The World of the middle Ages is as alien to us as are all other primitive civilizations. The language in use was Latin but not everybody mastered it. The vernaculars were rough and imprecise. Dictionaries were absent. Grammar, syntax and spelling were undefined. Imprecision pervaded everyday life: boundaries were imprecise, states were all united under the Emperor but were also all disparate, plants and animals were known to exist under different categories but species were not defined. For example, rats copulate with rabbits and give offspring. Horses copulate with donkeys and give offspring. How then could a farmer-as was the vast majority of the population- define a species? There was no intelligible order.
Mentally, the mind was confused. The literature from before the 17th century treats every subject at random without organization, with repetitions and contradictions. On the contrary, since the 17th century a work of intellect has to be rigorously arranged otherwise it is found guilty of outrage to the recognized epistemological habits, which postulate that the truth is quested and conquested; one proceeds from the known to discover the unknown. In medieval times, the truth was already revealed and commented on by the Fathers of the Church. One proceeded from the known to the known and it mattered little where one started and finished, since one never left an already reconnoitered path that led to Christ.
12.2.1 The concept of Time
Mankind attempted desperately and frantically to integrate itself into that complex and yet simple substance, Time, and be in a coherent way in concordance with the combined rhythms of Moon and Sun, which were believed to be similar. For most ancient civilizations, Time and thus History were cyclical. History repeats itself. This is a primitive concept also shared by little children who do not envision death and believe that, while they grow older, the elderly grow younger.
For civilizations devoid of instruments of measure, the observation of the movements of the Moon is easier than that of the height of the Sun at midday. The Ancients 7 counted time by lunar months. The recurrence of the full moon every 29.5 days allowed with a sufficient precision the forecast of holidays and important events, as for example the flooding of the Nile or the beginning of the monsoon. It was easily discovered that 12 lunar months (255 days) accounted for about one year. But not exactly, so that readjustments had to take place. It led to the Saturnalia, which attempted to link recurring seasons with the discrepancy observed between the solar and lunar years.
The Saturnalia tried to conciliate the fact that Man changes and gets older whereas Nature remains cyclically identical to itself. The seasons were a recurrent phenomenon for which one had only mythical explanations. These myths were assimilated in the liturgy of the Church through Epiphany, which was a most important event until the end of the middle Ages. Epiphany lasted from the 25th of December to the 6th of January. The twelve days of the Saturnalia were the 12 little months and represented the difference between the solar and lunar years. During these twelve days, time ran in reverse: the children are old and the old are young, the fools are wise and the slaves are kings, the night is the day and the day is dark; animals talk and humans are animals, Christ -born in a stall on the 25th of December- is a destitute who is the King of this Earth.
The definition of the beginning of a new year was not easy. For the West, an essential holiday is Easter. It falls on the Sunday that follows the full moon that coincides with or immediately follows the spring equinox, i.e. when the length of the day matches that of the night. Easter may fall anytime between the 22nd of March and the 25th of April. Until the 14th century, the legal year began with Easter in France, so that some years had 2 months of March and others were devoid of an April. In Spain and Germany, the New Year began on the 25th of December. In Great Britain, it was the 25th of March and it was the first of March in Venice (that long was a Byzantine possession). In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII established a calendar that was in good concordance with the observed variations of the seasons, and will remain so for several more centuries. This Gregorian calendar was adopted in England in 1752, in Russia in 1917 8, in Greece in 1923 and in Turkey in 1926. Other civilizations (Islam, Japan, China, Copts, Hebrew) continue to record time on their own calendars for their anniversaries, of which some rely on solar years, others on lunar years.
12.2.2 The concept of Space
Space appears to us tridimentional, homogeneous and infinite. In medieval Europe and in similar civilizations, infinite space was an alien notion. For the minds of these civilizations, the sky was a space of considerable width and majestic height but it was finite. It had to be finite in size because the whole thing goes around once every day. Hence the fear of the Gauls that the firmament would fall on their head. The perception and representation of space in paintings by Vermeer, Rafael, Van Dijck, Rubens etc. is very different from that of a Chinese or Japanese print, of Byzantine frescoes, of Persian paintings and of the paintings made by the Flemish and Italian Primitives. In these cases, no effect of perspective, no deepness, no relative dimensions, no apparent proportions are respected: a lord appears always taller than a serf and a castle may be smaller than a lord.
The measurement of distances was another problem. Every nation had its own units of measures (inch, yard, foot, thumb, mile, etc). A “mille” is the space covered by a Roman legionary after he completed one thousand (mille in Latin) steps in a straight line. This measure of length is still kept by the Americans as a mile. Words did not exist that could account for large numbers. The notion of zero also was nonexistent for a long time.
