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History of the Middle Ages

Schmidt Number: S-0909

On-line since: 31st May, 2018

Lecture I


18 October, 1904

Goethe has said that the best thing about History is the enthusiasm it arouses, leading to encouragement to like deeds. In a certain sense all knowledge and all understanding have their true value only when they emerge into life. In History, it is necessary to look very far back in order to find the causes of later developments. Just as, to understand individual branches of external evolution — for instance, in building of bridges and roads — we must cling to the fact that these are the fruits of achievements in individual sciences, such as Mathematics and Physics, so also we see everywhere in actual History the fruits of earlier happenings. What comes to expression in our lifetime has its origin in far back ages.

We are now going to study a section of time, upon which many do not care to look back, a time which they would prefer to delete from History as “the dark Middle Ages.” And yet in it we are facing an important section of History — barbaric peoples, knowing nothing of Civilisation and Art, appear on the arena. These tribes, pressed back by the Mongols from their dwelling-place in the Russia of to-day, pushed on far towards the west. We will follow the struggles and destinies of these peoples; then our path will lead us on to the discovery of America, to that point of time at which the Middle Ages merge into the modern epoch, to the time of the great discoveries, when that invention took place which probably had the deepest significance of all, the invention of Printing; the time in which Copernicus gave us a new picture of the world. This evolution led mankind from the folk-migrations to the discoveries of the modern age.

It is much more difficult to point out, in History, the relation between cause and effect, than it is in Chemistry or Physics; for cause and effect often lie far apart.

Not until to-day have men regarded mutual tolerance for the various confessions of faith, as a requisite condition of culture. Yet, as early as the 3rd century before Christ, there existed in India a reciprocal respect and tolerance for the most diverse faiths, as a monument of King Asoka proves. The Christian feeling which sprang up later, in the Roman Empire, shed its influence over the whole of the Middle Ages; but its origin lay neither in the Roman Empire nor in Germania, but in a closed order of the little Jewish race the Essenes. Before we can understand what influence the Middle Ages have upon us, we must first grasp what it is that flows to us from them. An eminent Roman writer, Tacitus, has preserved for us in his Germania, a picture of that race which settled in the Germany of to-day. He describes them as separate tribes, similar in speech, and, though regarding themselves as different races, yet appearing very much alike to the outsider. He found out what was common to them all and gave them the general name of Germani.

Now if we examine the folk-soul of these Germanic tribesmen, we are confronted by the difference between them and the Greeks and Romans. In the construction of their soul-qualities, there is an important chronological difference. Greek culture with its incomparable Art, marks a particular point in human evolution. We saw that before the conquest by the invading Hellenes, there was in Greece a very ancient race, something like the later Germani; these were the Pelasgi, who lived in a community of freedom. After the immigration of the Hellenes, we find two strata of population, victors and vanquished, the contrast of free and unfree. From the folk-migrations and the conquests sprang Greek authority. Hence it follows that only a small section of the population had any share in the assets of culture. Another result was the low value set upon work; even artistic work was considered unworthy of the free Greek citizen. It was through this contempt for work that Greece went under. This culture of the Greeks, unrivalled in many points; was a culture only possible among conquerors. The Roman Empire is a history of continual conquests; when it could conquer nothing more, it went to pieces.

The distinguishing Germanic characteristic impressed itself, in all its component parts, before conquest, and did not allow itself to be subjugated by contact with other races. Its evloution stood firm in face of conflict.

Thus we see the development of the folk-spirit completed in the Greeks after, in the Romans during and in the Germanic before, the great historical struggles. If we are to study their characteristics, we must distinguish more accurately these racial groups in Central Europe. Three races come under consideration. In Spain, France, Ireland and Southern Germany, we find, first of all the ancient race of Celts. They were driven from their original dwelling-place by the Germani. Then came the Slavs, from the East, and forced the German tribes farther back. Thus we find in the Germani, hemmed in by the other two races, a strong intermingling of Celts and Slavonic blood. And this mixture of the Celtic and Slavonic element, influenced the whole culture of the Middle Ages.

When we look back into the far past we see a great and remarkable culture of the ancient Celts. Even to this day the Celtic blood shows itself as active, energetic, mentally alert, inclined to revolutionary impulses. To the Celtic race we owe magnificent poems, songs and scientific ideas. It was the Celts who gave the stimulus for the legends elaborated by German poets in the Middle Ages — Roland, Tristan, Parsifal, etc. This remarkable race has almost disappeared, either pressed farther westward, or amalgamated with the Germanic.

The outstanding features of the Germanic character are courage, the roaming spirit, and a strong feeling for Nature. In it are developed the domestic and martial virtues, practical efficiency and activity directed to useful ends. Hunting and cattle-rearing formed the chief occupations of the Germani; they had only a few simple poems, derived from older races. In its fundamental qualities, the Germanic character remained as it was in the age of barbarism. Within the Germanic element rise the driving forces of a contrasted evolution. A noticeable change took place during the Middle Ages. Greece had developed its sublime Art, Rome its life of Rights, and the concept of the state. The simple Germanic conception of law was based on quite different premises. In Rome, judgment was given on a basis of property-relationships, especially with reference to land or realty. The complicated ideas of justice in the Roman State were derived from the endeavor to bring harmony between the free citizen and the land-owner. All the contention between plebians and patricians, the fighting of the Gracchi, even the party-struggles of the later Republic, were struggles for the rights of the free citizen as opposed to those who gained possession of power because they were in possession of land. Nominally, equal rights in the State pertained to every Roman citizen. Yes, even in the later epoch of the Empire, every emperor possessed nominal rights in the State, because he united in his person, the rights of all free citizens, and exercised them in their stead.

