557. Three gems from medieval history
Here I share with you three gems that I delved from ‘The civilisation of the Middle Ages’ by Norman F. Cantor (1993 edition).
The first gem is an explanation of why the ancient Romans produced so little technical progress. The explanation offered by Cantor is this. The Romans had an abundant supply of slaves that could do all menial jobs and handicraft needed, which made labour so cheap, that there was no incentive to produce labour-saving innovation. Interesting view: slavery slows innovation.
The second gem is an explanation of why the Arabs, who were far in advance of Europe in geometry and astronomy, which was stopped and reversed in the middle ages, around the thirteenth century, by the emergence of Aristotelian philosophy, in Europe in translation from Arabic into Latin. Previously, the dominant philosophy was that of Plato, with his notion of universal meanings and truths, applying everywhere and eternally, and the dualism of body and mind. Those fitted well in the Christian theology of the separation of an eternal soul from the vicissitudes and jumbled notions and experiences of life and reality, and of a providential God transcendent from the world, with the attendant use of prayer, and of the creation of the world out of nothing. Aristotle, on the other hand, did not believe in the existence of universals beyond experience. For him, universals were made up from experience, and the only reality lies in particulars in worldly experience, God was the ‘fist mover’ of the world and not providential and concerned about individual beings, so that prayer is useless.
This was threatening to theistic religion, and had to be suppressed to save religion, in the Muslim world. Christianism, in Europe, was under similar threat, but intellectual thought was mostly localised in monasteries, as places of learning and teaching, which tried to reconcile Christian religion with Aristotelian rationality, culminating in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. This reconciliation ultimately failed, but the attempt still made Aristotelianism respectable, which was a requisite for scientific thought.
Later, Aristotelian thought, with its notion of a final cause, was seen to be at odds with natural science. Nature does not have a goal to which it strives. The decline of Aristotelianism was excessive, because in a causality of action of people, the final cause, as a goal of action, does apply, as I have argued earlier in this blog.
A third gem, in my view, is the narrative of how in the slow emergence of legal ordering, since the 12th century, needed because of the emergence of cities and the growth of trade, there arose doctrinal law on the basis of Roman law, originally dictated by the emperor, and next to that Germanic community law that later became ‘Common Law’, based on the idea that the law is ‘Folk Law’, belongs to the people and originates from the people. The Roman tradition became dominant in continental Europe, but not in England, where the tradition of common law was brought to England from Normandy, where it had settled, by William the Conqueror, in the eleventh century.