WESTERN MIDDLE AGES (6th. - 13th.)

Division of the Roman Empire 395

Historical context

Between 70 B.C. and 390 A.D. the preservation and transmission of the Greco-Roman culture were ensured. The Greeks were a source of thought and the Romans offered a stable empire where it could develop. However, the Roman empire began to crumble in the fourth century because of internal conflict and the border harassment of its legions: the countrymen of Gaul rebelled, there were massive migrations of Goths (369), Christian insurgents in Alexandria (391 ), Visigoth, Arab and Hun invasions that occupied the empire's territories, class conflicts between pagans and Roman Christians and economic mismanagement due to the overtaxation of the merchant class, among other factors. The stability of the empire fell into chaos and with economic restrictions libraries and the traditional preservation of culture also suffered. The capital of the Western Roman moved to Ravenna in 408 and the last emperor, Romulus Augustus, died there in 476, signalling its collapse.


However, the Eastern Roman Empire remained intact until 1453. Ravenna was taken over by the Byzantines who ruled the eastern Mediterranean from Constantinople. Cities on the Adriatic remained part of the Empire for several centuries. The Byzantines built the octagonal Church of San Vitale in Ravenna and the Greek cross Basilica of St Mark's, Venice.

Byzantine architecture has classical balanced proportions and differs from the Romans, especially in its predilection for domes. The interiors are covered in mosaics and murals. The Byzantines invented the pendentive, an elegant method of mounting the dome over a square or rectangular space. Instead of building walls over the chamber they filled the spaces between the arches with curved triangles to support the dome.

In Eastern Europe the Roman basilical layout evolved into a central plan, compressing the area into a square topped by a dome. Byzantine architecture was comparatively conservative and changed little during the Empire.

The power of Rome waned, but its architecture remained, though adapted for Christian purposes. Compared with other Christian art it took more time for Christian architecture to develop, because buildings are visible, not hidden. It only began to prosper after Constantine's tolerance proclamation in 313.

During the Early Christian period (200-500 A.D.), the church architects adopted the Roman basilica as the standard design. The basilica was a large rectangular hall covered by a gable roof. The back wall of the basilica often terminated in a semi-circular apse. Light came through a clerestory, a row of windows between the main hall walls and the roof. Basilicas were used for large group activities like political meetings, courtrooms and markets. The presiding person would sit in the apse. The early churches used this basilica style of architecture. (The Catholic Church uses the word "basilica" for historically significant churches. This use is not related to the architectural layout of the church.)

Medieval architecture developed under the 
Carolingian Empire (c.750-900), which built basilica churches in Germanic style, some with added transepts in a Latin cross plan. These buildings increased the height of the church and established towers as a new element, thus pioneering the aspect of entrances, flanked by two towers. An example is Corvey abbey (Germany), founded between 815 and 822 by the Emperor Louis in memory of the plans laid by his father Charlemagne:

The development of Carolingian architecture led to the Romanesque style (c.1000-1200) which unified western architecture. These churches added decoration, particularly on the tympanum, the semicircular space above a door or window. They also replaced the traditional wooden roof beams with stone vaulting. 

The Gothic style (1200-1500) became possible when the weight of the vaulted roof was supported by pointed arches, rib vaults, piers and flying buttresses. This allowed the architects to design the tallest buildings, previous to the industrial revolution, while constructing slender, light-filled buildings. Compared to the Romanesque rounded arch the Gothic pointed arch redirects weight with precision, permitting thinner columns. Walls and huge columns support the weight of a Romanesque church; the Gothic church is supported by exterior buttresses. This means that the Gothic nave walls can be thinner and contain large stainedglass windows.

Christian literature in Medieval Europe was written in Latin in the West and Greek in the East. The main subject of interest was theology whose goal was to analyse Christian beliefs in order to explain the truths of God, humanity and the universe. The research was based on Scripture, Early Christian thought, principally Augustine of Hippo and classical philosophy: Plato (early theology) and Aristotle (later theology).

