Last week when we looked at medieval society we saw that the basic “flow” of their civilization ran towards security and stability over opportunity and change. This week we looked at the historical context of this choice, and what other areas of belief may have influenced those choices.
Many of us may believe that we have freedom to make of our lives what we will, that we paint upon a blank canvas. In reality, where we live, when we live, and what happens around us influence us a great deal, sometimes subconsciously. So too, we must evaluate the choices made by the medievals in light of the context from which they emerged.
In the centuries after the fall of Rome, change and uncertainty formed the dominant theme, as the map below indicates.
No one can live like this for long. Wen respite came after the conversion of many of these tribes, it made sense that one would want to create a society where one knew their place for themselves and their children. We see this love of “knowing one’s place” in their cosmology. A few different ideas dominated their view of the cosmos.
In space up and and down is all relative, but we need to find an orientation to make sense of our surroundings. When we look at the sky moderns today would say we look “across” the universe (like the famous Beatles song) at other stars, planets, etc. All of the pictures I remember of the Solar System had the planets in a horizontal line, like this one:
For the medievals one looked “up” at the stars from a fixed position on Earth. Everything you saw stood higher than you, and naturally height conveyed superiority. The Earth occupied a pride of place, in the sense that other planets revolved around it, but what many overlook is that it also occupied the bottom rung of the ladder, a combination of dignity and humility.
Spheres of Influence
Each planet, or section of the universe, had its own sphere of influence, it’s own “part to play.” If you play second chair oboe, you keep your eyes off the music of first chair trumpet. Here is a rough outline of how they saw things:
This concept of “spheres of influence” may have seeped into medieval feudalism, where each noble had their own territory, or “sphere” where they had a large amount of power and discretion. Thus feudal Europe knew little of the problem of political centralization (though they had other problems). I should note that the above picture shows Earth much larger than they believed it to be in reality. Everyone followed Ptolemy’s Almagest which stated that,
The Earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point.
As my colleague Mr. Rogers pointed out, they represented the Earth thematically in relation to the rest of the cosmos, for here is where the drama of salvation takes place.
It is precisely this division and separation that created the overall harmony. Space for medievals brimmed with energy and life, in contrast to the modern view of a great cold void. Sound comes from motion, and it seems that they literally believed in the “music of the spheres,” a grand cosmic symphony created by planetary motion.
Everyone knew their place in the cosmos, and knew that place to have significance.
One can exaggerate the importance of these ideas on everyday life. The path of Saturn would not change the fact that you have pick up your kids at soccer practice. But deep down, surely our view of a vast, linear, and empty universe impacts us. Some of us might echo the French philosopher/mathematician Pascal, who wrote that, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.”
As a brief aside, we note that for the medievals, education involved not just the “trivium” — the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of a subject — but also the “quadrivium,” consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. To see music grouped with these three will strike us as odd. But for the medievals the only way to understand math was to understand music, and so too, astronomy could not be properly understood without knowing music. Music then, served not just to entertain but to teach us about the reality of the universe itself.
Whether they consciously linked their cosmology and their daily life or not, we can see a direct connection between their view of society, though can’t tell if the chicken preceded the egg. Like all societies they had their own system, their own strengths and weaknesses. Whatever its faults, in feudal Europe you knew your duties and what was expected of you, as this text from ca. AD 1200 shows. . .
I, Thiebault, count palatine of Troyes, make known to those present and to come that I have given in fee to Jocelyn of Avalon and his heirs the manor Gillencourt, which is of the castle La Ferte sur Aube; and whatever this same Jocelyn shall be able to acquire in the same manor I have granted to him and his heirs in augmentation of that fief I have granted, moreover, to him that no free manor of mine will I retain men who are of this gift. The same Jocelyn, moreover, on account of this, has become my liege man, saving however, his allegiance to Gerard d’ Arcy, and to the lord duke of Burgundy, and to Peterm count of Auxerre. Done at Chouadude, by my own witness, in the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 1200 in the month of January.
Yes, it could be complicated (but less so that the software contracts we “agree” to). Basically the king ruled at the behest of the nobility, but the nobles owed the king military service. Peasants farmed the land of the lord, but the lord owed them protection and patronage, and so on. The whole of society was a dance of mutual obligation. But just as the Earth could not switch places with Jupiter, so too your station is your station, whatever betide (for the most part).
Next week we will look at those outside the basic feudal structure, the craftsmen and merchants. Until then,