50. Dark and Middle Ages

(concluded) Chapter 5.           Faster Evolution in human historical times




Where have we got to?

Our thumbnail review of the not-so-ancient Greeks and Romans, above, pays tribute to the lasting influence they’ve had on our civilization down to the present. It is ever the case that the Greeks and Romans get all the attention of the historians who write high school history texts, but it didn’t have to be that way. If we continued in this vein we could produce comparable reviews on a couple dozen other major human civilizations you never heard about in high school but whose influence is strongly with us today…


…such as the ancient Celts whose untamable blood still flows today in certain disputative caucasians who revere a good fight over cooperating; or such as the Huns and their bully boy Attila who murdered at least hundreds of thousands and terrified millions; or all those standoffish Germanic and Italian tribesmen who avoided coming together into nationhood later than most; or the Mongol horde and their bully boy Genghis Khan whose senseless savage predations so interrupted Silk Road trade that sea-route alternatives hastened the civilizing of Europe – not to mention numerous other important-though-less-remembered human civilizations on the African (Mali, Axum, Ethiopian, Benin and Songhai Empires), American (Aztec, Iroquois) and Asian continents including the warlord absolutists who finally produced modern China.


Speaking of Aztecs – who valued human life in such exceedingly low regard that they willingly, enthusiastically – futilely – sacrificed thousands of people annually to their imagined gods of nature – have you really given a moment’s thought to the influence of these “ancient” people on certain of their direct descendants:  bloodthirsty Mexican drug cartel members who regularly and gruesomely murder each other in their unending competition to move tons of drugs northward whereby to enrich themselves at the expense of the stupid gringos who can be depended on to buy their addictive products and ingest them again and again until they overdose and die. Aztec influence is fully as real today as that of Greece or Rome, perhaps more so, even though less acknowledged.


And there they are, another couple of traits that characterize large numbers of homo sapiens across all modern branches: 1) competitive behavior that builds up and becomes 2) aggressive violence-prone competitive behavior. But wait…the book’s title reminds that our subject is Mindsets.  What are we doing here? Why are we doing it?


What are we doing here? Why are we doing it?

After exploring mindsets per se in the first chapter, we filtered through our personal mindsets a whole chapter of information about how evolution produced a universeful of significantly well-shaped objects like galaxies, planets and black holes. We then further observed how evolutionary emergence produced life with millions of species, body shapes and lifestyles, at least on this one planet where we are part of the living proof that it happened. This present chapter is telling us what then followed, after evolution transitioned from slow to fast – then faster still – over the most recent ten thousand years.


So are we exploring mindsets or evolution? Assuredly dear reader, the nature of your response, your reaction – your openness –  to these discussions of evolution has something to do with your personal mindsets on:  the universe, which changes very slowly; on life, which changes slowly but a lot faster than the universe; and on human culture which changes at a relatively breakneck speed compared to its antecedents.


Have you ever examined your mindsets before now – I mean, just sat back and really thought about them (I say “them” because mindsets are always plural, you know, you can have one each on ever so many different topics) – thought about which of your mindsets are open, which are closed, and which are…well…unexamined? If you’ve suspected that all this is leading down to some sort of conclusion you’re properly perceptive, but we’re not there yet. There’s ever so much more to explore before arriving at any conclusions.


We need to be at least passingly aware, for example, of the thousand years after Rome fell – that awful back-step in human history when European peoples lived through immensely long periods of abysmal cultural decline and stagnation called the Dark Ages – and then the very slightly less dark Middle Ages. We all should know at least the barest details about how we then emerged into a transition period during which that old medieval door finally closed and another opened onto things wholly new. Beginning the slow rise out of darkness into light, there came to be – in order, but overlapping – a renaissance, a reformation, an enlightenment, and several kinds of revolutions which made a great difference at the time and set us up to become what we are today.


