25 January 2007

Crosby: Necessary but Insufficient Causes

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 3:52 pm

What pulled medieval Western Europe out of its cultural isolation and stagnation? Alfred Crosby cites a number of influences in chapter 3 of The Measure of Reality.

Expansion. The population may have tripled between 1000 and 1340, with Venice and London approaching 100,000 inhabitants apiece (a fifth the size of Cairo at the time). The plague killed off maybe a third of the populace, but recovery was rapid. The Crusades began in the eleventh century, exposing Westerners into pagan and Islamic cultures. Trade increased, mostly within Europe but also with the East. In the cities, or bourgs, the bourgeoisie began to emerge: merchants, financiers, lawyers, accountants, mill owners.

Decentralization. The Muslim, Indian and Chinese civilizations were well-organized, unified, stable: strong but rigid. The medieval West was a patchwork of kingdoms, fiefdoms and city-states without a unifying culture or language. In short, Europe was weak and disorganized but flexible. Because it had no center, it had centers everywhere. If a dissenter irritated the local authorities enough to be banished, he could usually find sanctuary elsewhere without having to travel very far. The local lords and bishops weren’t strong enough to suppress the bourgeoisie. Because the West had no unifying culture of its own, Westerners felt free to borrow from the Greeks, the Persians, the Egyptians, and anybody else who had something worth emulating. Consequently, Crosby says, the West, unlike its rivals, had a chronic need for exlainers, adjusters, and resynthesizers.

Confusion. In the twelfth century Western scholars began studying with Jews and Muslims in Spain, returning with translations of Plato, Ptolemy, Avicenna, and especially Aristotle, who seemed able to explain with precision just about everything. To make sense of the newly-available classical learning in light of traditional ways of understanding, the urban intellectuals began organizing themselves into universities. Paris was the first, which after a stormy beginning received papal protection in 1231. It had a few notable professors in the early days: Abelard, Albert the Great, Aquinas, Bonaventure. The Schoolmen organized the new wealth of ancient scholarship, inventing handy tools like chapter titles, table of contents, hierarchically organized outlines, cross-references, citations, concordances, the index, and alphabetical-ordered library catalogs and dictionaries. Around 1200 Stephen Langdon devised the chapter and verse system for the books of the Bible. The Schoolmen, not the merchants, were the first to make the shift from Roman to Arabic numerals. Trying to make sense of a disparate mass of knowledge demanded that the Schoolmen achieve a logical rigor and a lucidity of expression unknown since the Greeks, reaching its zenith in the work of Aquinas. Says Crosby: In our time the word medieval is often used as a synonym for muddle-headedness, but it can be more accurately used to indicate precise definition and meticulous reasoning, that is to say, clarity. Though the Schoolmen’s thinking was virtually mathematical in its orderly precision, though they began comparing things previously considered incomparable, rarely did they actually measure or count anything.

Money. Meanwhile, what had long been a barter and exchange economy gradually moved toward a cash economy. This meant that everything saleable also had to be measurable – it had to have a cash price. Even the value of a worker’s time could be measured monetarily. In 1308 Pope Clement V decreed that pardoning a year’s time in purgatory was worth one pence, to be contributed to the Crusades. Western Europe certainly wasn’t the first monetary economy. They just seemed to be more obsessed with the money itself – exchange rates, interest rates, debts and credits, the purity of the gold it was made of.


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