Europe was a Backwater

By the time the network of European universities began, with the opening of the University of Bologna in 1088 A.D., the store of human knowledge was already old. The invention of writing had been accomplished 4000 years earlier in cities of Sumer, in the southern region of the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Although individual life is brief, the culture of literacy permits access to a stack of experience that extends back to that beginning. At that time and for long to come Europe was a primitive backwater on a remote and isolated peninsula. It accomplished little on its own but benefited greatly from the gradual spread of advances from Asia.

There is a long historical process of European communities benefiting from more advanced cultures in the east. The first city societies were formed in very ancient Mesopotamia. The temple cities there based their agricultural calendar on careful observation of stars and planets. Agricultural calendar administration was one of the centralized functions of scribal schools. Records were accumulated and calculations developed to predict the arrival of the annual river-flood, which was crucial for the timing of planting and other agricultural functions. There was a sacred and ritualistic character to agriculture. The idea of observing and recording natural phenomenon and thinking about them with the goal of reaching a deeper understanding seems to have been important in that civilization. Development of astrology reveals a practice of careful observation of natural phenomena and systematic recording of observations. They developed mathematics and writing. Great cultural energies had thus been concentrated to sweep like tornadoes through subsequent societies. Cultural sophistication and literacy attracted attention. Mesopotamian wisdom swept outward from its cities of origin and inspired imitation near and far, in the Indus Valley, in Egypt, Crete, The Hittite realm, and in Greece.

We recognize the brilliance of the intellectual life of ancient Greece, at the eastern edge of Europe, but the proximity of the more ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Minoan Crete was indispensable for Greek development. Europe was a remote peninsula. On its eastern edge, near but not too near the influence of high civilizations from an earlier epoch, Greece engaged in a wonderful episode of creation and thought, and enthusiastic waves of Greek colonists sailed off to form new cities east across the Aegean, north to the shores of the Black Sea, west across the Adriatic to southern Italy and Sicily, and then at a string of sites along the north coast of the Mediterranean as far west as Spain. Eventually this upstart outpost of culture, naturally oriented toward the cultural radiation from the east, conquered the heartland of civilization within the territories of the Persian Empire and Egypt by the agency of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) of Macedon.

Rome: The Rise and Fall

Farther west into the wilderness of Europe another cultural outpost was emerging at Rome, home of the Latin language. Eventually this new upstart, naturally oriented toward the east, conquered Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean coastal region. Roman conquests surrounded the Mediterranean and spread tentatively north and west. Further west of Rome the cultural sophistication was still relatively primitive. The Romans colonized intensively north to the Danube then west from the Rhine to the Atlantic and even onto the island of Britain to a northern boundary marked by Hadrian’s Wall. (Hadrian was Roman Emperor from 117 to 138 A.D..) That Roman movement to the western limits of the European peninsula caught the attention of nomadic peoples beyond the borders. Much of Germany remained beyond the direct influence of the ancient Mediterranean culture and economy, and eventually served as a base from which migrations of peoples swept into the western territories of Rome’s empire and overwhelmed the economic and cultural systems there. Under the stress of large scale migrations of Goths, Franks, Vandals, Alans, Angles, Saxons, and other tribal peoples to settle among and control the now Latinized population, that western region, including Italy and the city of Rome itself, had to be abandoned to the invaders. Most of the abandoned territory was still sparsely settled, without cities of importance beyond the immediate locality, and those few and far between in the primordial wilderness of forest and bog. The capital of the empire moved east to Byzantium, later called Constantinople, to a region still under the influence of Greek culture, but now severed from ancient Greece by both a Roman-identified ruling class and the dominance of Christianity.

Although the Roman empire in the west was erased by what has been called an external proletariat, there were also internal class conflicts in classical societies. For example, the hundred-year struggle between patricians and plebeians in ancient Rome achieved a brittle truce arrangement by around 300 B.C. by means of the addition of some political representation for plebeians. The class struggles of ancient Greece, in Athens and Sparta for example, are also well documented. Ancient societies incorporated a dependence on slavery into their economic functioning, and that remained even after the broad adoption of Christianity.

