Sunday, December 25, 2011

How Dark Were the Middle Ages?

As served up by teachers and professors, the Renaissance always sounded fine to me: a rebirth of culture after a long, dark time. If only we had never forgotten the glory that was Greece!

I never realized until tonight that accepting this notion means treating the first fourteen or fifteen centuries of the Christian era as a total loss, if not a disgrace to humanity. It means throwing out the contributions of Catholic Christianity—until the age when the Reformation and the Enlightenment got us all back on track.

There’s more than an echo of this attitude in an article from Harvard Magazine about the Dunbarton Oaks Medieval Library. The Library, created by Harvard University Press (HUP), is an exciting project as described by its web site:

The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library is a groundbreaking new facing-page translation series designed to make written achievements of medieval and Byzantine culture available to both scholars and general readers in the English-speaking world. It will offer the classics of the medieval canon as well as lesser-known gems of literary and cultural value to a global audience through accessible modern translations based on the latest research by leading scholars in the field.


With works ranging from The Vulgate Bible to the lives of saints, and genres as diverse as travelogues, scientific treatises, and epic and lyric poetry, this new series will bring a vibrant medieval world populated with saints and sinners, monsters and angels, kings and slaves, poets and scholars, to a new generation of readers who will discover cultures and literatures both hauntingly familiar and wonderously [sic] alien.

Of course, by publishing this library of medieval texts, HUP takes control of the standard medieval curriculum. And the Press’s slant is evident from the Harvard Mag article. Writing for Harvard, Adam Kirsch starts out by citing Steven Greenblatt’s “widely acclaimed” 2010 scholarly treatise The Swerve, which argues that “the Renaissance represented a long-overdue return to reason and sanity after the long religious delirium of the Middle Ages, a time of ‘societies of flagellants and periodic bursts of mass hysteria.’”

Further on, Kirsch writes, “Religion is omnipresent in these texts: they reveal a civilization completely permeated by Christian belief and practice, a faith that could be both sublimely ardent and cruelly intolerant.”

While the multivolume edition of the Vulgate (the original Latin translation of the Bible by St. Jerome, above) is a cornerstone of the Library, some of the early building blocks reflect poorly on the Catholic Church, the foundation of medieval culture. 

Admittedly, the Library’s inclusion of The Rule of St. Benedict makes good reading. The Rule, Kirsch notes, “makes clear that our whole way of thinking about the Bible, Vulgate or otherwise, is essentially foreign to the Middle Ages.” The medieval Catholic never encountered the Bible, as such, as a single volume, but instead heard parts of it and only in the liturgy. Even monks following St. Benedict’s lead saw the trees, not the forest. “With its focus on the Psalms, the Rule offers a good example of how ‘the Bible’ as a whole did not figure largely in the mind even of a medieval monk. Indeed, at one surprising moment, Benedict even advises monks not to read certain parts of the Bible…”

The Library and Kirsch’s discussion of it soon move from the “sublimely ardent” to the “cruelly intolerant.” As one example, there are the Satires of Sextus Amarcius—“the Latin pseudonym of a writer who was probably a German monk.” 

“The most troubling thing in the Satires,” Kirsch writes, “is the way Amarcius makes the Jews a symbol of everything that is wrong in his topsy-turvy world. Early on, he deplores the influence of money: ‘worshippers of Christ are despised, unless they have abundant wealth,’ while if a rich Jew ‘strikes down one of our poor people in an impious slaughter, [he] farts violently in the clean faces of the complaining relatives.’ This kind of blood-libel is especially ominous given the setting: in the late eleventh century, the Crusades sparked a series of devastating massacres in Germany’s Jewish communities.”

In his next paragraph, Kirsch draws a direct line from 11th-century intolerance to the 20th century’s shame:

“Later, Amarcius spends hundreds of lines railing against the Jews’ refusal to accept Christ, which he cites as an example of pride. ‘O wicked nation, O nation destined to perish, the letter kills you! The spirit prepares us for life,’ he writes, echoing an old anti-Jewish trope. Yet he also displays his ignorance of actual Jews and Judaism when he writes, ‘You who delight in sacrificing so many bulls and so many sheep, sacrifice yourselves to Christ.’ Amarcius read about animal sacrifice in his Old Testament, but he seems totally unaware that it had not been a part of Jewish practice since the destruction of the Temple a thousand years earlier. He is thus a perfect example of the medieval Christian habit of treating Judaism as a blank screen, onto which any kind of fear or fantasy could be projected [emphasis mine]—a custom that led to disastrous consequences for the Jews of Europe.”

The Dunbarton Oaks team of editors have their work cut out for them, according to Kirsch. Indeed they do. Their main work, it seems to me, will be to publish a medieval library that avoids preconceptions about the Catholic Church and its central role in a time of “cruel intolerance,” of “flagellants and periodic bursts of mass hysteria.”

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