The Middle Ages by Johannes Fried

Translated From the German by Peter Lewis
Belknap/Harvard Press, January 2015
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal

middle ages

In 330 CE, emperor Constantine the Great moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the obscure, Greek-speaking city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. In 410, Rome was sacked by Goths from north of the Alps. The city would soon be invaded and conquered by waves of more Germanic Goths, Franks, and Lombards.

The peoples of these barbarian cultures quickly took the wind out of the intellectual sails of Roman society; they were devoted to oral traditions, using only basic runes. Being pre-literate, the “barbarians” were incapable of abstraction or thinking in an analytic manner, looking at the environment not systematically or categorically “but instead preferring to cling tenaciously to familiar, traditional modes of thought and action.”

Over the following century, as the Roman Church secured its power, the Latin-speaking West saw the closing of all philosophical schools and educational institutions, as well as the banning of all religions and cults of the ancient world. Not only was the worship of any Roman pagan gods “stamped out,” but it was also illegal to study the works of Aristotle, Pythagoras, Plato, and the Stoics. Sure, people “still celebrated bloody sacrifices, indulged in fortune-telling and magic, placed their faith in amulets and soothsayers, sought salvation through spells, and believed in cultic superstitions,” but “all of these beliefs were proscribed and persecuted.” Then, “the only thing left was Christianity.”

But how dark were the so-called Dark Ages? It’s assumed that for a thousand years, the light of Western Civilization was extinguished. We’re taught that whatever cultural advancements during Rome were swept aside as the intellectual tide turned back toward pre-civilized levels, and that only with the Renaissance would Europeans wake up again. In a sprawling and engaging tome of a book, The Middle Ages, German scholar Johannes Fried turns this idea upside down. Today, he writes, “everything that is reprehensible, repellent, and brutal, like torture, religious fanaticism, fundamentalism, or obscenity is popularly regarded as a ‘relapse back to medieval times’.” Interestingly, this idea of the “Dark Middle Ages” was first introduced by members of the Renaissance itself, and later cemented by Enlightenment thinkers, especially Kant. Fried argues that this is a severe misconception, and that in actuality the Medieval era saw the birth and evolution of modern rationalism, the scientific method, dialectic philosophy, banking and capitalism. Rather than burst upon the scene fully formed during the Enlightenment, such phenomena were intrinsic to the Middle Ages, which loosely begin with the fall of Rome in 410 CE. The Middle Ages tells the story of what happened over the following millennium in a patchwork process, moving ahead and doubling back. It isn’t a story of studious monks and chivalric knights, but rather features a parade of popes, kings, emperors, and philosophers. And while it begins with the influence of Pope Gregory the Great, who laid the foundation for canon law, it is in the Frankish kingdom under Charlemagne where modern developments really began.


In 800 CE, King Charlemagne assumed the title of “Holy Roman Emperor” and became the first to consolidate the ruling elite of Western Europe under one Christian realm, a precursor of the later notion of European Christendom. Much of the modern cultural seeds that were sown during this time were a result of Charlemagne’s own inquisitive, organized, and pious character. For example, he was the first ruler to demand a written stocktaking of the condition and inventory of country estates, creating a rational, systematic organization of which to govern. He similarly requested a definitive collection of cannon law, enacted a reformed liturgy aligned with the Roman Church, sponsored a royal library, and oversaw the development of cathedral schools, which formed the model of modern day universities. Without all this, Fried writes, “our present culture of knowledge and our information-driven society simply would not exist.” The reason why France has played a dominant role in world affairs from the Middle Ages to the present day is much due to Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty he established.

A similar situation followed two centuries later, when Otto the Great became the first German king to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor, in 962. If you’ve ever wondered (as I used to) why maps of Medieval Europe say “Holy Roman Empire” where Germany should be, it’s because, after Charlemagne’s Carolingian dynasty, the political seat of the “Roman Emperor” was in the hands of Germanic Ottonians, who carried the torch of Rome for several centuries, before handing it over to the houses of Luxemburg and Hapsburg. Both Charlemagne and Otto were crowned by popes who wanted to keep religious and secular power in separate spheres—with political capitals far away, no king could rule over the Papal States in Italy. Still, the vying of power between popes and emperors continued throughout the Middle Ages, with popes excommunicating kings, popes excommunicating other popes, and kings deposing popes. All this while the ostensible “Emperor of the Romans” was the basileus in Constantinople, which the West apparently ignored—that is, until the Latin Crusaders sacked the city in 1204, treating the Byzantines as if they were “enemies of the faith,” and not fellow “Romans.” (For further enlightening about Byzantium, read Anthony Kaldellis’s The Byzantium Republic, also recently published by Harvard Press.)

