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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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History of the Middle Ages
GA 51

VI. Culture of the Middle Ages

6 December 1904, Berlin

The history of the Middle Ages is specially important for human study, because it deals with an epoch which we are able to investigate from its simple origin up to the rise of what we call “States.” And, moreover, we have here an interweaving of many factors. In simple circumstances, a complete form of culture, such as Christianity is, was living a full life. Out of a condition of barbarism, we see developing more and more the blossom of medieval culture—what we know as “discoveries.”

To those races, thrown confusedly together on the path of folk migrations, we see arriving by a complicated, roundabout way that which today we term “Science.” The Middle Ages had come into a great heritage. Yet, of what we have learnt to know of Greek culture, nothing has remained but a few traditions, seen through the spectacles of Christian conceptions. On the other hand, a very great inheritance has remained from the days of the Roman Empire, with its government and administration of justice, showing a serried unity such as had never before appeared in world history, nor is to be found elsewhere in the Middle Ages. It is only in the new age, otherwise so proud of its freedom, that we meet with such an expansion of the authority of the State. This, allied with that other idealistic culture movement by which the Roman Empire had gradually been penetrated and absorbed, came to people who know nothing of any such education and who, moreover, had been uprooted by the folk migrations. All these tribes—Goths, Heruleans, Longobards, Franks, Saxons, etc.—were in quite a different position from the Romans; they had remained completely at the stage of childhood.

They led a kind of Nature-life, confined to hunting and waging war, without settled law or justice. A great transition now took place in the relationship and conceptions of these tribes, who lived together in small groups.

What held these separate tribes together? The memory of some ancestor, who had given the tribe its name—the memory of mighty generations which had distinguished themselves in ancient wars or at the conquest of new land, handing down to the tribe the titles of count, prince and duke.

The transition was expressed in a liking for communal ground. Men began to attach more value to community of land ownership than to blood relationship.

Instead of tribal membership, appeared what we call the village community. The whole of material life was based on land and soil. There was still neither trade nor industry; all that was necessary in that line was looked after by the women, young people and slaves. The majority of the population knew nothing beyond agriculture and frequent military expeditions. They had no notion of what we call culture today, no idea of what we look upon as the first essentials: reading and writing. It is reckoned as a special merit of Charlemagne's that in his old age he took the trouble to learn to read and write. All the education there was in the conquered districts lay in the hands of the Roman population. From it sprang the civil service; hence the influence of the Roman conception of justice. Thus it was in the western regions; it was different in the east. There, in the districts which form the Germany of today, the original Germanic character had kept itself free from these influences. The unbroken strength of the Thuringian and Saxon tribes was something with which everyone had to reckon on, in the Middle Ages.

The only thing which brought education to them was Christianity. Yet the actual Sciences—such as Mathematics, Natural Science, etc.—were not included in it. To have added moral, ethical concepts was the merit of Christianity. Especially among the Frankish tribes, the influence of the clergy, particularly of the immigrant Celtic monks, was very strong. Among these tribes, which had been led by favourable circumstances into a free land, where, in regions still to a large extent uncultivated, they could develop their own particular character—we can best see how this metamorphosis was accomplished. The metamorphosis of small communities to larger ones came about here. Counts and princes conquered more and more territories and enfeoffed to small proprietors, parts of their property. By this means, the power of the large landowner extended farther and farther. A kind of jurisdiction and constitution arose out of this transfer of relationships belonging originally to purely civil law. What the Irish and Scottish monks originally instigated was a religious zeal, a holy inspiration, to work for the salvation of mankind. All that was changed. The Franks could only think of Christianity as a means to obtaining power. Charlemagne, in particular, made use of the Church to increase his dominion. Any bishop instituted by him was generally chosen as a tool for his government. In the beginning the Church was led only by those who were zealous for the faith, those who were genuinely convinced; later, under the influence of external authority, the Church itself sought to obtain power relationships. Thus the bishop was first a ministering member of the Church, later himself a ruler and landowner. It is thus we see the Middle Ages at about the time of Charlemagne. But we cannot speak of an empire of Charlemagne, as we speak of empires today. The ownership of large territories made it possible to transfer landed property. New territory was conquered and produced new transfers. Thus, the justiciaries of the court came into existence. Instead of the old canton tribunals, court tribunals arose, with the imperial counts, or—if they were appointed by bishops—provosts.

In the meantime, there were still always independent tribes, who clung to their old dukes, their self-chosen justiciaries.

So was it still at the death of Charlemagne, and so it remained under his son, Louis the Pious. This we see from his relations with his three sons, Lothair, Pepin and Louis. He divided his empire among the three, as if it were a private property, and when he had another son, by a second marriage, and was about to alter the division, his elder sons rose against him, conquered him at the battle of Lügenfeld and compelled him to abdicate, so that their property should not be reduced. This gives us clear insight into what mattered most in such a State. We see, too, what a false picture is given in the histories dealing with this period. The fighting which took place was for purely private rights, and though the actual populace was, of course, disturbed and harassed by the military expeditions and massing of troops, yet, for the progress of mankind, all these struggles in the post-Carlovingian epoch, were really of no significance.

