Tag Archives: Middle Ages

Back to the future with Renaissance Man

1439-1471

The Renaissance walked backward into the future, with eyes fixed on the past, scorning the Middle Ages for Antiquity. The Renaissance was not the first or last epoch to be blinded by “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome,” but the Renaissance, at the beginning of the modern age, caught a particularly bad case of nostalgia. This period is famous for recovering a sense of history. (Donald Brown argues that this has to do with Italians – and then urban Westerners in general – moving from a closed to an open class system; this in turn has to do with the decline of serfdom and the rise of cities in the West.) The Renaissance also coincided with the beginning of the modern scientific revolution. Not coincidentally, the pioneers of the scientific revolution, all the way up to Newton, considered that they were doing intellectual archaeology, recovering the Lost Wisdom of the Ancients.

vitruvian-man

Leonardo da Vinci – not quite a scientist, but equally fascinated by art and technology – is an early example, from the time when the Two Cultures were one. Lucio Russo, who argues that the Hellenistic age produced a Forgotten Revolution in science, puts it this way:

The oft-heard comment that Leonardo’s genius managed to transcend the culture of his time is amply justified. But his was not a science-fiction voyage into the future so much as a plunge into a distant past. Leonardo’s drawings often show objects that could not have been built in his time because the relevant technology did not exist. This is not due to a special genius for divining the future, but to the mundane fact that behind those drawings there were older drawings from a time when technology was far more advanced.

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After the plague

1369-1404

The establishment of the Mongol khanate resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people (40 million is a common guess). There was some recovery in population once the empire was in place, and new opportunities opened up for trade across the Eurasian steppe. But, just as with the earlier trade between Rome and China, there were also new opportunities for microbes to spread. The Black Death probably killed even more of the world’s population than the Mongols. Western Europe, spared Mongol invasion, lost perhaps a third of its population to the plague in the fifteenth century.

In China, the plague probably struck Mongols even worse than Chinese, and coincided with the overthrow of Mongol rule and establishment of a native dynasty. The new dynasty, the Ming, was more authoritarian than the native Sung dynasty that preceded Mongol rule. The Sung state got most of its revenues from taxes on trade, internal and external, and was solicitous of mercantile interests. The Ming returned to the more traditional practice of getting most of its revenues from taxing the peasantry; it returned as well to the traditional Confucian distrust of merchants. State patriarchy in China had earlier resisted the disruptive influence of ascetic religion; now it resisted the disruptive influence of mercantile wealth.

In Eastern Europe, two states did well during this period: the Ottoman sultanate and Poland. The Ottomans expanded into both Anatolia and the Balkans. And Poland, which had been defeated, but not subjugated, by the Mongols, mostly avoided the plague for some reason. It would go on to occupy a huge chunk of Eastern Europe. But below the level of states and empires, something else was going on. Aristocracies in Eastern Europe responded to the loss of population by intensifying serfdom, binding peasants ever more firmly to their estates. Eventually the “second serfdom” east of the Elbe would be far more intense than the first serfdom of the medieval West had ever been.

In Western Europe by contrast, the loss of population in the Black Death helped to end serfdom. At first, European aristocrats, like their eastern counterparts, tried to prevent workers from taking advantage of the law of supply and demand. The Statute of Laborers in England (1349-51) complained that

The servants, having no regard … but to their ease and singular covetousness, do withdraw themselves from serving great men and others, unless they have livery and wages double or treble of what they were wont to take … to the great damage of the great men and impoverishment of all the commonalty.

The Statute forbade servants and small-holders from taking higher wages. But these efforts largely collapsed by the end of the century, partly thanks to the economic and political clout of West European cities, which had no stake in seeing peasants tied to their lords. Aristocrats would continue to hang onto their lands and rents, but serfdom largely disappeared.