One of Fried’s main points is that it was motivation for religious knowledge that led to political secularization. Humans are naturally curious, and so people wanted to unlock the secrets of God’s creation. What is truth? What is reality? What is knowledge? What is greed? What is evil? What is the Holy Spirit? If a bishop excommunicates someone, yet is then excommunicated himself, is the first person still excommunicated? People wanted answers, and so they had to perpetually refine their questioning process, to measures of more exact analysis, rationality, and categorization. Such discipline in thought led to the requirement of proof and the further prioritization of dialectic logic. In practical terms, this meant that trials by combat and trials by ordeal were banned, along with the rise of the application of the scientific method to law in the formation of jurisprudence. Doubt and skepticism were used to strengthen faith, for as the 12th century philosopher Peter Abélard said, “in a state of questioning we apprehend the truth.” It was only centuries later when skepticism ultimately eroded the faith it intended to bolster.


Of course there were the Crusades. And while we rightfully consider the Crusades a paragon of ultimate religious hypocrisy and brutal chauvinism, it was during the Crusades—as later during the Mongol invasion of 1240-1241, which Fried cites as the birth of Globalization—when European scholars began to learn from other cultures, to study ancient sources of knowledge, and when merchants traveling along the Silk Road returned with foreign inventions and innovations. A result was the introduction of a new dependence on money. There was a new ethics to go with it, and a corresponding rise in a professional class of lawyers, doctors, scholars, theologians, and bankers, all of whom were trained at the new universities in Paris, Bologna, and Salamanca. These centuries also saw the philosophers Roger Bacon, Albert Magnus, and William of Ockham, whose ideas could easily fit into those of the pantheon of Enlightenment thinkers. There were experiments of observation and methodological deductions that would later manifest in the practical fields of military research and other uses of power. Little here appears dark, but “what was still lacking as yet in these kinds of experiments was any continuity or systematic approach, with a focused scientific reductionism as the modus operandi.” Even so, the Late Middle Ages saw the invention of the magnetic compass, the mechanical clock, and the water mill, all of which essentially began the eras of Colonialism and Capitalism.

All this isn’t to say that philosophers and scientists didn’t have to fight against narrow-minded religious censorship and persecution; indeed, many were burned at the stake for simply writing hypothetical sentences that questioned Catholic dogma. As knowledge increased, faith did too, especially in the perpetual imminence of the Apocalypse, as well as fear of magic and witchcraft. All things were certainly not rational, what with the widespread practice of self-flagellation, the persecution of witches, and the ever increasing rise of anti-Semitism that would ultimately culminate in the Holocaust. Jews were blamed for causing the Black Death by poisoning wells and adulterating butter and wine, absurd accusations which spurred countless pogroms and massacres; during the Plague “the Jews were seized and burned at the stake everywhere, throughout the entire world, and their property confiscated.” Irrationalism and barbarity, it seems, can belong to any century, whether it be the fourteenth or the twentieth.

Indeed, “rationality and irrationality were in close proximity to each other” and the tension between reason and speculative belief led to the rise of the natural sciences; after all, the natural “signs” that indicated the End of Time must be interpreted correctly, and so people needed “to calculate, ask questions, and seek criteria that would furnish them with certainty.” When the Renaissance arrived in the 15th century, which is where Fried leaves off, it “distinguished itself more through its works of art than its philosophy,” an idea indicating that Medieval thinkers were more advanced than those of the Renaissance, relating more to their late-Enlightenment counterparts—indeed, one of the most striking findings of The Middle Ages is a section mentioning a 14th century collection of tales, Gesta Romanorum, in which a philosopher states, four hundred years before Nietzsche, that “God is dead.” Somehow, such progressive ideas were either ignored or overlooked by future historians.

Again, as with the development of individual rights, there’s more light to the Dark Ages than we previously thought, and the story we’ve told ourselves turns out to be just that: a story.


This is the second of a two-part review. Read a review of Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop here. 

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