great examples too.

Today we have millions of people who are fanatical believers in Anthropogenic Global Warming, alien visitations, reptilians, Marxism, Keynesian economics, etc., etc., all while pressing their noses within inches of some plastic-metallic device while walking out into heavy traffic. And we have millions and millions of abortions yearly in the so-called "advanced world." And we are supposedly more sensible and advanced today?!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (25)
All Comments   (25)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
Each age has its beauty and bright aspects...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Mr. Esolen, thank you for your translation of De Rerum Natura. Wonderful!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Excellent video and comments. I teach a cultural survey course at a small public college and have long supplemented textbooks and challenged fellow academics (like EJO1's Dr. Palmer) over the brilliance of the middle ages. In my synopsis, I've also noted that the world's three great religions, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, arose during the "dark ages." It seems clear to me that the term "dark ages" was meant to deride the religious enterprise. Thanks for the additional references to Alfred the Great, Langton, and Grosseteste. They will supplement what I already knew about the period. And Seerak's statement about Esolen's "cherry picking" might have meaning, except that almost every portrayal of the middle ages I was "fed" during my education somehow left Esolen's points completely out. If Esolen is cherry picking, it is a needed garnish on top of the nearly homogenous anti-western rhetoric that unfortunately forms the bulk of today's public "education." Hooray for Prager and Esolen!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Middle Ages are generally divided into 2 periods, the Dark Ages from around 500 AD to 1000 AD and the High Middle Ages from 1000 AD to 1453 AD. They were very different periods. There were 3 adaptations of inventions of the Dark Ages that were to lay the foundations of Western Civilization. They were the water wheel, the moldboard plow and the stirrup. Those 3 and the rational extensions of their uses in the crucible of the Dark Ages that gave rise to our civilization as we know it. In fact the Dark Ages are only dark to us because of the lack of written documentation available to us today.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
islam and muslims made the dark ages dark. Destroying history and cutting off trade across the Mediterranean.

Henri Pirenne was right
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Henri Pirenne was one of the great ones and yes, the Muslim disruption of trade in the Mediterranean was certainly a major factor in the near disappearance of a money economy in the Dark Ages. The Vikings didn't help either.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Thanks for the video.

BTW, a question regarding something from that time period, Prof. Esolen:

Last Fall, I took a class in Chaucer, and the teacher manning the course, Dr. Richard Palmer, basically mentioned that Christians during that time period, starting with Saint Augustine, were the inventors of "misoginy" (sp?) and apparently having some help from Aristotle's writings, that they deliberately avoided making marriage a sacrament until the 9th century, even implying at one point that they committed honor killings just like the Muslims during the Crusades. Can you verify those statements? I have the audio files on record, and will attempt to send them to you if necessary. Just an FYI, Palmer also frequently expressed his love of second wave feminism, pronounces his love for Free Love (or as he put it bluntly "Free Sex") frequently quoted some slogans by second wave feminism ("Women need men like fish need bicycles"), and expressed distaste towards the denouncement of the equal rights amendment. Again, I have the tapes to back my statements up (well, most of them, anyway. Some of them got wiped due to a virus, and I'm planning to recover them).
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Wonderful video, great comments. Thank you.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
And yet almost every aspect was worse than what was before them, the Romans.

When you look at all the great works the Romans had, they were very modern. Indoor heating, plumbing, irrigation. Citizens of the Roman Republic and even Empire had rights.

In Medieval times, you were probably a serf, literally a slave tied to a ground of land, belonging to a feudal lord. You were probably starving most of the time, because you couldn't grow much food, and what you could grow was taken from you.

That's really the worst part of the Middle Ages - the feudalism. People no longer mattered, they were property. Not just a small class of slaves, captured in war, but most the people in the country.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Romans did have indoor heating, plumbing, and irrigation, but they were far from modern.
Having a bonfire in the basement with ducts for the air really isn't central heating, and it definitely doesn't extend to central cooling.
Pipes are not all there is to plumbing, and Roman plumbing was far from universal. The vast underclasses certainly did not have fresh water piped through their fire trap tenements, and while we certainly had those before WWII I would hardly hold them up as a paragon of modernity.
Irrigation consisting of basic channels with limited flow control are certainly useful but also highly destructive to the land.

When it comes to citizens of the Roman Republic and Empire they most certainly had rights but they also had considerable obligations, including being subject to additional taxes and military service. It is even suggested that the Emperor (whose name I forget) that granted everyone in the Empire citizenship did so only to get the extra taxes.

