Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dark Ages? Not everywhere: Byzantine love for classics

In popular opinions Dark Ages were taking over Europe until the Renaissance came with revival of classic traditions. This is only partially true. Byzantine Empire continued the tradition of Greece and Rome, combined with Eastern influences. Medieval renaissances of Europe, to be exact Western and Central Europe were brought by closer contact with Byzantine Empire.

 Byzantium was the name of the city, which was renamed by the emperor Constantine Nova Roma, meaning the New Rome, as it became new capital, but it was also renamed  Constantinople . It became Europe's biggest city, it had half million inhabitants.The people who inhabited this empire called themselves Romans, the empire was called Romania. Greek was spoken, as the local language and the language of educated elites, nothing unusual, even in Rome educated people spoke Greek, as Romans were totally admiring Greek culture and copied a lot from it. The library of Constantinople was very prominent, Byzantine equivalent of the great library of Alexandria. Ancient writings were not only preserved here, but also studied and copied, to keep the knowledge from disappearing. There were also periods of additional stronger interests in classics, such as Macedonian Renaissance of the X c. from which time the page of the manuscript called the Psalter of David is dated. King David is depicted as a Byzantine emperor, but the other two figures are very classical. No wonder: as Rome had  monuments of the classical past, so did this area of Byzantine Empire.

Penitence of David, Paris Psalter,  X c.Biblioteque Nationale, Paris

We see David twice: sitting on his throne, and also bowing feeling remorse for all the bad deeds  he has done. Classical figures are here- the admonishing prophet, and the female figure which is the personification of penitence. She is dressed in green and red, the colors later seen often in robes of Mary Magdalene. Why we know that this is penitence? One thing is that personifications were common in the art of Antiquity, another prof is her name written above. It was common in Byzantine art to include captions about the figures to indicate who was who. (People in Byzantine Empire were quite literate, the culture was vibrant). Also above the prostrating David we have the caption which spells his name, that the viewers shouldn't be confused. The writing connected to the female figure there is the word "Metanoia," which term meant repentance in Greek. Meant changing one's mind, turning point. The flagellants of Latin Christianity gave it bad connotations. Penitence was about making amendments, changing mind, changing lifestyle.

But Byzantine Empire was of course more sophisticated than Latin West, were tribal warfare and other struggles went on through some longer periods of time, but still medieval times were not as dark as it is held in popular imagination. The movies may show this time as era of ignorance, superstition, dirt, illness and decline, as this imagery adds drama, but the times were more lively and enlightened. Rather during the Renaissance, or general during the XV-XVII c.Europe had even more dark turmoils: more of  illness, witch hunts, inquisition, wars,  fears of devil,belief that magic equals science, etc. Even medieval universities were not all about faith, as is often assumed: popular belief is that science believed the Earth was flat, or in medicine there was no dissection of corpses, the medical knowledge of Antiquity wasn't practiced, etc. Not true, we know thanks to explosion of knowledge about the Middle Ages during he XX c. So, why the term Dark Ages?

First putting down on the predecessors occurred during the Renaissance, in order to point out the new achievements. Gothic art was called Gothic in a derogative way, as Goths were considered barbarians. The Renaissance mind was so enamored in the nostalgia for antiquity, that they couldn't really appreciate the art and achievements of earlier generations. This lack of appreciation went thorough centuries, and the era of Enlightenment in order to contrast is own achievements needed the idea contrasting light and darkness, needed the term Dark Ages. In addition the term Age of Faith was used, in order to brand the times as irrational and dark. The Enlightenment prided itself not only for its light, but also for reason as opposite to faith. There were even attempts to create temples of reason in churches.

Byzantine manuscript, X c. Paris Psalter, King David Playing Harp, very much in the tradition of classical frescoes

During the XIX c. the scholars were talking still about Dark Ages as the time from which were not too many written records left, but there was also medieval fashion . (Pre-Rafaelites, Romanticism, Gothic Revival, etc). This intense interest in all things medieval was combined with the Romanticism's love for mystery, the  fantastic, emotional and the irrational. Hard reason of previous era wasn't the fashionable idea. During the XX c. however, the term Dark Ages started to be criticized, in light of the new scholarship, and the term was used in a more neutral way, and even the neutrality of the term was disputed. It was argued that the scholars may know that the usage isn't negative, but the general public will not interpret it such way. And the criticism was right on target.

And myself I used the term provocatively in the title of this post. Still, I think in popular culture Byzantine Empire doesn't get enough credit, and this was an empire of great sophistication and influence, and lasted of a millennium. Holy Roman Empire lasted almost a millennium, but there were empires which existed for much shorter time: The British Empire, Austrian Empire, Empire of Austria and Hungary, Bulgarian Empire, and others. So, maybe it is time to refresh the memory of this part of common history? But still, I think the movie industry, mainstream literature, computer games, TV, advertisements, press,some popular chanels historical documentary movies, and others are still in the dark about not-so Dark-Ages.

Quite often there is a misconception of great Rome which fall:yes, Rome was sacked, but before became very empoverished because of Byzantium. The idea of "fall of Roman Empire" first was again talked about during he Renaissance, by popes. It was an idea supporting propaganda: Pagan empire which "fall," quite clever idea, remember, there was the schism between Byzantium and Latin Christianity. It is not very historically accurate common misconception, but quite often still, in XXI c. has place in the classroom.