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EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE (1 of 10)

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Europe: 501 to 1000 CE

Up from a So-Called Dark Age | Anglo-Saxons into England | Christianity Returns to Britain | Spain from the 6th to 10th Century | The Slavs | The Byzantine Empire, 650 to 726 CE | the Icon and Images Conflict | the Bulgars | the Lombards to Charlemagne | Vikings, Magyars, Warlords and Feudalism

Map of Europe
Remnants of the Roman Empire, circa 500 CE

Up from a So-Called Dark Age

Learning, literature and art suffered during the Germanic invasions that destroyed the western half of the Roman Empire. Literature also suffered from many Christians and ecclesiastics seeing books other than their Bible as heathen, pernicious or dangerous works of the devil. The only reading that the Church encouraged was the Bible – in keeping with Augustine’s insistence that only the scriptures contained an authoritative account of the world and its phenomena.

Under Church influence, many books were burned or not copied. The empire's great libraries were ruined. Of the works at the greatest of libraries, at Alexandria, only a small fraction survived. Works by the pagan historian Zosimus did. And so too did the encyclopedic work by Martianus Capella, The Seven Liberal Arts, a work on grammar, rhetoric, oratory, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. But there was little to stimulate a return to the disturbing philosophies of the ancient Greeks or the new thinking that would come centuries later. In Western Europe, Aristotle was gone from the minds of people considering the nature of things. The advances in medicine that had come with Hippocrates and then Galen in the second century waned. Christians still regarded disease as punishment for sin, which demanded prayer and repentance. Christian hospitals remained, but vivisection was forbidden because the Church held the human body as sacred.

Judicial proceedings suffered from superstitions that prevailed among community leaders as well as common people. Trials were often judged by two or three commoners under a nobleman or his representative. Eyewitnesses testified, but attempts to determine a person's innocence or guilt were made through ordeals in which God was thought to assert his powers. This involved combat between two who had come to court as parties in conflict. Some who were on trial were thrown into water in the belief that floating to the surface was a sign of guilt, the purity of water rejecting the guilty, and sinking a sign of innocence. Attempts were made to prove innocence or guilt also by having the accused walk on hot coals or by the accused putting his hand into boiling water, the court believing that if the hand healed properly it was a sign of God's favor and therefore innocence.

The Church let this means to justice be. And the Church held to the geography of a monk from Egypt: Cosmas. His treatise Topographia Christiana drew from scripture and had the earth as flat with Jerusalem at its center and the Garden of Eden nearby, irrigated by the Four Rivers of Paradise.



Western Tradition, by Eugen Weber, programs 17-19

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