Sunday, March 02, 2014
In another discussion about the "dark ages" and why the Renaissance is better and is in fact a "rebirth" of classical art and literature, one of the contributors compared the Germanic successor states of the early medieval period with the "classical period" in terms of drama as an example. In the classical world we have greats like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes and so on. Nothing comparable from the early medieval period, so this indicates that at least on the dramatic level, the classical period and Renaissance are superior. There are of course several problems with such a reconstruction. Let's take a look at them.
The first major problem is the myth of the Classical Tradition Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a big believer in the Classical Tradition, and in the teaching of that tradition. But I also know that it is a construct of later ages that has gathered the rosebuds of the classical period and then forgotten that the beautiful bouquet came from thorny bushes. Or to restate, the "Classical Tradition" consists of the highlights of the Classical period and presents those highlights as if they were the whole. It is easy to forget that looking at the dramatists of fifth century BCE Athens for example that the Classical Tradition knows no other dramatists for the entire period. A few will mention Plautus and Terence, perhaps Menander. Fewer will know that Seneca tried his hand at drama. And there the Renaissance mythers dry up. Thus, at best for the 1000 year period, 500 BCE-500 CE, most Ren mythers can name maybe a half dozen dramatists, almost all from one slice of that period, fifth century Athens.
The careful observer will note the problem immediately, of course. Comparing one slice of the "Classical Period" to another period and then saying, "See, the Classical Period is better since that other period produced nothing of the kind" is fallacious. It takes a part as if it were the whole, then compares that false whole to another period and weighs the balance. In point of fact, no one can name dramatists of the second century BCE (save Terence *if* the Ren mythers knew that that was when he lived!), or a dramatist of 3rd, or 4th, or 5th century CE! Most Ren mythers are completely unaware that we have whole literary movements that are mentioned briefly by later writers of which we have no surviving examples…not even from the sands of Egypt! Of course the mythers do not wish to compare those periods that are dry and have little to recommend them in terms of drama or literature. A truth of history is simply that there are periods where a great deal of creative art is produced, and periods where that isn't true, and periods that are consolidators, and periods that pushing the traditional boundaries. Comparing the Germanic successor states to fifth century Athens in drama and then finding the former wanting in comparison to the "Classical Age" is fallacious. If one wants to compare the Germanic successor states' literature and art to the Roman Empire of the 3rd or the 4th centuries, that's fine, let's do that. The Successor States may still be wanting (we'll see), but at least the playing field will be equal.
The second major problem is that the Ren mythers do not seem aware of what remains and what doesn't. Those great playwrights of Athens wrote dozens of plays, Aeschylus if I remember correctly wrote more than 80. We also know, for example, that at the Dionysian festival where the plays were performed, that each playwright submitted four plays, three tragedies and a satyr play. Of Aeschylus' 80 tragedies, we have 7. And the same is true of the other dramatists: they all wrote dozens of plays, and very few survive. And we have no examples of the satyr play! At all! I mentioned above that we have whole movements of literature and drama for which nothing survives. One example of this is Athenian Middle Comedy…not a play survives.
Now it might be tempting for Ren mythers and others to say, "Well they don't survive because of those Germanic Successor States! The Germans came in, Rome fell, and so much was lost." False. Quite apart from what the Germans supposedly destroyed in establishing their kingdoms, the most important thing to note is how much was lost *DURING THE ROMAN EMPIRE.* or even before. The case of Aristotle's public works is a case in point: his "exoteric" works were already lost by the time of the Alexandrian library! His works published for the public are unknown, not even their titles come down to us. They're gone! One essential fact that mythers overlook is that if the people of antiquity were not interested or did not value a text, it died. And as mentioned about drama above, we have no copies for hundreds of plays written by the great names that come down to us much less the plays of their contemporaries. And the reason is because the folk at the time had no interest in preserving them! And that has nothing to do with the transformation of the empire into the successor states of the Middle Ages. All this to say that when Ren mythers are talking about the rosebuds that survive, we cannot let them forget that those rosebuds came from rosebushes, or in other words, that the loss of great texts and literature was not the result of the Middle Ages, but of Classical Antiquity, the very source of great literature that they wish to praise so highly.
And speaking of preservation, the Germanic societies entering the Roman Empire and setting up shop were still an oral culture and slowly made the transition to a written-oral culture. That is, while writing came to be essential, orality never disappeared, nor significantly decreased. But on entering the historical period and the empire, they were oral. If what does survive from later periods reflects the historical situation, scops and skalds, the oral poets, were highly valued. And we have the word "players" in Germanic languages; we're not sure what "players" did but we are told in more than one text that they "played" before such and such a king. So there are clearly performances, perhaps even of a dramatic kind. That they are not recorded should not be taken as an indication that they did not exist, and no judgement can be made of their quality.
Oh, and lest we forget, so many of those important texts Ren mythers are on about that the early medieval period inherited from the Late Antique period they faithfully copied. And read. And studied. And commented on. They absorbed the knowledge of the past, at least what was passed on to them, and preserved it. Over the centuries, other materials that had been lost or misplaced were recovered….whether through a library discovery or through trade or through contact with the Muslim kingdoms…and these too were then copied, read, studied, commented on, and absorbed. My point is though, that without those "dark ages", there could have been no Renaissance.
Finally, and I make this point often against Ren mythers, there was never a lack of interest in the classics and the classical period throughout the Medieval Age. By definition the so-called Renaissance is the "rebirth" of interest in the knowledge of the Classical Age. But that's silly. The Medieval Age was very interested in the classical age, read classical texts, preserved classical texts, absorbed classical knowledge and then built on that knowledge. Yes, there were some things the Renaissance *EMPHASIZED* that the Medieval period did not, but that's not the same thing as saying that interest was "reborn." In short, even using the term Renaissance is simply a historical lie.
So there you have it. Making claims that the early Medieval period didn't produce greats like Sophocles and Aeschylus and must be wanting in some way is false on its face If you wish to compare the literature of fifth century Visiogothic kingdom with fifth century Athens, well, that's one thing (though why one would is another question), but if we wish to assess what is going in the Middle Ages we first have to compare to what came immediately before. And doing that will show some striking similarities.