Middle Ages and middle age

My preferred eraof historical studybegan withthe Renaissance and moved on from there, in other words, modern history. But I have over the years grown increasingly taken with the medieval period (though in church history and spirituality I am in some sympathy with Benedict XVI, who isathoroughgoing "primevalist" in his love of the Church Fathers and the early centuries of Christianity). I am, of course, hardly alone in my neo-medievalism. As a Baby Boomer I actually have no free will; I find anything I do is determined by my demographic cohort, most of whom have already been there by the time I wake up to what I thought I wanted only to realize I am just part of a trend. Now David Brooks, in a column called "The Great Escape," confirms my ovine nature with an encomium to the Middle Ages.Yet as much as I appreciate Brooks' instincts, I think he falls into the usual dichotomy by idealizing the period to the point of caricature:

As many historians have written, Europeans in the Middle Ages lived with an almost childlike emotional intensity. There were stark contrasts between daytime and darkness, between summer heat and winter cold, between misery and exuberance, and good and evil. Certain distinctions were less recognized, namely between the sacred and the profane.Material things were consecrated with spiritual powers. God was thought to live in the stones of the cathedrals, and miracles inhered in the bones of the saints. The world seemed spiritually alive, and the power of spirit could overshadow politics. As Johan Huizinga wrote in The Autumn of the Middle Ages, The most revealing map of Europe in these centuries would be a map, not of political or commercial capitals, but of the constellation of sanctuaries, the points of material contact with the unseen world.

While Lewis and Tolkien and others up through Rowling have tapped into this sensibility, Brooks'view seems to me to gloss over the great intellectual flowering of the Middle Ages, the embrace of reason to undergird faith, the rise ofuniversities, the professionalization of academia and other pursuits (like the law and religion) that Brooks swats with a (predictable) swipe at Obama. (Hey, hehas to justify his role as a political columnist.)The letters in response to Brooks generally fall on the other side of the divide, casting the Middle Ages as a benighted era of Crusades and Inquisitions. But not all. An emeritus professor of medieval history at Harvard notes that in response to the violence of earlier ages, the original medievalists "invented government to serve the public interest, together with the taxes required to support it."But I liked the letter froma Texas geologist, Leon E. Long,a nice defense of the enchantment that is still possible in the modern world:

Doing science, whose essence is to understand nature, inspires awe. As a geologist, I plant one foot (metaphorically) in the present day and the other foot in Deep Time. Yonder sandstone cliff was once the bed of a great flowing river. Imagine that! I wasnt there then, but the evidence says it literally was so. Real science is more bizarre, more full of possibilities than medieval people could have imagined. We scientists are just as passionate, romantic and as awe-filled as they were.

And, of course, crusades and inquisitions still happen. I find solace, not despair,in the parallels.

David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

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