After briefly examining these matters we’ll be less unprepared to scan the most recent three hundred years. Why three hundred? Because it encompasses the Industrial Revolution – a human cultural phenomenon which few people today understand very well and almost everyone ought to understand better than they do. It only happened one single time in human history, and it brings us almost to the present day. But not quite, because the industrial revolution is over, it’s ended, and we’ve all moved on into something else new and awful, or new and stimulating, or new and terrifying, or great, or challenging, or impending end of the world – whichever, depending on your mindset.


After dancing this abbreviated quickstep over the past ten thousand years we’ll finally arrive at the present day. Then and only then can we devote ourselves a tad more intensely to the several (really just a few) categories of human culture right now in the present day that you really must perceive in moderate depth – though so few do – if you’re going to deal with mindsets. And deal with them you must – your own mindsets, the mindsets of other nice people probably as well intentioned as yourself, and the mindsets of still other people who are far less well intentioned than the rest of us.


These latter and their tightly closed mindsets assuredly are going to kill all the rest of us, including specifically you and your children and their children, if all – ALL – amongst us just don’t get it about this mindset thing. Perspective on these matters is everything. I repeat, everything. So, after fourteen billion years of universe building, four billion of life-species building, 200,000 of homo sapiens building, 10,000 of civilization building, and 6,000 of recorded history building including a most recent two thousand of severe discontinuity in the upward emergence of everything, let’s get started on establishing right perspective for this final approach to the present day.


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Dark Ages, Middle Ages

Many historical scholars accept that, generally speaking, the Middle Ages lasted from the fifth century (476 fall of Rome) through the fifteenth century – another of those “thousand years” numbers, easily remembered. But of course other scholars quibble over beginning and ending dates, being of differing mindsets through which to filter the possibly-factual “evidence” on which their several opinions are based.


Strictly speaking, that millennium (let’s call it “close enough”) divides naturally into an early part called the Dark Ages and a later part often called the Medieval Period (though “medieval” also is often used, inconsistently, to name the entire thousand years). The word “medieval,” which simply connotes “very old,” originates from the Latin “aevum” meaning middle age. It was first put into use, retrospectively, in the nineteenth century, though the concept of “middle ages” had long been used to identify those long awful years between Rome’s fall and our eventual emergence back up into…something better. If any person tries to tell you these things are well defined, don’t trust that person.


I shall here manufacture clarity where none pertains inherently by alluding to a half millennium of Dark Ages, when European humanity descended into squalor, mental as well as physical, and a subsequent half millennium I shall call the Middle Ages when their descendants struggled with minor success to rise out of the Dark Age squalor.


The Dark Ages were the cultural and economic decline which followed the Roman empire’s demise – as perceived from the remnants of the empire. One doubts if very much changed for the fairly squalid northern and northeastern Europeans who had never been seriously under Rome’s Mediterranean-centered pale in the first place. In any case, throughout all of Europe post-Roman decline was helped along by incessant petty warfare among strong men of limited aspirations commanding however many malnourished troops they could force into military service, and what passed for an economic system which soon evolved (I hesitate to say emerged) to fit the abysmal circumstances of the day.


The Middle Ages were little distinguished from the Dark Ages except that European culture more or less stopped going downhill and became static for five hundred years during which few things of much importance happened. Everyone perceived life and time as circular – everything that goes around comes around and all is cyclic, nothing ever really changing. And from the perspective of individual lifetimes this was quite true for most of the thousand years (our modern perspective, of emerging from yesterday’s past and leaving it forever behind as we proceed into tomorrow’s future, would not arrive for hundreds of years more). When change finally did arrive the Middle Ages were ended by truly novel developments such as invention of the printing press, of gunpowder, and a serious diluting of the Catholic church’s long absolute control over 99.9% of all mindsets in the European part of the world. Black plague played a supporting role.


Many good histories have been written of these two “ages” and are well worth the reading for more interesting details than are needed here. The main points most worth remembering are the two cultural phenomena which primarily characterize this dismal, static millennium in the human story. These are the progression into complete and interlocking social dominance of religion and economics – specifically, a religious institution called the Roman Catholic Church and an economic system called feudalism.


