CHAPTER 17.—WHAT THE MIDDLE AGES WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF.
History is divided, by a wise provision of Providence, into periods, during each of which all the people in the world thought the same thoughts in the same way at the same time. This is why sorting out history is so much easier than sorting out current events: our own time is the only one in the history of the world in which diversity rather than uniformity of opinion is the rule. Funny how that works.
Since we have come to the period commonly called the Middle Ages, therefore, it seems appropriate to set aside a chapter to paint in the background against which events will occur. Like any good theatrical designer, we shall make use of broad, suggestive strokes, rather than fussy little details that the audience is just going to ignore anyway. Readers are warned that this is another one of those chapters in which nothing happens, so if they decide to read a comic book instead they will probably get just as much actual history out of it.
To understand the Middle Ages, we must understand that the medieval mind labored under a tragic, yet risible, delusion. It seemed to the medieval thinker that he was standing at the apex of civilization, rather than wallowing in a trough between two peaks. We can account for the prevalence of this notion only by postulating that medieval people were complete morons.
Of course, we cannot speak of the Middle Ages without speaking of the feudal system. Indeed, in many jurisdictions it is illegal to speak of the Middle Ages without speaking of the feudal system.
The feudal system is something like one of those fractal images computer-graphics experts used to love so much, where simple rules produce a system of extraordinary complexity that is nevertheless ultimately useless. The feudal system is usually described as a system of interlocking loyalties, but this description is not entirely accurate. It would be more correct to describe it as a system of cascading backstabbing.
In the feudal system, everything depended on the king or emperor, who stood at the top of the org chart with invisible strings tied to his fingers. All the land in the realm belonged to him: God had given him that part of the earth for his own personal use. He deigned, however, to allow certain loyal friends of his to use parts of his land, as a reward for their loyalty and an incentive to remain loyal. (It never worked, by the way.) These friends were expected to come to the king’s aid whenever he got himself into a war, which kings were always doing, because in those days wars were very romantic, and even the people who got hurt thoroughly enjoyed it.
This grant of land was known as a “feud” (from the Latin word for “fief”) or “fief” (from the Latin word for “feud”). Naturally, the king’s friends themselves had friends, so they distributed the land the king so graciously allowed them to use among their own friends as “fiefs” on the same conditions. Those friends in turn also had friends, and so on down the ladder until we come to the peasant, who had no friends at all, because he had no land to give away.
The peasant was bound to the land, which strikes us as rather harsh in our mechanical age, until we recall that anywhere a peasant might go was likely to be just as wretched as the place he had left. (This may be true in our age of automobiles as well, but so much of our prosperity depends on our obsession with being somewhere other than where we are that we pretend our mobility is a great blessing.) At any rate, the binding may have meant that the peasant could not leave the land, but it also meant that the land could not be yanked out from under him. The peasant had a certain job security, whereas his lord was very likely to get himself involved in the wrong conspiracy and lose everything, including about a head’s worth of his height.
Conspiracies kept the feudal economy moving. Ideally, the system was designed for complete stagnation; but, in practice, frequent turnover at the upper levels promoted progress. Thus most of the stories we have from the Middle Ages are stories of betrayal, either successful or unsuccessful. Successful traitors are called heroes; unsuccessful traitors are called all sorts of other names.
This system of interlocking disloyalties was mirrored by a similar system called the Church. The Church and the secular world were parallel universes, separate but intersecting at numerous points, like some particularly derivative episode of a second-rate science-fiction series.
And this was the thing that ultimately would bring down the entire feudal system: for it was possible for persons and property to pass from the secular world into the Church, but not the other way. It was considered a very good career choice to enter the Church, but the Church insisted on a lifetime contract. It was also considered a very virtuous act to leave property to the Church; and, perhaps more to the point, it was often the only convenient way to disinherit an ungrateful son. Since the Church never died, the property remained ecclesiastical forever. Eventually, nearly all the best property in Europe belonged to the Church, presenting an awful temptation to unscrupulous kings with temporary budget embarrassments. —But this is a matter for another chapter. The important thing to know right now is that, in the middle of the Middle Ages, the Church was huge and wealthy, and powerful enough to set great events in motion in the secular world.
As all-encompassing as this double system seemed to be, it had one very serious flaw. Everything seemed to tend toward a single point at the top of the chart, but on the secular side it never quite made it there. The Holy Roman Emperor might claim precedence over all the other kings, but the King of France (for example) would just blow a raspberry at him and continue either ignoring him or trying to kill him, depending on the circumstances.
An org chart with multiple names at the top was dreadfully untidy. It remained that way, however, until the pope had the brilliant idea of scribbling in his own name at the top of the secular chart as well, right above the row of kings, thus making himself feudal lord of everything. Now both the ecclesiastical world and the secular world terminated in the same point, making perfect conceptual sense of the universe. It was true that some kings objected to being effectively demoted by one rank, but the pope could easily find another king who would assist in punishing his recalcitrant brother, in return for the promise that he would profit materially as well as spiritually by assisting the pope in this little matter.
