Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Lessons to Learn from The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages (like any other time) had its ups and downs, good times and bad.  I feel that this integral time period in our existence often gets a bad rep...that is, it is often portrayed as the "Dark Ages" in which learning and questioning were "silenced by the Catholic Church" and progress was at a standstill; a time of blood and disease.

But what people often don't see, is that actually the Middle Ages had their fair share of great rulers (think Constantine and Charlemagne), theologians (Dante and Aquinas), literature (The Arthurian legends, Beowulf, the work of Bede and Chaucer, not to mention all the scholars at Oxford and Cambridge, translations into Latin of Aristotle and Euclid) and--contrary to popular belief--scientific advances (the early development of the scientific method and the grounds that later scientists would work off of).

Often times this important era is often written off, but looking back, I think there are several things we can learn from this time period.

Photo from mrgrayhistory.wikispaces.com

1. Don't be Self-reliant
The plagues, famine, and warfare of The Middle Ages remind us all how fragile human life is.  With the knowledge that their lives would be short, the people of the Middle Ages put a strong emphasis on what happens after death and oriented their lives more towards the transcendent.  They understood that there was more to life than just waking up, eating, working, and going to bed and lived each day as if it were their last.

2. Literature and Wide-spread Literacy should be Celebrated and Encouraged
It is true: by the year 1500 the male literacy rate was probably between 10-25% according to A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages.  Today, more than half of countries world wide have literacy rates that exceed 95%.  On a day to day basis I hear kids complain about going to school and how much they hate reading--and I will admit, some Monday mornings it is hard to roll out of bed.  But think about what a gift our literacy is and how powerful it actually is.

Somehow I ended up writing a blog every day and getting readers from all over the world who enjoy taking about books--something that never would have been possible in the Middle Ages even if internet had existed.

3. Have a Servant's Heart
Photo from British
 Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection
Too often today, I see people saying variations of "well I have to look out for my own well-being" or "I would help, but I'm going to be late..." or something like that.  What ever happened to putting others before yourself?  It was written, "there is no greater love, says the LORD, than to lay down your life for a friend."  In just little ways, we can all "lay down our lives" whether it's sacrificing reading time to help around the house or helping someone else when they drop their books even if it's not convenient.  If my family is reading this, they are probably laughing because they know that I don't always succeed in this particular area.  I am not saying by any means this is easy to do, but I think we all should give it a try.

In the Middle Ages, people were dedicated not only to their family, but to their kings and their rulers.  Of course hierarchies didn't always work out (what with the repressive tendencies of certain kings) but when a wise and benevolent king aims to serve the people, the people in turn will learn to serve the king.  Think of Arthur, who although is probably partly mythical, is the very model of this, who was certainly was based around other real-life unnamed rulers of the time.

Practicing serving others can ultimately help us learn how to serve God.

In The Lord of the Rings, Samwise clearly puts Frodo's well being above his own and strives to help him, even offering to carry the Ring for awhile.


4. Be Passionate about your Convictions
Something that really grinds my gears is when people are "passive" or "so-so" with their beliefs.  If you're not sure about what your belief is, that is one thing.  But the people of the Middle Ages understood that some things are (to quote the back of the A1 sauce bottle) "that important".  Think of the martyrs and people who dedicated their lives to their beliefs.  Today, people often compromise what they think is right in order to please others, something that leads to the swaying of morality that is not firmly based in objective truth, but rather in the feelings of a person, which is clearly shaky ground.

5.  Appreciate Beauty
Now you can say what you want about the people of the Middle Ages, but one thing is for sure: they appreciated beauty.  I imagine that one of the joys for the people who in a day to do life lived in poor conditions and worked on the farm to feed their families, was to visit the beautiful churches and see the stained-glass.  I am certain this beauty would uplift their spirits and remind them that, as Sam says, "there is some good in this world."

