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← Where are we in history?

Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 27 by Cartomancer

And the greatest obstacle to that recovery, and to our eventual overtaking of classical thought and material culture, was the Catholic Church.

This is not actually true. For a start it's quite problematic calling the medieval church the "catholic" church, because the term "catholic" only really comes into its modern meaning in the Reformation when there's a protestant church to differentiate it from. After the Reformation the catholic church became consciously traditional and fetishistic of medieval cultural forms, whereas before this the medieval church was actually quite protean and willing to adapt and change. There's a huge difference between actually being medieval and consciously trying to emulate the people of the Middle Ages.

But as far as the recovery of classical learning is concerned, it really cannot be said that the medieval church stifled progress. In fact it was in the libraries of monasteries, cathedrals and later Universities that classical texts were preserved, and the growing interest of clerical academics in classical texts during the Carolingian Renaissance and from the twelfth century onward that led to attempts to acquire more from the Arabic, Sicilian and Byzantine worlds. It was only really during the Early Modern period, when scientific understanding became seriously challenging toward church dogma, that conflicts of the kind we see with Galileo and Bruni emerge. Before this point, churchmen were at the very forefront of medieval science.

One could, I suppose, make the argument that if European society had some other institution in charge of all the reading, writing and library maintenance, rather than the church as it existed, then it might have prioritised Classical learning over christian scripture. That's possible, but it's so counterfactual as to be beyond demonstration historically. It also raises the important question of WHY the church came to be the dominant intellectual force in the Middle Ages, rather than some other body - independent philosophical schools on the late antique model, say. I do not think it at all plausible to suggest that medieval European society COULD have developed on a radically different model - there simply weren't any other places in early medieval society from which an impetus toward the preservation and recovery of classical learning could emerge. Like it or not, the only real connection with antique mediterranean literary culture that Medieval Western Europe had was through the christian church and its interests.

As for what WAS the greatest obstacle to the recovery of a classical level of civilization and understanding, I would emphasise the degree to which society itself had collapsed, and especially the degree to which people were no longer living in big cities and no longer had the infrastructure to support intellectual progress. Once this had been sorted out, intellectual centres did emerge (the cathedral schools of the 10th-12th centuries and the Universities of the 12th-13th onward), and learning did quicken.

Fri, 24 Sep 2010 20:10:26 UTC | #524467