While Mike2 covered serfs you also miss some of the finer details of the "starving" serfs.
First you must understand the general problems with agriculture at the time which was generally at a subsistence level. People were lucky to grow enough food to keep everyone fed from year to year, whether they were serfs, gentry, or nobles.
Second you must understand the economic system, which as noted was known as manorialism. The closest equivalents to manoralism are things like the potlatch societies of the Pacific Northwest, as well as other gift-giving cultures. The vast majority of the food taken from serfs in labor and taxes was returned to them as feasts hosted by their feudal lords, or even owed to them as part of their serf contracts. This not only strengthened the relationship between the farmers, both serf and free, and their rulers, but also helped in storing and distributing food throughout the year.

As for your indictment of feudalism, that is simply laughable, as the Roman Republic and Empire were built on slavery, not just a small class captured in war, but a huge class, dominating the economy, and extending through the freedman class.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
DiscoJer, serfs were not slaves. They were tied to the land, which was a development of the late Roman Empire, but they had specific rights and the exclusive use of property. They had to also work the lord's land and supply the lord's household. This system was called manorialism and was not universal over Western Europe. There were areas were manorialism never took hold and freeholding was the rule.

Feudalism was the military system set up to try and provide defense of the realm in the absence of a meaningful money economy. Most of southern Europe and Scandinavia was relatively unaffected by it.

Serfs were not starving all the time because if they were the population of Europe would have died out and we wouldn't be here. History would have been quite different.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Indeed.
I would just go a bit further in discussing Feudalism and Manorialism and state that they are more dictionary ideals than functional historical occurrences.
A proper examination will never find any real examples of what is written up in textbooks about those, and only things like them to a lesser or greater degree.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
We actually know quite a bit about both feudalism and manorialism. There are many written records of both institutions including oaths of homage for land tenancy starting with the capitularies of Charlemagne. I agree that most books written about the times are mostly generalizations because the practice varied from manor to manor but the source material is available.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Just like Animal Farm, some animals were more equal than others. For inhabitants outside of Italy, the vast majority were not citizens. In 100 AD, only 3% of inhabitants of Roman Britain were citizens. In the census of 47 AD, it was found that only 9% of people living in the Empire were citizens.

There were slaves which compromised 30-35%. Then there were various degrees of citizenship. In 212 AD, full Roman citizenship was offered to all free men, but some cynically state that the reason for this was to increase the tax base of the beginning to crumble empire.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The veneration of the primitive is common to conservatism and the Left alike. It's a logical outgrowth of their mutual hatred for the secular Enlightenment and its liberal capitalist form of society.

Esolen carefully cherry-picks the achievements that did occur in that era while deliberately omitting the context. Great craftmanship? Absolutely, but it was *expensive* craftmanship -- done without modern technology, paid for by looting of the vast majority of the people by the ruling class, under color of the Divine Right of Kings.

Oh yeah, remember that? It's the sanction of Christianity for medieval tyranny; it is how they transferred the moral authority of the Godhead into the government in the form of the monarch.

The modern Left has its own version of it, naturally: "The government is us". "Us" is of course the collective, "society", their ultimate moral authority which also doesn't exist.

That's the conventional political spectrum for you: a battle between two "opposites" who insist that *their* ruling class was/is better. There could be no better illumination of that, than commenter "Egil" who plainly prefers the ancient to the modern ruling class while blithely unaware, in any real sense, that there ever was such a thing, for the brief but brilliant span of a few centuries, the idea that perhaps there should be no such thing as ruling classes -- that every man should be his own moral sovereign.

This historio-cultural revanchism is disturbing. Unsurprising, but nevertheless disturbing.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As opposed to your cherry-picking?

First off, Divine Right only really came about in the Renaissance where it lasted perhaps a century before being dismissed for other theories.

As for the "expense" of the craftsmanship, just how much high end craftsmanship today do you believe is readily accessible to the masses?
Or is George Soros looting the people under color of the Divine Right of Blood Traitors or somesuch?

As for issues of a ruling class, perhaps you should consider the various political structures that did exist during that era. The Germanic barbarians recognized a restricted "ruling class" only insofar as it was a class that could provide candidates who needed to prove themselves before being accepted as rulers. Of course that meant there was little to no stability in government from generation to generation. While that may have some appeal for "every man be[ing] his own moral sovereign" on an ivory tower level, the rather constant bloodshed was enough to convince those who had to live through to accept a somewhat more enduring system and the political philosophy to sustain it.