That, however, which had real significance was the opposition that had developed between the empire of the Franks and the empire which comprised Germany and Austria. In the Western Empire a struggle had gradually arisen between the secular nobility and the ruling ecclesiastical power. The educated clergy supplied what had formerly been provided by those who were left from the Roman population: the higher court officials, the clerks of the law courts, etc. These all possessed a quite uniform education, issuing from the monasteries. Side by side with the educated clergy were the uneducated masses, who were entirely dependent on these cultured ecclesiastics. The whole education of those days proceeded from what was taught in the monastery schools. Christian theology embraced a septuple of sciences, three lower and four higher.

Thus we see, outside, on the land, a race entirely engaged in war and agriculture; whereas in churches, schools and offices, that which sprang from the monastery schools, the sciences were taught. The three lower ones were: Grammar, Logic and Dialectics. Grammar was the science of speech, Logic of thinking—and they have persisted in the same form, since they were taught, from Greece, in the monasteries of the Middle Ages up to the 19th century; whereas now they are considered superfluous. Next to Logic came Dialectics, which has completely disappeared from the scientific curriculum of today. Medieval education was based on Dialectics, which everyone who hoped to achieve anything in intellectual life had to learn and master. Dialectics is the art of defending a truth against an attack, according to the correct rules. In order to do this, the laws of reason had to be known. Sophism could not be emplolyed when it was a question of permanently defending a truth; it was not the age of newspapers, where reasons which were valid today, are not accepted tomorrow.

From Dialectics springs what we may call the scientific and scholarly conscience; and that everyone should have, who wishes to join in scientific work. Not everything can be defended in a rational way; hence the great importance of this training, to be able to make conscientious distinctions. Later, however, this teaching degenerated, so that, towards the end of the Middle Ages, it might happen that someone might volunteer to defend any truth, for 24 hours long, against the attacks of assembled professors, students and layman from Paris.

Those who aspired to the vocation of judge were trained by Dialectics—not so much the presidents of the law courts as those who drew up the verdicts.

When, at the beginning of Faust, Goethe makes him say:

“True, I've more with than all your solemn fools,
Priests, doctors, scribes, magisters of the schools. ”

he is characterising the dignities and offices to which, in these days, a man might attain through a scientific education. A “Doctor” was one who could make independent use of his knowledge. A “Master” had the right to teach in the universities. “Clerks” were all those who were engaged in civil service, whether in a high or low position. “Parsons” were all clergymen. The word Pfaffe (parson) was not in those days a term of contempt, but an honorary title. Thus, as late as the 14th century, Meister Eckhardt calls Plato the great Greek “Pfaffe.”

The four higher sciences were: Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Music.

Geometry is the science of space. Arithmetic is a higher form of counting. Astronomy, too, represented more of less what we understand by it today. Music was not the same as that which we call music today.

Music was the science of harmony of the spheres. It was believed that the whole universe stood in harmonious relationship to its individual constituents. All these relationships, expressed in figures, men sought to discover. As also, indeed, colours, notes, etc. are based on certain numbers. In music they sought clarity concerning the laws of harmony, of rhythmic relationships; the concord of cosmic laws was taught.

Thus I have tried to give you an idea of the activities of the class which ruled on account of its education. More and more did this education gain the upper hand in the western realm which we now call France. It was different in Germany. There the tribes had remained independent; they had retained their simple customs, had preserved their freedom to a large extent. The seamy side of these primitive relationships, however, was that here the clergy were uneducated, and allowed themselves to be used as a means to power in the hands of the dukes and emperors.

The dominion of the western empire remained with the Carlovingians. Yet the rulers of this house were never of much value. Eventually the inefficiency of these Carlovingian rulers became especially clear when the Normans—the warlike pirates from the north—harassed the land. These Normans forced their way into the country from the mouths of the rivers Elbe and Weser, plundering the coasts everywhere, especially in France, where they took possession of the northern regions, and pressed forward as far as Paris. At that time Charles III was reigning; he himself proved utterly incapable of undertaking anything against the Normans. Hence it was easy for an unknown Austrian duke, Arnulf of Cairinthia, to put an end to the Carlovingian rule and to usurp the government himself. At first he enjoyed great respect, since he had succeeded in conquering the Normans. But the jealousy among the princes was so great that Arnulf was obliged to appeal to the Church and to conclude an alliance with it. He had to make an expedition into Italy, and in general to submit to ecclesiastical authority at many points. The consequence was that, after his death, the Church, as we shall see, made use of its power. It was not a secular prince or count, but the Archbishop of Mainz, who became the guardian of his son, Louis the Child. In this way the Archbishop assumed all the privliges of government, and henceforth we see the foundations laid for the rule of the Church, which was no longer merely exploited by the secular rulers, but was more and more united in the exercise of secular government and secular jurisdiction. The result of this was that the struggle between secular and ecclesiastical power relaxed, and this introduced that important period of history—the struggle between the Emperor and the Pope. Conventional historical descriptions, which picture these two powers as quite distinct from each other are incorrect. They were only rivals in the fight for external authority, but they were equal powers working in the same direction. We are only dealing with a quarrel between a Church grown secular, and a secular power. We see power expanding in two directions; and as a third, we see the rise of the “free cities,” spreading over the whole of Europe.