austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

In Sherwood Forest there dwelt a knight who was known as the righteous Sir Greenbaum

When did the Middle Ages begin? When did they end? Might they still be going on somewhere, and if so, why? These are questions that are not so simple to answer; even asking them can be a bit of a problem, which is why it's good practice to jot them down on index cards. But to answer we have to know exactly what we mean by ``Middle Ages'', and on top of that, figure out what we man by ``begin''. Once that's done, unless we do it before, we can work on what we mean ``end''. Before long we can look pretty skeptically at the whole thing and realize we're none too confident about the meaning of ``did'', and ``the'' is starting to look mighty fishy. The meaning of ``heteroclinic'' is similarly obscure, but in that case we know the problem is that ``heteroclinic'' doesn't belong anywhere in our questions. It must have snuck in from an adjacent article.

The Middle Ages, to complicate matters, are that period in the history of a country like the Netherlands, such as England, when it sits metaphorically up and takes stock of itself. If it does this too quickly it gets dizzy and has to sit back down, emphasizing the role that good knees play in national introspection. When the Middle Ages settled on England, to pick an example appropriate for this volume (do not turn this volume above four between 9 pm and 7 am), England reflected on its origins, its present state (England), its early ambitions, and whether it might have been a success if it had stuck to playing the guitar like it did in college.

A problem with writing these days (weekdays) about the Middle Ages is the shortage of primary source material, that is, things written by people at the time about what they were doing when they didn't think they were being watched. For the fourteenth century all our documentary knowledge is based on a single scrap, believed to have been composed shortly after Wat Tyler's Rebellion of 1381 (1:81 pm), reading, ``dujjen eyren, powend cakke, brenge hoom te Emma'', which isn't easy to make out. For much of the seventeenth century the theory was it was held upside-down. The nineteenth century tried holding it on its side, and in the twentieth century it was folded into a little origami cup, which did not explain its meaning, but made everyone feel better about ignoring it. Even when writing does survive it's unclear how much can be relied upon: despite Sir John Mandeville's famous memoir, for example, it's now regarded as unlikely that he really did build a rocket, fly to the Moon, collect valuable rock sample and plant the Cross of Saint George there, then return. Based on his description of lighting conditions and on interpolated passages from Friar Odoric of Pordenone, who does not figure in our tale, it's much more likely he was on Saturn's moon Titan.

Nevertheless we plunge on as there is no way to finish an essay on the Middle Ages without writing it, leading to the question of how we know that an essay on the Middle Ages has ended. Here we have more definitive terms: there is usually a conclusion of some kind, and perhaps a mention of the abolition of serfdom. Properly speaking the English did not abolish serfdom, they simply stopped calling people serfs in order to not hurt their feelings, which worked well until the serfs found out what they were being called instead. By some measures an essay on the ending of the Middle Ages itself does not end until the end of the Hundred Years War (the last returns of which are expected in any day now) or the introduction of steam power. Some far-reaching historians argue the Middle Ages are still substantially going on, and they expect the Modern Age to begin in the year 3600 (24:00 pm); they've simply travelled back in time to sell their books here because of a favorable exchange rate. This will continue to be favorable until certain economic reversals come on 22 August 2014, so there's nothing we need to do about it.

Trivia: 42 percent of England's urban recruits for the Crimean War were rejected for physical weakness; only 17 percent of the rural recruits were rejected on those grounds. Source: Coal: A Human History, Barbara Freese.

Currently Reading: A History of the Habsburg Empire, Robert A Kann.


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