The penis inserts of Southeast Asia

1102-1153

The Rajatrangini (River of Kings) is a history of Kashmir, dating to about 1150. A striking thing about it is that it is pretty much the only work in Sanskrit that clearly qualifies as history. Other material about the past in traditional Hindu India is heavily mythological, or limited to genealogies and chronicles, and contains virtually no dates. The paucity of historical works in pre-Muslim India is striking, given that the country has an impressive intellectual tradition, with important achievements in mathematics, linguistics, literature, and literary theory. Hindu India is very different in this respect from China, where there is a rich historical record and the study of history has been a major intellectual concern for millennia.

Donald Brown is an anthropologist who has worked in Southeast Asia. He became curious about why some Southeast Asian societies seem to have been more interested than others in developing an accurate understanding of the past. His eventual conclusion, after reviewing evidence from many societies, is that historical consciousness is underdeveloped in societies with closed, hereditary systems of stratification. India of course is famously a caste society. True, there are scholars who argue that Indian caste-consciousness has been exaggerated by Western Orientalists bent on making the place seem exotic. But recent DNA evidence shows that high levels of caste endogamy have been characteristic of India for at least 2000 years. And in economist Gregory Clark’s recent analyses of surnames and social stratification in a number of societies, India is an outlier, with exceptionally enduring associations between surnames and social class, reflecting the caste system. (Kashmir may have been an atypical part of India in this regard.)

In societies with hereditary ruling elites and caste-like social stratification, according to Brown, history is an inconvenience. The preference (at least out in public – people may talk differently in private) is for mythological accounts of caste origins that link caste hierarchy to the order of the cosmos. There are other differences as well associated closed versus open hierarchies. Individual personality receives less attention in societies with closed hierarchies; behavior is explained by role, office, and social category. The art of biography is less developed. Closed societies are less interested in divination (presumably you don’t need a fortune teller to know what your future holds). The differences extend even to visual art: closed societies show less interest in realistic portraiture; artists depict types rather than individuals. In sum, there is a real difference, Brown argues, between historical knowledge and ideology, and caste-like societies generate more of the latter.

In addition to India vs. China, other closed vs. open pairs of societies in Brown’s review include Egypt vs. Mesopotamia+Israel, Sparta vs. Athens, Early vs. Imperial Rome, Medieval West vs. Islam+Byzantium, and Venice vs. Florence.

Donald Brown also wrote Human Universals, a book that argues, against a strong tradition of cultural relativism in anthropology, that there is a wide assortment of cultural universals.

And Donald Brown is also co-author of The Penis Inserts of Southeast Asia, a short book about the penis inserts of Southeast Asia.

Vinland

991-1047

Toward the year 1000, the Scandinavians, under Leif Eriksson, reached the coast of America. No one bothered them, but one morning (as Erik the Red’s Saga tells it) many men disembarked from canoes made of leather and stared at them in a kind of stupor. “They were dark and very ill-looking, and the hair on their heads was ugly; they had large eyes and broad cheeks.” The Scandinavians gave them the name of skraelingar, inferior people. Neither the Scandinavians nor the Eskimos [sic; probably Beothuk Indians] knew that the moment was historic; America and Europe looked on each other in all innocence. A century later, disease and the inferior people had done away with the colonists. The annals of Iceland say: “In 1121, Erik, bishop of Greenland, departed in search of Vinland.” We know nothing of his fate; both the bishop and Vinland (America) were lost.

Viking epitaphs are scattered across the face of the earth on runic stones. … Conversely, Greek and Arab coins and gold chains and old jewels brought from the Orient are often discovered in Norway.

After a century, the Normans (men of the North) who, under Rolf, settled in the province of Normandy and gave it their name, had forgotten their language, and were speaking French.

[Before 1200] the Icelanders had written the first sagas, which are realism in its most perfect form. … William Paton Ker wrote: “The great achievement of the older world in its final days was in the prose histories of Iceland, which had virtue enough in them to change the whole world, if they had only been known and understood.”