Revisionism indeed.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Great works, like the Gothic structures of the Middle Ages, the Alhambra in Spain, and the Taj Mahal in India were *all* "paid for by looting of the vast majority of the people by the ruling class". Such looting continues today, however we're creating little of consequence with all that money. Think of the hundreds of billions in "stimulus" for reconstruction, public works, and infrastructure in recent years. Can one name a single project of note that resulted from said expenditures, something future generations will admire?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It was not 'lese majeste' that typlified the era, but rather the Great Chain of Being; where every ranked mineral, plant, animal and human person had their specific purpose and responsibility to the Divine Order. Read A.O. Lovejoy's book of the same title - the Great Chain of Being.......
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Seerak, the so called divine right of kings was more a development of the Renaissance than the Middle Ages.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well, Seerak, as the art historian Kenneth Clark and others showed, people from all walks of life, humble to aristocratic, contributed in significant ways to the construction of the cathedrals. Many cathedrals were very much a project of the local community, not just of a few wealthy royals, nobles, or clergy. And medieval kingship in western Europe and England, while it sometimes had tyrannical aspects, was not nearly as powerful as the later monarchies such as that of Louis XIV.

Are you familiar, Seerak, with Archbishop Stephen Langton and the developments in England which led to Magna Carta? Also, as Professor Esolen mentions, medieval intellectual life was based on Christianity, yet it was not a totalitarian system like some modern-day ideologies are. The rise of the universities and scientific inquiry attest to that. And medieval cities, as mentioned by Esolen, provided some counter-balance to the power of nobles and royalty, and some opportunities for those who might escape serfdom. The battle of Courtrai in 1302 offers some illustrations. Also, Morris Bishop's The Middle Ages gives a good introduction to the complexity of medieval society and culture.

I would prefer to be a modern middle class citizen of the USA than a medieval serf. Electrical power and flush toilets are great things. But there is much good in medieval life that we have lost in our contemporary culture. Contrary to Marx, not all good things can be explained in materialistic ways.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Good comments Egil and a ray of light in the "darkness" of most comments here.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Thank you Mike2. Good comments yourself! I'm disturbed by the chronological snobbery that many people today have towards people of the past. Often combined with that chronological snobbery is a lack of understanding of human nature, along with ignorance of past events and cultures.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"secular Enlightenment and its liberal capitalist form of society."
implying driven by atheists.

"medieval tyranny"
Implying this wasn't a necessary evil in the face of constant jihad against all of Europe. Without the unity of what you claim as tyranny, the muslims would have overrun all of Europe with ease as there would be no effective way of marshaling the force needed to repel the constant hordes of unified muslim armies.

"the idea that perhaps there should be no such thing as ruling classes -- that every man should be his own moral sovereign"
That's exactly what would allow muslims the ability to completely overrun Europe as they did all of North Africa and Anatolia due to the inability of those Christians to band together in an effective way to repel the muslim hordes. Only the Armenians lasted through all the jihad due to their deeply held national identity.
Europe would be a muslim wasteland had Charles Martel not created Feudalism.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Middle-Ages (and the Crusades) started to be trashed with the Reformation, which wanted to trash anything linked to the Catholic Church. Then, a few centuries later, Marxism came and trashed Christianity as a whole (including the Protestants). As we in the West live in a post-Christian world, it will be difficult to recover the reputation of the Middle-Age.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In 2003, I visited Salisbury and York Cathedrals in England, and was amazed at the beauty and great craftsmanship of those buildings, and the reverence which inspired the creation of them. Compare the medieval cathedrals, and the many relatively humble but beautiful medieval churches in England with much of what has been built since World War II.

Alfred the Great, Henry II, Stephen Langton, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, the creators of the Luttrell Psalter-examining these medieval men and many more will show how contemptible are the members of today's "Ruling Class"--our politicians, pseudo-academics and pseudo-artists whom we are cursed with today. And those medieval examples are just a few from England. Continental Europe had so many other great examples too.

Today we have millions of people who are fanatical believers in Anthropogenic Global Warming, alien visitations, reptilians, Marxism, Keynesian economics, etc., etc., all while pressing their noses within inches of some plastic-metallic device while walking out into heavy traffic. And we have millions and millions of abortions yearly in the so-called "advanced world." And we are supposedly more sensible and advanced today?!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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