Dec 6, 2022
“…the city had 260,000 residential units, 80,000 shops, 13,000 looms, 5,000 mills, and 4,000 open air markets… the central library contained over 400,000 volumes (allegedly more than the library at Alexandria before the conflagration.)”
It is customary to trash the Middle Ages (500 – 1500 CE). Historians used to refer to this period as the ‘Dark Ages’, and when we wish to describe an incident of extreme violence, we call it going medieval. There is some truth to this characterization, but as we shall soon see, not much.
For example, it is true that both the per capita GDP and the literacy rate declined precipitously after the Fall of Rome (476). But these things did not happen in a vacuum. The last 100 years of the Roman Empire had been a ‘feeding frenzy’ as Northern tribes broke through Rome’s defenses, invaded Italy, and sacked Rome, denuding her of her wealth.
The economy of the late Roman Empire was undoubtedly bloated. It was a ‘bubble economy’, based in large part on plunder and slavery. It was unsustainable. To make matters worse, the period from 500 to 800 CE was a period of ‘climate change’; drought ravaged the agricultural economy. Then, the advent of Islam in the 7th century closed the Mediterranean to ‘international’ commerce and put military pressure on Europe’s southern borders. A perfect storm!
The meteoric rise of Christianity didn’t help…at least not at first. These pesky goodie-two-shoes were uncomfortable with slavery, had little taste for war, and failed to place ‘personal wealth’ on its proper pedestal. They were, in a word, more concerned with the economy of heaven than they were with the economy on earth. What’s the Federal Reserve to do?
All in all, it was undoubtedly a tough 300 years! “A great time to visit, but…” By the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 CE, however, Europe was once again in growth mode, and with growth comes opportunity. The world is being reborn; get in on the ground floor! This is going to be bigger than Microsoft and Apple combined.
So begins a 700-year period of progress: social, economic, and intellectual. This was the golden age of Middle Earth, before the Twilight of the Gods, Götterdämmerung (aka Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment).
Shorn of Roman authority, society clearly needed to reorganize, top to bottom, to reflect the new facts on the ground. The resulting feudal system is a work of ‘cosmic genius’…but that’s not the subject of this article. Hint: stay tuned to ATM and TWS for more!
Sadly, this cannot be a complete account of the achievements of the Middle Ages; but rather than risk ‘damning with faint praise’, I will limit myself to a single data point: Welcome to Cordova, 999.
It is widely assumed that urbanization was a late and ‘imperfect’ development in Medieval history, so let’s just test that hypothesis. Take the money you saved by cancelling your first-class ticket to Lhasa and travel in coach to Cordova, Spain. (Cordova is a more expensive destination because to get there, you need to travel more than 1,000 years… as well as 5,000 miles.)
The year is 999, the midpoint of feudal society’s ‘middle age’. Are you expecting a sleepy village with pack animals roaming the streets and residents lounging in precious shade? Disabuse yourself! In 999, Cordova had a population of at least 500,000. To put this in context, that’s more people than live right now in Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, or St. Louis. To serve this massive population, the city had 260,000 residential units, 80,000 shops, 13,000 looms, 5,000 mills, and 4,000 open air markets.
Lest you think this teeming metropolis neglected public works, Cordova had 300 public baths, wide, paved streets, lit every evening by oil lamps, an underground sewerage system, and raised sidewalks to facilitate pedestrian traffic. Farmers relied on irrigation and crop rotation to optimize yield. Nor did Cordova neglect the life of the mind. It has been said that books were more highly prized there than jewels; the central library contained over 400,000 volumes (allegedly more than the library at Alexandria before the conflagration.)
“Ok, this is amazing. How come everyone doesn’t know about it this?” It is said that history is written by the winners. True, but more than that, history is written by the would-be winners. The first spin-doctors were historians. The primary purpose of ‘History’ is to provide the now current social order with an appropriate ‘origin story’, one that explains and justifies the world that is. History is first and foremost Mythology.
Marx said that the purpose of Philosophy is not to explain the world, but to change it. He might have said the same of History. History has a dual function: to justify the world that is and to shape the world to come. History is Propaganda!
Thoughts While Shaving is the official blog of Aletheia Today Magazine (ATM). To never miss another Thought, choose the subscribe option below. Also, follow us on any one of our social media channels for the latest news from ATM. Thanks for reading!