Grade eight. The climax of medieval civilization (800 to 1453). Theme: Life and society as a religious work of art



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GRADE EIGHT. THE CLIMAX OF MEDIEVAL CIVILIZATION (800 TO 1453). Theme: Life and society as a religious work of art. Theory: The inseparable unity of art, religion, and social structure in high medieval civilizations in which architecture becomes the supreme externalization of human existence into temporal form. From the cathedrals of Europe to the mosques of Isfahan, the Forbidden city of Beijing to the Precolumbian ceremonial centers of the Americas, the medieval vision is one of consummate form in which the act of living itself, from drinking tea to riding to the hunt, becomes a work of art in itself. Practice: Through an emphasis on art and architecture, we will look at medieval civilizations all around the world. The Eighth Grade is a critical year in the entire curriculum; perhaps more than any other year, it shows the uniqueness of our approach to cultural history. Traditionally, education was a means of enforcing identity in a symbolic system of self and other, us and them. So French children would read the Song of Roland to celebrate the formation of European civilization under Charlemagne, the development of the French language and literary traditions in the chansons de geste, and the bravery and manly valor in which the Christian warrior died fighting the evil Islamic Saracens. Patriotism was the very foundation of education, and it was put in place to insure that a new generation would be inspired to die in defense of La Patrie. And, of course, La Patrie, though a feminine noun, was a patriarchal concept, for girls were meant to stand to the side of power and knit sweaters and socks for the soldiers marching off to the trenches. Even to this day the historical textbooks given to children in France, Japan, or the U.S.A. are full of sins of omission and sins of outright fabulation. But our twentieth century of world wars is drawing to its close, and today in France or New Mexico, it is hard to celebrate the old system of Christian versus Muslim, or cowboy versus Indian, in classes in which North Africans in Paris and Marseille, and Hispanics and native Americans in New Mexico may no longer be an invisible and docile minority. But precisely in order to affirm our new perspective in time, it would be good to start the year with The Song of Roland to explore the traditional notion of barriers of conscious identity, and then to go on throughout the year to show just how permeable a membrane these barriers really areto see how Islamic science, mathematics, music, poetry and Neoplatonic philosophy influenced European science, philosophy, mathematics, music, poetry, and architecture. To be sensitive to this complex dynamic of cultural exchange in which a conscious barrier raises the energy of exchange, in much the same way that a bridge punctuates the space of the river it crosses, it will be necessary for the teacher to rise to a satellite-view of the whole Mediterranean cultural-ecology. One should see the Arabic culture spreading across North Africa, but also reaching down into West Africa. I would suggest that the year begin with The Song of Roland to link the beginning of the Eighth Grade with the closing of the Seventh. Although this poem is Christian, it still echoes with many pagan animistic elements, for the sword of Roland, Durendal, is itself a character and an ensouled entity and has it own apotheosis at the end. From the poems celebration of the warriors valor and fealty to his lord, we can pass on to a study of feudalism and the manorial system, as well as to a study of the institution of monasticism. The Plan of St. Gall shows us the workings of a Carolingian monastery and shows us how the monastery was not an ivory tower escape from the real world, but rather a public service corporation that was preserving knowledge, improving agriculture and nutrition and raising the crafts to higher levels. Indeed, the monasteries will serve in the founding of the new institution of the university, with the founding of the universities of Bologna (1100) and Paris (1150) and serve in the rise of the cathedral movement. In our study of monasticism, we can also consider the conflict between monks and Vikings as almost a centripedal and centirfugal force that is at work in the emergence of European civilization. Both the Irish monks and the Vikings are the first projections outward to the New World from the classical Mediterranean civilization; they are the first wave of projection into the Atlantic, with the legendary voyages of Brendan, Madoc, and Leif Erikson, legends that will be heard and followed by later explorers, privateers, pirates, and colonizers, until, at length, a new European civilization is centered around the Atlantic ocean and not the Mediterranean. From our study of possible early transatlantic contact between the Old and New Worlds, we can broaden our scope to take in the condition of the Native American cultures and civilizations before Columbus, the Kohokia ceremonial center, and the great climactic medieval civilizations of the Inca, Aztec, and Toltec Maya. In Grade Seven, in our study of Teotihuacan, we encountered the religion of the Plumed Serpent, and how Quetzalcoatl tried to eliminate human sacrifice, but in Grade Eight we will see how for the Aztecs and Toltec-Maya, the whole religion becomes based on militarism, conquest, and human sacrifice. At the end of the year, we will see a similar development of the religion of Jesus in the European form of human sacrifice called the Inquisition. From the New World, we should take the long way back to Europe through Japan by studying the culture of Japan during the era of the Fujiwara, the age of the Samurai. A reading of one of the chapters from Lady Murasakis Tale of Genji would be instructive in showing how, in a medieval civilization, the sacred and the profane, the quotidian and the sublime are orchestrated into living life as a work of art. Prince Genjis choice of exquisite paper and brushwork for his amorous letters, his courtly skill in classical Chinese poetry and music, all reveal the refined sensibility in which life is lived at the top in a medieval society. For our American History Month in January, we can focus on the United States in the Gilded Era. In this period of transition from religious to technological culture, the Gothic is used to camouflage the new capitalistic culture of acquistion. In New York, both the Morgan Library and the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine express this Robber Baron Gothic sense of soaring ambition. For Henry Adams, the age is one of an acceleration of history in which "The Virgin and the Dynamo" are archetypes of two very different visions of human culture. From our study of