And here we are, in modern times, to busy looking at screens (I sound like such an old person when I say this: you whippersnappers need to stop looking at your gadgets and gizmos!  I also sound like a hypocrite, I am looking at a screen while I type this...but really, it is essential to make your best effort) to notice the beauty that is all around us: in the sunset, in an elderly couple who still remains faithful and helps each other down the stairs, even in the beauty of a city skyline or country road.
Chartres Cathedral is one of the most beautiful structures in the world.  It was built in the 13th century.
6. Appreciate Sanitation
As well as the very good things from the Middle Ages, there were of course very bad things.  Poor sanitation, for one thing, contributed to disease and abhorrent living conditions for many serfs and peasants.  Today we can look back and recognize how lucky we, in first world countries, are to have safe living conditions and also remember how important it is to help others around the world who do not have access to these measures.

7. Appreciate Different Cultures
Yesterday, I went to a university library and spent six and a half hours reading.  I read all of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all of Chretein de Troyes' Lancelot, Knight of the Cart and got a good way through the Queste of the Holy Graal (all stories, I might add from the Middle Ages!).  For the rest of my time I worked on my Latin lesson. Then I had a pizza for lunch and later that day stopped at a Middle Eastern restaurant to try some samosas.  All the while my sister and her husband were speaking fluent Spanish (what they normally speak at home).

None of those things would be possible in the Middle Ages.  I read English literature, worked on Latin, ate Italian food and later Middle Eastern food and listened to Spanish.  Oh, and I had a banana for breakfast which before our time would be impossible (I don't live in a region that grows bananas and via ship--the common method of transportation in the Middle Ages--they would have rotted before reaching me).

Today we live in a world where all cultures can be celebrated and witnessed at large.  We can learn from all different kinds of traditions and we are the richer for it.  This is something not always appreciated by modern people.

8. Remember the Dignity of Human Life
No documentary about the Black Death is going to forget to tell you about how the graves filled up so fast that humans were left to rot in the streets.  Why is that?  It is to shock you or disgust you?  Possibly.  But maybe it is because this is something we should never forget.  Human life is precious and should never be "left out to rot" whether literally, or figuratively.  People in our society are often marginalized if they are different, don't share the same beliefs, or stand out in any number of ways.  We need to be the Mother Teresas of the world, who fearlessly tend to humans even if they are unwanted by civilization or perceived as threats.  We need to remember to respect the dignity of all human life.



9. Never Scapegoat
The method of scapegoating has been around throughout all of history--blaming your problems on someone else and targeting them out of anger of fear.   Remember how I said not everything (far from it, actually) was good in the Middle Ages?  One of the best (worst?) examples of this was during (again) the Black Death.  It was an immense time of fear and a small number of Christians (acting against the orders of the Catholic Church and general Christian populous, I will add) took to blaming the Jews for the disease and killing them for "poisoning the wells".

Of course this was not based in actual facts but was a way for scared people to take out their fear on innocent people.  This happened again (coincidentally to the Jews) in the 1930s, as the Jews of Germany, Poland, and much of Europe were blamed for the widespread poverty of those countries.  Today we need to remember that whenever you point a finger at someone else, there are three others pointing back at you, or we could have a repeat of the persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages or the Holocaust, later on.

10. Learn to Set Aside your Differences
I often get into apologetic arguments (that is in the classical "debate" sense, not the yelling-hair-pulling type common today).  We talk about matters of morality and law, which I care strongly about.  However, at some point, we need to acknowledge that though the issues are important and should be debated out to find their merits, we are friends and need to remember that it is important to respect our differences.

In the Middle Ages, wars raged all the time only interrupted by rare and short spurts of peace.  However, the Pax Dei, or Peace of God, was implemented during times like Lent and Christmas which temporarily put an end on violence particularly for those not directly involved in the feud such as peasants.  Just imagine trying to implement a system like this in today's world!  Do you really think it would keep Liberals and Conservatives from quibbling or nations from standing off?  We are all called to respect others and keep the Peace of God.
From http://www.cnsng.org/

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When considering what we can learn from a certain period in time, we should sit back and think to ourselves: what will people in the future learn from us?  Will they only learn from our mistakes, or will they try and emulate us?  What kind of legacy do we want to leave?

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