The society of the fallen west was not far above subsistence agriculture as developed originally in the bronze age, but there was some access to special resources which accelerated economic and cultural development. “Romance” languages in France, Spain, and Italy demonstrate that a great deal of Roman culture survived on the level of local folk-culture. “Vulgar” Latin is the foundation of all those languages. There was also the surviving eastern chunk of the Roman empire, the most populated and culturally accomplished part, now the empire of Byzantium. The society of the fallen west had close encounters with that culture during the Crusades. Ancient Mediterranean civilization continued there, although changed by official conversion to Christianity, and truncated more and more by losses of eastern territories. There was soon a new Islamic Empire which included the cities and much of the culture of ancient Persia and Mesopotamia, and by 711 it also occupied the entire south coast of the Mediterranean and the European Iberian peninsula almost to the Pyrenees mountains. That was to be a crucial resource for the backward west. On the local ground of western Europe there were remnants of the works of architecture and engineering accomplished by the Romans, and there was the late-Roman religion of Christianity which maintained an officialdom which was devoted to literacy in Latin. Related to that elite of literacy were institutions which preserved libraries of selected literature from antiquity. From those resources there was large-scale cultural regeneration.

European Christendom as an organized community was forged in the aftermath of the violent breakdown of Roman imperial institutions, and mass influxes of peoples from beyond the reach of the classical city-centered culture of ancient Greece and Rome. Medieval societies in Europe were conscious of living in a civilization reduced in wealth, power, and sophistication from the greatness of the Roman Empire. They were aware of living in a fallen world in another sense also, derived from Christianity, a human world in exile from the Garden of Eden. As the latest and greatest road builders had been Roman imperialists, it was still the case that all roads lead to Rome, and that gave the Bishop of Rome crucial advantages in communications and in exercising influence. Rome was still Europe’s head office both in cultural memory and in physical infrastructure. Medieval Europe was always in the process of being made into a Roman Church theocracy. The process was never entirely successful against centrifugal forces such as local forms of religion and independent minded war-lords, but the Church of Rome had substantial success in exercising hegemony.

Focus One: Christendom as a Reality Construct

Ever since human communities began to abandon the nomadic life of gathering and hunting and accumulated surpluses of vital resources, wonders of physical culture, and records of wisdom, their outlying surroundings of conservative nomadic peoples were drawn in to loot. Certain nomadic tribes devised ways of surviving by animal herding and husbanding and turned those techniques of parasitism onto communities of human farmers. Social control by landowning aristocracies, by military-estate families, derives from that innovation. An important part of the attraction of looting is to avoid having to live by daily work. A whole system of masculine pride was bound up in the ideal of living by looting other people’s work. It was the high point of accomplishment to murder rival males, destroy what property could not be used and take possession of the rest, including women. Looting is inseparable from mass murder, rape, and enslavement, and these are important attractions of war to the present day. A remnant of the romance and pride of looting exists still in the glorification of trophies won in competitive sport and fortunes won from financial speculation. It has been a slow and fragile process for human societies to conceive accomplishments more impressive than looting. Empire building is nothing more than sustained looting.

Collective identity, personal identity, means of livelihood, and the distribution of autonomy, all have to be understood in the context of stark inequality between a class of people able to live from ownership and a class of people who have to live by working. Every individual’s class identification is culturally assigned on the basis of his or her means of making a living.

