THE EUROPEAN MIND

In 1500 Europe is clearly recognizable as the centre of a new civilization; before long that civilization was to spread to other lands, too. Its heart was still religion. The institutional implications of this have already been touched upon; the Church was a great force of social regulation and government, whatever vicissitudes its central institution had suffered. But it was also the custodian of culture and the teacher of all men, the vehicle and vessel of civilization itself.

Since the thirteenth century the burden of recording, teaching and study so long borne by the monks had been shared by friars and, more important still, by a new institution, in which friars sometimes played a big part, the universities. Bologna, Paris and Oxford were the first of them; by 1400 there were fifty-three more. They were new devices both for concentrating and directing intellectual activity and for education. One result was the revivifying of the training of the clergy. Already in the middle of the fourteenth century half the English bishops were graduates. But this was not the only reason why universities had been set up. The Emperor Frederick II founded the University of Naples to supply administrators for his south Italian kingdom; and when in 1264 Walter de Merton, an English bishop and royal servant, founded the first college at Oxford, among his purposes was that of providing future servants for the crown.

The universities’ importance for the future of Europe, though, was greater than this, though it could not have been foreseen and proved in one respect incalculable. Their existence assured that when laymen came to be educated in substantial numbers, they too would long be formed by an institution under the control of the Church and suffused with religion. Furthermore, universities would be a great uniting, cosmopolitan cultural force. Their lectures were given in Latin, the language of the Church and the lingua franca of educated men. Its former pre-eminence is still commemorated in the vestigial Latin of university ceremonies and the names of degrees.

Law, medicine, theology and philosophy all benefited from the new institution. Philosophy had all but disappeared into theology in the early medieval period. Only one important figure stands out, John Scotus Erigena, an Irish thinker and scholar of the ninth century. Then, as direct translation from Greek to Latin began in the twelfth century, European scholars could read for themselves works of classical philosophy. The texts became available from Islamic sources. As the works of Aristotle and Hippocrates were turned into Latin they were at first regarded with suspicion. This persisted until well into the thirteenth century, but gradually a search for reconciliation between the classical and Christian accounts of the world got under way and it became clear, above all because of the work of two Dominicans, Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas Aquinas, that reconciliation and synthesis were indeed possible. So it came about that the classical heritage was recaptured and rechristened in western Europe. Instead of providing a contrasting and critical approach to the theocentric culture of Christendom it was incorporated into it. The classical world began to be seen as the forerunner of the Christian. For centuries man would turn for authority in matters intellectual to religion or to the classics. Of the latter it was Aristotle who enjoyed unique prestige. If it could not make him a saint, the Church at least treated him as a kind of prophet.

The immediate evidence was the remarkable systematic and rationalist achievement of medieval scholasticism, the name given to the intellectual effort to penetrate the meaning of Christian teaching. Its strength lay in its embracing sweep, displayed nowhere more brilliantly than in the Summa Theologica of Aquinas, which has been judged, contrastingly, for both its crowning achievement and a brittle synthesis. It strove to account for all phenomena. Its weakness lay in its unwillingness to address itself to observation and experiment. Christianity gave the medieval mind a powerful training in logical thinking, but only a few men, isolated and untypical, could dimly see the possibility of breaking through authority to a truly experimental method.

Nevertheless, within the Christian cultural achievement the first signs of liberation from the enclosed world of the early Middle Ages can be seen. Paradoxically, Christendom owed them to Islam, though for a long time there was deep suspicion and fear in the attitudes of ordinary men towards Arab civilization. There was also ignorance (before 1100, one medievalist has pointed out, there is no evidence that anyone in northern Europe had ever heard the name of Muhammad). Not until 1143 was a Latin translation of the Koran available. Easy and tolerant relationships between the faithful and the infidel (both sides thought in the same terms) were possible only in a few places. In Sicily and Spain, above all, the two cultures could meet. There the great work of translation of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries took place. The Emperor Frederick II was regarded with the deepest suspicion because although he persecuted heretics he was known to welcome Jews and Saracens to his court at Palermo. Toledo, the old Visigothic capital, was another especially important centre. In such places scribes copied and recopied the Latin texts of the bestsellers of the next six centuries. Euclid’s works began a career of being copied, recopied and then printed, which may well have meant that in the end they surpassed the success of any book except the Bible - at least until the twentieth century - and became the foundation of mathematics teaching in western Europe until the nineteenth century. In such ways the Hellenistic world began again to irrigate the thought of the West.

