Sunday, July 22, 2012

Medieval Re-Births

Far from being a complete intellectual vacuum in the years between the decline of Rome and the Renaissance, Europe experienced three distinct periods when the slow slog of culture enjoyed a short sprint forward. Two of them were connected specifically with royal patronage and the attempt on the part of a ruler to create something academically impressive and politically lasting. Scholars dispute the accuracy of calling them "renaissances" because their impact was not as lasting as the shifts in the 14th century that sparked an uninterrupted (so far) progression in all human endeavors. Erwin Panofsky, a 20th century German art historian, produced a slim tome in 1944 called Renaissance and Renascences in which he used the latter term to distinguish those other periods in history. Let's do that.

The first Renascence took place during the reigns of Charlemagne (c.742-814) and his son, Louis the Pious (778-840). Charlemagne was not only King of the Franks. He managed to unite much of western and central Europe, and once he conquered Italy, he was in a position to be named Holy Roman Emperor.

Empires require a great deal of bureaucracy, however, and the dearth of literate men to serve as court scribes and secretaries was problematic. Literacy was also a problem because many parish priests could not read the Bible. In fact, the lack of widespread formal training in Latin meant that its common use—what now is referred to as vulgar Latin—was developing into regional dialects. Some of these dialects would evolve into what we call the Romance languages.
Sample of Carolingian Minuscule

With the chance to re-create the glory that was the Roman Empire, Charlemagne gathered scholars to promote the proper use of Latin. While establishing schools to accomplish this and—and along the way developing a new script called "Carolingian minuscule" that was more legible than what came before—he promoted learning, art, law, architecture, and Christianity. In order to do this, he brought together many top scholars of the day, such as:
These men and others helped to create a "bright spot" in a time so often called "dark." There were still dark times to come in western Europe, but thanks to the Carolingian Renascence, Western Civilization survived—in the words of Sir Kenneth Clark in his epic Civilization: "by the skin of its teeth."

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