We’re planning a trip to France. It’s been ages for me. And, pity him, my husband has never been to Paris.
In my college days studying art history, I was a cathedral maven. Certain towns would end up on my itinerary just because of a famous cathedral. (A friend told me I reminded her of the main character in Mary McCarthy’s “Birds of America”, which I later read. He was indeed fascinated by cathedrals.) But I never made it to Autun or Vezelay in Burgundy, so now we’re going. Last night I was riffling through my medieval art books to review what I recalled of the Romanesque and Gothic. And I also recalled that had I done things differently, I might have gotten a post-graduate degree in medieval studies.
Maybe I presciently knew that at some point in my life a Dark Ages analogy would be appropriate, I don’t know. But looking at the photos of the cathedrals sparked my memory not just of sublime art but of feudal towns, religion, ignorance and barbarism. Many of these cathedral squares were also the sites of witch burnings, execution of heretics and public floggings. The feudal economy was resource based and owned by royalty and, through it, the Church. Most people were poor and barefoot and the women were usually pregnant. Being illiterate, they got virtually all their information about the world from the pulpit. Only the monks and progressive elites were literate. Through fear of Satan, the Inquisition and hell, they clung to faith and dogma. And to ensure a place in heaven, they built cathedrals as symbols of divinity.
To safeguard themselves from the single biggest threat of the times, the brutality of the era, those among the luckiest of feudal societies were held together as in a tribe by a ruler who slew anyone who got in the way of safety. Not much else mattered, and so for a thousand years or so, progress was slow and mostly did not impact the masses. Life was small — your village, family, fellow churchgoers, the chickens in your coop and your knitting circle. Venturing outside might mean falling off the edge of the world. The Cathedrals made that world bigger.
That was the mega-trend.
The counter-trend was the preservation by some elites of knowledge. Without them, the engineering of the cathedrals would not have happened. The books, otherwise known as The Word or The Light, would have been dust. The West would not have had its Renaissance. Would the West have been discovered without the navigation tools science made possible? Would there have been the 18th century Enlightenment, of which the USA founding fathers were a part? Maybe we wouldn’t have Google.
What the Dark Ages point out to me is that the history of people and of humanity are so different. I will be eternally grateful not to have been a 9th century serf. But with the legacy those serfs left in the cathedrals, I’m glad to be their descendant. And so it goes. One can only hope that beyond our Twitter streams, micro-niches and red/blue enclaves there is something greater going on.