19 October 2018

The brightness of the ‘Dark Ages

Eike von Repgow, from the Oldenburger Sachsenspiegel illuminated manuscript

First of all, three cheers and a hearty bravissima to Dr Claire Breay, a librarian with the British Library, who recently gave an interview to the Telegraph about ‘the sophistication and interconnected European world of Anglo-Saxon art, literature and history’ as shown through its poetry, written music, fine metalwork, medicine and administrative methods – and made the point that the ages so often thought-of as ‘Dark’ in Europe were really anything but. As something of an amateur Old England buff myself, I was particularly gratified to see her references to Beowulf and to the Junius manuscript. The beauty and the erudition both, of which the people of Old England were capable, was clearly what Dr Breay wanted to demonstrate.

That fits rather nicely, I think, with another story I read recently: about how the first categorical legal sanction against slavery was issued by the cousins of the Old English on the continent, the Old Saxons. (There had been legal sanctions against slavery and the slave trade prior to that, but they were almost always conditioned on the status of the enslaved as Christian or the status of the owner as non-Christian.) The Sachsenspiegel (‘Saxon Mirror’), or Sassen Speyghel in the original Middelsassisch language, was a systematic collection (often in verse) of earlier customary Saxon law, and indeed the first law code to outright forbid the ownership of a human being. Its compiler, Eike von Repgow, was apparently a well-educated lay-clerk with a formidable understanding of both Scripture and canon law. As such, he put forward a radical theological justification for this proscription. According to Roman Catholic ‘solidarist’ œconomist Prof Dr Hans Frambach of the University of Wuppertal:
The total power of one man over another was first condemned in the Sachsenspiegel, whose author, Eike von Repkow, judged it a violation of God’s likeness in man.
The theological instincts of Eike were correct, of course. And the Low Germans (some of my own forebears being, I presume, among them) can be justly proud of this particular mediæval contribution of theirs to jurisprudence. Still, East or West, the insistence on the inherent dignity of the human being has always had a theological basis. In the brightest flowering of the theological thought of the Middle Ages, as we can see with Eike von Repgow, the traditional Teutonic detestation of servility – that ‘noble Northern spirit’ which so moved Tolkien – combined with the Christian witness to produce a conviction that all slavery is wrong.

The infamous transatlantic slave trade represented, not a recapitulation or an outgrowth of European mediævalism, but instead a backsliding from it. The ‘progress’ of the Renaissance, at least in terms of treatment of people, was anything but. The rise of mercantile capitalism in the city-states of Renaissance Italy and the concomitant development of a ‘new political science’ there; sustained contact with Turks and Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean; and ill-fated new contacts with indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas in the Age of Discovery; all combined to bring chattel slavery back in a new, particularly heinous and brutal, form – particularly among the English, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish.

In light – so to speak – of this history, let’s remember that the idea that the Middle Ages were ‘Dark’ was in fact a prejudice, indeed a kind of historical propaganda, of this very same Renaissance-era Italy that birthed capitalism and the ‘new political science’. The paucity of this propaganda has been apparent for some time now, yet it still persists. May more folks who know better do the same commendable due diligence against this myth as Dr Breay has done.

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