With all its wealth and power, the Church had one more advantage. It was possible for a man—and, to a surprising extent, for a woman—to rise in the hierarchy by pure merit. It was not necessarily likely, but it was possible; whereas the only way to rise in royalty was by superior birth or outrageous treachery, neither of which tends to raise the intellectual tone of the royal establishment. Indeed, the most successful kings were the ones who outsourced all their intellectual activity to the Church, as we have already seen in the striking example of Charlemagne, inventor of the consultant. Thus any promising young man who was not destined to inherit a kingdom—and it is almost an axiom of royalty that young men destined to inherit kingdoms are not very promising—was generally nudged toward a career in the Church by his high-school guidance counselor. There he sometimes found that the Church actually rewarded cleverness. More often it rewarded venal ambition, but it did reward cleverness often enough to make it worth some people’s while to be clever. Alcuin, as we have already seen, was frightfully clever; and by establishing a tradition of ecclesiastical consultancy, he made the Church the top career choice for really clever people throughout Europe. If you were merely ambitious, you might in your maddest moments imagine yourself winning a throne by bold treachery; but if you were both clever and ambitious, you were eligible to become the power behind the throne, which was to the thinking man a more desirable position.
The predictable result was that the Church wound up with more clever young men than it knew what to do with. It was not, after all, necessary to be very clever to fulfill the duties expected in most ecclesiastical positions. Any idiot could be a priest, and any idiot with a duke for an elder brother could be a bishop; and, even assuming that the pope was expected to be moderately clever, there was never room for more than two or three popes at a time. So what was to be done with all the clever young men?
Well, why not set aside a place where they could just sit around and be clever, and indeed get cleverer and cleverer? Thus we owe to the deluded medieval mind the idea of the university, a place where people have nothing to do but sit around and be clever all day, rather than get up and do something that might actually be useful to someone.
As soon as there were universities, there were students; and, of course, as soon as there were students, there were couches burning in the streets after every football game. It is not very well known, in fact, that the couch was invented in medieval times as an efficiently shaped portable mass of combustible material. Only later, during the great furniture famines of the fourteenth century, did anyone conceive the notion of sitting on the things.
The whole university business got a big boost when someone found Aristotle and dragged him out from under the rock where he had been hiding all those years. It seems that the wicked Muslims, who until now had entered history only as the colorful background against which knightly heroes posed to have their portraits painted in doggerel, had been keeping tabs on Aristotle all along. In fact, the Muslims had been keeping the flame of classical civilization burning all through the dark centuries of European barbarism. It should be remembered that this does not make them any less wicked, or any more interesting to the historian. One must, after all, carefully avoid any lapse into relativism.
In Spain, where Islamic culture reached a high degree of polish and accomplishment, the Christians groaned under the yoke of their Muslim rulers, and yearned for the time when the Caliphs would be run out of Iberia, so that the victorious Christians could establish the kind of liberal and tolerant society for which Spain would later become famous. There are times when one fears that the weight of so much sarcasm may actually do physical damage to the brain. But meanwhile, as long as the Muslims were there, the Christians might as well pillage their intellectual accomplishments. Translations of Aristotle into Latin began to appear, and all the cool kids snapped them up. They gave the clever young men at the universities something to be clever about.
The thing these clever young men loved most about Aristotle was his logic, because you could use logic to prove other people wrong. Until the rediscovery of Aristotle, the only way to prove somebody wrong was by cutting his head off. This was called “trial by combat”; it was a lot of fun, but it did not tend to favor intellectual development, in either the winner or the loser.
Of course, the new fad for Aristotelian philosophy did not sit well with the older generation. Grumps of a certain age gathered in retirement homes everywhere to denounce these dang kids and their “formal causes” and suchlike claptrap. If howling ignorance was good enough for our generation, it’s good enough for them. Nevertheless, the Church ultimately came down on the side of the Aristotle fans, because cleverness was good for business. The universities flourished, and more clever young men got cleverer all the time.
Universities naturally created a market for luxury items, such as tunics with the university emblem embroidered on them. These things demanded specialized craftsmen, who organized themselves into guilds, which we mention because it is also illegal in many jurisdictions to speak of the Middle Ages without mentioning guilds.
So let us summarize what we know of the Middle Ages. Secular authority was vested in various degenerate kings, dukes, and princes, who farmed out all their mental activity to the brightest minds of the Church, giving the Church a great deal of material power and encouraging ecclesiastical authorities to create special places for being clever, which created more cleverness in the Church by sucking all the cleverness out of the general population.
Thus we have painted our backdrop. Now let us watch as the Church raises its little finger and makes a royal mess of the whole world.
The chapters previously published:
FROM THE CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE TO THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION.
THE DEFINITION AND CHARACTER OF CIVILIZATION.
THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS, FURNISHING AND DECORATING THE AFTERLIFE SINCE 3150 B.C.
THE LESS MARKETABLE ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS.
THE ISRAELITES DISCOVER MONOTHEISM AND SPEND MOST OF THE REST OF THEIR HISTORY TRYING TO BACK OUT OF IT.
THE ANCIENT GREEKS LIVE THE EXAMINED LIFE.
THE ANCIENT GREEKS INVENT HISTORY.
ALEXANDER RUNS OUT OF WORLDS TO CONQUER.
WHILE ROME CONQUERS THE WORLD, GREECE CONQUERS ROME.
CHRISTIANITY RUINS EVERYTHING.
THE ROMAN EMPIRE DECLINES AND FALLS FOR 1500 YEARS STRAIGHT.
CIVILIZATION DESTROYS CIVILIZATION.
NOTHING HAPPENS IN THE DARK AGES.
CHARLEMAGNE TURNS ON THE LIGHTS.
MORE FUN WITH BARBARIANS.