Roughly speaking, the Islamic transmission of antiquity began with astrology, astronomy and mathematics, subjects closely linked to one another. Ptolemy’s astronomy reached the West by this route and was found a satisfactory basis for cosmology and navigation until the sixteenth century. Islamic cartography was in fact more advanced than European for most of the Middle Ages, and Arab sailors used the magnet for navigation well before their European counterparts (though it was the latter who were to carry through the great oceanic discoveries). The astrolabe had been a Greek invention, but its use was spread in the West by Arab writings. When Chaucer wrote his treatise on its use, he took as his model an earlier Arab one. The arrival from Arab sources of a new numeration and the decimal point (both of Indian origin) was perhaps most important of all; the latter’s usefulness in simplifying calculation can be easily tested by trying to write sums in Roman numerals.

Of the sciences of observation other than astronomy, the most important to come to the West from Islam was medicine. Besides providing access to the medical works of Aristotle, Galen and Hippocrates (direct translation from the Greek was not begun until after 1100), Arabic sources and teachers also brought into European practice a huge body of therapeutic, anatomical and pharmacological knowledge built up by Arab physicians. The prestige of Arab learning and science made easier the acceptance of more subtly dangerous and subversive ideas; Arab philosophy and theology, too, began to be studied in the West. In the end, even European art seems to have been affected by Islam, for the invention of perspective, which was to transform painting, is said to have come from thirteenth-century Arab Spain. Europe offered little in exchange except the technology of gunnery.

In the Middle Ages Europe owed more to Islam than to any other contemporary source. For all their dramatic and exotic interest, the travels of a Marco Polo or the missionary wanderings of friars in central Asia did little to change the West. The quantity of goods exchanged with other parts of the world was still tiny, even in 1500. Technically, Europe owed for certain to the Far East only the art of making silk (which had reached her from the eastern empire) and paper which, though made in China in the second century ad, took until the thirteenth to reach Europe and then did so again by way of Arab Spain. Nor did ideas reach Europe from nearer Asia, unless like Indian mathematics they had undergone refinement in the Arabic crucible. Given the permeability of Islamic culture, it seems less likely that this was because, in some sense, Islam insulated Europe from the Orient by imposing a barrier between them, than because China and India were simply too far away. They had hardly been accessible, after all, in pre-Christian antiquity, when communications had been no more difficult.

The reintegration of classical and Christian, though manifested in work like that of Aquinas, was an answer, ten centuries late, to Tertullian’s jibing question about what Athens had to do with Jerusalem. In one of the supreme works of art of the Middle Ages - some would judge the supreme - the Divine Comedy of Dante, the importance of the reattachment of the world of Christendom to its predecessor is already to be seen. Dante describes his journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, the universe of Christian truth. Yet his guide is not a Christian, but a pagan, the classical poet Virgil. This role is much more than decorative; Virgil is an authoritative guide to truth, for before Christ, he foretold Him. The Roman poet has become a prophet to stand beside those of the Old Testament. Though the notion of a link with antiquity had never quite disappeared (as attempts by enthusiastic chroniclers to link the Franks or the Britons to the descendants of the Trojans had shown) there is in Dante’s attitude something marking an epoch. The acceptance of the classical world by Christendom, for all the scholastic clutter of its surroundings, had made possible a change which has usually been seen as more radical, the great revival of humanistic letters of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. It was a revival long dominated by Latin; only in 1497 was the first Greek grammar to appear in print.

