THE MIDDLE AGES by Johannes Fried


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A revisionist study of the medieval era as representing a process of consolidation and transformation that eventually yielded the Renaissance.

Thanks to what German medieval scholar Fried calls the cultural prejudices of such Enlightenment thinkers as Immanuel Kant, the Middle Ages got a bad rap as a “childish and grotesque” era when, in reality, it was a period of enormous learning, democratization and secularization. The collapse of Rome spurred the migration of peoples, especially German-speaking, and the gradual consolidation in Europe of the Goths, Franks and Lombards. The meeting of the barbarians, who were devoted to the oral tradition, with the highly literate ancient culture of the Greeks and Romans, instigated “intensive learning processes” and the urge on the part of the invaders to emulate the civilization they had conquered. Fried sees a gradual progression toward a culture of reason, beginning with Boethius’ translation of Aristotle’s Organon and his own Consolation of Philosophy, moving through the highly educated Pope Gregory the Great (who ruled from 590 to 604) and his educational texts at the Byzantine court in Constantinople, and on to the emergence of Charlemagne and the Frankish kingdom via military conquest and Christian religious culture. Indeed, Charlemagne’s hunger for knowledge encouraged literacy and the copying of ancient, especially Latin, texts, further unifying the West. Fried tracks the importance of the Irish itinerant clergy in spreading faith and literacy (especially grammar), the inciting of the Crusades against the regrouping Islamic forces, and the first social contract forged between monarchy and aristocracy, ratified by Charles the Bald in the ninth century. The crackdown on heretical sects (e.g., the Cathars) during a period of intense papal schism helped along the evolution of the elaborate jurisprudential system. Overall, the Middle Ages brought freedom, Fried argues in this passionate but intensely scholarly book (translated from the German), and the desire to know the wider world.

A dense, often ponderous work from a deeply erudite scholar.

Pub Date: Dec. 15th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0674055629
Page count: 590pp
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2014


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