History and Historiography

Medieval Europe: Most Progressive Society in History

This is an interesting overview of how the Western liberal tradition developed. Enlightenment liberalism appeared only after the institutional, cultural, and economic preconditions had been developed. Interestingly, Kevin Carson has made a similar argument from the Left, suggesting that liberalism appeared only after the economic and technological changes of the early modern period created its foundations.

I tend to lean toward the idea that the general dispersal of power is more important than specific institutional formations or ideological paradigms, although I do think the dispersal of power needs to be reinforced by a cultural framework that is resistant to concentrated power.  A counterargument to this position is that it is not the scale of power that matters but the intensity of power. For example, living in modern America, the most powerful state in history, is infinitely superior to living in Democratic Kampuchea, which was a microstate when compared with the USA.  But the problem with this argument is its lack of context. It was the American state that created the conditions that allowed the Khmer Rouge to come to power in the first place. And imagine what Pol Pot as President of the United States would have been like.

By AntiBoomerEquation

Deliberate Political Decentralization, Individual Rights, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution were Medieval Innovations.

Medieval society was extremely dynamic, politically decentralized and originated many of the best elements of Western civilization (‘Christendom’ would have been the politically incorrect designation). Despite a collapse of Mediterranean trade, primarily due to Islamic conquest and piracy as well as their deliberate policy of isolating the Roman Empire from the Latin world, medieval European society developed technology, trade and institutions of law superior to all past and contemporary cultures, and in some ways to today, where bureaucratic despotism on the Mandarin model has re-emerged coupled with a progressive theocracy far more totalitarian than any possible under the caliphates.

From The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success by Rodney Stark

…soon after the fall of Rome, it encouraged an era of extraordinary invention and innovation. To appreciate this remarkable achievement it is necessary to confront an incredible lie that long disfigured our knowledge of history.

For the past two or three centuries, every educated person has known that from the fall of Rome until about the fifteenth century Europe was submerged in the “Dark Ages”—centuries of ignorance, superstition, and misery—from which it was suddenly, almost miraculously rescued, first by the Renaissance and then by the Enlightenment. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, during the so-called Dark Ages, European technology and science overtook and surpassed the rest of the world! The idea that Europe fell into the Dark Ages is a hoax originated by antireligious, and bitterly anti-Catholic, eighteenth-century intellectuals who were determined to assert the cultural superiority of their own time and who boosted their claim by denigrating previous centuries as—in the words of Voltaire—a time when “barbarism, superstition, [and] ignorance covered the face of the world.” Views such as these were repeated so often and so unanimously that, until very recently, even dictionaries and encyclopedias accepted the Dark Ages as an historical fact. Some writers even seemed to suggest that people living in, say, the ninth century described their own time as one of backwardness and superstition.

Fortunately, in the past few years these views have been so completely discredited that even some dictionaries and encyclopedias have begun to refer to the notion of Dark Ages as mythical.

…when the breakup of the Roman empire “released the tax-paying millions . . . from a paralysing oppression,” many new technologies began to appear, and were rapidly and widely adopted, with the result that ordinary people were able to live far better, and after centuries of decline under Rome, the population began to grow again. No longer were the productive classes bled to sustain the astonishing excesses of the Roman elite, or to erect massive monuments to imperial egos, or to support vast armies to hold Rome’s many colonies in thrall. Instead, human effort and ingenuity turned to better ways to farm, to sail, to transport goods, to build churches, to make war, to educate, and even to play music.


Rome was essentially a waterfront empire encircling the Mediterranean. True, Caesar did cross the channel and colonize Britain. But even there, Hadrian had to build a wall to isolate the fierce tribes of the north. Much the same happened on the Continent. Romans seldom crossed the Rhine, nor did they venture often or far across the Danube. It is uncertain that Spain or the Levant would have been part of the empire had the legions been required to invade and sustain their rule entirely by land. In any event, most of western Europe never was ruled by Rome. Geographical and cultural impediments limited the scope of the empire.

Much has been written about the political disunity of Europe, but rarely is geography as such taken into account, even though one could sit down with a relief map of Europe and do quite well at drawing in the areas sustaining a self-conscious “nationalism.” Indeed, the map of medieval European “states” looks remarkably like a map of hunting-and-gathering cultures in Europe about five thousand years ago.

The reason is that, unlike China or India, for example, Europe is not one large plain but a multitude of fertile valleys surrounded by mountains and dense forests, each often serving as the core area of an independent state. Wherever geographic barriers limit communications, cultural diversity always arises. European cultural diversity was also increased by many different waves of “barbarian” migration. In this sense, then, the disunity of Europe is both cultural and natural.

