By Michael Sauter
In 1919, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga published his now classic book The Waning of the Middle Ages. In this text Huizinga concentrated on the culture and society of the late medieval Duchy of Burgundy (1361-1477), whose territory comprised parts of what are today northeastern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, with its capital at Dijon. Looking at the art, architecture, and literature of the period, Huizinga depicted an old and tired civilization, trapped in medieval ways of thinking and lacking the energy to create anything radically new. An example is his portrayal of the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, whose art he saw as mired in the meticulous reproduction of detail and burdened by the emphasis on allegory. The medieval inheritance, it seems, left no room for imagination. Let us look at two of van Eyck’s works. First, we have van Eyck’s Portrait of Cardinal Nicolas Albergati (1431). You will note the use of dark colors and the attention to detail. Second, his The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin (1435). Again we see the muted, though rich, colors and the careful attention to exact detail, although this time in the context of biblical allegory.
In Huizinga’s view, it was Italian art that broke free of Christianity’s grip on the artistic imagination by looking back to the ancient world. The Renaissance, or rebirth, was for Huizinga the re-appropriation of classical themes and ideas by a world emerging from the Dark Ages. If you want to see a break with the Middle Ages, Renaissance Italy is your place. Now, let’s contrast Van Eyck’s images with Michelangelo’s The Holy Family (1507), where we see clearly the influence of classical pagan themes, and a much different use of color. If we are to take Huizinga at his word, Van Eyck was no Michelangelo. However true that may be, it still is not clear what this means other than that Huizinga believed the Renaissance began in Italy and not in the Low Countries.
Huizinga’s distinction does not, however, hold up under scrutiny. Despite the stark difference in the styles of northern and southern art, deep continuities run in both directions. On the one hand, Van Eyck’s subject, Albergati, was not only Bishop of Bologna and an Italian, but the latter also commissioned this portrait because Flemish painters were much admired in Renaissance Italy. In particular, the Flemings’ use of color and their cultivation of the ¾ profile had a big impact on the Italian art scene. On the other hand, Michelangelo did not dispense with Christian imagery in his work, as The Holy Family clearly shows. Here we see both the Holy family and St. John the Baptist—most Christian figures all. Moreover, the entire painting is divided into three, with the Christian realm sitting before the pagan realm, which in turn stands before still another unknown realm. Michelangelo blended Christianity with the Pagan past, forsaking neither. This innovation was new by comparison to Van Eyck, but it does not mean that the Flemish school was traditional or hidebound. In fact, historians have come to realize that, if anything, Flemish painters were part of a northern European Renaissance that had its own flavor and interests that were separate from Italy’s. Huizinga’s idea of a north where the Middle Ages persisted, before waning, cannot be applied quite so neatly.
In taking this attitude Huizinga agreed, in principle, with another great historian of the Renaissance, the Swiss Jakob Burckhardt. In 1860, Burckhardt published The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which remains a classic in the field and to which in part Huizinga’s work was a response. Burckhardt saw the Italian Renaissance as the center of the great movement toward modernity, which he defined as a radical break with the medieval past. This break was rooted in a re-encounter with Italy’s classical, pagan roots. In this view, it was the return to ancient political, artistic, and even religious forms that freed the individual from medieval shackles and set Europe on the path to modernity, which brought us such typically modern things as the individual, the state, diplomacy, and war.
So what are we to do with these approaches to history? Although Huizinga and Burckhardt judged the pace of modernity’s arrival differently, both believed that there was a shift away from medieval attitudes and structures over to modern ones. That is, for both men the Middle Ages were something that had to be left behind, even overcome. Medievalists have their own and extremely convincing responses to this dismissive attitude. What I want to highlight in this lecture is, however, the way that contemporary attitudes about what modernity is affect the way that we look at the past. Other historians have disagreed with both Huizinga and Burckhardt about when modernity arrived as well as on what that arrival meant. Some have emphasized Italy’s culture, politics, and art. Others have concentrated on the Reformation, seeing Martin Luther’s break with the church as the moment when the individual was finally freed from the medieval heritage. For these historians, Luther and his fellow Protestant reformers created the modern individual by granting everyone the freedom of conscience. Nonetheless, all of these historians have been searching for this thing we all assume is modernity.
The central issue here is to recognize that historians still generally assume that modernity, whatever its form or origins, arrived. And this leads me to an essential point about the study of history that we can elevate to a general rule: we divide up the past in ways that reflect who we think we are. That is Huizinga and Burckhardt had one vision of modernity that was rooted in the Europe of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, we have a slightly different view, one that is anchord in different experiences, and this alteration will affect the approach I will take in this section of Pensamiento Occidental. We must keep in mind, however, that my approach is only one among many and, moreover, that this approach is as historically rooted as any of the ones I have criticized.
