Front Page Titles (by Subject) 11.: On the Middle Ages - Judgments on History and Historians
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11.: On the Middle Ages - Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians 
Judgments on History and Historians, ed. Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
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On the Middle Ages
(I) [1882.] The term “Middle Ages” actually came into being as an homage to antiquity. It means “the middle period.” The Italians of the fifteenth century were already aware of this. (Is “medium aevum” a translation of “Mittelalter,” “moyen âge”?)
In this designation there was expressed the concept of a very expendable thousand years which may have existed for the chastisement of mankind; this gave it the reputation of barbarism, and its beginnings in fact had been an overcrowding of the world with barbarians. Hence the special ill-will of the Italians, who had lost their world dominion through the barbarians, although this had actually already happened under Constantine. It seemed to them that, basically, the more modern period could have started directly with the end of Roman history. Something like impatience was felt toward the Middle Ages.
This view was expressed first in the designation and in the meaning of the Renaissance, then, too, especially in the name of the modern “great power” (the atomization of power in the medieval state was deplored), and, finally, in the term “world civilization.”
It was possible to misjudge the Middle Ages, to be sure, but in the long run one could not despise the period. The realization prevailed that our existence had its roots in it, even though modern culture was derived predominantly from antiquity. Gradually the specific qualities of the Middle Ages were appreciated in innumerable ways. Certain aspects even inspired veritable enthusiasm which, however, aroused hostility in completely modern-minded persons. On the whole, very strong and widespread prejudices against the Middle Ages have prevailed to this day, not to mention the more deeply entrenched ones. There is an optical illusion with regard to so-called golden ages in which great spiritual capacities come together in a society, as though “happiness” had a definite address or domicile at some time or in some place.
Above all, at our present moment in history, under the conditions of 1882, we have no business sitting in judgment on any past age—now when from every side there are complaints about, and threats against, our general situation as well as specific matters, and the nations are pitted one against the other, armed to the teeth.
Now that we are convinced that our knowledge of the Middle Ages belongs among our dearest possessions, that is, the great general knowledge about the continuation of the spirit which distinguishes us from the barbarians (including very modern ones), we had better omit any evaluation of the past according to our standards of happiness or unhappiness, since these are illusions.
Very peculiar is the interest of our time in all past things and its judgment of their relative intellectual value. Of course, our time is itself undergoing such great transformations that its judgments about the past vary greatly, too. This much, however, remains certain: today’s European humanity has had at least a long youth in the shape of the Middle Ages.
The life of mankind is a unit whose fluctuations in time or place constitute an up and down, a weal or woe, only to our weak senses, but in reality follow a higher necessity. To trace the latter in detail remains a dubious and difficult task. Not everything that may now and then appear to an investigator as a decree of world history really deserves this title.
It is a universal human experience that the fringes of existence have always been miserable, because individuals as well as nations always push their existence to the limits of possibility; this is an existence just barely worth living.
There is something to be said for the survival of a people as such if at least it neither consumes itself, as the ancient Greeks did, nor is destroyed by other peoples. How many peoples disappeared in the great migrations of the Germanic tribes; as soon as they had no kings of their own, they lost themselves among the others. Are we to feel sorry for them at random? If they had existed longer, would they (and so many other peoples who had already gone down in early antiquity) have done great and good things or perhaps predominantly bad ones?
At any rate, the amount of unhappiness felt increases greatly in highly civilized, security-minded periods when conditions become completely insecure and violent, as, e.g., in the migrations of the Germanic tribes.
But we may properly feel a certain amount of pity and need not excuse ourselves with the barren argument that what fell did so for good reasons, or that after a fall there comes a resurgence. For by no means every destruction has been followed by rejuvenation (those involved and their relatives will have none of rejuvenation through decay), and the great destroyers of life remain an enigma to us. In the face of the ambition of an Attila, who did not have enough time, or of the accomplishments of Genghis Khan and especially Tamerlane, we remain perplexed, and can, at best, stutter that these men destroyed forces which, under certain circumstances, might also have become very harmful to mankind. The capital losses of mankind are enormous. And in particular the destruction of noble and universally admired works of poetry and art fills us with lasting sadness because we are convinced that they are irreplaceable, i.e., we know that never before has there been, nor ever again will there be, a union of precisely this naive strength with this beauty. (But let us close our eyes; experience teaches us that the human race has over the ages achieved very little of supreme excellence, and will do no better in the future; therefore, for the time being, we may well mourn when things of excellence are destroyed.)
Our only consolation—and a very uncertain one—is this: the survival of the greatest works of antiquity, now lost, would have stood in the way of the newer literature and art and made their natural appearance or at least their independence impossible.
As a rule, however, calling past times happy or pitying them is only partisanship in favor of one untenable thing against another such; and as it is, we are subject to the prejudices of our egoism (at best, to the predilections of our time) which approves of what seems akin to it and disapproves of what it finds incomprehensible or repugnant.
