For American readers, Gouguenheim’s title will have a familiar resonance. Henry Adams called his study of medieval European civilization Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres. Adams took Gothic Christianity, as typified in the discourses of Aquinas and Abelard and in the architecture of the Lady Churches, to have begun its flowering in the monastery at Mont Saint-Michel on the French Atlantic coast that also figures in Gouguenheim’s account.
Adams thought of the High Middle Ages as a dynamic, spiritually adventurous, and, in its way, modern period, directly the precursor of our own technically accomplished and intellectually audacious modernity.
Gouguenheim has something of Adams’ view of the medieval world’s clear-sightedness and vigor and he begins by addressing the prevalent méconnaissance of those vital centuries, which in his judgment indeed established the kernel, or rather the “roots,” of our own.
If, “for a long time, the cultural history of Europe in the High Middle Ages was presented in negative terms,” and if “the fall of the Roman Empire associated with the Germanic conquests had, in the course of the Fifth Century of our era, made a brutal rather than a progressive end to antiquity” – or if that is what people thought, Gouguenheim asserts: yet “in reality, recent work in ancient and medieval history has shown that the period of the Fifth to the Eighth Centuries was not so catastrophic, the effects of dislocation while quite real being mitigated by elements of continuity.”
Greek Christendom constituted one such continuity, as already mentioned. It stood in somewhat aloof reserve, but it had the character of a resource capable of responding to western queries.
Gouguenheim cites the fact that educated Latin-speaking westerners, even after Boethius, could command Greek as explaining in large part the dearth of Greek texts in Latin translation between 500 and 1100 AD. But Latin compendia of Platonist and Aristotelian teachings did circulate, as did medical handbooks in the tradition of Galen.
The Latin-speaking Church Fathers thus undertook their reflections “with the help of the logical categories of Greek thought,” such that classical philosophy “impregnated” their arguments as a type of “intellectual matrix.”
One could bolster Gouguenheim’s observations in this regard by a reference to Bryan Ward-Perkins’ recent study of The Fall of Rome (2005), in which he remarks that even among the Gothic usurpers of Roman sovereignty in Spain, Gaul, and Italy, civilized individuals emerged who prized classical learning and did their best to preserve it.
Theodahad (he reigned as Ostrogothic king of Italy from 534 to 536) offers the outstanding case, having been “learned in Latin literature and Platonic philosophy,” even though he “kept his Gothic moustache.”
In Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel, Gouguenheim points out that a Greek demographic presence linked the culminating period of Late Antiquity with the incipient phase of the Middle Ages in the West; and that presence persisted for centuries.
“In the Europe of the High Middle Ages, many regions sheltered knots of ethnic Hellenes: Sicily, Southern Italy, and again Rome.”
These communities supported literate elites, who contributed actively to the Latinate majorities among whom they lived, giving rise to such notable figures as Gregory of Agrigento (born 559), who became bishop in his native city later in life; George, Bishop of Syracuse, killed by the Arabs while on a mission to them in 724; Saint Gilsenus (mid-Seventh Century), a Greek-born monk living in a Roman monastery who evangelized in Hainault with Saint Armand; and Simeon of Reichenau, known as “The Achaean,” who belongs to the Tenth Century.