One emblematic figure of that passage in cultural history was Erasmus of Rotterdam, sometime a monk and later, as the foremost exponent of classical studies of his day, the correspondent of most of the leading humanists. Yet he still saw his classics as the entrance to the supreme study of scripture and his most important book was an edition of the Greek New Testament. The effects of printing a good text of the Bible were, indeed, to be revolutionary, but Erasmus had no intention of overthrowing religious order, for all the vigour and wit with which he had mocked and teased puffed-up churchmen, and for all the provocation to independent thought which his books and letters provided. His roots lay in the piety of a fifteenth-century mystical movement in the Low Countries called the devotio moderna, not in pagan antiquity.

Some of the men who began to cultivate the study of classical authors, and to invoke explicitly pagan classical ideals, invented the notion of the ‘Middle Ages’ or ‘a Middle Age’ to emphasize their sense of novelty. They in their turn were later seen as men of a ‘re-birth’ of a lost tradition, a ‘Renaissance’ of classical antiquity. Yet they were formed in the culture which the great changes in Christian civilization from the twelfth century onwards had made possible. To speak of Renaissance may be helpful if we keep in mind the limitations of the context in which we use the word, but it falsifies history if we take it to imply a transformation of culture marking a radical break with medieval Christian civilization. The Renaissance is and was a useful myth, one of those ideas which help men to master their own bearings and therefore to act more effectively. Whatever the Renaissance may be, there is no clear line in European history which separates it from the Middle Ages - however we like to define them.

What can be noticed almost everywhere, though, is a change of emphasis. It shows especially in the relation of the age to the past. Men of the thirteenth century, like those of the sixteenth, portrayed the great men of antiquity in the garb of their own day. Alexander the Great at one time looks like a medieval king; later, Shakespeare’s Caesar wears not a toga but doublet and hose. There is, that is to say, no real historical sense in either of these pictures of the past, no awareness of the immense differences between past and present men and things. Instead, history was seen at best as a school of examples. The difference between the two attitudes is that in the medieval view antiquity could also be scrutinized for the signs of a divine plan, evidence of whose existence once more triumphantly vindicated the teachings of the Church. This was St Augustine’s legacy and what Dante accepted. But by 1500 something else was also being discerned in the past, equally unhistorical, but, men felt, more helpful to their age and predicament. Some saw a classical inspiration, possibly even pagan, distinct from the Christian, and the new attention to classical writings was one result.

The idea of Renaissance is especially linked to innovation in art. Medieval Europe had seen much of this; it seems more vigorous and creative than any of the other great centres of civilized tradition from the twelfth century onwards. In music, drama and poetry new forms and styles were created which move us still. By the fifteenth century, though, it is already clear that they can in no sense be confined to the service of God. Art is becoming autonomous. The eventual consummation of this change was the major aesthetic expression of the Renaissance, transcending by far its stylistic innovations, revolutionary though these were. It is the clearest sign that the Christian synthesis and the ecclesiastical monopoly of culture are breaking up. The slow divergence of classical and Christian mythology was one expression of it; others were the appearance of the Romance and Provencal love poetry (which owed much to Arabic influence), the deployment of the Gothic style in secular building such as the great guildhalls of the new cities, or the rise of a vernacular literature for educated laymen of which perhaps the supreme example is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Such changes are not easily dated, because acceptance did not always follow rapidly on innovation. In literature, there was a particularly severe physical restriction on what could be done because of a long-enduring shortage of texts. It was not until well into the sixteenth century that the first edition of Chaucer’s complete works was printed and published. By then a revolution in thinking was undoubtedly under way, of which all the tendencies so far touched on form parts, but which was something much more than the sum of them and it owes almost everything to the coming of the printed book. Even a vernacular text such as the Canterbury Tales could not reach a wide public until printing made large numbers of copies easily available. When this happened, the impact of books was vastly magnified. This was true of all classes of book - poetry, history, philosophy, technology and, above all, the Bible itself. The effect was the most profound change in the diffusion of knowledge and ideas since the invention of writing; it was the greatest cultural revolution of these centuries. With hindsight it can be seen as the start of an acceleration of the diffusion of information which is still under way.