In order to understand this point more clearly let’s consider a basic chronology of European history to which many historians subscribe. It begins just after AD 476, the so-called fall of the Roman Empire, or the official End of Antiquity. (Rome did not really fall, nor did Antiquity truly end, but that is a topic for another history course.) Here are the basics:
(AD 500 – 1000) Early Middle Ages
(1000 – 1350) High Middle Ages
(1350 – 1500) Late Middle Ages
(1500 – 1800) Early-Modern Europe
(1800 – Present) Modern Europe
You will note immediately that these various periods are internally differentiated. There is no longer a single Middle Age, but a series of stages in medievalness. The medieval period was born, rose to great heights, and then died. In addition, modernity is now no longer simply a moment, but comprises two different stages that serve more as compromises in terminology than as real things. Who knows? If and when post-modernity truly arrives, maybe future historians will divide our modern time up even further. Then we can have early, middle, and late modernity, too.
Now, the point to keep in mind is that these periods are all based on contemporary value judgments. The Early Middle Ages have that name because they are the dark period in between the fall of Rome and the time that most fascinates historians, the High Middle Ages. (Some historians still refer to this early period as the Dark Ages, since the period was marked by chaos and fear.) The High Middle Ages, in contrast, are a bright age for historians, because this was medieval Europe’s cultural, economic, and political apex. Here, Europe’s great cathedrals were built, such as Notre Dame in Paris, its theological systems articulated, such as that of the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas, great battles between kings and popes were fought, such as the Investiture Controversy (1077), and Christianity pursued its longstanding, mutual conflict with Islam in the form of the crusades, the first of which began in 1096. And then, of course, there were knightly tournaments, the cultivation of chivalrous behavior, and all that good medieval stuff that you can read about in 19th-century Gothic novels. The Late Middle Ages began with the plague’s arrival around 1350, and for many (both then and today) everything went downhill from there, as Medieval Europe lost much of its population and with that its economic, political, and cultural vigor. None of these things would return until around 1500.
So we have now reached modernity, and since my section in this course covers the thought and culture of Early-Modern Europe and its offshoots in the new world, I will concentrate on that part of modernity that is called early-modern. The concept early modern finds its origins in the 1920s in the work of a group of French historians that came to be called the Annales School, so named for the historical journal that these historians founded. These historians looked away from political and cultural themes of the sort that Huizinga and Burckhardt emphasized. Concentrating more on economic and social factors, and emphasizing structures of daily life, the Annales School investigated broad economic trends across centuries and regions, as opposed to ideas or particular events. From this perspective the Renaissance in Italy and the Reformation in Germany came to be episodes that dissolved into bigger and deeper structural changes, including changes in land tenure, increases in population, changes in the forms of economic production, and so on. Early-modern Europe constituted, for the Annales, a long period of economic and social change that undermined, though it did not overthrow, traditional medieval social arrangements.
Of course, this annaliste perspective only puts off the problem of modernity. In the current Annales-inspired view, that which separates early modernity from modernity is the great political changes wrought by the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period and the economic and social changes that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Michelangelo was not fully modern, but Napoleon was. (A famous German historian named Thomas Nipperdey began his three-volume history of modern Germany with the words, “In the beginning, there was Napoleon.”) However, since this course ends around 1750, I cannot pursue this distinction, but we need to keep it in mind as we consider more narrowly what early-modernity is. That there was no revolution between 1500 and 1789 in Europe helps us understand what early-modern Europe did not have. Still, we need more, so the question is what did it have?
Put most simply, we begin to see in early-modern Europe trends that will later become distinctively European attributes. The word distinctively is a loaded adjective, because what is distinctive about Europe will be determined, in part, by the structures of other non-European societies. We will discuss one such society later in the course, the Ottoman Empire, as a way to bring additional context to the discussion. Nonetheless, we will begin by looking at what Europe developed. First, between 1500 and 1800 we begin to see the rise of a state apparatus. This is not the same thing as a bureaucracy, which would only truly arrive in Europe in the nineteenth century. Still, in contrast to medieval monarchies, the early-modern state developed techniques that allowed it to project power further into the countryside, particularly in the form of laws and taxes. Around 1500, it was still possible for the majority of people in any region to avoid or resist the state’s encroachment; by 1800, that was no longer the case in much of Europe.
Second, and related to the first point, this state apparatus relied on an increasingly professional and powerful military establishment, not only to extend its power within its own regions but also to increase its power vis-à-vis other states.
Third, the early-modern period saw a general rise in economic activity, especially in merchant trade and manufacturing. By 1800, Europe was immensely richer than it ever had been before 1500.
Fourth, for reasons that are not very clear, Europe overall saw a large increase in population, during these three centuries, which gave the state more people to tax and the economy more consumers to serve.
Fifth, Europe developed many powerful states within a fairly small area, making competition among the various states intense and, on occasion, ruinous.
Finally, in contrast to both the medieval period and most other parts of the world, Europe struck out into the wider world, exploring the oceans and acquiring new territories and great wealth. This encounter with new worlds dominated the early-modern period, changing both Europe and the places where Europeans landed—and, as I sure all of you know, the changes involved were not always for the better.
