Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Early Middle Ages, 284--1000 with Paul Freedman: My Thoughts



So, I'm continuing on with Yale University Open Courses.  As I said last time, having these playing in the background keeps me from constantly flipping on the TV every time I get home, which, hopefully, helps to keep my brain from turning to complete mush.

This area of history (A.D. 284-1000) is the one I know least about.  I was obsessed with Roman history in my youth, but read mostly about the Roman Republic and the Julio-Claudian (W) Emperors, mostly because almost all the popular history books published focus on this period.

I knew next to nothing about the later history of the Roman Empire.

The one exception being the Emperor Julian (W) (or Julian the Apostate),the Roman Empire who attempted to return Rome to Paganism years after Constantine had already made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Julian sticks in my mind, because I had read Gore Vidal's book on Julian when I was still at a young and impressionable age.
And I've picked up some of the history of Britain during this period from the BBC radio series This Sceptred Isle.

But mostly, it's a period I know nothing about, except what you pick up in the usual high school history classes.

I feel only slightly more informed after having listened to these lectures.  It's mostly a survey history, since Paul Freedman has to cover almost 1000 years, and has to cover all of Europe, North Africa, Arabia, and Russia.

Which is not to say I don't recommend the lectures.  I picked up all sorts of interesting little tidbits.  I'll detail some of them below.

1). In the very first lecture, Paul Freedman warns his prospective students that the course has a way of changing into a religious studies class, and that he's not going to apologize for that.  "In order to understand this period, you're going to need to understand the religious controversies behind it," he says.  "You're going to need to understand the controversies about the nature of Christ so that you know why people are killing each other over it." *
Like any goo teacher, Paul Freedman doesn't state his biases.  But you definitively don't get the sense that he's dismissive of Christian theology.  He takes all of these theological discussions very seriously.  And I got the sense that he was sympathetic to the ancient idea that the spiritual is superior to the material, because everything material decays and fades away.

...but that being said, I don't know how anyone could listen to all this history, and not emerge from it an agnostic.  After listening to a thousand years of the constant fighting between Donatism, Arianism, Manicheanism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, and Iconoclasm--And then Islam enters the picture, and almost immediately we have the same factional infighting within Islam between Sunnis and Shiites--After listening to all that, how could you not just throw up your hands and yell, "It's impossible to know" ?
I mean, seriously, if there is a God out there, he really has done a pretty terrible job of communicating with his followers.  If there's something important he wants us to know, he's sure not making it easy.

2). In his book, A Very Short History of the World , Geoffrey Blainey says that the Viking colony in Greenland came to an end because of Climate Change (The end of the Medieval Warming period).  Being a complete naive on this subject, I just accepted that this was the established history.
Paul Freedman, however, points out that this theory is actually quite controversy, and not at all the established historical version.
Yet another reminder that you can't trust everything you read.

3).  A couple years ago, I was listening to This Sceptred Isle and Monarchy, and I began to notice a pattern in British history.  Every time a new tax was introduced, it was always because the king needed to fight a new war.
And then I realized something: throughout history, wars and taxes have always gone hand and hand.

On the one hand, this is so self-evident I feel silly even saying it.  But on the other hand, it's easy to forget in the political climate in the United States. Ever since Reagan (W), the American voter has constantly been told that the reason taxes are so high is not because of the military, but because of all the single black mothers on welfare.
In actuality, social spending has always been a minuscule part of the federal budget.  You could cut welfare all you wanted--you could eliminate it completely--and we'd still need substantial taxes to pay for the military.
Because of this huge disconnect between the reality and the image, the right-wing for years has been demanding that the government 1) Increase the military, 2) lower taxes, and 3) balance the federal deficit--never seeming to realize that any one of these demands is automatically going to cancel the other two out.
Bob Dole ran on this trifecta in his 1996 campaign, and at the time I was so frustrated by how otherwise intelligent people didn't seem to realize this was pure fantasy.  (I was young and naive back then, and didn't realize that politics was never about rationality, but instead about loyalty to your group.)
In 2010, when the Tea Party repeated this mistake, I wrote a post on that phenomenon here.

Anyway, the point of this big digression is that Paul Freedman makes the same point in his lectures.  The most expensive thing a country can ever do, both back then and now, he says, is to maintain and use a military.*

That's the whole reason taxes were invented in the first place.

4). When I was part of an international student community in Melbourne, Australia, I learned about the antagonism between Arabs and Persians.  I had always thought Iranians were Arabs, but my  Iranian friends were very insistent that they were not Arabs, they were Persians, and that they hated the Arabs because the Arab conquerors destroyed Persia, burned their libraries, and obliterated much of their culture.
(How this hatred of the Islamic invaders coincides with the Iranian embrace of Islam I never quite figured out.  It could be that this is a recent resurgent nationalism.  Or that my handful of Iranian friends were not representative of the Iranian culture as a whole.  Or any number of other possible explanations.)
The Persian Empire, and its destruction at the hand of the Islamic conquerors, is one of the many topics briefly covered by Paul Freedman.  (Paul Freedman presents a view of the Arabs as being  tolerant towards the beliefs of the conquered peoples--not entirely in line with the accounts my Iranians friends gave me of the conquest of Persia.)
 He doesn't have time to go into a lot of details, but he does make the comment that the Persian Empire is always an off-stage presence in Western education.  We always study the Persian threat to the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Byzantines, but we never study Persia itself. (He makes reference to a Persian course at Yale, but unfortunately it doesn't appear to be part of the Open Courses project.)
For those of us raised in Christian educations, this is even more true.  Like many Christians, I learned about the Persian Empire by studying the Old Testament.  And although the Persians get quite a nice write-up in the Old Testament (their tolerant view of local religions made them very popular with the Old Testament prophets) they were nevertheless always seen through the lens of the story of Israel, and never as something worthy of being studied in their own right.

5). I forgot to mention this at the top, but I do have one more point of connection with the subject matter.  For Philosophy class at Calvin College, we were required to read The Confessions of Saint Augustine --something Paul Freedman also assigns to his students, and devotes a whole lecture to in  the fifth video.
It's funny how memory works.  Some of the things I read when I was young I can remember almost perfectly.  And some of the stuff I can remember hardly at all.  The Confessions of Saint Augustine falls into the latter category.  I suspect this is because the stuff I remember well is stuff I found interesting.  The Confessions of Saint Augustine was not something I found interesting.
I wanted to like it, and I had high expectations going into it.  I had heard that Saint Augustine lead a wild and rebellious life as a youth.
I was a youth myself at the time.  I was not so wild and rebellious, but I desperately wanted to be wild and rebellious, and I was highly interested in the stories of other wild and rebellious youths.
I was also fascinated with the idea that the intimate details of someone else's life were available to me over the stretch of 2,000 years.  (I've always been a history geek, and this is the kind of thing that fascinates us history geeks--that you can learn something about a time long before you were born.)
However, when I actually got into The Confessions of Saint Augustine, I found it highly disappointed.  There were no wild and rebellious stories--he just goes on and on and on about these pears he stole from an orchard when he was a boy.  What was the big deal about these pears?
To his credit, Paul Freedman addresses this question pretty much directly.  "If you're wondering what the big deal about these pears are, then you're missing the point.  It's not about the pears.  Augustine is concerned with the question of why people would sin in the first place."*
Fair enough.  I wish my philosophy professor had said this to us 20 years ago.  It might have cleared up a lot of this book for me.

*All quotations from memory, but I'm confident that they are pretty close to what was actually said.

Link of the Day
UpFront - Noam Chomsky on Clinton vs Sanders

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