These facts suffice, in my understanding, to define the strange and futile destiny of the Scandinavian people. In universal history, the wars and books of the Scandinavians are as if they had never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in the crystal balls where clairvoyants gaze. In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel – the art of Flaubert, the Norman – and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.

Jorge Luis Borges The Scandinavian Destiny 1953

More prosaically, Scandinavian adventurers traveled by ship. Their ships could cover great distances, but they were expensive, and not very large. They carried warriors and merchants, not large masses of peasant settlers. So the far-flung Scandinavian expansion would not leave the same footprint as, say, the earlier Slavic migrations to eastern and southeastern Europe. (See, again, Empires and Barbarians.)

Regarding language: Danish colonists in England introduced some vocabulary – skin and skill come from them; compare Anglo-Saxon hide and craft. But their main contribution to the language may have been negative. Anglo-Saxons and Danes learning each others’ languages dropped a lot of incompatible grammar (sort of like how my German vocabulary is OK, but I mess up genders and cases and so on). So English ended up with a simpler grammar than other Germanic languages. (At least that’s one theory.)

For more Vikingness, the traveling exhibition “Vikings: Beyond the Legend” is well worth checking out. It’s at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City until the end of the year.

And here’s the Hemingwayesque passage that Borges uses to illustrate the realism of the Icelandic sagas (from Grettir’s Saga)

Days before St. John’s Eve, Thorbjörn rode his horse to Bjarg. He had a helmet on his head, a sword in his belt, and a lance in his hand, with a very wide blade. At daybreak it rained. Among Atli’s serfs, some were reaping hay; others had gone fishing to the North, to Hornstrandir. Atli was in his house with a few other people. Thorbjörn arrived around midday. Alone, he rode to the door. It was closed and there was no one outside. Thorbjörn knocked and hid behind the house so as not to be seen from the door. The servants heard the knock and a woman went to open the door. Thorbjörn saw her but did not let himself be seen, because he had another purpose. The woman returned to the chamber. Atli asked who was outside. She said she had seen no one and as they were speaking of it, Thorbjörn pounded forcefully.

Then Atli said: “Someone is looking for me and bringing a message that must be very urgent.” He opened the door and looked out: there was no one. By now it was raining very hard, so Atli did not go out; with a hand on the doorframe, he looked all around. At that moment, Thorbjörn jumped out and with both hands thrust the lance into the middle of his body.

As he took the blow, Atli said: “The blades they use now are so wide.” Then he fell face down on the threshold. The women came out and found him dead. From his horse, Thorbjörn shouted that he was the killer and returned home.

Empires and barbarians

931-990

The fall of Rome involved the disintegration of the Roman state; the collapse of long-distance trade; the disappearance of mass-produced pottery, coinage, and monumental architecture over large areas; declining literacy among commoners and elites; great insecurity of life and property, and demographic collapse. The process was drawn out and played out differently in different regions. In the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, central government supported by taxation continued; in the West it largely disappeared. The nadir in the West was perhaps the tenth century. We might set the turning point at the battle of Lechfeld (955): a last set of invaders off the steppes, the Magyars, was defeated by the Emperor Otto, and then adopted Christianity, gave up nomadic marauding, and settled down as feudal lords in Hungary.

The fall of Rome illustrates a general lesson. The overall trend of history is for more complex societies to replace less complex. (Important note: “more complex” is not the same as “nicer.”) But the process is an uneven one, in part because military effectiveness is only loosely coupled with social complexity. Tribal peoples with states next door often react by developing states of their own, partly to defend against their civilized neighbors, partly to prey on them. The resulting societies – no longer tribal, not really civilized, but barbarian – have sometimes been more than a match militarily for their more complex neighbors. In Europe, the result over nearly a millennium was a great leveling process. Rome declined under barbarian assault, while state organization, class stratification, and Christianity spread eventually as far as the Slavic East and the Scandinavian North. (See Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians.)