Thus, for instance, we have a powerful antipathy to Islam, with its arid religion, its art tyrannically kept poor, its forcibly restricted poetry, and its invariably tyrannical form of government. But as soon as the believers are given voice, we and our pity are sent packing. To this day, Islam gives its adherents enormously firm support, and they are proud of it and almost inaccessible to missionary efforts. But if one imagines history without Islam, one must also eliminate the at least temporary rejuvenation which, as an opponent, it brought to the Byzantine Empire and later, through the Crusades, to the West. (This great adversary quite materially kept the Byzantine Empire alive. That it finally did succumb to Islam was due to weakening from the West; remember 1204.) But the Mongols would have come nevertheless, and it is beyond all speculation in what condition they would have found a non-Islamic Near East and Europe.
However, just as dubious as pitying is felicitation. When it is directed toward victorious peoples, their happiness, the so-called victor’s happiness, was tempered by the infinite misery of the vanquished, who were also human beings and possibly superior ones. Moreover, the joy of victory does not last long, if only because persisting in the same situation is not granted to peoples nor to individuals, and after some time there recommences, in one way or another, the struggle for existence which can grow to deadly proportions—and not by any means through arms only, but, as is the case today, through customs tariffs (because thereby one hits an activity based on free competition, namely, present-day industry, the current index of power and property).
Aside from that, one would have to be able to determine for all peoples and all periods how strong the active, the really free, segment was; for these people alone can have had an exalted feeling of their existence. But we do not even know the proportion of slaves in the Roman Empire, let alone the percentage of the half-free (the litae, etc.) and the unfree (servi) among the victorious Germani, nor do we know how these people felt about their lack of freedom.
Instead of any evaluation according to happiness and unhappiness, in place of any fruitless approval or disapproval, we shall confine ourselves to a consideration and understanding of the living forces, their succession, their interaction, their transmutation. To this end we need to be released from mere narration which may be given by handbooks. We have to group phenomena more according to their inner relations in which they form conditions, lasting states of affairs. The history of civilization comes into its own. Definitions of the concept vary; it will long have a subjective and dilettante appearance, as well as complicated and uncertain outlines, from the so-called antiquities to the so-called philosophy of history. Each individual will proceed according to his personal insight. However, one does not include in the history of civilization what one likes, but what one believes one should or must include.
The designation for what we have in mind is, at any rate, too narrow insofar as it leads us to assume that we are concerned only with the rise or decline of intellectual culture and the material exploitation of the earth; what we really aim at is an understanding of all the more significant and effective forces in general, and thus of the more or less constant conditions created by them.
The history of civilization overlaps with church history, the history of law, literary history, the history of communications, the history of morals, etc., according to its requirements, but it does not make any claim to being all these things itself. Its selection of data follows its inner principle. Its academic justification, recognized anyway, would, among other things, lie in the fact that it can compress the spiritually significant content of a period embracing many centuries into the brief scope of a lecture course more easily than can narrative presentation.
The relationship of the history of civilization to source studies is a very natural one. Sources are of interest to it as the monument and picture of a certain period and nation, not merely as the places where single events may be found; the historian of civilization reads with different eyes than does the historian. In fact, the history of civilization can be learned usefully only from sources instead of from handbooks.
(II) [1884.] As for the more recent enemies of the Middle Ages, they are the following:
First, those who consider Christianity in general as wrong and a misfortune; second, those who cannot bear the interweaving of great and strongly symbolizing folk imaginations with new religions (the imagination of Islam is half-tamed, that of the Christians is not); further, those who have no understanding for stabilizing elements, or those who are in a hurry to create a situation in which a man may do anything, but so may everybody else, and logically the most insolent fellow may do these things most of all—those who are in a hurry, then, for the unrestricted development of philosophy, the rapid victory of science, untrammeled communication with the remotest as well as the closest people, and the industrial exploitation of the world, from the surface of the earth on. Finally, count among these enemies all proponents of leveling sameness.
We may regard Renan as an adversary of the Middle Ages, with many qualifications; he repeatedly characterizes himself in his Marcus Aurelius. P. 588: Le but suprême de l’humanité est la liberté des individus [The highest goal of mankind is the liberty of the individual].—L’homme ne doit appartenir qu’à lui-même [A man must belong only to himself]; out of this, Voltaire, Rousseau, and the French Revolution made: la foi nouvelle de l’humanité [the new faith of mankind], p. 614.—“Christianity is robbery of the state,” this especially on p. 590.—Religious peoples, e.g., Indians, are open to all conquerors, according to Renan. Only by drastically modifying Christianity in the Middle Ages were cities and states able to exist with it, he says. In Renan’s view, there was no “fatherland” in the Middle Ages; people were Christians, Moslems, Buddhists.
