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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Middle Ages
By Alfred Rambaud (1842–1905)
 
From the ‘History of French Civilization’

Character of their Civilization

THE MIDDLE AGES were only considered by the historians of the eighteenth century as a period of ignorance and barbarism, unproductive and void. They are considered to-day in an entirely different light.  1
  It was during the Middle Ages that new nations and new languages originated in Europe; among these the French nation and the French language. Institutions which would have astonished the Greeks and Romans were developed during this period. The ancients knew no other political life than the municipal life; they had only the idea of a city, not at all that of a nation; they did not believe liberty possible except within the walls of a town. As soon as the Romans had to govern not only towns but an empire, they believed that they could only govern by the most absolute despotism. On the contrary, the new nations found the means, in dominating vast regions, to harmonize the principle of authority with that of the liberty of the subjects. They outlined the system of representation, from which have proceeded the modern constitutions; they established the jury,—that is, the judgment of the accused by his peers.  2
  Great steps were accomplished in social progress. Slavery, that curse of the ancient world, disappeared. The laborer in the field began to enfranchise himself from the servitude of the globe, which Roman law had consecrated. The sphere of woman was enlarged in the family and in society, not only by effect of law but by custom; and this feature alone was sufficient to distinguish in the strongest manner the Middle Ages from the ancient civilization.  3
  In literature we remained in the Middle Ages far behind the classic perfection, but we created original methods and styles—epic poems, the “mysteries,” and the lyric poetry of the south.  4
  In the sciences, it is to the Middle Ages that we owe the modern system of numeration, algebra, the compass, the magnifying glass, gunpowder, the process of distillation, the discovery of gas, the most important acids, the first fulminating elements, and numberless chemical combinations.  5
  In the arts, the Middle Ages were glorified by two grand creations: French architecture (Roman and ogival) and musical harmony. A more rational notation of music was adopted. Engraving was begun, and painting in oils made its début. If modern painting and sculpture owe to ancient art the perfection of form, the artists of the Middle Ages have preceded us in the choice of expression.  6
  Besides the invention of printing, it may be noted that during that time were manufactured for the first time in Europe, sugar, silk tissues, plate mirrors, clocks, and watches. New conditions of life, comforts unknown to the ancients, such as body linen and chimneys, characterized the private life of the Middle Ages.  7
  The world itself was enlarged. No Roman navigator had, like the Scandinavians, or perhaps the Basques, brought the ancient world in contact with America; no Roman explorer had, like Marco Polo and his emulators, revealed to his compatriots central Asia and the extreme Orient.  8
  The majority of the weak points in the civilization of the Middle Ages are identical with those of the Roman civilization; for example, the barbarism of criminal procedure, the cruelty of torture, and the grosser superstitions.  9
  Our old French civilization on only three points of view—the glory and the perfection of the arts, the liberty of thought, and the power of the scientific spirit—is perhaps inferior to the civilization of the Greeks, which was the mother of all the others, and which has remained incomparable as the initiative, original, and prolific. But assuredly our own old civilization is not inferior to the Roman civilization. Between that of the Romans and that of our ancestors there is a difference, not of degree, but of nature. A colder climate, instincts and needs peculiar to the Gallic and Germanic races, and the great influence of the religious sentiment, have contributed to this result. It is the civilization of the north contrasted with the civilization of the south. One cannot say that the France of the thirteenth century was barbaric in comparison with the Rome of the emperors; for amid the ruins of the Empire it regained all that it was possible to possess of political culture.  10
 
The Close of the Middle Ages

  The close of the mediæval period is marked by the following stages:—
  11
  In the political order: The taking of Constantinople, and the establishment of the Turks in Oriental Europe upon the débris of the Greek empire; the fall of the papacy as the directing power of Europe; the succeeding of national wars to holy wars; the birth of the patriotic sentiment; the progress of the royal power; the new form taken by the power of the third estate, which is not the form of local communes, but the national form of general States.  12
  In the social order: The emancipation of the rural classes; the enrichment of the middle classes, and their increasing influence.  13
  In the religious order: The appearance of new heresies, notably that of John Huss in Bohemia, which appears to have prepared the way for the advent of Protestantism.  14
  In the literary order: The end of chivalric poetry; the appearance of philosophy in history (under Commines); the decadence of the ancient theatre, the “mysteries” and the “moralities”; the first steps in the progress of printing; and the introduction in the Occident, after the fall of Constantinople, of new Greek and Latin manuscripts.  15
  In the scientific order: The tendency of the sciences to free themselves from the yoke of scholasticism and theology through the resumption of the theory of the world according to Nicholas de Cusa; and by the revival of medicine in the times of Louis XI.  16
  In the artistic order: The relaxation in the construction of ogival (pointed arched) cathedrals; the emancipation of the arts—sculpture, painting, and music—from the religious influence.  17
  In the military order: The decline of the ideas of chivalry; the perfection of cannon and portable firearms; the establishment of permanent armies; the improvement of infantry.  18
  In the economic order: The discovery of new routes of communication with the Indies; the development of navigation, and the first voyages across the ocean.  19
 
 
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