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Archive for May, 2009

Cathedral in Prague

Some people argue that the traditional perception of the Middle Ages ought to be revised. The image we normally have of this period is one of a ‘Dark Age’ of injustice and intellectual lethargy, where oppressed serfs in dirty rags toil on the land for the benefit of a small arrogant elite of landowners, and a dogmatic theocracy impedes every attempt at progress.

Apparently, the Middle Ages were not as ‘dark’ as previously thought. Perhaps this historical misconception is a legacy of the French Revolution, with its mad dash to destroy all that came before in order to better establish liberty, equality and brotherhood. There are many examples of invention and flowering that took place between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Enlightenment. However, these examples only serve to promote the idea that the Middles Ages weren’t so bad, and that many good things were produced at that time.

But a more compelling argument can be made for this maligned period when one considers its most prominent buildings. When tourists go to Europe to see impressive monuments, they invariably go to churches, cathedrals and the like. Though American and Japanese gawkers snap pictures of these structures because they are beautiful, they were built not only to be pleasing to the eye but to serve a very important function: They were places of worship.

In the Middle Ages great resources and effort were put into manifesting the greatness of God. Architecture, as well as art, was always linked with the spiritual. Compare this to the great buildings of today.

The skyline of most major western cities is dominated by banks and corporate offices. The ‘monuments’ of today are devoted entirely to the accumulation of money and material things. Today we consider ourselves advanced because we have more money, higher living standards, and greater rights for all citizens. Our highest ideal is the advancement of equality and to one day provide adequate financial and medical resources for everyone. We conceive of the purpose of human life as almost entirely material. At best we can only hold up bland egalitarian principals as our highest ambition – but only because they provide maximum personal happiness. No further does our thinking extend.

People in the Middle Ages saw themselves as spiritual beings, linked with their community and with God. And they took seriously the moral edicts of the Church as children did with their parents. Today, we often smirk at any talk or morals, pursue our personal agenda with the worst sort of pride, and assign prestige to the most peculiar of people.  For all the criticism we can make of the former period, it seems far less vapid than the present. When re-evaluating the Middle Ages we should not only ask if they really were so backwards, but we ought to examine our own period and ask if we are so advanced today.

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