Medieval Castles > Europe in the Middle Ages

Europe in the Middle Ages


The Middle Ages can be described as the period that separates the ancient from the modern world. They were something more than centuries of transition, though some represent them as a long night of ignorance and force, only redeemed from utter squalor by some lingering rays of ancient culture.

It is true that they began with an involuntary secession from the power which represented, in the fifth century, the wisdom of Greece and the majesty of Rome; and that they ended with a jubilant return to the Promised Land of ancient art and literature. But the interval had been no mere sojourning in Egypt. The scholars of the Renaissance destroyed as much as they created. They overthrew one civilisation to clear the ground for another.

It was imperative that the old canons of thought and conduct should be reconsidered. The time comes in the history of all half-truths when they form the great obstacles to the pursuit of truth. But this should not prevent us from recognising the value of the half-truth as a guide to those who first discover it; nor should we fall into the error, common to all reformers, of supposing that they comprehend the whole when they assert the importance of the neglected half. Erasmus had reason on his side; but so, too, had Aquinas. Luther was in his rough way a prophet; but St. Bernard also had a message for humanity.

Medieval culture was imperfect, was restricted to a narrow circle of superior minds, offered no satisfaction to some of the higher faculties and instincts. Measure it, however, by the memories and the achievements that it has bequeathed to the modern world, and it will be found not unworthy to rank with those of earlier and later Golden Ages. It flourished in the midst of rude surroundings, fierce passions, and material ambitions.

The volcanic fires of primitive human nature smouldered near the surface of medieval life; the events chronicled in medieval history are too often those of sordid and relentless strife, of religious persecutions, of crimes and conquests mendaciously excused by the affectation of a moral aim. The truth is that every civilisation has a seamy side, which it is easy to expose and to denounce.

We do not think of the Athenians solely or chiefly as the people who turned against Pericles, who tried to enslave Sicily, who executed Socrates. We appraise them rather by their most heroic exploits and their most enduring work. We must apply the same test to the medieval nations; we must judge of them by their philosophy and law, by their poetry and architecture, by the examples that they afford of statesmanship and saintship.

In these fields we shall not find that we are dealing with the spasmodic and irreflective heroisms which illuminate a barbarous age. The highest medieval achievements are the fruit of deep reflection, of persevering and concentrated effort, of a self forgetting self in the service of humanity and God. In other words, they spring from the soil, and have ripened in the atmosphere, of a civilised society.