Therefore I will do something which some of you may criticize. Others in former years have appreciated it so much that, following Professor Handy’s advice, I will repeat it at this time, namely to give you, in one lecture hour or so, a survey of the main ideas and trends of the Middle Ages, from the beginning to the end, and only after this will I go into a few great figures and their special discussions. This is an emergency method, because this survey should follow the at least four hour semester course necessary for dealing with the Middle Ages. But it cannot. So you must follow me in what is usually called a sweeping statement. Now I hope it is not sweeping as a statement, but sweeping insofar as it sweeps through the centuries! Now first the basic problem of the Middle Ages, which we find in all its periods: namely, a transcendent reality manifest and embodied in a special institution, in a special sacred society, leading the culture and interpreting the nature. This is medieval though t– a transcendent reality embodied in an institution in time and space, leading all cultural activities and interpreting the relation of man to nature.
If you have this in your mind, you can understand everything going on in the Middle Ages. If you have not, you cannot understand anything, because then you measure the Middle Ages by our own measures of today, and this the Middle Ages do not admit. When you come to distorted pictures, you come to the judgment that the Middle Ages were “dark ages” and we are the illumined ages, and we look back at this period of terrible superstition with a kind of contempt, etc.
But nothing of this is true! The Middle Ages were one form in which the great problem of human existence in the light of the eternal was solved. The people lived in these thousand years, and they lived not worse than we live. in many respects, and in other respects they lived better than we do. So there is no reason to look back at the Middle Ages with any form of contempt. But on the other hand I am not a romanticist. I don’t want us to measure our situation with measures taken from the Middle ages, as does all romanticism.
The Middle Ages are not so united as our ignorance about them makes us regard them. They are very much differentiated. We can distinguish the following periods: 1) Ca. 600, which we all should know as the date of Pope Gregory the Great, in whom the ancient tradition was still alive, but in whom already the Middle Ages started.
From there to ca. 1000, we have 400 years of preservation, as much as could be preserved – which was comparatively little – and of reception, in the tribes which ruled Europe (the Germanic-Romanic tribes.) It was the period of transition from the ancient to the medieval world. It was a transition which sometimes, in contrast to the real Middle Ages, is called the Dark Ages, especially the 9th and 10th centuries. But they were not so dark as they seem, and great things happened there which prepared a new world out of which we all come, even if we have forgotten it.
2) The second period if from 1000-1200, when new, original forms developed, decisively different from the ancient world. It is the very creative and very profound period of the early Middle Ages, artistically represented by Romanesque art.