Episode 12 AD 1100-1200

Modern culture wars and the retrospective reshaping of Europe’s past

This episode was created in late 2009 and reflects the irritation I then felt at the tendentious ideological thrust of much of popular historical culture, as evidenced by recent prominent television documentaries, newspaper articles and books, which contrasted with the picture that, to me at least, emerges from a close reading of the academic monographs relating to the topics discussed.

The first half deals with the exaggerations and distortions which beset our common understandings of the past – among them the concepts of the ‘Dark Ages’, of ‘Byzantium’, of the Renaissance and its claimed causation by Islamic civilisation.

The second part details some aspects of what has been termed ‘The 12th Century Renaissance’ – economic and social change, the Cistercian monastic Order, the formation of the universities, the flourishing of Troubadour poetry and chivalric culture, and the emergence and spread of the ‘Gothic’ style.


  • There is a layered structure of sensationalised distortions of Europe’s past. The base one is that 476 AD marked the beginning of what is called ‘The Dark Ages’
  • From the crudest to the more sophisticated versions of this, the purpose of the exercise is to denigrate Europe’s early medieval origins in order to enhance accounts of the excellences of civilisations outside of Europe. Westerners participate in this transparently-motivated sensationalism alongside non-Westerners, who do with an understandable interest.
  • We have an unbalanced view of our own past, and lack a crucial element needed to understand it. This is the continuance – for a thousand further years – of the Roman Empire at Constantinople. Our understanding has been crippled because we have lost the memory of what we choose to obscure under the name of ‘Byzantium’.
  • Imperially-funded higher education continued at Constantinople and in other eastern cities, such as Alexandria, until the crisis of the Islamic invasions of the 600s and 700s. As the Empire recovered from the 860s, the university at Constantinople was re-founded and continued to function.
  • The loss of Alexandria eliminated the source of papyrus and forced the use of parchment. Changed cultural attitudes concerning hand copying placed less emphasis on the pagan ‘classics’ and prioritised Christian texts. Fires and decay played their part.
  • We have also forgotten the eastern Christian churches. The Nestorian Christian school at Nisibis continued recopying many of the key works of antiquity.
  • We have had several centuries of the setting of the Renaissance against the whole of the medieval period, whereas in fact it was its continuation, under the mantle of a stylistic rediscovery of ancient standards of design,  grammar, poetry, etc. There was a re-valuation of the culture and style of pagan antiquity, not a rejection of the Middle Ages.
  • Having so devalued and denied the cultural achievements of the Middle Ages, the field now lies open to all kinds of grotesque claims about the ‘true’ source of the Renaissance in Europe. It is located outside of Europe altogether.
  • The cult of cultural superiority prevalent in the 19th century has long since been discredited. But this process of discrediting is being taken to the opposite extreme. It is considered ‘progressive’ to attribute the origin of the Renaissance to the Chinese and/or Islamic civilizations.
  • Islamic court culture around the Caliphs, at the height of their political power in the 800s, took an interest in the learning of the Infidels. The Nestorian  scholars at Baghdad, speaking Syriac and Arabic, translated for their Muslim masters the main works of Aristotle and of other Greek scientific writers, and of such works only.
  • The halo of sanctity placed by recent writers over Muslim court culture in 12th century Spain makes it difficult to reach a balanced assessment of the phenomenon. The ‘Translation Movement’ into Latin (especially of Aristotle) at Toledo and Palermo were the fruit of the Christian reconquest, and were church-sponsored.
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  • A brief tracing of the state of literacy and its transmission in the Latin West. Cassiodorus imitates Nisibis in southern Italy, where educational infrastructures continued. The absorption of these into the church. Western Europe remained a documentary society. Knowledge of Greek fell away after the loss of Sicily to Islam and the breakdown of relations with Constantinople, though not in Venice or Genoa. Charlemagne’s educational and religious reforms provided the backbone of European education for the future, which survived the 800s and 900s.
  • After the recovery around 1000, there was all-round development of agricultural productivity and the growth of village and urban life. Later, in the 1100s, there was a medieval ‘industrial revolution’.
  • The shift from the Romanesque to the Gothic styles of architecture. Behind this were the new spirituality and disciplined organisation of the Cistercian monasteries. These acted as nodes for technical dissemination to the surrounding society.
  • The opportunities for social mobility offered by an ecclesiastical career and the birth of the universities. Bologna, Paris and their implantation across all of Latin Christendom. The practice of the Disputation; the college of masters’ power to issue degrees.
  • The fragmentation of Latin into the regional vernacular languages of western Europe. Provençal and the birth of Troubadour sung poetry. [If you take the audio-only versions of this episode, you will lack the translations of the French]
  • The emergence of the Gothic architectural style. Its spread as the uniform building style of the whole of Latin Christendom, from Portugal to Estonia.

Now with the audio-only version included

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