Thursday, June 27, 2013

Interview with Michael Frassetto, Author of The Early Medieval World: From the Fall of Rome to the Time of Charlemagne

How does the early medieval world differ from the classical world and the later Middle Ages?

The early medieval world differed in a number of ways from the ancient and later medieval worlds. It was much more rural than the ancient world; cities virtually disappeared in the early medieval world and the literate and urban culture associated with ancient Rome vanished. The early medieval world was an increasingly Christian world, unlike the polytheistic world of antiquity, and its primary cultural center was the monastery. Politically, the early medieval world was ruled by kings rather than the emperors of antiquity and government itself was understood in more personal terms. In part building upon the traditions of the early medieval world, the later Middle Ages differed markedly from the early medieval world. City life revived in the later Middle Ages and population and the economy grew dramatically. The later Middle Ages experienced a commercial revolution that revived international trade, which had virtually disappeared in the early medieval world. The use of the written word throughout society expanded in the later Middle Ages, new institutions of learning such as the university were established, and the institutions of Church and state grew in power and organization.

What can the early medieval world teach us about our modern world? Are there any similarities?

It has often been said that the past is a foreign country, and this is no more true than in regard to the early medieval world, which had a worldview that is fundamentally different than the worldview held today. Having said that, it must be noted that the early medieval world has much to teach us today. People of the early medieval period left an important legacy in terms of spirituality and religious belief and practice that can provide comfort and important insights to many people today. Early medieval rulers faced numerous challenges of governance and had to create new institutions of government that could help guide modern political leaders. The early medieval world was also one of surprising diversity as peoples with a wide range of cultural practices, languages, and traditions came to create a new social order out of the old Roman Empire, and lessons in our own increasingly diverse world could be learned from our medieval forebears.

What do you think is a common misunderstanding about the early medieval world?

The most common misunderstanding of the early Middle Ages is that it was a “dark age.” Although the early medieval world suffered decline in population, city life, and other areas, it was a period of important cultural transformation and growth. During this period, Europe underwent a process of Christianization, and it was during the early Middle Ages that the Christian, Roman, and Germanic traditions merged to lay the foundation for later European civilization. Important institutions such as the papacy and monasticism took shape during this period, and influential Christian and encyclopedic texts were written. There was also a series of cultural revivals, most notably the Carolingian Renaissance in the eighth to ninth centuries, that produced important artistic works and literary texts. The Carolingian revival was most important for the later development of European civilization. Many ancient classical and Christian works were copied and preserved by Carolingian authors who also wrote works of history, biography, theology, and law. Carolingian artists lavishly illuminated these texts with dazzling images that borrowed from earlier Christian and Roman works of art.

What are some of the contributions the early medieval world gave to us?

The early medieval world has left a number of important cultural artifacts. The Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels are two beautifully illuminated manuscripts from the early Middle Ages, and Carolingian artists produced a number of equally beautiful illuminated manuscripts. The standard version of what became the Catholic Bible took shape during the early medieval world. Carolingian scholars preserved much of ancient classical and Christian literature; the earliest surviving copies of nearly all ancient Latin manuscripts were made by Carolingian scholars in the ninth century. The Code of Justinian, which shaped European legal and judicial traditions, and the Rule of Saint Benedict, which defined the practice of religious life into the modern era, were creations of the early medieval world. Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen, Theodoric’s mausoleum, and the Hagia Sophia are among the great architectural monuments created during the early Middle Ages.

In working on the book, did you discover anything particularly surprising or interesting?

One thing I discovered is the wide range of truly interesting personalities that lived during this period. The people of the early medieval world are a fascinating group of scholars, holy men and women, and political leaders. Many of them are interesting because of their courage and integrity and others are interesting—perhaps more interesting—because of their ruthlessness and quest for power at any cost. I was also surprised by the incredible creativity of the period during which society went through a profound transformation. New forms of religious life developed, and kings and other political leaders devised new ideas about political power and created new forms of government. Patterns of daily life were transformed and new social institutions developed. And although I have long known this, I am continually surprised by the literary and artistic creativity of this period that includes the great achievements of the Church fathers, Carolingian Renaissance scholars, and many other early medieval writers and scholars.

Michael Frassetto, PhD, teaches medieval and world history at the University of Delaware, La Salle University, and Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He has published numerous articles on medieval religious and social history. Frassetto is author of The Great Medieval Heretics: Five Centuries of Religious Dissent and editor of Christian Attitudes toward the Jews in the Middle Ages: A Casebook and Heresy and the Persecuting Society in the Middle Ages: Essays on the Work of R.I. Moore

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