Religion. The Christian religion declared into dominance by Constantine was the first religion to integrally embody a missionary drive to spread and reproduce (Islam was the second and only other). The metastasizing spread of invading cancer cells is not an unreasonable metaphor, though the well documented zeal of missionaries is seldom described quite that way. Richard Fletcher’s excellent book The Barbarian Conversion describes in great detail how Christianity spread – or, more accurately, was spread – from Rome and a handful of Roman cities outward to the farthermost realms throughout the European continent.


Propagation occurred in two basic ways: 1) simple conversion where the story was told and the hearer believed and was baptized, or 2) by the sword using Roman-like conquest, alliance, guile or whatever worked to persuade the conquered to declare themselves Christian and attend mass and confession or else. The latter method predominated over the former for the simple reason that most introductees to the unfamiliar (to them) claims of Christianity already believed something which they and everybody they knew had learned from their parents, and so they naturally were not ready to just jump into these new and unfamiliar beliefs as quickly as the missionary Christian soldiers would have it. Unsurprisingly given the sword method’s dominance, the job was pretty much completed well within the thousand years, and all Europeans professed to being Christian – which of course meant Catholic because no other kind of Christianity existed, yet.


Economics. “Feudalism” refers to a merged economic-social-religious-military system that evolved to dominate Europe roughly between the eighth and fifteenth centuries which worked generally as follows. A “king” – which is to say a top-dog strong man who usually claimed to be hand picked for the role by God – held, and “thus owned,” all the land in his king-dom after he had wrested that land from previous owners whom he could whip in battles. Battles, plural, were never ending. In order to hold onto his kingdom and his power over all the land in it, he made a deal with slightly lesser strong men, usually called “lords” or “nobility,” whereby he would let them lord it over some sections of his kingdom in return for their promising to provide troops every time he wanted to steal more land or defend the land he had already stolen or inherited.


Since he was the despot he was by virtue of having proved himself stronger than all the other would-be despots, all concerned regarded this as a pretty good deal and lent their support – except when, with great regularity, one or more of his subject lords tried to kill him, take over the land and become king in his stead. This sort of thing was routine, thought normal by pretty much everybody, and not considered bizarre at the time.


In turn, each noble lord would let the next tier down – known as peasants, villeins or serfs – live as tenants on the land and eke out a slave-like living while paying him homage, giving him a hefty share of their annual produce, and further owing him a number of days labor each year including service as soldiers whenever he might need troops in response to the king’s demand or his own ambitions. As part of the deal the lord promised the serfs protection from whomever might harm them, not counting himself, though this generally meant organizing them into platoons to fight for their own defense under the command of the lord’s mounted knights or non-commissioned thugs by whatever name. Such petty fairly constant battling invariably was waged in the name of Christianity with the blessings of Church hierarchy in collusion with whichever scheming noblemen best advanced Church interests.


This religio-economic system worked well for many hundreds of years, and there were no options. The top one percent of kings and aristocracy came and went while the ninety-nine percent of peasant-serfs bred and multiplied except when their numbers were pushed back down by disease, exposure, incessant toil and death in military conflict. Peasants might as well be satisfied with this arrangement since their unwritten “contract” was for life and by law they were not allowed to move from the laird’s land.


After long centuries change came and Europeans emerged into something new which – unlike all previous human presence on the earth – would connect directly to the present day. The change was helped along by the black plague which decimated European populations multiple times during the millennium. Not unlike Ghenghis Khan unintentionally hastening the civilizing of Europe with his murderous depredations, plague repeatedly so reduced the supply of living people available to do the work the lords needed for maintaining their status that skilled workers actually began to gain some respect and bargaining power for better wages and living conditions. This hastened the decline and fall of feudalism. Control over others moved somewhat from the owners of capital to the workers who actually produced useful goods and services, one might say.

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…to be continued in one week…


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