There are philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau who expressed nostalgia for an imagined pre-modern closeness to nature, but the religious and literary record shows since ancient times a pervasive sense of nature as a place of exile for humans where we are marooned but which we transcend in a deep hidden reality. That narrative was at the core of Christendom, which thought of itself as a universal City of God which unified all local ethnic, political, and linguistic cultures within a spiritualized continuation of the Roman empire. In the rural/ agrarian middle ages of Europe, the Church of Rome mediated between the estate-owning military ‘aristocracy’ and a working peasant class by enforcing a spiritual collective focused on the Church’s narrative of transcendence, its magical sacraments and relics, its priestly hierarchy, its art and architecture. It was difficult for anyone in that society to think beyond the Church’s narrative of transcendence which trivialized the actuality of brutal social inequality by emphasizing justice in an afterlife-world. That was the ‘reality construct’ of Christendom, and it still maintains considerable influence. The personnel of the Church functioned as the literate mediating class, schooled in the fine points of the narrative, the middle class in that sense, of Medieval Christendom.

Blows to the Credibility of the Christian Construct

Justinian I was Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565 A.D., and his role in providing curriculum materials for future western universities was momentous. Justinian commissioned a systematic compilation and codification of Roman emperor-made laws beginning from the time of Hadrian. It was published in twelve books by 529 A.D., and later supplemented with collections of ‘common law’ legal decisions, commentaries, legal theory and training materials, to form an organized legal canon in Latin, the Justinian Legal Code. An edition of that canon was discovered in Italy late in the eleventh century and inspired founding the first university, the University of Bologna. The University of Bologna was opened in 1088, three years after Muslim Toledo was captured by a European Christian commander, Alfonso VI. The libraries of Toledo contained Arabic translations of philosophical and scientific texts from ancient Greece which were unknown in Christendom, but which would soon shake literate culture there, as those texts were translated into Latin and incorporated into materials for university study.

Medieval Christendom was supposed to be a singular collective transcendency within the Roman Church. However, the Church was directed and managed by people who normally came from ‘aristocratic’ military-estate families and also partnered with the wealthiest and fiercest of those families in the project of social control. Captains of the Church also claimed the privileges of aristocracy, and so were thoroughly corrupted by bias in their claims to legitimacy as social unifiers. That perfidy of the Church inspired a spiral of revolt from around the time of Wycliffe and the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

There was a gradual breakdown of the credibility of the Christian reality construct under the weight of Church failures (the great plague) and development of knowledge of the wider world, with its richness of alternative lives and interesting secular vistas and opportunities. Secularism developed as a generally increased complexity of knowledge and access to the broader world. Philosophical ideas, technological innovations, and physical conditions such as disease and climate change also contributed. The failure of the reality construct of Christendom sent the Euro-American system of cultural connectedness drifting toward modernity in which the singular book-of-the-Church was replaced by a literature ranging over a broad landscape of thought. The story of the world became an alternative mental organization to replace the Christian story.

Christendom could not isolate itself from the rest of the world or from natural processes beyond its understanding, and it could not prevent a breakdown of the rural-agrarian economy due to the spread of money, population expansion, the cultural stimulation of cities, and increased knowledge of the superior accomplishments of eastern civilizations. Consequences of the Crusades, for example, included European discovery of the superior intellectual culture of the Islamic east. Contacts with the empire of the Mongols in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries brought awareness of the commercial and material superiority of China. Those unanticipated events had natural, cultural, and psychological consequences that gradually reshaped the medieval social order. In particular, two sub-cultures went wildly beyond the control of medieval sovereign elites for several centuries. The two sub-cultures in question are literacy and commercial entrepreneurship, both inspired by the cultural superiority of the middle east and the far east. The Black Death plague of the mid-fourteenth century (spread from central Asia) undermined the Church’s claim to be the good shepherd protecting the human flock by mediating between sinners and a violent God. There was ongoing loss of faith in the supernatural protection of the Church.

