Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition 400-1400, by Marcia L. Colish

He is master of the trade
he follows every day;
so am I in mine
when I put my finger on an answer.

–“The Monk and His Cat,” marginal poem on Codex S. Pauli, by an Irish student of the monastery of Carinthia, 8th or 9th Century

This very readable account of the sources of Western culture in the Middle Ages by Marcia Colish, professor of history at Oberlin College, explains the contributions of Byzantine and Islamic efforts, but shows how western Europe won out:

“Byzantine culture made the most brilliant early start, only to crystallize fairly early. Apart from new developments in law and the visual arts, and military technology, Byzantine intellectual life after the eleventh century, despite a brief rally just before its demise in 1453, lapsed into a mode of conservatism in which the veneration of canonical authorities and the imitation of past models became a substitute for experimentation and change. Islam rose swiftly to the challenge of absorbing oriental as well as classical culture as the caliphate expanded into the Near East and Persia, becoming the most dynamic and original of the three sister civilizations in the early Middle Ages. Its scholars made creative and important contributions to the natural sciences, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, art, and literature, as well as elaborating Muslim theology and religious law. None the less, both in their Spanish outpost conquered in the eighth century and in the Near East, the Muslims failed to capitalize on their commanding lead in speculative thought after the twelfth century. For its part, western Europe made a painfully slow start. At the beginning of the Middle Ages its intellectual leaders were concerned with preserving the essentials of the Latin Christian culture of the late Roman empire and with spreading it to the Celtic and Germanic conquerors of western Europe. The institutions and values of the latter two peoples contributed a critical ingredient to the mix. Successive waves of invaders from Asia, from the Muslim world to the south, and from the Viking north repeatedly put at risk their gains and accomplishments. Compared with Islam and Byzantium, early medieval Europe was definitely bringing up the rear.

“Such is the assessment that a hypothetical traveler would probably have made, fresh from a tour of the cultural capitals of the Mediterranean world and northern Europe in the year 1100. Had such a traveler been asked to predict which of these societies would produce a scientific revolution in the seventeenth century and an Enlightenment in the eighteenth, chances are that he or she would have bet on Islam. Yet, despite its apparently lackluster start, its need to reacquire much of its own classical heritage form its neighbors, and its long latency, it was western Europe that shot ahead, starting in the twelfth century. Western medieval thinkers developed the means and methods that enabled them to outpace the byzantines and Muslims decisively in the high Middle Ages, creating new forms of thought and art that achieved Europe’s intellectual modernization by the end of the period. In so doing, they produced a culture with its own, distinctively medieval qualities. They also produced institutions and attitudes, ways of dealing with their sources and their own new ideas that emerge as distinctively western and that connect the Middle Ages with subsequent chapters of European intellectual history.”

The book looks at four major areas: literature; religious culture; theological, philosophical, and scientific speculation; and political and economic theory. Much of the material is devoted to literature, theology, and religious devotion. It is clear from the author’s account that classical culture and ideas influenced northern European cultures (Irish and Franco-Germanic), which in turn had their influence on mainstream European philosophy, literature, and religion. Classical culture never disappeared, even if the Greek originals were unavailable in the West for a time.

Islam developed a high culture and produced great scholars, but reached its limit with Averroes, who “in Islam represented everything that was most to be feared from philosophy.” Muslim thinkers retreated or were silenced after his time, and Western Christian thinkers carried on. Christianity was able to assimilate the best of classical culture and philosophy, but Islam withdrew from a fear of contamination.

The only weak sections are the last two. In Part VI (High and Late Medieval Speculative Thought), the author summarizes trends in metaphysics. Here, the smooth readability of the preceding sections disappears in a fog of concepts. In Part VII (The Legacy of Scholasticism), attention turns to politics for the first time. Though the prose is readable again, and the subject is engaging, Colish allows too little space for medieval theories of economics and politics. I would have liked to see more on these subjects from her.

Advertisements
Explore posts in the same categories: Book reviews

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: