Try to imagine an elderly scientist, sitting in his rocking chair and looking back over his life. He fondly recalls his happy, carefree childhood when he first became intrigued with the functioning of the natural world, and then his thoughts quickly shift to the proud moment when he won the Nobel Prize at the age of seventy-five. But between these two highpoints of his life stretch the less memorable middle years, most of which were spent busily experimenting in his scientific laboratory. Should he dismiss that long period of trial and error as an unimportant segment of his life? Of course not, for it was a critical phase in the development of his ideas.
And yet, historians writing in the sixteenth century made just such a value judgment about the evolution of western civilization when they lumped the one thousand years separating the grandeur of the Roman Empire and the glory of their own times into a general time period known as the Middle Ages. They were convinced that little of value was accomplished by the people who lived in Europe between the fifth and fifteenth centuries. In their minds, western culture fell into a deep slumber, a slumber from which it did not awaken until scholars rediscovered the ideas of the distant past and began improving upon them. In fact, the term given to the new age that dawned in the late fifteenth century is the Renaissance, which in French means "Rebirth."
Fortunately, this view of history has been cast aside, although the term medieval (from the Latin medius aevum meaning "middle age") is still commonly used. We'll continue to refer to the period as the Middle Ages for the sake of consistency with other books on the subject. Historians now appreciate the richness of the multi-faceted culture that slowly evolved during those thousand years. The Romans had considered northern European uncivilized wasteland of dense forests inhabited by barbarian thugs, but during the Middle Ages this region gradually replaced their own ancient empire as the political and cultural center of the western world. Despite some backward steps, great strides were made in the areas of art, architecture, literature, music, and philosophy, and these would profoundly influence the creative outpouring of the Renaissance.
The aim of this book is to bring to life the story of a wide diversity of people who helped to mold a new civilization on the smoldering embers of an old one. The cast of characters includes bloodthirsty warriors, unselfish monks, brilliant military leaders, hypocritical clergymen, skillful craftsmen, greedy opportunists, thoughtful scholars, hardworking peasants, and many more. The episodes occur in a variety of settings, ranging from humble thatch-roofed huts to huge crenelated castles and towering stone cathedrals. The Middle Ages was a time marked by tremendous contrasts: gallant knights staunchly adhered to a code of chivalrous behavior among their peers and yet committed acts of unbelievable cruelty; regal pageantry flourished amid widespread famine and disease;a thirst for knowledge survived in spite of nearly universal superstition and blind religious faith. In the end, compromise and the merging of many opposing attitudes created something new, something better.
— from the Introduction by Suzanne Strauss Art
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