By the end of the first millennium, Western Christendom had some consciousness of itself as distinct from the Islamic world; this would later help motivate the Crusades, but it would never be enough to spur unification. Much later, in the twentieth century, Europe would be divided by a different set of meta-ethnic frontiers, centered on the clash of ideologies, rather than civilization versus barbarism. But that’s a story for later.

Back to the future with Renaissance Man

1437-1469

The Renaissance walked backward into the future, with eyes fixed on the past, scorning the Middle Ages for Antiquity. The Renaissance was not the first or last epoch to be blinded by “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome,” but the Renaissance, at the beginning of the modern age, caught a particularly bad case of nostalgia. This period is famous for recovering a sense of history. (Donald Brown argues that this has to do with Italians – and then urban Westerners in general – moving from a closed to an open class system; this in turn has to do with the decline of serfdom and the rise of cities in the West.) The Renaissance also coincided with the beginning of the modern scientific revolution. Not coincidentally, the pioneers of the scientific revolution, all the way up to Newton, considered that they were doing intellectual archaeology, recovering the Lost Wisdom of the Ancients.

vitruvian-man

Leonardo da Vinci – not quite a scientist, but equally fascinated by art and technology – is an early example, from the time when the Two Cultures were one. Lucio Russo, who argues that the Hellenistic age produced a Forgotten Revolution in science, puts it this way:

The oft-heard comment that Leonardo’s genius managed to transcend the culture of his time is amply justified. But his was not a science-fiction voyage into the future so much as a plunge into a distant past. Leonardo’s drawings often show objects that could not have been built in his time because the relevant technology did not exist. This is not due to a special genius for divining the future, but to the mundane fact that behind those drawings there were older drawings from a time when technology was far more advanced.

After the Plague

1409-1433

The establishment of the Mongol khanate resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people (40 million is a common guess). There was some recovery in population once the empire was in place, and new opportunities opened up for trade across the Eurasian steppe. But, just as with the earlier trade between Rome and China, there were also new opportunities for microbes to spread. The Black Death probably killed even more of the world’s population than the Mongols. Western Europe, spared Mongol invasion, lost perhaps a third of its population to the plague in the fifteenth century.

In China, the plague probably struck Mongols even worse than Chinese, and coincided with the overthrow of Mongol rule and establishment of a native dynasty. The new dynasty, the Ming, was more authoritarian than the native Sung dynasty that preceded Mongol rule. The Sung state got most of its revenues from taxes on trade, internal and external, and was solicitous of mercantile interests. The Ming returned to the more traditional practice of getting most of its revenues from taxing the peasantry; it returned as well to the traditional Confucian distrust of merchants. State patriarchy in China had earlier resisted the disruptive influence of ascetic religion; now it resisted the disruptive influence of mercantile wealth.

In Eastern Europe, two states did well during this period: the Ottoman sultanate and Poland. The Ottomans expanded into both Anatolia and the Balkans. And Poland, which had been defeated, but not subjugated, by the Mongols, mostly avoided the plague for some reason. It would go on to occupy a huge chunk of Eastern Europe. But below the level of states and empires, something else was going on. Aristocracies in Eastern Europe responded to the loss of population by intensifying serfdom, binding peasants ever more firmly to their estates. Eventually the “second serfdom” east of the Elbe would be far more intense than the first serfdom of the medieval West had ever been.

In Western Europe by contrast, the loss of population in the Black Death helped to end serfdom. At first, European aristocrats, like their eastern counterparts, tried to prevent workers from taking advantage of the law of supply and demand. The Statute of Laborers in England (1349-51) complained that

The servants, having no regard … but to their ease and singular covetousness, do withdraw themselves from serving great men and others, unless they have livery and wages double or treble of what they were wont to take … to the great damage of the great men and impoverishment of all the commonalty.

The Statute forbade servants and small-holders from taking higher wages. But these efforts largely collapsed by the end of the century, partly thanks to the economic and political clout of West European cities, which had no stake in seeing peasants tied to their lords. Aristocrats would continue to hang onto their lands and rents, but serfdom largely disappeared.