The Middle Ages Case Study

The Middle Ages

Dr. C. George Boeree


In Georgian: შუა საუკუნეებში (translated by Ana Mirilashvili)The Dark Ages

Sometime after the fall of Rome, we come to the Dark Ages.  Most of Europe was decentralized, rural, parochial.  Life was reduced to the “laws of nature:” The powerful ruled, while the powerless looked only to survive.  There was no sense of  history or progress.  Superstition and fatalism prevailed.  Belief in the imminent end of the world was common every century.  You can get a fair approximation to European life in dark and early middle ages by looking at some of the developing nations of the world, although you would have to take away all signs of  the past thousand years of technological development!

Alcuin (735-804) — Charlemagne’s head scholar — is one of the few names that come down to us from this period.  Other than his Christianity, a glimmer of his view of reality can be gleaned from this quote:  “What is man?  The slave of death, a passing wayfarer.  How is man placed?  Like a lantern in the wind.”

Nevertheless, Charlemagne (768-814) provided a political unity in the form of the Frankish Empire, and the Pope a religious unity, and a new era slowly began.  Eventually, the Church took over Europe, and the Pope replaced the emperor as the most important figure. By 1200, the Church would own a third of the land area of Europe!  The power of the church and its common creed meant enormous pressures to conform, backed up by fear of supernatural sanctions.  But on the positive side, the papacy helped establish stability and ultimately prosperity.

We now turn to what are called the Middle Ages, roughly the period from 1000 to 1400 ad.

The Universities

Universities developed out of monastery and cathedral schools — really what we would call elementary schools, but attended by adolescents and taught by monks and priests.  The first was in Bologna, established in 1088 (see map below).

In  these schools and universities, students began (with the always-present threat of flogging!) with the trivium — grammar (the art of reading and writing, focussing on the psalms, other parts of the Bible, and the Latin classics), rhetoric (what we would call speech), and logic.  Trivium, of course, is the origin of the word trivia — the stuff beginners deal with!

Beyond that, they would study the quadrivium:  arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.  All together, these subjects make up the seven liberal arts.  Liberal referred to the free man, the man of some property, and liberal arts were in contrast to the practical arts of the working poor.