Although already used there is a different form, the new technique owed nothing to stimulus from China except very indirectly, through the availability of paper. From the fourteenth century, rags were used in Europe to make paper of good quality and this was one of the elements which contributed to the printing revolution. Others were the principle of printing itself (the impressing of images on textiles had been practised in twelfth-century Italy), the use of cast metal for typefaces instead of wood (already used to provide blocks for playing-cards, calendars and religious images), the availability of oil-based ink, and, above all, the use of movable metal type. It was the last invention which was crucial. Although the details are obscure, and experiments with wood letters were going on at the beginning of the fifteenth century in Haarlem, there seems to be no good reason not to credit it to the man whose name has traditionally been associated with it, Johannes Gutenberg, the diamond polisher of Mainz. In about 1450 he and his colleagues brought the elements of modern printing together and in 1455 there appeared what is agreed to be the first true book printed in Europe, the Gutenberg Bible.

Gutenberg’s own business career was by then a failure; something prophetic of a new age of commerce appears in the fact that he was probably under-capitalized. The accumulation of equipment and type was an expensive business and a colleague from whom he borrowed money took him to court for his debts. Judgment went against Gutenberg, who lost his press, so that the Bible, when it appeared, was not his property. (Happily, the story does not end there; Gutenberg was in the end ennobled by the Archbishop of Mainz, in recognition of what he had done.) But he had launched a revolution. By 1500, it has been calculated, some 3 5,000 separate editions of books - incunabula, as they were called - had been published. This probably means between fifteen and twenty million copies; there may well have been already at that date fewer copies of books in manuscript in the whole world. In the following century there were between 150,000 and 200,000 separate editions and perhaps ten times as many copies printed. Such a quantitative change merges into one which is qualitative; the culture which resulted from the coming of printing with movable type was as different from any earlier one as it is from one which takes radio and television for granted. The modern age was the age of print.

It is interesting but unsurprising that the first printed European book should have been the Bible, the sacred text at the heart of medieval civilization. Through the printing press, knowledge of it was to be diffused as never before and with incalculable results. In 1450 it would have been very unusual for a parish priest to own a Bible, or even to have easy access to one. A century later, it was becoming likely that he had one, and in 1650 it would have been remarkable if he had not. The first printed Bibles were texts of the Latin Vulgate, but vernacular versions soon followed. A German Bible was printed in 1466; Catalan, Czech, Italian and French translations followed before the end of the century, but Englishmen had to wait for a New Testament printed in their language until 1526. Into the diffusion of sacred texts - of which the Bible was only the most important - pious laymen and churchmen alike poured resources for fifty to sixty years; presses were even set up in monastic houses. Meanwhile, grammars, histories and, above all, the classical authors now edited by the humanists, also appeared in increasing numbers. Another innovation from Italy was the introduction of simpler, clearer typefaces modelled upon the manuscript of Florentine scholars, who were themselves copying Carolingian minuscule.

The impact could not be contained. The domination of the European consciousness by printed media would be the outcome. With some prescience the pope suggested to bishops in 1501 that the control of printing might be the key to preserving the purity of the faith. But more was involved than any specific threat to doctrine, important as that might be. The nature of the book itself began to change. Once a rare work of art, whose mysterious knowledge was accessible only to a few, it became a tool and artifact for the many. Print was to provide new channels of communication for governments and a new medium for artists (the diffusion of pictorial and architectural style in the sixteenth century was much more rapid and widespread than ever before because of the growing availability of the engraved print) and would give a new impetus to the diffusion of technology. A huge demand for literacy and therefore education would be stimulated by it. No single change marks so clearly the ending of one era and the beginning of another.

It is very hard to say exactly what all this meant for Europe’s role in the coming era of world history. By 1500, there was certainly much to give confidence to the few Europeans who were likely to think at all about these things. The roots of their civilization lay in a religion which taught them they were a people voyaging in time, their eyes on a future made a little more comprehensible and perhaps a little less frightening by contemplation of past perils navigated and awareness of a common goal. As a result, Europe was to be the first civilization aware of time not as endless (though perhaps cyclical) pressure, but as continuing change in a certain direction, as progress. The chosen people of the Bible, after all, were going somewhere; they were not simply people to whom inexplicable things happened which had to be passively endured. From the simple acceptance of change soon sprang the will to live with constant change, which was the peculiarity of modern man. Secularized and far away from their origins, such ideas could be very important; the advance of science soon provided an example. In another sense, too, the Christian heritage was decisive for, after the fall of Byzantium, Europeans believed that they alone possessed it (or in effect alone, for there was little sense among ordinary folk of what Slav, Nestorian or Coptic Christianity might be). It was an encouraging idea for men who stood at the threshold of centuries of unfolding power, discovery and conquest. Even with the Ottomans to face, Europe in 1500 was no longer just the beleaguered fortress of the Dark Ages, but a stronghold from which men were beginning to sally forth in counter-attack. Jerusalem had been abandoned to the infidel, Byzantium had fallen. Where should be the new centre of the world?

