“Mamertus, Pancras, and Gervais were three early Christian saints. Because their feast days, on May 11, 12, and 13, respectively, are traditionally cold, they have come to be known as the Three Chilly Saints.”
The years and centuries toddled on. In the north, a new style of architecture (building design, that is) was replacing the rounded, grounded, low-center-of-gravity basilica which was the Romanesque style of church. The miracle of a basilica had been fitting an enormous circular dome onto a square church without the whole thing collapsing into itself. This new style was entirely different—strictly vertical. If you want to get closer to G-d, you build taller churches, right? You design tall, taller spires that go up and up with pointy arched windows to let in sunlight through stained-glass windows. You keep everything from falling down by attaching more spires—flying buttresses—to relieve the outward pressure and outsmart a building’s biggest enemy: gravity.
My take on Saint Jerome in his study by one of my heroes, Albrecht Dürer. Who doesn’t have a human skull laying around in one’s study?
As we saw in ancient Egypt, there’s a down side to concentrating literacy exclusively into one thin slice of the population. The Egyptian scribes had protected their monopoly on hieroglyphics. Their world fell apart when the Phoenicians invented the alphabet. Was that about to happen again?
In mediæval Europe, literacy gave the clergy access to the Bible. They encouraged the idea that access to the Bible meant access to G-d, and that regular shmoes needed the clergy to talk to G-d on their behalf.* I don’t condemn the clergy entirely for doing this. Probably most were doing their best to keep a faithful interpretation of G-d’s Word (there were some wacky interpretations and heresies back then). Friends, that’s a lot of responsibility. It’s a great temptation to assign power to oneself. As we will see, the clergy would give in to that temptation.
*Saint Jerome had translated the Bible from Hebrew & Greek into Latin in the ad 300s. He worked directly from the original languages and so his translation was very accurate. St Jerome’s Bible, in ‘vulgate Latin,’ was the officially approved Church Bible. But by the Middle Ages, most people didn’t speak Latin anymore.
The Yankee lights up his pipe as he goes holy-grailing
Feudalism was an economic system designed to keep people permanently in their own class, their own caste. A serf had no hope of ever accumulating enough wealth to escape serfdom. Even for a freeman, the likelihood of owning land was small, since all land was owned by the king, nobility or the Church. It’s not easy for someone in the United States, a free-born citizen of a representative republic, to understand feudalism. I learned about feudalism in school but didn’t really get it. A book that helped was Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I was in 8th or 9th grade when my dad suggested it to me, so you middle-schoolers/high-schoolers are ripe to enjoy it. As an American citizen, Mark Twain was troubled by the class system that still hung around Europe in his time (Twain’s book, Tom Sawyer, helped turn people against slavery in the U.S.). He used humor to promote a point of view, to change people’s minds. Twain lived and wrote over a century ago, so (let’s not cancel Mark Twain) please forgive any lapses into unwokedness. A Connecticut Yankee isn’t a happy book, but it is funny. You’ll love it. I enthusiastically recommend it. Click on the link to get started—https://www.gutenberg.org/files/86/86-h/86-h.htm
Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.
Let’s take a breath. This flowering of learning and culture wasn’t for everybody. Literacy—reading and writing—was doing fantastic in the monasteries, schools, colleges and universities. Outside those buildings, the literacy rate for regular shmoes was depressingly low. Mediæval Europe had a rigid class system—feudalism—with 3 classes: nobility, freemen and serfs. The economy was all about land. The nobles owned land; the freemen rented land (or lived in a town); the serfs farmed someone else’s land (in exchange for protection and a portion of the harvest).
Most people didn’t know how to read or write. The schools I talked about earlier were for the sons of nobles, or freemen who made a nice living. The nobility were either knights (military) or clergy (church). Clergy definitely needed to read and write to understand the Bible. Of the well-off freemen, merchants learned how read, write and do math because they needed to keep records of merchandise bought and sold, like the Phoenicians did. Lawyers and doctors needed to read and write. But most people—low-income freemen and serfs—couldn’t afford literacy. Papyrus is cheap but doesn’t last very long away from the desert. Parchment is expensive. Books written by hand are expensive. If you were a serf, forget about going to school. The very last thing nobles wanted was their cheap labor going to school to learn stuff. They even made it illegal. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/parliament-rolls-medieval/november-1391
These things don’t happen all at once. First schools—colleges—popped up, to teach the trivium and quadrivium (the liberal arts). Next, there were specialized schools that taught medicine or law or divinity. In late eleventh-century Bologna (that’s in Italy) somebody got the idea to gather together schools that taught specialties and the liberal arts under one philosophical roof and call them a university. ‘University’ comes from the Latin word universitas that means ‘whole, the sum of all things.’
Side bar: these terms for higher learning institutions are used differently in different countries. In Spain, ‘college’ sounds a lot like their word for high school. In Italy, ‘liceo’ (lee CHAY oh) means high school, but in Great Britain or the US, a lyceum is a hall where people give lectures or concerts.
All of Charlemagne’s and Alcuin’s hard work paid off. The scriptoria were busy cranking out books using Alcuin’s new Carolingian-style letters (did you know Charlemagne’s sister Sister Gisele ran a scriptorium?) and choirs were singing those beautiful polyphonic hymns. Charlemagne’s push for education and culture inspired collections of schools to become universities—who clamored for even more books.
Sister Hildegard would do just about anything to improve the lighting in her scriptorium.
It wasn’t long before musicians figured out they could use notation to write several tunes into the same song: tunes that harmonize with or play against the main tune and enrich it. This is called polyphony.
Alcuin’s invention makes it possible to write fugues and symphonies and operas with parts for an entire orchestra of musical instruments and many human voices. Other cultures nowadays may write and perform symphonies, but they couldn’t do it without Alcuin and Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.
It got under Charlemagne’s skin that the Empire’s churches and monasteries sang the same hymns but each church gave a hymn a different tune. Charlemagne was relentless in his campaign to standardize everything. He put Alcuin in charge of making sure every choir sang the same tune. So Alcuin invented musical notation.
Musical notation was meant simply to record the tune of a song. Each note represents a particular pitch, depending on where it sits on a scale. The scale is horizontal lines—it’s a frame of reference. Notes at the top of the scale are sung higher than notes at the bottom of the scale. Thanks to Alcuin, choirs throughout the Empire knew exactly what tune to sing just by looking at the written musical notes.
Charlemagne had a problem. He had an empire full of churches and no two of them sang a hymn the same way. They knew the words, but it was tough to remember the tune for every hymn. Remember, there was often a lot of distance between churches. Communication of words was made easier with the standardization of writing. Tunes you had to memorize. Maybe by the time a monk got from one church to another he might forget the tunes to all the hymns and te Deums and requiems and responsories. So they made ‘em up. One church might sing a hymn to a particular tune: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60euxXvw5aA And another church would sing the same hymn but with an entirely different tune: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0EN_Hmq534
Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.