Students of history and literature partition the thousand years from 476 to 1500 into Early, High and Late Middle Ages. To start the refrain: the Early Middle Ages brackets the years between the fall of the Roman Empire and Charlemagne and his successors. This is the period often labeled the Dark Ages, where learning seemed to have all but disappeared and barbarians – those who did not share the Greco-Roman heritage - descended onto and raided settlements throughout Western Europe. The formation of universities, the three-tiered society of knights, clerics, and everyone else characterizes the High Middle Ages, which ends with echoes that the Holy Roman Empire is beset with intrigues. The Late Middle Ages are presented in terms of fragmentation: a continued disintegration of the papacy, conflicts between Rome and leaders of nation states, and heresies, near and far. The positives of the Late Middle Ages are points of departure: scholars fled west from Byzantium after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 with knowledge thought lost. This Humanism and the Gutenberg press then ushered in the Renaissance. The printed page seems to herald the birth of modernity; it usurped the monopoly of knowledge that had literally rested in the hands of the clerics, despite the inordinate expense of books and the high rate of illiteracy of the masses throughout Europe.
I would propose three different periods based on a shift of perspective on knowledge and power. In my model, the Middles Ages span the 5th-10th centuries, where a person sees him or herself in a coherent, ordered universe and within the flow of history. Augustine’s Confessions, his meditation on time and memory, best exemplifies the medieval spirit. Recovery of knowledge from Antiquity, the Renaissance, I place between the 11th-16th centuries, and the Modern era, from the 17th century till 1945. I would use Colin Crouch’s term ‘post-democracy’ for the period spanning 1945 to the present.
The shift between the Renaissance and the Modern Era is found in Galileo’s scientific method. He broke away from Aristotelian logic when he used experiments to substantiate reasoning. Galileo’s method, together with Descartes’s esprit de finesse, anticipates the view of science and technology that thinkers such as Heidegger see as the very essence of our epoch, for better or worse. Heidegger was fiercely anti-technology and considered the worship of technology a disgrace from which “nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” only a god can save us at this point. What does that have to do with medieval and modern, with ‘us’ and ‘them’?
The Middle Ages started with one symbolic act: when Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne, because it doomed the papacy and created a codependency between pontiff and heads of State. Whomever the pope blessed, other monarchs resented and the crowned emperors raided and slaughtered as they pleased, with or without the See’s approval. Now, students of history may point to other critical turning points in history such as the Battle of Ethandun in which King Alfred defeated the Viking Guthrum and united Britain; or the Battle of Hastings, which firmly established Norman rule in England. I’d consider an alternative, a less Anglophile-oriented example, of a socially cohesive organization that weathered the stormy vicissitudes of several papacies, endured countless emperors, and, today, remains as momentous for and consequential to world history, to Western Europe, and to the transition from Medieval to Renaissance to Modern.
For, as the papacy dealt with the emperors it crowned, towns throughout northern Italy banded together for protection, forming independent republics. Though they often warred against each other, these communes were autonomous, with the citizenry of each enjoying liberties not known elsewhere in Europe. These communes, like Galileo’s experiments, were a social proof: people were less tied to the land; they were literate, active in art, business, and education. While not perfect, society was divided into two tiers: the wealthy and everyone else, the Haves and Have-Nots, il populo grosso e il populo minuto, in Italian. These communes exercised a version of Res publica that would provide the model from which the Cromwellians forged the word ‘Commonwealth.’
Communes were free municipalities, one of the earliest expressions of democracy in Europe after the fall of Rome. The communes in Flanders best correspond to those found in northern Italy. Success for a commune, for self-rule, depended on individuals and institutions to function harmoniously, without interference with or suspicion of each other. In his book The Italians, John Hooper would cite Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work on this point and added that this is the reason why there is a distinct north and south divide in Italy on the matter of civic responsibilities, or civismo. For a different outcome, compare Hamburg, a member of the Hanseatic League, with Venice. While Hamburg had historically remained a commercial city and a free commune, Venice quickly evolved into a maritime empire that, at its height, dominated the eastern Mediterranean. Barcelona, which ruled the western Mediterranean, was not a commune but a principate within the Aragon kingdom. On that note, as the Hansa became fundamental to the Protestant work ethic, so did the Rule of St. Benedict, Ora et labora (Pray and Work), prove critical to the work ethic found in northern Italy.
If I had to cite non-Eurocentric examples of a commune, I’d point to Hong Kong and Macau. Like the northern Italian cities, they had to deal with different rulers. Hong Kong is officially a territory, autonomous, and with greater political and judicial liberties than those available in Mainland China. The document, Hong Kong Basic Law, is the territory’s constitution. Macau, a specialized region, has a similar document.
As innovation was anathema to the medieval cleric and solidarity of any kind a threat to the power of a Renaissance lord, the Italian communes met resistance to their respective autonomies in the Battle of Legnano in 1167. Frederick I, Barbarossa, had tried and ultimately failed in that confrontation to crush the Lombard League. The communes emerged victorious and Barbarossa retreated and reconciled with Pope Alexander III. As an analogy, imagine if New Jersey were to declare war on the federal government and won, achieving independence though still acknowledging DC as the nation’s capital. Legnano remains a point of pride among Italians. The David-and-Goliath myth that is Legnano would be revived during the Risorgimento. Without Legnano, there would have been no autonomy for the Italian city-states, no Humanism, no Renaissance. The history of Western Europe would have been very different.
Series: Roma #4
Author: Gabriel Valjan
Publication Date: June 15/15 by Winter Goose Publishing
Back Cover Blurb:
En route to a secret meeting, Aldo Giurlani—the regional commissioner of Lombardy in northern Italy and a specialist on organized crime—is assassinated in the middle of a public square.
More mysterious is the package sent to Giurlani’s hand-picked team of five top investigators within the Guardia di Finanza (GdF), the Italian law enforcement agency that investigates illegal financial transactions, from money laundering to drug trafficking. Within the package are five copies of a book entitled Man of Smoke written by Aldo Palazzeschi.
Then there is Bianca’s tenuous online contact with a mysterious online contact known as Loki, who delivers a cryptic message to her, takes on a new twist with the appearance of a brilliant young obsessive-compulsive man who joins her team.
Complicating matters even further, old enemies and, more problematically, Alabaster’s former employer—Rendition, a murky covert U.S. government agency that does more than just investigate financial crimes—still have grudges to bear against her.
As new mysteries unfold, Bianca’s group quickly discovers that Naples might just be the most dangerous city in Italy.
Suspense and mystery definitely ruled the day in Valjan’s latest release. I thoroughly enjoyed the complexity of the novel and the intensity of the tale. This is a fantastic novel that I’d definitely recommend to others.