12.2.3 The concept of Matter and Life
Is it not a common observation that a liquid (water and lava) may change into a solid (ice and stone) when the temperature gets colder? How comes then that some liquids (mercury, alcohol) do not freeze? What explanation is there for the total disappearance of water in some instances (evaporation) whereas it sometimes leaves solid residues (salt, residues of evaporation)? Everyone may observe that air transforms into water (rain), that earth transforms into water (springs) and that water may burn (ignis fatuus). Why does milk solidify (cheese) but juice transforms into alcohol and vinegar? How can one explain that some burned earth (carbon and sulfur) transforms into air, leaving no residue after combustion, while other earth (iron ore) treated with the same fire, becomes iron? Wind, until the seventeenth century, was believed to be provoked by the movement of leaves.
The wearing of clothes depends on religious-cultural habits and on the weather. Greek soldiers of the 6th century B.C. wore no breeches (fig. 12.1), some fought in the nude.
Figure 12.1. Greek hoplite of the 6th century B.C. The Spartan hoplites who fought at the Thermopiles were naked except for a helmet and sandals.
Five hundred years later, a fresco representing a marriage in Rome during the first century B.C. shows that the wearing of clothes remains a personal choice (fig. 12.2). One hundred years later, the same absence of clothes is noted in Pompeii, which was destroyed in 79 of the Christian Era (fig. 12.3)
Figure 12.2. Roman fresco “The Aldobrandini wedding”, 1st century B.C. The style is narrative. It is an art of expression and illustration, which draws its feeling for naturalism from Etruscan and indigenous sources
Figure 12.3. Roman fresco decorating a room in Pompeii (79 A.D.). Perseus (winged feet) carries the head of Medusa in his left hand and delivers Andromeda. Realistically painted nudes are presented as allegorical objects.
The first Christians had an intense sense of purity. Under the impulse of Paul and the clothing habits received from Hebrews, they wore clothes but they lived in the midst of a society that was fully addicted to carnal pleasures: Pompeii counted in 79 A.D. 65 brothels for 64 bakeries. St Paul scolded the Corinthian Christian community for its impudicity and advised Christian women to be shy and remain covered. Corinth was a town where restaurants provided an entertainment of nude boys and girls dancing for the guests who, after dinner, drew the youth out, irrespective of sex, for further enjoyment. A theater of the city had a daily life representation of a bull mounting a woman.
How can one explain erection and sexual arousal, and how conciliate it with eunuchoidism, cryptorchidism, homosexuality, impotence, sodomy, transvestitism, and zoophily? In former times, people copulated at random (Gen. 19:4-10). The Egyptians refrained to thrust dead beautiful women to embalmers by fear that these would copulate with the dead. Sodomy was accepted at the highest social levels: The emperor Hadrian was married, yet he always traveled accompanied by handsome and sweet Antinoüs.
Copulations with animals were also frequent (Indian Aryans with fillies in religious rituals; Caesar 9 with donkeys, dogs in Amerindian myths; swans and bulls in Greek and Roman mythology (fig. 12.4). Jupiter transformed into a cloud to copulate with Io; shepherds copulated with sheep; goats were used in abundance in ancient times by armies and in bacchanals (fig. 12.5); a punishment inflicted by Muslims and Christians to thieves was their mounting by donkeys.
Figure 12.4. F. Boucher. Fragment. Leda and the swan, 1742. Statens Konstmuseer Stockholm. Boucher was successful with the court of French king Louis XV. Zeus, transformed in a swan, approaches Leda, who is ripe for surrender. A nymph raises an arm in a gesture of half-invitation, half-surprise. No attempt is made to give the mythological episode credibility. Intellectual content is kept to a minimum. The clearly expressed concern of the painting to restrict its interest to eroticism characterizes the cultural atmosphere of France during the years preceding the Revolution. I will come back to this in a later chapter.
Figure 12.5. Nicolas Poussin. The nymph, the beast and the putti. Fragment. Hermitage museum, St. Petersburg. Poussin (died 1665) simplifies the forms and makes them quasi abstract. As most good French painters living under Louis XIII and Louis XIV, he worked outside France.
This frantic sexual activity went with frightening diseases that found no explanation except a surnatural one.
What explanation is there for humans who suffocate in water but fishes suffocate in air? Yet some fishes need air to breathe (dolphins, whales). Most snakes live on solid ground and suffocate in water but some (eels) live in water and suffocate in air. How comes that some fishes (batrachian’s toads and insect larvae) transform into frogs and others into damselflies? Some fishes are birds (flying fishes), some birds are fishes (pelicans, anhingas, ducks, cormorants etc.) and some mammals are fishes (beavers, which live in water and whose tail bears scales). The Church had imposed fasting on Fridays, with the obligation to eat fish on that day. Ducks were allowed on the table because they were considered to be fishes. Beavers also were considered to be fishes. Eggs were considered meat, hence their accumulation during Fasting and their distribution at Easter. Some animals are of stone (fossils) and some stones are animals (mussels, oysters). Humans die of senility but some animals are apparently immortal (turtles, parrots, snakes). Is it not obvious that Ethiopians (Negroes) are black because they have been sun-burned?
These facts and evidences were assembled in a coherent theory, i.e. scholasticism, satisfactory to the intellect, constructed in such a way that additional phenomena could be easily included into the elaborated Weltanschauung.