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August 9, 2004

the 12th-century revolution

The division of history into periods can obscure as much as it reveals, emphasizing change only at the cusps of eras, and continuity everywhere else. For example, we are accustomed to dividing the "middle ages" from the "renaissance." This periodization (a modern choice) conceals important shifts before 1400 and exaggerates the rate of change thereafter.

In particular, it misleads us into ignoring the radical break that occurred during the 1100s (which we assume to be just a typical "medieval" century). Consider that the following elements of European civilization were widespread in 1200 but absent, or only nascent, a century before: law, understood as a consistent and comprehensive system to be refined by experts, not dictated by lords; the gothic style in art and architecture; cities with large urban populations; colleges and universities; chartered corporations; scholastic philosophy and theology, with conspicuous roots in ancient thought; popular institutions for health and education, mostly founded and staffed by mendicant friars inspired by St. Francis and St. Dominic; ideological arguments about church and state, wealth and poverty; republican government in many Italian city states but also in some northern towns; chivalric orders; elaborate Arthurian mythology as expressed in several rapidly developing modern languages; European imperialism, as exemplified by the Crusades and various forays against the Moors and Slavs; and organized nations with princely courts and secular bureaucracies. The rupture with the past was enormous, and there was more continuity than change thereafter.

(I'm influenced here by Harold Berman's Law and Revolution I. I realize that our technology-obsessed culture tends to see the invention of the printing press (ca. 1450) as the revolutionary moment. But I have previously given some reasons not to view moveable type as overly important.)

Posted by peterlevine at 8:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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