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Is there any other time in history more malaligned than the Middle Ages? Our modern conception of the so-called “dark ages” is that it was time characterised by superstition, barbarity, oppression, ignorance with a few outbreaks of the plague, just to make things interesting.
This view has been helped by numerous so-called educational resources. BBC’s Bitesize website, for example, takes a leaf from certain 19th-century British historians, the type of who saw Catholics as ignorant and childish, and caricatures Medieval peasants as “extremely superstitious” individuals who were “encouraged to rely on prayers to the saints and superstition” for guidance through life. It even accuses the Catholic Church of stagnating human thought and impeding technological development.
This does not represent the view, however, of many serious historians and academics. As Professor Ronald Numbers of Cambridge University explains:
“Notions such as: ‘the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science’, ‘the medieval Christian Church suppressed the growth of the natural sciences’, ‘the medieval Christians thought that the world was flat’, and ‘the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages’ [are] examples of widely popular myths that still pass as historical truth, even though they are not supported by historical research.’
In reality, the Middle Ages saw advances in law, politics, the sciences, theology, philosophy, and more. It saw the birth of the chartered town which ushered in the tradition of local self-governance. The existence of a strong papacy laid the foundations of limited political power as it prevented monarchs, who justified their power through their so-called “unique” relationship with God and the Church, from monopolising power. This symbolic limitation on monarchical power was manifested in the Magna Carta (1215) and the birth of the English Parliament.
The people of the Middle Ages produced magnificent Gothic cathedrals and churches. Many medieval monks became patrons of the arts and many were even artists themselves. In literature, the Middle Ages saw Dante’s the Divine Comedy and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In music, the Middle Ages laid the foundation of Western classical music and saw the development of musical notation, western harmony, and many of the Christmas carols we know and love today.
Likewise, the Carolingian Renaissance of the 8th and 9th centuries saw advancements in the study of literature, architecture, jurisprudence, and theology. Medieval scholars and scientists, many of whom were monks and friars, studied natural philosophy, mathematics, engineering, geography, optics, and medicine.
In the spirit of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment, many universities, including Oxford University, Cambridge University, and the University of Cologne. These universities educated their students on law, medicine, theology, and the arts. In addition, the period also saw the foundation of many schools and many early Christian monasteries were committed to the education of the common people.
The Middle Ages saw advances in science, literature, philosophy, theology, the arts, music, politics, law, and more. Its legacy is all around us: whether it is in the limitations placed on the powers of Governments, the music we listen to, or in the tradition of education many of us have benefited from. In an era of political correctness perhaps we should be wondering whether we’re living in the “dark ages.”
For our cultural article this week, we will be examining Walt Whitman’s 1891 poem, O Me, O Life.
Walt Whitman is considered one of America’s most important poets. Whitman was born in Long Island, New York, on May 31st, 1819. Whitman educated himself by reading Dante, Homer, Shakespeare, and the Bible. At twelve he got an apprenticeship as a printer, but lost it when a fire destroyed the printing district. He worked as a journalist for various newspapers before going independent and travelling around America. In 1870, Whitman settled in Camden, New Jersey. Walt Whitman died on March 26th, 1892, at the age of seventy-two.
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
O Me, o Life appeared in Walt Whitman’s poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, in 1891. Written in free verse, the poem seeks to determine what the value of life actually is. It is an answer to how one can suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and still find a reason for living.
The first stanza is essentially the same in theme as Hamlet‘s “to be, or not to be” speech. How can life, with all its suffering and hardship, be worth living? Why do we continue to hold life so dear when all the inherent suffering and malevolence can compromise our faith in God, in other people, and even in ourselves?
For Whitman, the answer was simple: Life in and of itself is valuable. That even in the darkest periods of human history, life goes on. For Whitman, the answer to life’s purpose is that you get to “contribute a verse” to the eternal story of man.