Saturday, September 10, 2011

Medieval Golden Years: In 13th Century Europe

When King John's army was defeated at the Battle of Bovines in 1214 it is hard to imagine that anyone could have predicted the years of peace and plenty which lay ahead. It would be 82 years before Edward I stormed the ramparts at Berwick-upon-Tweed and massacred the populace. These years proved to be the last decades of the medieval warm period and the famines of the early 14th century were still to come.

In some ways these years were akin to the peace which came to Europe during the 19th century. However, the major difference in the two periods was in the development of science. Think of the Victorian scientists with their advances in medicine and how in physics they laid the foundation for electricity, telecommunications and the wonders of the 20th century.

From the 13th century we had progress in optics and eyeglasses and mechanical clocks. A poor return indeed for so many years of peace. So did the church play a role in this? This was the century before the Black Death and people optimistically looked forward to the second coming of Christ. With such a belief how could people be introspective and critically examine their world?

It is probably the right point to quote directly from Norman Cantor's "In the wake of the Plague":

"The Latin Christendom of the 13th C was an immensely creative but amazingly one-sided culture.It fatally did not apply its resources to scientific research,whether physics or biology.It had some knowledge of chemistry but wasted it on alchemy,trying to turn base metals into gold.It had little knowledge of astronomy but wasted it on a rage for astrology and fortune telling"

"Europe was weakest in the biomedical areas.Except for a few eccentrics like Roger Bacon,the Oxford Franciscan,it was an arrogant,heedless culture that could build a magnificent church and develop a new legal system as well as any culture.But it had no understanding of disease, neither its nature or cure, and was extremely vulnerable to epidemics"

The only defence against a plague was essentially:

Pray very hard
Quarantine the sick
Find a scapegoat

"The rarest attribute in any society and culture,when things are going well, and peace and prosperity reign, bellies are full of good food and the sun shines is to notice the cracks"

There weren't many pessimists back in these golden days but one man who stood up and said it isn't working was Joachim of Fiore. He claimed that the world was entering an era of darkness and terror.

This image from wiki commons is a fresco from 1573 of Joachim of Fiore.

As the Golden years came to an end, Europe was was basically in a classic Malthusian situtation. 600 years before the gloomy prognosis was penned, it was all around and no one realised the problems. We may welll return to these ideas later and examine these critical years as the good days turned sour!

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