The Oxford History of Medieval Europe

By George Holme | Go to book overview

EDITOR'S FOREWORD

WESTERN civilization was created in medieval Europe. The forms of thought and action which we take for granted in modern Europe and America, which we have exported to other substantial portions of the globe, and from which indeed we cannot escape, were implanted in the mentalities of our ancestors in the struggles of the medieval centuries. Since 1500 our civilization has not had to endure any upheaval remotely comparable with the shattering and rebirth which accompanied the migrations and new institutions of the Dark Ages between 400 and 900. And, therefore, it has not seen any flowering of new ways of life and attitudes as fundamentally novel as those which grew up around the cathedrals and universities, the royal courts and the commercial cities in the centuries between 900 and 1500.

Most Europeans live in towns and villages which existed in the lifetime of St Thomas Aquinas, many of them in the shadow of churches already built in the thirteenth century. That simple physical identity is the mark of deeper continuities. The modern nation state grew out of the monarchies created by kings such as Philip Augustus of France and John of England. Democratic forms of government are based on the systems of representation and consent evolved in thirteenth-century parliaments. The idea of popular sovereignty emerges first in the writings of a fourteenth-century scholastic, Marsilius of Padua, who knew the communes of contemporary Italy. Our methods of commerce and banking are derived from the practices of the Florentine Peruzzi and Medici. Students work for degrees already awarded in the medieval universities of Paris and Oxford in courses which have gradually evolved out of those followed in the medieval faculties of arts. Our books of history and our novels are lineal descendants of the works of Leonardo Bruni and Giovanni Boccaccio. Our troubled sense of the distinction between the physical world of nature and the spiritual

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