Europe’s diversity resulted in many very small political units: “statelets” might be the appropriate term. Only the few large plains, such as those surrounding Paris and London, sustained somewhat larger political entities; most of the rest varied between small and tiny. During the fourteenth century there were about a thousand independent statelets in Europe. This proliferation had several very important consequences. First, it tended to make for weak rulers. Second, it provided for creative competition. Third, it offered people some opportunity to depart for a setting more suitable in terms of liberty or opportunity. Consequently, some of these statelets began to develop highly responsive governments.

From The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West by Tom Holland

Like the crossing of the Rubicon, like the storming of the Bastille, the events at Canossa had served to crystallise a truly epochal crisis. Far more had been at stake than merely the egos of two domineering men. The Pope, locked into a desperate power struggle though he certainly was, had ambitions as well that were breathtakingly global in their scope. His goal? Nothing less than to establish the “right order in the world.” What had once, back in the time of Gelasius, appeared merely a pipedream was now, during Gregory’s papacy, transformed into a manifesto. By its terms, the whole of Christendom, from its summit to its meanest village, was to be divided into two. One realm for the spiritual, one for the secular. No longer were kings to be permitted to poke their noses into the business of the Church. It was a plan of action as incendiary as it was sweeping: for it required a full-out assault upon presumptions that were ultimately millennia old.

However, even had Gregory appreciated the full scale of his task, he would surely not have shrunk from it. What lay at stake, so he believed, was the very future of mankind: for unless the Church were kept sacrosanct, what hope for a sinful world? No wonder, then, presented with the opportunity, that the Pope had dared to make an example of his most formidable opponent. “The King of Rome, rather than being honoured as a universal monarch, had been treated instead as merely a human being – a creature moulded out of clay.” Contemporaries, struggling to make sense of the whole extraordinary business, perfectly appreciated that they were living through a convulsion in the affairs of the Christian people that had no precedent, nor even any parallel. “Our whole Roman world was shaken.” What, then, could this earthquake betoken, many wondered, if not the end of days? That the affairs of men were drawing to a close, and the earth itself growing decrepit, had long been a widespread presumption. As the years slipped by, however, and the world did not end, so people found themselves obliged to grope about for different explanations. A formidable task indeed. The three decades that preceded the show down at Canossa, and the four that followed it, were, in the judgement of one celebrated medievalist, a period when the ideals of Christendom, its forms of government and even its very social and economic fabric “changed in almost every respect.” Here, argued Sir Richard Southern, was the true making of the West. “The expansion of Europe had begun in earnest. That all this should have happened in so short a time is the most remarkable fact in medieval history.” And, if remarkable to us, then how much more so to those who actually lived through it. We in the twenty-first century are habituated to the notion of progress: the faith that human society, rather than inevitably decaying, can be improved. The men and women of the eleventh century were not. Gregory, by presuming to challenge Henry IV, and the fabulously ancient nimbus of tradition that hedged emperors and empires about, was the harbinger of something awesome. He and his supporters might not have realised it – but they were introducing to the modern West its first experience of revolution.

It was a claim that many of those who subsequently set Europe to shake would no doubt have viewed as preposterous. To Martin Luther, the one-time monk who saw it as his lifetime’s mission to reverse everything that Gregory had stood for, the great Pope appeared a literally infernal figure: “Höllenbrand,” or “Hellfire.” In the wake of the Enlightenment too, as dreams of building a new Jerusalem took on an ever more secular hue, and world revolution was consciously enshrined as an ideal, so it appeared to many enthusiasts for change that there existed no greater roadblock to their progress than the Roman Catholic Church.

Not that one necessarily had to be a radical, or even a liberal, to believe the same. “We shall not go to Canossa!” So fulminated that iron chancellor of a reborn German Empire, Prince Bismarck, in 1872, as he gave a pledge to the Reichstag that he would never permit the papacy to stand in the way of Germany’s forward march to modernity. This was to cast Gregory as the very archetype of reaction: a characterisation that many Catholic scholars, albeit from a diametrically opposed perspective, would not have disputed. They too, like the Church’s enemies, had a stake in downplaying the magnitude of what Canossa had represented. After all, if the papacy were to be regarded as the guardian of unchanging verities and traditions, then how could it possibly have presided over a rupture in the affairs of Europe no less momentous than the Reformation or the French Revolution?

Gregory, according to the conventional Catholic perspective, was a man who had brought nothing new into the world, but rather had laboured to restore the Church to its primal and pristine state. Since this was precisely what Gregory himself had always claimed to be doing, evidence for this thesis was not hard to find. But it was misleading, even so. In truth, there existed no precedent for the upheaval exemplified by Canossa – neither in the history of the Roman Church, nor in that of any other culture. The consequences could hardly have been more fateful. Western Europe, which for so long had languished in the shadow of vastly more sophisticated civilisations, and of its own ancient and vanished past, was set at last upon a course that was to prove irrevocably its own.