Such factitious ideas were alien to the simple Germanic conception of justice. The special value of free citizenship met with no legal recognition. What evolved from these points of view was club-law, the right of the stronger; he was the mightiest who could make his right felt by force. To begin with, it was physical strength which asserted itself; then everyone must submit and adapt himself to the stronger. The fruit, however, of what was prepared in the Germanic age, appeared later as the right of the free personality, conditioned by nothing but self-acquired proficiency. This is clearly marked in the founding of the Cities. This development of the cities, which took place in the 11th century throughout the whole of Western Europe, presents a significant phenomenon. Whence did they arise? They were founded by those who, feeling themselves oppressed by the land-owners, sought a place where they could enjoy, undisturbed, what they owed to their own activity, to their personal activity. The free citizen of ancient Rome relied upon his title; his rights depended upon it. In the Middle Ages, the title of citizen was of no value; only that counted, which a man acquired for himself. The struggles for independence and freedom which the princes and knights carried on, were merely the expression of a struggle for free personality. It was not like this either in ancient Greece or in ancient Rome. It was a significant transition stage.

Why then did people gather together in the Cities? The reason was, in the first place, a material consideration; they wished to be free from oppression, in order to direct their activity to what was useful, to material gain.

And it was from this city-culture — but not from these new foundations — that there arose in Italy, on the scene of an ancient dying civilisation, the mighty poet-personality of the Middle Ages — Dante. In the Germanic cities, the first inventions were practical: the compass, gunpowder, and finally, the fruit-bearing event of the invention of printing. All this, which led to a complete transformation of conditioins, was born out of the practical achievements of man. At first sight, that may seem very far-fetched, but — as already emphasised — cause and effect in History lie far asunder. An example may illustrate this.

In 1846, Franz Palecky, the Czech historian, referred to the reform movement of the Middle Ages, in his work on the Czech race in the 15th century. Long before the so-called Reformation, this movement was tentatively considering a re-organisation of the Church. Dealing with the Hussite movement most sympathetically, Polacky, who had himself taken an active part in the Revolution of 1848, called particular attention to these currents. In a quite original way, he pointed out in them what had been developed in the days of city-culture. It is a common property of the Celtic, Germanic and Slavonic tribes. If we study the sagas and songs of these peoples, we understand it. They are distinguished form the sagas of ancient Greece and Rome in that they depict what the human heart can suffer, and what redeems it.

This is the feeling for tragedy. Among the Greeks and Romans, the hero of the story was he who was externally victorious, not he, who maintained his soul in uprightness. The heart of the people was always with him who was outwardly favoured by fortune. It was different with the Germanic peoples. The heart of the Germanic and Slavonic races beat for the heroes who externally failed, but whose souls stood firm. They lived in the soul, in the spirit. Heroes like Siegfried or Roland, or the king's son Mark, were extolled in the poems of these races. It is not to the external victories of these heroes, but ih their courage in suffering and failure, their unbowed spirit, that homage is paid. Everything gives place to the rectitude of spirit and soul. In the Imperium Romanum we see courage and consciousness of justice flourishing; in Greece we see Art; but with the Germani, it is the life of the soul that confronts us. They had no images of their gods; no splendid statues, such as the Greeks had. Their souls worked out the images of their gods; deep within their hearts they formed their God.

From this tendency of the races sprang, too, the thought of reformation. To be themselves collaborators in what faith was to be — that is what these people desired. A hundred years before Luther, Wycliffe had introduced a reform movement in England. The folk-spirit demanded that men should take the Bible into their own hands. From this spirit the Huss movement also arose. As far back as the early Middle Ages there were already preliminary efforts in this direction. The Emperor Henry II, of Saxon lineage, who was later canonised by the Catholic Church, demanded an ecclesia non romana. Militz, the inadequately appreciated savant, wrote his book on Antichrist, while pining in a prison in Prague. That which came to light in such demands and movements — the emancipation from external coercion, the spiritual deepening — was claimed by Palacky for the Slavs: he sees the thought of human kindness, as expressed by Herder, represented in the Fraternal Fellowship, developed on Bohemian soil. It lies deep in the nature of the Germanic races to regard an untrammelled organisation as the ideal.

It was neither after, nor during, conquest, that the Germanic character was formed; but the quality which marked it before this time, was maintained throughout this stage, and eventually developed to these ideals. The thought of freedom was evolved during the Middle Ages in spite of all the counter-currents which gave this period the name of “the dark Middle Ages.” If to many to-day the Middle Ages appear as a gloomy epoch, yet it was in the Middle Ages that that was developed which later, the poets sought, namely, the consciousness of freedom, a consciousness for which the 18th century fought bitterly, and with which the struggles of the present day are concerned.

We must free ourselves from the state of coercion which many are still bound to-day, though the consciousness that, as regards the feeling of freedom, all men are equal, has spread more and more. Men have grasped that by right no man can be a slave or a bondsman. To-day man feels himself free by right. But another form of unfreedom, material unfreedom, has persisted. In ancient Greece, the oppressed, the vanquished, the slaves, were unfree. Unfree in ancient Rome were those who had no claim to citizenship, no share in the State. In the Middle Ages men were made unfree by physical force. None of these forms could be maintained; economic unfreedom alone persists.

More and more clearly has the striving for complete freedom of personality shown itself. The ancient Greek valued distinction or race; the Roman, distinction of person; modern man attaches value to capitalism, to a show of wealth. Thus evolution points to the fall of more and more of those barriers which shut the personality off from the outside. Then the ground becomes free for the new ideal. History teaches us that the free man acquires a new value from out the spirit. The man who fulfils the ideal will be he who is freed from all these forms of oppression, he who, released from earthly gravity, can direct his gaze upwards. Only then will Hegel's words become wholly true: “History is the progress of humanity to consciousness of freedom.”




Last Modified: 02-Dec-2018
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