Then, p. 603: “La vie humaine est suspendue pour 1000 ans. La grande industrie devient impossible; par suite des fausses idées répandues sur l’usure, toute opération de banque, d’assurance, est frappée d’interdiction. Le juif seul peut manier l’argent; on le force à être riche” [Human life is suspended for 1000 years. Large industry becomes impossible. Due to distorted ideas disseminated about usury, all banking and insurance operations are prohibited. Only Jews can handle money; they are forced to be rich], and then they are reproached with their wealth. Christianity “coupa le capital par la racine” [cut off capital at the root] by prohibiting the taking of interest; wealth became unproductive. “La funeste terreur répandue sur toute la société du moyen-âge par le prétendu crime d’usure fut l’obstacle qui s’opposa, durant plus de dix siècles, au progrès de la civilisation.” [The deadly terror spread through the entire society of the Middle Ages by the alleged crime of usury was the obstacle which, for more than ten centuries, impeded the progress of civilization.] And a little before that: “La vie humaine est suspendue pour 1000 ans.” (At least now we know what it is that Renan calls “human life”!)
A further complaint of his is that work declined so much. According to him, the poor man had in Christianity “le bonheur sans travail” [happiness without toil] and hoped “conquérir le ciel par la pauvreté” [to win heaven through poverty].
Further, on p. 605 he says that “le perfectionnement de la société humaine, ni l’augmentation de la somme de bonheur des individus ...” [the perfecting of human society or the increase of the amount of individual happiness...] had in no wise been the purpose of Christianity. (Here, “bien-être” [well-being] would have sufficed.)
Moreover, on p. 630: Concerning the Celtic, Italic, and other superstitions that infiltrated the Church: the world from the sixth to the tenth centuries was more pagan than ever; “jusqu’aux progrès de l’instruction primaire de nos jours, nos paysans n’avaient pas abandonné un seul de leurs petits dieux gaulois. Le culte des saints a été le couvert sous lequel s’est rétabli le polythéisme.” [until the progress of elementary education in our day, our peasants had not abandoned a single one of their little Gaulish gods. The cult of saints has been the cover under which polytheism has reestablished itself.]
Finally, on p. 632, about the third century: “Des essais de christianisme unitaire, sans métaphysique ni mythologie, d’un christianisme peu distinct du judaïsme rationnel, comme fut la tentative de Zénobie et de Paul de Samosate, sont coupés par la base. Ces tentatives eussent produit un christianisme simple, continuation du judaïsme, quelquechose d’analogue à ceque fut l’Islam. Si elles avaient réussi, elles eussent prévenu sans doute le succès de Mahomet chez les Arabes et les Syriens. Que de fanatisme on eût ainsi évité!” [Attempts at unitarian Christianity without metaphysics or mythology, a Christianity little different from rational Judaism,* as was the attempt of Zenobia and Paul of Samosata, were nipped in the bud. These attempts could have produced a simple Christianity, a continuation of Judaism, something analogous to what Islam was. If they had succeeded, they would undoubtedly have forestalled Mohammed’s success with the Arabs and the Syrians. How much fanaticism would thus have been avoided!] (But instead, fanaticism for Mammon would early have gained control, as it did with the Jews.)
Renan’s religious wishes may answer for themselves.
But we will at least concede to the people of the Middle Ages that they were able to live without continual or continually threatening national wars, without forced mass industry with deadly competition, without credit and capitalism, without hatred of (albeit inevitable) poverty. If these people had mined hard coal, as is done now, where would we be?
The Middle Ages had greatness and sorrows of a kind very different from what Renan is capable of conceiving.
Greatness can appear at moments when mere calculation ceases and a way of thinking, a feeling, overwhelms everything. And at such moments it gives us, their posterity, the impression that it carried the feeling of happiness along with it.
(III) In contrast to the supposition that one has to make excuses for the Middle Ages, it is our task simply to describe the realities of past life, whatever it may be. The Middle Ages were the youth of today’s world, and a long youth. Whatever to us is worth living for has its roots there. The Middle Ages are not responsible for our present decline! It was a time of natural authority. It is not its fault that we no longer have this nor can regain it, but are instead flooded by waves of majority from below.
The great impact of past times and forces lies not in their kinship with us, but in their naive quality, i.e., their being right as a matter of course. For example, the victory of orthodoxy over Germanic Arianism was not a matter of superior intellectuality, but of a temperament which ipso facto gained control over meager rival forms of the church.
The greatness of an epoch or a cause depends on the proportion of those capable of sacrifice, on whatever side it may be. In this respect the Middle Ages pass muster rather well. Devotion! And not a guarantee of regular pay!
Where does greatness begin? With devotion to a cause, whatever it may be, with complete extinction of personal vanity.
Greatness is not dependent on mental superiority, for this can be paired with a wretched character.
Greatness is the conjunction of a certain spirit with a certain will.
[* ]Burckhardt injects here: A good thing that Renan for once really lets it out! (Translator’s note.)