What I learned from Medieval Studies

In some ways, learning about the middle ages was as much anthropology as history. (I suppose most history has an anthropological aspect.) I mean, there are historical facts and pieces of literature, but in some ways, I found attitudes and beliefs more interesting. My thesis was basically on medieval literary *attitudes* towards music. It wasn’t what they believed was true about music, it wasn’t about what music actually did in that period, it was about how people writing literature were likely to portray music in that literature.

This is a long introduction to one of the things I learned which blew me away when I realized it. With, I’m sure, many exceptions, people living in the Middle Ages did not anticipate that the world was going to change!!! Consider: 1) A medieval painting of King David — dressed in medieval garb with a medieval lyre and medieval-looking courtiers. 2) Rent declared in perpetuity that is not adjusted for inflation. Can you even imagine telling someone they and their children can rent an apartment from you and your heirs forever and ever for $1200? No! We’d never let it go that long, and if for some reason we did, we’d figure out a way to make sure it at very least moved with inflation. Unless we didn’t care about losing money. There are other examples. I’m sure there are counter examples of people who anticipated change. But I think they were also less likely to perceive change as progress. The Vandals sacking Rome was change, but it wasn’t progress. The black death was at some point new, but it wasn’t progress. Rising illiteracy in the beginning of the middle ages was a change, but it wasn’t progress.

Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a culture where change was not expected? (I’m sure this was true of other cultures — China comes to mind.) For all every generation feels like the one that is following it is going to hell, can you imagine a world where you actually anticipated depopulation, diminishing technology and deflation? What would change about *you* if you were a believing part of a culture who thought that the world was always going to be like it is today?

Of course that brings up eschatology, and the belief that the world wouldn’t change, it would simply end. We’re more likely to believe that if we don’t change, the world will end.

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