The Worldly Coup

What burst through and succeeded Christendom was a patchwork of more localized jurisdictions and ethnic-nations with some crucial fundamentals in common, most prominently the rule of monarchies emerging from within the military aristocracy. The theocratic authority of the Church of Rome encountered competition from those rural-military private property hoarders. In the roughly 250 years between 1534, when Henry VIII officially replaced the Roman Church hierarchy as supreme power in England, and 1789, when George Washington took the oath of office as the first president of the U.S.A., and the French rose in revolution, we see the rise and fall of regional aristocracy, sometimes in the form of nation-state monarchies. That style of sovereign supervision developed alongside Protestantism without being identical to it. Niccolo Machiavelli (1467-1527) advocated a rejection of the Church as senior universal supervisor, and supported claims by more local and secular power-holders to legitimacy as social supervisors on their own turf. There were efforts to stabilize a new reality construct based on “the divine right of kings”, which demonstrates how the idea of divine prophets still served as a template of sovereignty, even when those claiming sovereignty mainly carried and expressed the ancient culture of looting by organized violence. The legal and financial reach of official organization around monarchies provided some legitimacy to monarchy’s claim to mediate between the working class and the military-estate overlords.

Nationalism had not been an important feature of life within the Roman empire or in Christendom, which was a kind of spiritualizing of the empire, Augustine’s City of God. Of course people generally feel a loyalty to family and clan or tribe, but nation states are cobbled together in the game of military-estate families. There is no fundamental ethnic unity to the nation “France” or “England” or “The U.S.A.” for example. Inspiring devotion to such arbitrary abstractions requires heroic myth making. Some national myths turned out to be as attractive as religions. Even where secular engines of social supervision remained local or regional, the papacy and Church hierarchy lost influence and control to aristocracy between 1534 and the French Revolution of 1789.

The aristocratic seizure of power from the Church had consequences for the organization of society and the communal experience of most people. The Church remained a powerful force of social control, demoted to junior partner. The rise in importance of secular jurisdictions meant that secular authorities had to be given more reverence than previously. There emerged that other layer of community identity between each person’s strict locality and the vastness of Christendom. It required development of a new system of popular emotional devotion, this time to a semi-secular-state. Otherwise the rural-agrarian form of society remained much the same as during High Christendom, even though the economic and cultural forces mentioned earlier were quietly building. There was a lag in training people to fanatical patriotism/ loyalty with the emotional attachment characteristic of religious devotion. Some countries carried it off more grandly than others.

The great sea-voyages by which European Christendom discovered planet-Earth-as-a-whole were quests for commodities of trade and for routes over which commodities and luxury goods could be moved better for commercial purposes. The Islamic Ottoman empire took possession of Constantinople by armed force in 1453, which made overland European trade with the far east dangerous and uncertain. The event was experienced by Christendom as encirclement of its eastern and southern flanks by a hostile threat, and as such a major spur for expansion from the western rim. European nations on the Atlantic coast were now advantaged by opportunities offered by ocean-crossing ships, where previously the Mediterranean coastal regions had been advantaged both culturally and commercially. With this first wave of globalization, capital accumulation expanded beyond real estate into luxury goods trade and finance on a transformative scale. Also important in the European discovery of America in 1492 was the mythic presence of America as a “blank slate”, a new beginning, a place of opportunity for the disadvantaged. That changed the myth or cluster of ideals animating Western culture, partly by further distracting popular interest from the narratives of aristocracy and religion.

Until about 1453 with the fall of Constantinople, the momentum in culture, population, and wealth remained on the ground of ancient Roman and Greek civilizations, the north coast of the central and eastern Mediterranean. After the discovery of America in 1492 there was a major geographical shift in the cultural energy of European society. With discovery of the New World, energy and initiative went west, and for the next 500 years the European countries with most Atlantic coastal exposure became centers of economic and cultural investment and expansion, and the engines of European wealth. The great Old-Regime monarchical states of France, Spain, Portugal, and Britain blossomed from that energy. Emergence of nation-states is cited as a defining development of the Old Regime, but “unification” of Germany, Italy, and most other modern states occurred much later. “The rise of nation-states” is code for a new set of reality constructs in which national monarchs claimed to mediate between workers and the ownership/ exploiting class, with God’s blessing and support.

