Tag Archives: the renaissance never happened

Oh, those Dark Ages again

Lindisfarne Gospels, opening of Matthew

I was out for coffee with a friend on Tuesday, and he mentioned that he’d read somewhere that the ‘Dark Ages’ were a creation of the Enlightenment. I can’t speak to the history of that term exactly, although ‘Middle Ages’ is a term created by the Renaissance. The question does arise as to the aptness or truth of such a name.

First, we have to say that it is by no means apt for the entire Middle Ages. If it is ever useful, it cannot be seen as holding meaning for the period of the later eleventh century and beyond. I find it hard to place Lanfranc and Anselm in a ‘dark age’, let alone Durham Cathedral. The twelve-century Renaissance, with its flowering of Latin poetry, developments in visual arts, the birth of Gothic architecture, the rise and organisation of the universities, the great Cistercian spiritual masters, the early scholastics.

So the Dark Ages must be before that, if they exist.

If any age is ‘dark’, the argument will have to be made about the decline in material comfort and cultural production attendant upon the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Long-distance Mediterranean trade ceased. Cattle got smaller. Pottery got worse. Western European cities grew smaller, as well. Fewer people were literate. There was a lot of small-scale, continual warfare in many places. If — I repeat the conjunction, if — we are looking for the Dark Ages, they will be here.

As soon as I say that, though, I don’t like it. What of Boethius, Venantius Fortunatus, Maximus the Confessor, and Bede for pity’s sake? What of the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels? What of the early mediaeval churches still standing in various Italian cities? What of Sutton Hoo?

And what about the Carolingians? Sure, their cultural programme may not have reached as far or long as desired, but lay literacy seems to have increased, along with manuscript production and other artistic goods associated with the Carolingian Renaissance?

Of course, the Carolingians coincide with Viking raids from the North and Saracen (Arab?) raids from the South for western Europe. But even then, political instability and death by the sword are a mainstay for most of European history. The ninth century is a wonderful example of bleakness alongside vitality. Vikings raid Lindisfarne in 793. Alfred commissions the Old English translation of Boethius several decades later.

The realities of history as we know them, and even as they were experienced, should make us eschew such terms as ‘Dark Ages’, because as soon as we have enough knowledge to give life nuance, things aren’t always as dark and bleak as we thought, even if we have to admit that they were sometimes pretty bad.

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Aristotle and the Renaissance

Ancient Roman bust of Aristotle

One of the great stories that buttresses the myth of the ‘Dark Ages’ is the ‘loss’ of Aristotle in western Europe until he was kindly delivered back to us hopeless barbarians by learned, sophisticated Muslims at some point in the early days of the ‘High’ or (better, if you ask me) ‘Central’ Middle Ages.

It does seem that most of western Europe lacked much Latin Aristotle in the Early Middle Ages, although Cassiodorus in the sixth century seems to have had some Aristotle in his library. Nevertheless, between Cassiodorus and the twelfth century, knowledge of Aristotle in the Latin West seems to have dried up.*

Nonetheless, in the ferment of ideas that was Islamic Spain, the Syriac-based Arabic translations of Aristotle had created a number of Muslim interpreters of Aristotle, and they along with Aristotle himself began to be translated into Latin in the twelfth century along with various other scientific/philosophical texts of antiquity. As well, some Aristotle comes to the West straight from Constantinople’s mouth — that is, in translation straight from the Greek by the likes of James of Venice.

One of the more colourful characters of this period was Peter Abelard (1079-1142), an Aristotelian who sought to integrate the learning and method of philosophy with the study of theology. This, and his love affair with one of his students (Heloise; their son was Astrolabe), made him not entirely popular with the authorities of the day, but many of his varied writings survive to this day for the interested reader.

In the next century, the Latin Aristotle was made properly complete with translations and revisions from the Greek by William of Moerbeke (1215-1286). Because of the similarities in grammar and syntax between Latin and Greek being more extensive than between Greek and Syriac or Arabic, and because William was a very careful and systematic translator, the new Latin Aristotle was closer to the Greek Aristotle than ever before.

The thirteenth century thus saw a new Aristotelianism in the works of Albertus Magnus (1200-1280) and, arguably the greatest (or at least most famous) Aristotelian of all time, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Aristotle and Aristotelian philosophy are thus highly mediaeval creatures, not children of the Renaissance. Indeed, they are a product of the period in which we see many of those most stereotypically mediaeval cultural traits abounding — tournaments, Corpus Christi celebrations, transubstantiation, mendicant friars (Franciscans and Dominicans), female mystics, ‘Crusades’, courtly love, Arthurian romances, the Inquisition, Robin Hood and other suchlike things.

And so, when we consider our dear friend The Renaissance, whatever happened that humanism produced the type of philosophy that it produced in the period covered by the Later Middle Ages and Early Modern Era, it was not the rediscovery of Aristotle.**

In fact, I would argue that it was not the rediscovery of Greek and Latin poetry and philosophy at all but a new attitude towards these treasures that marks the humanists of the Renaissance such as Petrarch or Pico della Mirandola. Many of the ideas and texts we associate with the Renaissance were abroad in the Middle Ages, in Aristotle’s interpreters, in Boethius, in Isidore of Seville, in Augustine, in Plato, in Plato’s commentator’s, in the surviving manuscripts of the poets and of Cicero, Quintilian, etc.

What was born in the Renaissance was not a rediscovered Aristotle. And, although many ‘forgotten’ texts were rediscovered in the monasteries of Europe in the Later Middle Ages and Early Modern Era and then printed in precursors to critical editions, ancient philosophy was not reborn. The new humanism was more consciously focussed on the human aspect of philosophy, poetry, civilisation.

The mediaeval mind was thoroughly Christianised, trying to fit the ancients into Catholic categories and create a comprehensive worldview that took into account the secular learning of the ancients as well as the sacred learning of theology and revelation. The ancients were themselves deeply religious — Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, were all religious systems as much as abstract philosophies. The ancient pagans, be they philosophers or poets, were not humanists but, very often, animists or polytheists or practical monotheists or pantheists or panentheists. They, too, had a thoroughly theological outlook.

The new outlook of the Renaissance is not paganism rediscovered, but paganism reinterpreted.

*Not in the Greek East, nor in the Syriac East. It is, in fact, from the Syriac translations of Aristotle (by Christians) that the Arabic were made. You can understand, then, why some western mediaeval interpreters of Aristotle, working with a Latin translation of an Arabic translation of a Syriac translation of a Greek original, may have missed the mark.

**Nor was it the rediscovery of Lucretius, despite the claims of The Swerve by Greenblatt — see the Guardian’s review; if you want a look at Lucretius in the Early Modern period, try The Lucretian Renaissance by Passannante (2011) instead — see the Bryn Mawr Classical Review’s review.