I have been droning on and on about the early-modern versus modern and medieval periods, but there is still one concept that I have not considered critically, Europe. How many of you have actually stopped to consider just what Europe is? A look at this map makes clear that, in terms of geography, at least, Europe is nothing more than an isthmus of a much greater landmass that reaches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and down to the Indian Ocean, as well as to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. In fact, some geographers have begun to argue that there is no geographic justification for talking about separate regions such as Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. There is only one landmass, and they call it Eurasia.
Does this mean that there is no “Europe”? Well, no. What it means is that “Europe” is now and has always been a cultural construct. The people living in “Europe” have always defined themselves both by what they are and what they are not. You may be surprised how far back both this process and the concept of Europe go. The word Europe derives from a figure in Greek mythology, Europa, the beautiful daughter of Agenor, king of the Phoenician city of Tyre. As the basic story goes, Zeus took a fancy to Europa and kidnapped her, carrying her off to the land that would later take her name. As a later version relayed by the Greek historian Herodotus has it, Asians were offended by the abduction, and one of them a certain Paris responded by making off with a married princess named Helen, thus sparking one of the most famous wars in the history of literature. Herodotus’ spin was shaped by Greece’s later conflict with the great Persian Empire, when a tiny group of city-states faced down a massive Imperial army and navy. The heady nature of the victory led the Greeks to conclude that they as a group were both better and freer than the tyrannical Asians, though the Greeks themselves used the term Persians to describe everybody to the East. And from the time of the Greeks on, “Europeans” thought of themselves as exceptional—better people and freer people. The basic view of Europe as free and Asia as unfree ran right through the modern period as any of you who have read Hegel can attest. This sense of difference began with the European view of Asia and was then brought to European encounters with other regions and peoples.
Initially, Europe only meant the peoples living along the Mediterranean. But this changed as the Roman Empire grew. The arrival of Germanic tribes during the third century AD led to Europe’s progressive expansion northward, with various tribes founding new kingdoms in the sparsely populated northern areas. The creation of a second Roman capital in Constantinople between 326 and 340 sent the idea of Europe eastward, as the Greek speaking half of the Roman Empire spent over 1000 years defending itself against Asians, or so it was thought.
Of course, it is richly ironic that the thing that would make Europe truly “European,” Christianity, was an import from Asia. From the moment that the Roman Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Empire in AD 395, the church began to influence deeply the entire European outlook. To be within the Empire meant being Christian, and medieval history would be littered with tales of forced conversions to the new belief, as Charlemagne’s wars against the Saxons in the eighth century would show.
The link between religion and a European identity became most clear in its conflict with Islam. In 711, the first Muslim army crossed from North Africa into Spain, overthrowing local princes and setting up new political entities as it moved northward. The Muslim incursion was not stopped definitively until 732, when a Frankish army led by Charles Martel turned back a Muslim raiding force at the Battle of Tours. Muslim armies eventually retreated behind the Pyrenees, setting the stage for a long, bloody conflict between Christian and Muslim kingdoms that finally ended in 1492, with the fall of the last Muslim state, Granada.
Together with the Christian Crusades to the Holy Land, the so-called Reconquista intensified the violence and mistrust that has been characteristic of relations between Christians and Muslims up to our own day. Consider the Song of Roland, an epic poem first composed around 1100 about a supposed battle between Christian and Muslim forces in southwestern France. The importance of Christianity to the European identity is clear in the poem’s description of the Saracen general Baligant:
What a great man! The fork of his legs immense,
The hips narrow, and the ribs broad and large,
The chest on him big and muscled like a lord’s,
The shoulders wide, and his face full of light,
The fierce look on him, his head covered with curls,
that grand white head, white as the summer flower.
How many times has his courage been tested!
God! he would have been great, had he been a Christian!
Or as the poem has the noble Roland himself say:
Pagans are wrong and Christians are right!
The certitude that came with being Christian combined with Greek exceptionalism to make Europe a well-defined cultural sphere that identified its enemies as being, by definition, different and outside Europe.
European fears of outsiders became ever more intense during the Middle Ages. The Mongols invaded Europe in the fourteenth century, subduing Russia and launching severe raids into Poland, Hungary, and Germany. In addition, Islam threatened again, though from the East this time, as the rising Ottoman Empire attacked and finally took Europe’s most significant Christian city Constantinople in 1453. Before it was all said and done, Ottoman troops would be at the gates of Vienna in 1529 and, for the last time, in 1683. By 1699, however, with the Peace of Karlowitz between Habsburg Austria and the Ottoman Empire, it was clear which way the wind was blowing, Europe’s way, and against its enemies.
So as we consider early-modern Europe, we need to keep in mind that we are confronting a civilization still rooted in its medieval past, but that is also beginning to show the abilities, resources, and inclinations that would lead it to strike out into the world in all directions. The results of Europe’s expansion outward changed both Europe and the rest of the globe. Of course, we also need to remember that we are products of that world, too. Thus, looking at early-modern Europe should cause us always to reflect on whom we believe ourselves to be. We’ll begin considering this history at both these levels next time.