The Cradle of European Poetry, Part 1
Manners: 3 a. The socially correct way of acting; etiquette. b. The prevailing customs, social conduct, and norms of a specific society…
Moral: 1. Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character: 2. Teaching or exhibiting goodness or correctness of character and behavior…
So, this post is going to be a little complicated: RT is warning folks that there’s a lot of territory to cover. On the plus side, we’re going to be looking at how poetry arrived in western Europe and how poetry is connected to other, important aspects of behavior, such as 1) deciding on the right course of action and 2) minding our manners.
A. Europe in its Cradle
Dark ages are never fun. One civilization collapses and over a period of centuries another rises up from the ruins. Along with the usual payback, rapine, and despair, the conquerors mimic or forget the finer accomplishments of the former time. Something new is struggling to be born, and like any act of creation, it is attended by the most basic considerations: survival and the preservation of what has already been achieved. Nobody has time for poetry.
In the case of Europe, after the final collapse of the Roman Empire in 476, the single most important change was the incorporation of northern Europe into the cultural world established by Rome; the center of Europe was no longer Rome, but the Rhine River. But northern Europe immediately began exerting its cultural differences from the south, perhaps most importantly, in the struggle between the Arian aristocracy of the new Germanic kingdoms and the Catholic Church centered in Rome. By the 8th century, this conflict had been resolved in favor of Rome. And with the defeat of Muslim armies at the Battle of Tours in 732, Europe as a cultural entity was confirmed. Still, on the northern frontier, the Vikings began their long series of raids and invasions, engaging part of the new culture’s military strength until the 12th century.
Great poetry, RT notes, did in fact continue to be written in vernacular languages: Beowulf, the Ulster Cycle and the Mabinogion, and the mythology of the Vikings. But these works were all the product of the dying pagan societies of pre-Christian Europe. So far, no great works written in Latin or its descendant languages had yet been created. No one had found a voice for Europe’s new feudal society, which began to emerge in the 9th century. In fact, the modern languages of Europe were still evolving out of Latin.
B. Reversal of Fortunes
Until the 11th century, Europe was tightly constrained by its powerful neighbors: the Vikings in the north, the Abbasid Caliphate in the south, and the Byzantine Empire in the east; indeed, few would argue that Constantinople and its magnificent cathedral, Hagia Sophia, constituted the center of Christian culture in those years.
But power rarely lingers in one place for long: the conversion of the Sweden to Christianity by the 12th century, the collapse of the unified Caliphate of Cordoba in 1031, and the destruction of the Byzantine army by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert (1071), started a process of cultural migration and absorption that prepared the ground in Europe for the Renaissance. And perhaps no clearer sign of the quickening of Europe could have been given than the Crusades.
C. The Crusades
Persecution strengthens community. As long as a clear threat exists, any community will huddle together and work to make the danger pass. When the problem goes away, people start to argue with each other. Then they need diplomatic skills to heal the wounds.
But the clock is ticking away, and RT has a busy day tomorrow. The story of how Europe fell into disunion even as it acquired its poetic sensibilities will have to wait till later…
Photo, top: Queen, Spanish Chess Piece; 12th century, Walter Art Museum. WikiCmns; Public Domain. Brooch: Anglo-Saxon openwork silver disk brooch, from the Pentney Hoard. Author: Johnbod. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported. Illustration: The Seljuk Turk Alp Arslan Humbling Romanus IV. 2nd quarter of the 15th century; Bibliothèque nationale de France, manuscrit Français 232, folio 323. Author: Boccace, De Casibus. WikiCmns; Public Domain.