The men of the Dark Ages, who had somehow persevered in adversity and had built a Christian world from the debris of the past and the gifts of the barbarians, had thus wrought infinitely more than they could have anticipated. Yet such implications required time for their development; in 1500 there was still little to show that the future belonged to the Europeans. Such contacts as they had with other peoples by no means demonstrated the clear superiority of their own way. Portuguese in West Africa might manipulate black men to their own ends and relieve them of their gold dust and slaves, but in Persia or India they stood in the presence of great empires whose spectacle often dazzled them. The men of 1500 were thus and in many other ways not modern men. We cannot - without some effort - understand them, even when they speak Latin, for their Latin had overtones and associations we are bound to miss; it was not only the language of educated men but the language of religion.

In the half-light of a dawning modernity the weight of that religion remains the best clue to the reality of Europe’s first civilization. Religion was one of the most impressive reinforcements of the stability of a culture which has been considered in this book almost entirely from an important but fundamentally anachronistic perspective, that of change. Except in the shortest term, change was not something most Europeans would have been aware of in the fifteenth century. For all men, the deepest determinant of their lives was still the slow but ever-repeated passage of the seasons, a rhythm which set the pattern of work and leisure, poverty and prosperity, of the routines of home, workshop and study. English judges and university teachers still work to a year originally divided by the need to get in the harvest. On this rhythm were imposed those of religion itself. When the harvest was in, the Church blessed it and the calendar of the Christian year provided the more detailed timetable to which men lived. Some of it was very old, even pre-Christian; it had been going on for centuries and could hardly be imagined otherwise. It even regulated many people’s days, for every three hours the religious were called to worship and prayer in thousands of monasteries and convents by the bell of their house. When it could be heard outside the walls, laymen set the pattern of their day by it, too. Before there were striking clocks, only the bell of the parish church, cathedral or monastery supplemented the sun or the burning of a candle as a record of passing time, and it did so by announcing the hour of another act of worship.

It is only in a very special, long perspective that we can rightly speak of centuries during which this went on and on as ones of ‘revolutionary’ changes. Truly revolutionary as some changes were, even the most obvious of them, the growth of a town, an onset of plague, the displacement of one noble family by another, the building of a cathedral or the collapse of a castle, all took place in a remarkably unchanged setting. The shapes of the fields tilled by English peasants in 1500 were often still those visited by the men who wrote them down in Domesday Book, over four hundred years before, and when men went to visit the nuns of Lacock in order to wind up their house in the 1530s, they found, to their amazement, these aristocratic ladies still speaking among themselves the Norman-French commonly used in noble families three centuries earlier.

Such immense inertia must never be forgotten; it was made all the more impressive and powerful by the fleeting lives of most men and women of the Middle Ages. Only very deep in the humus of this society did there lie a future. Perhaps the key to that future’s relationship with the past can be located in the fundamental Christian dualism of this life and the world to come, the earthly and the heavenly. This was to prove an irritant of great value, secularized in the end as a new critical instrument, the contrast of what is and what might be, of ideal and actual. In it, Christianity secreted an essence to be utilized against itself, for in the end it would make possible the independent critical stance, a complete break with the world Aquinas and Erasmus both knew. The idea of autonomous criticism would only be born very gradually, though; it can be traced in many individual adumbrations between 1300 and 1700, but they only go to show that, once again, sharp dividing lines between medieval and modern are matters of expository convenience, not of historical reality.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!