Championing the Middle Ages as Innovative

Johannes Fried's erudite study traces our evolution towards reason, worldwide exploration, and rational procedures to a dynamic medieval period.

The Middle Ages

Publisher: Harvard-Belknap
Length: 632 pages
Author: Johannes Fried
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-01

The Western world's "progression towards a culture of reason" over a thousand years, between classical decline and colonial ascendance, results in this dense but readable narrative. In about 500 pages, Frankfurt historian Johannes Fried tells the story of the Middle Ages. He emphasizes the mental as well as material shifts necessary to understand this transitional epoch, even as he blurs its beginning and endings. Rejecting neat chronology, Fried favors the evolution of rational mentality.

He begins with Boethius, the last of the classical thinkers. A Christian but also a Neoplatonist, he was among the final generation connected to the legacy many in the Church sought to eliminate. Fried defines the Catholic replacement for thought by its avoidance of abstraction, a loss of systematic or categorical organization, and a lack of "mental acuity and of methodically controlled thinking". Visions and dreams swayed decisions for all.

Pope Gregory the Great exerted papal ambitions early on, even as he favored faith rather than the faint lessons of the crumbling classical learning which he inherited. Furthered by an alliance with the Franks, Rome's resurgent clerical power extended as its protege Charlemagne united the Christian West. Fried, in this very German-centric study, details from his native heartland the impacts of European unity.

The Holy Roman Empire sought to continue Rome's complicated legacy, creating a lingua franca of Latin for its relatively educated court. Classical texts began to be preserved. The motto of "knowledge before action" inculcated order into the Carolingian schools. A rational modus operandi began, as time was studied and human activity within it was appreciated for its own sake. This nudged a retreat from portents and miracles as if guides for living.

This shift from divinely inspired to logical paradigms did not happen quickly. Fried's notable, if inevitably submerged, contribution in such an immense book comes from his attention to mentalities. Kings "would explain their motivations by means of signs, gestures, and rituals" in Carolingian times. Millenarian fears grew as the dreaded apocalyptic year of 1000 neared. Systems by which the living could remember the dead, and intervene to accelerate the entrance of the departed into Heaven, spurred ecclesiastical renewal. Monastic innovations, legal classifications, clerical and royal reforms ensued. The "two powers doctrine" of separating priests from prelates to rule the Earth became contentious. Throughout, Fried tracks centuries of struggle as secular forces contend against popes.

"The world was out of joint. The papacy was split, the successor to the throne of Saint Peter was preaching war, the abbot of Cluny was embroiled in the dispute between the king and the pope, the mysteries of faith were being openly questioned, there were monks preaching on the streets, and fanatical mobs roaming the countryside slaughtering Jews." So Fried sums up the situation at the end of the11th century, as the Crusades commenced.

"Everywhere, civil war seemed to be raging while Byzantium teetered at the verge of collapse, and many believed the advent of the Antichrist was nigh--where was peace in all this, and the power of prayer and salvation?" This passage demonstrates the verve with which Fried describes medieval events, and vigor helps offset many slow passages about Ottonians and Hohenstaufens, which his German audience may appreciate more.

Fried injects a dramatic style now and then, especially when praising those who advanced reason. "This heavily persecuted individual, whose only crimes were to have fallen in love with a woman and displayed consistent reasoning -- and to have openly admitted to both -- this thinker who was cast adrift by his peers, but who pioneered the whole concept of free will and paved the way for the expression of human freedom and must count as one of the great minds of the world": so Fried dramatizes the influence of philosopher Peter Abélard. Peter Lewis' translation reads fluidly in such moments.

As the later medieval period began, imperial hegemony, an urban boom, usury, debtors' prisons, Islamic and Jewish learning entered the Western European experience, as feudalism began to fade. What replaced this system were nascent empires and emerging nation-states, but popes fought back. As Innocent III phrased it, his papal reign shone like the sun. Secular powers could aspire only as far as the full moon, reflecting Rome's solar splendor. The laity and clergy, eager to emulate this illumination, popularized devotion rather than learning. But this move unsettled the popes, who implemented inquisitions and spies to root out heretics, the origins of our own persecuting societies.

"All profit can be turned to salvation", in the estimate of the zealous Franciscan friars who pioneered an "ethics of money". They served as confessors to the growing mercantile and bourgeois classes in the cities. These priests tried to "alleviate the fear" that the poor brethren's wealthy patrons "felt for their eternal souls" during confession on account of their business schemes.

Rediscovery of fundamental truths about human destiny stoked rational inquiry as well as doubt among the faithful. Humanists investigated nature and plumbed law and logic. Jurisprudence, coherence, and a concern for the common good grew. Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham gain Fried's acclaim as secular proponents who challenged papal politics. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV earns Fried's admiration for his emulation of Paris, as the ruler built Prague into a center of learning and of civility.

Such progress was slowed but not terminated by the Black Death. By the end of the 14th century, globalization dominated the European outlook. Still, old habits persisted. "Reason thirsted after secrets, belief, and miracles; enlightenment, it seems, always comes up against frontiers that frustrate it." Fried's snappish epilogue targets Kant as a purveyor of Enlightenment canards that demeaned earlier efforts to understand the world. Fried rejects this blinkered view of the Middle Ages "as a kind of self-inflicted intellectual immaturity". Instead, he champions Abélard's "systematic doubt" as a harbinger of the truer enlightenment whose origins arise far earlier.

His erudite study traces our evolution towards reason, worldwide exploration, and rational procedures to a dynamic medieval period. This is the springboard to the modern era, as innovation won out against stagnation.

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