Charlemagne started the Carolingian Renaissance (c.750-900), which expanded classical scholarship, education and literacy. He commissioned scholars, like the Englishman, Alcuin, the Irishman, Dungal,  the Lombardian Paul the Deacon and the Visogoth Theodulf, for the renewal effort. 

There was a revival of secular subjects, too: grammar, rhetoric, music theory, mathematics, astronomy, law, medicine, and practical fields such as agriculture, manufacturing or navigation. 

Secular medieval literature was composed mostly in vernacular languages in the preferred medieval genre, heroic legend. However, many other types of narrative poetry and prose stories existed such as fairy tales, biographies of saints, Christian allegory, remakes of classical mythology and satire.

Medieval creative literature reached a peak in epic legends, divided into two groups: 

- Pre-Christian  originally in the form of oral legends among Europe's various barbarian tribes, which were transcribed by scribes, usually monks, who occasionally inserted Christian elements. Norse mythology, composed in Germanic languages, was the most influential pre-Christian genre. The greatest works are Beowulf in English, Song of the Nibelungs in German and Edda in Norse.

- Christian medieval legend was composed principally in the genre of romance, which began in France. This was a moralising narrative that emphasised the chivalric ideals of piety, loyalty to your Lord, dedication to a lady and courteous behaviour. Romances appeared in both narrative poetry and prose: the French epic romance poem Song of Roland, the Song of El Cid in Spanish and the Arthurian legends in both French and English, among them Le Morte d'Arthur, recast in English from French romances. In Eastern Europe the leading medieval epic is Song of Igor's Campaign in East Slavic.

Western medieval drama began as miracle plays and mystery plays, written in Latin. They developed into dramas performed outside the church on stages or horse drawn wagons. This freed the actors to incorporate other material, such as comedy or side stories. In this way secular drama evolved from religious theatre and it generated the morality play in which the characters choose between good and evil.

The Arab influence

Despite the fact that after 750 there was a civil war within the Arab empire, then led by the Omeya dynasty, its power in the Iberian peninsula remained stable with the capital in Cordoba becoming a world center of knowledge. In spite of the incipient Christian reconquest and the first crusade initiated by Pope Urban II in 1095, there was an intensification of the exchange of knowledge between the Andalusian centers and the rest of Europe. By the year 1275 Christianized Arab merchants had established the first paper mills in Spain. 50 years later the University of Paris employed 10,000 copyists. Even during the Inquisition the exchange of knowledge continued from south to north and the humanistic spirit of the Renaissance was able to expand thanks to the ideas found in Iberia's Arabian books.

The intellectual exchanges were made possible by scholarly pilgrims who traveled to Muslim Hispania to learn about and translate the documentary information that the Arabs stored in their libraries.

The work of pilgrim researchers was to harmonize ancient knowledge with the Christian faith. Between 1150 and 1250 all of Aristotle's writings were translated and introduced to the West, along with Arabic commentaries by Avicenna and Averroës.


The main challenge of medieval philosophy was the reconciliation between faith (theology) and philosophy (reason). A method had to be found to link the knowledge gained from biblical revelation, the information observed using the senses and aristotelian philosophy. Averroes proposed the double truth theory arguing that both faith and reason were types of knowledge. Thomas Aquinas, on the other hand, in his Summa Theologica, put forward the concept that both sorts of knowledge were compatible since they had their roots in God. He also argued that they could balance each other since Revelation could guide reasoning and reason could demystify faith and prevent errors. Thomist theology became official Church doctrine.

Ockham, a Franciscan friar, approached the faith/reason problem from the opposite side to the Dominican, Aquinas. He wrote his Summa Logicae based on philosophical logic in an attempt to clear theology of rational errors. However, he came up against established doctrine and was accused of heresy. Despite continuing to criticise the papacy, he retained a fideist acceptance that Revelation was superior to logic.

