Friday, March 25, 2011

Things I Did Today
  • Worked from 9:15 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
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Thoughts -- Getting Medieval, Part 1

In my previous post, I mention that one of the things I'm interested in -- at least now, knowing very little about it -- is medieval history. On a whim, I've decided to pursue this interest, starting with this promising introductory book. Unlike most of the books I've bought over the past few years, I expect to start reading this one right away, even though it pales in comparison to the masterpieces I have yet to tackle. (Confession: I haven't read Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Crime and Punishment, The Grapes of Wrath, or Ulysses. I could go on, but I think I've done enough damage.) Why am I so interested in learning about the Middle Ages, of all things? A few reasons come to mind.

To begin with, I am intrigued by the harshness of the Middle Ages. There's this popular notion that the Middle Ages were a time of intellectual regression, religious fanaticism, and devastating disease. These things are still with us today, but fortunately they no longer dominate our lives. I cannot help but wonder, a bit morbidly perhaps, what it was like to live in a time when they did. Such forces shape the entire character of an age. Some of the things I've heard about medieval life blow my mind and make me question whether our casual conception of the Middle Ages is really any better than a Hollywood film's. For instance, I've heard that medieval people:
  • would mostly be considered mentally ill and/or retarded by our standards, primarily due to malnutrition, disease, and undereducation;
  • were on average about half a foot shorter than their modern descendants;
  • were constantly inebriated to some extent due to the scarcity of clean water and the antimicrobial properties of beer and wine;
  • and were so intensely religious and concerned with the supernatural that what we would consider mild psychoactive experiences, such as unknowingly ingesting a tiny amount of a naturally-occurring LSD precursor, would freak them out so much (with worries about satanic influence and the like) that they would experience psychosomatic trauma and even death.
Now, I'm not sure how true these things are, but they're pretty plausible and also pretty promising as far as I'm concerned. I am naturally curious about a world that is so different and disturbing, but also not too far culturally and causally removed from the one in which I live. After all, if I were only interested in the rigors of existence, I would be better served by turning my attention further back in human history. But the remoteness of very ancient civilizations makes me less inclined to study them, and I also find them less culturally interesting than the Middle Ages. As you probably know, the Middle Ages are commonly described as a time when the knowledge and civilization of Classical antiquity were lost to everyday society and sequestered in monasteries while people developed new, less "enlightened" means of social organization and self-expression. I am curious how true this basic story is and how exactly it happened. It is remarkable, troubling, and a little hard to believe that Western civilization basically fell down and didn't get up for a thousand years. Also, as much as I'd like to dispel any Arthurian misconceptions I may have, I must admit that I find knights, quests, guilds, falconry, and Chaucer pretty cool. The Middle Ages, like the Renaissance, have a well-developed (and well-monetized) aesthetic in our cultural and fictional imagination. And it's an aesthetic I have often appreciated.

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