It was Gregory, at Canossa, who stood as godfather to the future.

Ever since the West first rose to a position of global dominance, the origins of its exceptionalism have been fiercely debated. Conventionally, they have been located in the Renaissance, or the Reformation, or the Enlightenment: moments in history that all consciously defined themselves in opposition to the backwardness and barbarism of the socalled “Middle Age.” The phrase, however, can be a treacherous one. Use it too instinctively, and something fundamental – and distinctive – about the arc of European history risks being obscured. Far from there having been two decisive breaks in the evolution of the West, as talk of “the Middle Ages” implies, there was in reality only one – and that a cataclysm without parallel in the annals of Eurasia’s other major cultures. Over the course of a millennium, the civilisation of classical antiquity had succeeded in evolving to a pinnacle of extraordinary sophistication; and yet its collapse in western Europe, when it came, was almost total. The social and economic fabric of the Roman Empire unravelled so completely that its harbours were stilled, its foundries silenced, its great cities emptied, and a thousand years of history revealed to have led only to a dead end. Not all the pretensions of a Henry IV could truly serve to alter that. Time could not be set in reverse. There had never been any real prospect of reconstituting what had imploded – of restoring what had been lost.

Yet still, long after the fall of Rome, a conviction that the only alternative to barbarism was the rule of a global emperor kept a tenacious hold on the imaginings of the Christian people. And not on those of the Christian people alone. From China to the Mediterranean, the citizens of great empires continued to do precisely as the ancient Romans had done, and see in the rule of an emperor the only conceivable image of the perfection of heaven. What other order, after all, could there possibly be? Only in the far western promontory of Eurasia, where there was nothing of an empire left but ghosts and spatchcocked imitations, was this question asked with any seriousness – and even then only after the passage of many centuries. Hence the full world-shaking impact of the events associated with Canossa. Changes had been set in train that would ultimately reach far beyond the bounds of western Europe: changes that are with us still.

To be sure, Gregory today may not enjoy the fame of a Luther, a Lenin, a Mao – but that reflects not his failure but rather the sheer scale of his achievement. It is the incomplete revolutions which are remembered; the fate of those that succeed is to end up being taken for granted. Gregory himself did not live to witness his ultimate victory – but the cause for which he fought was destined to establish itself as perhaps the defining characteristic of Western civilisation. That the world can be divided into church and state, and that these twin realms should exist distinct from each other: here are presumptions that the eleventh century made “fundamental to European society and culture, for the first time and permanently.” What had previously been merely an ideal would end up a given.

No wonder, then, as an eminent historian of this “first European revolution” has pointed out, that “it is not easy for Europe’s children to remember that it might have been otherwise.” Even the recent influx into Western countries of sizeable populations from non-Christian cultures has barely served to jog the memory. Of Islam, for instance, it is often said that it has never had a Reformation – but more to the point might be to say that it has never had a Canossa. Certainly, to a pious Muslim, the notion that the political and religious spheres can be separated is a shocking one – as it was to many of Gregory’s opponents.

Not that it had ever remotely been Gregory’s own intention to banish God from an entire dimension of human affairs; but revolutions will invariably have unintended consequences. Even as the Church, from the second half of the eleventh century onwards, set about asserting its independence from outside interference by establishing its own laws, bureaucracy and income, so kings, in response, were prompted to do the same. “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens – but the earth He has given to the sons of men.” So Henry IV’s son pronounced, answering a priest who had urged him not to hang a count under the walls of his own castle, for fear of provoking God’s wrath. It was in a similar spirit that the foundations of the modern Western state were laid, foundations largely bled of any religious dimension. A piquant irony: that the very concept of a secular society should ultimately have been due to the papacy.


The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success by Rodney Stark

The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West by Tom Holland

The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science by Seb Falk

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages by Francis and Joseph Gies

The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages by Jean Gimpel

Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade by Henri Pirenne

Genoa’s Freedom: Entrepreneurship, Republicanism, and the Spanish Atlantic by Matteo Salonia


On the Industrial Revolution in the Middle Ages

Discussion of John Gimpel

Medieval Science with Seb Falk

How Dark Were the Dark Ages? at PragerU

1 reply »

  1. I added a new book, links to reviews for all of them, and a couple of video links for the version on my blog

    – The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success by Rodney Stark

    – The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West by Tom Holland

    – The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science by Seb Falk

    – The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry

    – Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages by Francis and Joseph Gies

    – The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages by Jean Gimpel

    – Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade by Henri Pirenne

    – Genoa’s Freedom: Entrepreneurship, Republicanism, and the Spanish Atlantic by Matteo Salonia

    The Bright Ages:

    Genoa on the Tom Woods Show:

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