Pierre Abelard (1079-1142) was a logician and represented a pre-scholastic approach to religion. He brought a new methodology to the study of religious truths: dialectics and the practice of methodical doubt. Traditionalists within the Church criticised Abelard for reducing faith to opinion, instead of Revelation, and also objected to his position on ethics: he considered the intention of the subject as the only source for defining the goodness or evil of moral acts, thus abandoning objective moral values.

Duns Scotus (1265 - 1308) studied at Durham and other British universities. In 1209 he traveled to Toledo, became friends with several Arab scholars and wrote his Abbreviatio Avicennæ thus introducing Avicenna to European philosophical discussion. He translated works on astronomy and alchemy and the commentaries of Averroës from Arabic to Latin

Al-Hakam II was invested caliph of Cordoba in 961. He extented the Mosque and occupied the royal residence, Medina Azahara. During his reign he bought books from the rest of the empire for his personal library and that of the mosque and had translations done in Arabic. Cordoba was the largest book market in Muslim Spain.

Alfonso X, the Wise (1221 - 1284) is considered the founder of Spanish prose and it was in his time that Spanish was adopted as the official language. He promoted the organization of three large cultural centers in Toledo, Seville and Murcia. He founded the Toledo School of Translators, which undertook an enormous task of collecting all kinds of materials for the production of books. The king made no distinction between race or religion, bringing together Jews, Muslims, Castilians and Italians in collaboration.

Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274). The main challenge of medieval philosophy was the reconciliation between faith (theology) and philosophy (reason). A way had to be found to link the knowledge gained from biblical revelation and the information observed using the mind and senses.

Averroës had proposed the theory of double truth arguing that the two types of knowledge were opposed. Aquino's revolutionary vision rejected this approach, proposing that both types of knowledge were compatible because they came from God. Beyond compatibility, he claimed that they could collaborate because revelation could guide reason and prevent errors while reason could clarify and demystify faith. Within this double conception Aquinas proposed that the existence of God could be proved using five rational arguments.

Among his almost 60 written works, the Summa Theologica stands out, composed between 1265 and 1274. It is a huge effort to unite the thought of Aristotelian natural philosophy and Christian theology. His next work Summa Contra Gentiles is an apologetics of Christian beliefs in the medieval tradition of proselytizing.

Dante Alighieri (1265 - 1321) shows an interest in the works of Aristotle by quoting a dozen of his writings and demonstrates a particular understanding of his Ethics, no doubt through Aquinas' comments. Some historians argue that Dante found Aristotelianism through Albert the Great, a dominican German bishop, and professor of Aquinas, who interpreted Aristotle in the light of Islamic philosophers, mainly Averroës and Avicenna, in addition to Greek-Arab Neoplatonic sources.

Ramón Llull (1232 -1315) wrote his main work Ars Magna (1305-08) with the intention of rationalizing Christian apologetics in order to argue with Muslims. In fact, he traveled to North Africa with this task in mind. He used original logical methods in an attempt to prove the dogmas of Christian theology. After his death, Ars maintained interest, not as apologetics, but in its universal systematization as a compendium of knowledge.

William of Ockham (c.1287–1347) was a nominalist philosopher in the High Middle Ages. He argued that universals are simply psychological labels. What really exists are individuals. This contradicted the traditional philosophy of Aquinas which sustained the aristotelian view that essence and existence were distinct. 

Ockham was first and foremost a philosopher and approached theology through logic. His apparent contradiction with Aquinas' Summa teologica is expressed even the title of his main work Summa logicae. This was not an apologetic work which supported Christian revelation but which analysed and even questioned it, using logic. The unresolvable conflicts between the traditional theological approach and his logical analysis led Ockham to be accused of heresy and a personal fideism, which was his way of expressing his failure to synthesise both.

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Charlemagne (742 - 814)

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