Johann Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, introduced the printing press into Western culture around 1442. Gutenberg’s first printed book appeared in 1457. The printing press enabled the slow blossoming of a culture of written conversation outside churches and universities and independent of them, the ‘Republic of Letters’. In spite of the fact that Germany was peripheral to both the classical and the Atlantic seacoast engines of wealth, Germany has had enormous influence on European culture since Gutenberg. For example, credit for beginning a modern post-theological philosophy is usually given to Rene Descartes (1596-1650), but Descartes and the rest of modern philosophy is understood better as footnotes to the the work of Martin Luther (1483-1546). Germany was the centre of the protestant reformation which sent waves of influence through the entire European social and cultural system and changed forever its character and direction of development. The reformation rejection of Roman authority flourished in the region of Europe which had kept beyond Roman authority, and Roman roads, in ancient times. Germany suffered horribly for Protestantism. The Thirty Years War (1618-48) brought armies from all over Europe to loot, destroy, and do battle on German ground. That war caused more loss of life in Germany than the Great Plague of the fourteenth century. Recovery took more than a century.

Literacy’s Spiral of Revolt

The history of John Wycliffe (1328-84) and his Oxford university disciples, the Lollards, illustrates tensions playing out between monarchy/ aristocracy and universities. Oxford fell into disrepute after the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 because Oxford Lollards were blamed for helping to inspire the revolt. Wycliffe’s mission of universal literacy was the future, however. In a sense it was the university bursting out from campuses and conquering the world.

Although two events of the “spiral of revolt” are known as The English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the German Peasants’ Revolt of 1524-25, they did not occur in a cultural vacuum. Each was inspired by a Christian intellectual innovator, first Wycliffe, then Martin Luther, both campaigning for universal vernacular literacy. In Medieval society intellectual culture was mainly concentrated within institutions of religion, but Wycliffe and Luther put a novel emphasis on individual innocence as opposed to trained and educated sophistication. Such religious controversies were translated into social movements which included armed revolts by groups made up mainly of peasants. No doubt those revolts expressed long-seething rage in peasant experience against the supervisors of their society, aristocracy and the Church hierarchy.

Two more noteworthy events in that spiral of revolt were the uprising of Bohemian Hussites 1400-25, and the English Lollard uprising headed by Sir John Oldcastle in 1414. John Huss (1369-1415) was a Czech theologian who came under the influence of the writings of John Wycliffe and inspired a large following. In 1420 Pope Martin V proclaimed a Crusade against the Hussites. Their heroic survival against the destructive might of the Church made a deep impression on many including Martin Luther. Incidentally, it was in the self-defense launched by Hussites against the crusading looters blessed by the Church that, for the first time in western history, gunpowder was used to win battles against large armies centered around armored and mounted knights. The military innovator who devised the winning tactics was Ian Zizka (1359-1424).

Wycliffe’s English Lollards inspired Huss’s Bohemians in and around Prague, who remained a cultural presence involved in the inspiration of Martin Luther and his movement’s dramatic pietistic turning inward for justification by faith alone assisted and supported by personal literacy. The religious schism in Germany championed individualism and proletarian literacy. Luther’s stand against the Church is associated with the German Peasants’ Revolt. A campaign for universal literacy was the foundation of this spiral of revolt which ultimately culminated in the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789.

Within the culture of advanced literacy, renaissance re-discovery of Hellenistic philosophy, notably in Cicero’s writings, inspired both the spread of Greek-style humanism and the “republic of letters” outside cultural institutions. The availability, and spread through broad literacy, of humanist individualism began a new cultural force resisting both top-down collectives and radical inequality. Seventeenth century rationalism asserted a geometry-based affinity between individual powers of rationality and a lawful nature. There was a snowballing appeal of knowledge over theology.

The Big Change

Until the industrial revolution, the main working sector of society was still communities of peasants, with everything invested in gardens. The many revolts of peasants can be understood if they found that other classes of society contributed nothing to them but only exploited and looted them, which seems an accurate assessment. Since the revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a new claim to society’s rewards has arisen from commercial investors, entrepreneurs, and captains of organization. Not only has marketplace planning and adventuring entered the contest, but it displaced land-based aristocracy as the over-dog in the control of labour. That new ruling class developed in the same set of social transformations which shrank the agricultural peasantry and expanded enormously the numbers of urban commercial and manufacturing workers. That set of transformations involved a further loss of the reality construct of European Christendom, also the partial failure of attempts to replace that construct with “the divine right of kings”, and finally the rise of a new reality construct which might be called Euro-American Modernity.