the culture of wealth and acquistion in Tokugawa Japan and Gilded Era America, we can pass return to the Eurasian continent to consider China during the era of the Mongols, from Genjhiz Khan to Kubla Khan, to work our way, along with Marco Polo, back to Europe along the ancient Silk Road. By April we should be back in the realm of the Seljuk Turks and the Holy Land and set to reflect back in time on the waves of the Crusades and the relations over time between Islam and Christendom, as well as between Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. From the Holy Land, we can return through North Africa, studying the rise and development of Islam and its flourishing in West Africa. In Sundiata: an Epic of Old Mali, we see a Black African celebration of Islam as well as a celebration of the mythic figure of Alexander the Great. We also see a celebration of the figure of the griot, the oral story-teller, and can compare his role with that of the bard in the Celtic cultures of Western Europe. Through the gold trade, the high kingdoms of West Africa are linked to Europe, but Africa is in no way a colony and its medieval kingdoms are the equal or superior to the kingdoms of Europe, and at this point in our journey through time and space it would be appropriate to study urbanization in Benin and examine the cultures of medieval West Africa as a whole. From Africa and the gold trade, we can pass over into Spain to consider the mix of the cultures and religions in Iberia, and the manner in which music, mathematics, neoplatonic philosophy, and poetry are bringing the world to the edge of a renaissance. With the introduction of the Hindu-Arabic numerals, new forms of bookeeping, and the development of algebra and higher mathematics, the turn of the thirteenth century into the fourteenth is a period of cultural brilliance and a step forward in the cultural evolution of consciousness. From the cathedral school of Chartres to the academy for translation on Majorca of Ramon Lull to the Arabic-inspired songs crusaders such as Guillaume of Potiers carried back with them to Provence, to the Sufism that sneaks into King Ren�s Book of Love and Dantes Paradiso, or the Persian-Islamic angelology that is raised to new heights in the Jewish synthesis of the Zohar and medieval Cabbala, these medieval cultures were locked into the intimate embraces of love and war. No simple narrative celebration of Western Civilization can truly describe the wonderful and complex dynamic of culture that is animating this time of philosophical transformation in which art and mathematics take a sudden leap forward. And indeed from the point of view of the evolution of consciousness, the period does express a sudden leap forward. In the angelic scripts of calligraphy, both in Islamic and Celtic illuminated manuscripts, and in algebra, the celestial intelligences of mathematics begin to move in the world of humans. This shift from the concrete to the celestial code is not only expressed in algebra and calligraphy, but also in architecture as the cathedrals begin to appear all over Europe.In such figures as Maimonides, Ibn Arabi, Ramon Lull, Giotto and Dante, the cultural-ecology of the Mediterranean basin comes close to the glimpse of a higher civilization, a culture in which Jewish, Christian, and Islamic philosophies are influencing one another and preparing the warring kingdoms for a higher world civilization; but, sadly, Europe falls back from this illuminated peak and step toward an enlightened planetary culture as plague and Inquisition bring about a dark time of suffering and fundamentalist religious persecution. In each culture that we pass through from Mexico to Japan, from China to Christendom, we should notice that though there are differences on the surface, that the structure of each society is isomorphic. All the societies that we examine in the Eighth Grade are hierarchically organized around the figures of the high priest and the warrior and ritualized in a religious world-view that energizes sacrificial war, crusade, and jihad. To appreciate what is to come in Grade Nine, the teacher and the student need to appreciate the structural difference between a medieval and a modern civilization. A medieval civilization is structured by a geometrical mentality in which there are fixed classes and an unchanging order to the nature of things. A modern society is one in which the individual breaks loose from the social structure and moves in space and time to form a new story in the creation of his or her own identity. For a medieval mentality, all value rests in the heaven of a changeless Eternity, and motion is seen as a fallen and sinful condition of vulgar trade and hand labor; for a modern society, motion is the new value, whether it is the motion of money in space that generates interest, or the motion of canon balls that brings down fixed castles. A medieval civilization is one in which economic value is based on landowning, and the magnetic field of society is organized around the estates of military knights and the palaces of high priests. The palace and the temple, therefore, are the quintessential architectural expressions that celebrate the form of being in time. Until the new commercialism of the Italian Renaissance, all the agriculturally developed societies around the world were medieval civilizations ruled by knights and high priests. Part of the movement of ideas and goods is, of course, the shadow-side of the movement of pests and microbes. Rats as well as humans traveled on trading ships, and the rats that migrated to fourteenth century Europe brought with them the plague of the Black Death. Some scholars claim that the blossoming of the Italian Renaissance was made possible because of the massive die-back of the Black Death, so before we pass on to end our study of the climax of medieval civilizations by moving on to a study of the early Italian Renaissance in Florence, it will be important to consider plagues as the shadow-side of the emergence of the new world space and the new patterns of travel. Trading cities like Marco Polos Venice and the Medicis Florence begin to assert themselves and perform the shift from medieval to modern culture. A new merchant class begins to sponsor its own form of imperial school in the Florentine Academy of Cosimo di Medici and Ficino. With the fall of Byzantium in 1453, and the closing of the trade routes to the East, scholars of Greek learning, men such as Gemisthos Plethon, move from Byzantium to Florence to come under the protection and patronage of the Medicis. The year can end with a study of the founding of the Florentine Academy as the signal of the beginning of the end for medieval civilizations, a conservative look backward to Greece that energizes a radical leap forward to Renaissance humanism.


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