Focus Two: Modern Reality as a Social Construct

In urban/ industrial modernity, although the Church was replaced by a combination of science ideology and institutions of secular states, it is an international literate class of professional engineers, lawyers, accountants, entrepreneurs, and organization administrators which mediates between owners of accumulated capital and proletarian labour. That professional “middle class” functions by providing the capitalist class novel opportunities to derive income from mere ownership, and the proletariat with a variety of opportunities to exchange work for wages. This balancing of class interests is the social construction of modern reality, ‘modernity’. The social construction is the repeated, continually re-imitated activities in which people fit into processes of production and consumption, conversations, and crowds. The professional class made the urban market a practical alternative to traditional rural life in the grip of God and Nature. Knowledge-building literacy, in arrangements with accumulated money, broke through the cocoon of timeless natural cycles, but the literacy-based vision, from the eighteenth century Enlightenment, of the rule of rationality degenerated into modernity from the dominance of money culture.

Be a Scribe

Literacy is the key to middle class effectiveness. The core is knowledge trades built around advanced literacy skills and specialized education, functions that can be characterized in a general way as scribal. Professions are knowledge-trades, and knowledge is always hierarchical, organized around elite possession of arcane expertise. The middle class submits to lengthy training so not to live by body-labour. It lives by knowledge or investments and marketplace ventures, by knowledge of the marketplace. The middle class likes objective markers of accomplishment and self-definition. They become their economic function to build an appearance of stability and respectability. Having invested so much in a particular self-declaration, the nature and degree of personal substance gets stuck in socially defined and socially pre-constructed forms. Conspicuous distinction from less accomplished people, from “the crowd”, is crucial to the reward system.

Knowledge is always hierarchical. All-important knowledge supposedly justifies and requires, for its preservation and eventual fulfillment, a whole structure of social control, hierarchical supervision and obedience, and loyalty or commitment to belonging in the collective. Knowledge is, among other things, a tool for justifying the existence of oligarchy as preserver of knowledge. The delusion that this arrangement perpetuates is that fulfillment in life is achieved from service to the oligarchic supervisory and educational system, from receiving its rewards for service. All persons incumbent as social/ cultural authorities are required to endorse and enforce the myths of an oligarchy based on the unquestionable value of knowledge.

Capital as a money-spinner has been stable since the industrial revolution. Industries change, but market-commerce has continued to grow in fits and starts. A case could be made for the claim that large scale investors and market entrepreneurs have some control of modern cultural drift. Regimented organization of modern life by clock and organization chart, by market incentive and reward, is apparently the soul of modernity. Systems of human effort function like machines, ruled by abstractions, in an apparent triumph of the various counter-revolutionary efforts launched to limit the effects of the French Revolution. Victorian control and cold formalism were among those efforts and were applied to the control of factory workers, so they would be disabled from further revolt.

In modernity the professional middle class is the source of manic optimism from a conviction that the other two classes can be mediated into mutual engagement satisfying everybody economically, and so concealing the ugliness of class injustice which discredits nearly all societies. However, the modern economic machine satisfies superficially without approaching real equality, and the manic optimism is not shared by either the treasure hoarding class or the working proletariat, because each knows that an enemy lurks within the gates. In accomplishing much success in the mediating effort, the professional class is the creative heart of modernity but is biased by dependence on the pleasures of a style of life requiring high-volume consumption, the unsustainable benefit accruing from radical inequality. Although professional families depend on a strong “work ethic” for livelihood, there is an overriding identification with the ownership class, similar to the aristocratic identification of the masters of the Medieval Church.

Copyright © 2012 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.