Thursday, July 17, 2014

How the Dark Ages Weren't Dark

A replica of the Sutton Hoo Helmet
We’ve all been taught about the Dark Ages and how a shroud of ignorance and superstition was cast over the western world by the fall of the Roman Empire. We even know how, after the Dark Ages were over, Europe slowly struggled into the Middle Ages; a dark, strict and unpleasant time, dominated by a Church that religiously kept the Bible away from starving peasants. In fact, we might even recall how, after much learning finally filtered over from the Far East, Europe managed to claw itself into the Renaissance, a rebirth of enlightenment and learning.
The Imperial Gate of the Hagia Sofia
showing 9th century mosaics over the door
All of this is a myth built up over time. In reality, the Dark Ages weren’t dark, the Middle Ages weren’t backwards and the Renaissance never happened (there were so many mini renaissances during the Middle Ages it's hard to tell when one ended and a new one began). You might as well forget everything you ever learned about the Middle Ages, because it probably isn’t true.
To start out, the Dark Ages weren’t dark.

When the Visigoths sacked Rome, the empire didn’t fall into a heap of ashes. It was re-allotted and
earliest known icon of Jesus
from Saint Catherine's Monastery
in the Sinai, c. 6th - 7th centuries
renamed, but Rome lived on in the East in the form of the Byzantine Empire. One need only to look at the beautiful architecture of the churches built in Constantinople to know that the Dark Ages were anything but dark. The HagiaSofia and the Hagia Irene are two churches that have remained standing through fifteen hundred years of earthquakes, fires and conquests. Recent restoration work has uncovered exquisite mosaics and paintings; gold leaf would have dazzled in the interior of these churches. They seem almost weightless and a little more than a hundred years after they were built, the architecture was copied in the Dome of the Rock.
Over in England, things weren’t going quite as well at first. When Rome removed her legions, England fell prey first to the Saxons, then the Vikings. The native Britons intermarried with the newcomers, or withdrew into the perimeters; into Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Here, missionary work was staged in an attempt to convert the invaders. It wasn’t unsuccessful.
Elaborate buckle from the Sutton Hoo burial
6th - 7th century
If you’d happened to walk near the wharfs in London, or Southampton during the Dark Ages, you would have seen a bustling seaport with merchant ships sailing as far afield as the Red Sea to bring back precious dyes, silks and spices. We know the Vikings traded with India and perhaps even China, bringing back statues of Buddha and silk. In fact, there’s Viking graffiti in the Hagia Sofia.
In this shoulder clasp from the Sutton Hoo burial
                each inlaid garnet was backed with carefully worked
gold foil to scatter the light, 6th - 7th century

The art from the Dark Ages is breath-taking. Pieces recovered from the Sutton Hoo burial mound
The filigree work on the Alfred Jewel
9th century
are so intricate they would have required four times magnification to create. Alfred the Great, one of England’s greatest kings was a world traveller (he went as far afield as Rome) and his court flocked with scholars. Admittedly, he learned to read and write in later adulthood, but he spent quite a bit of his time translating the Bible. He encouraged education and reformed the legal system and was really the first King of All England (that excludes Scotland, Wales and the Danelaw). He even started the Navy.
Things were going along splendidly during the Dark Ages, until, at the end of the 10th century and the beginning of the 11th, misplaced Vikings, named Normans, busied themselves in conquering much of France and Italy. One, named William the Conqueror, even dropped in on England. Things would never be the same again.
Anglo-Saxon claw beaker
6th - 7th centuries
When the Normans happened to Europe, learning took a major setback. Art and culture suddenly seemed on hold as Norman regimentation moved in with massive stone castles and suppression by annihilation. Anyone who could, built a castle and huddled down to weather the storm. But despite the battles and bloodshed, our old friend Enlightenment didn't stay long in the background. 
Stay tuned for how the Middle Ages weren't backwards...

Note: In nearly all my posts, I've included links to pages with more information on the subjects I've mentioned. I hope you have been finding these helpful. :)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

How T. J. Didn't Write the Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence with feather
Thomas Jefferson didn’t write the Declaration of Independence.
Well, to be fair, he did…sort of. He had a way with language, which the members of the Continental Congress knew and understood. It probably isn’t that surprising that he was the one chosen to write the King of England a letter…probably the most influential and far-reaching letters ever to be written…but, certainly not the first of its kind.
I’m not sure how many people have read, actually read, the Declaration of Independence. We’re all familiar with lines like, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and, “all men are created equal,” but the majority of the letter is a list of complaints. To be perfectly honest, it explains what the colonies were fighting about and why they were angry. The King of England had slowly been encroaching their basic sense of humanity; he was billeting his soldiers in their houses, stealing their property, taking away their ability to protect themselves. Each of these points was later reflected in the Bill of Rights.
George Mason
                 Getty images
But the Declaration of Independence was not the first piece of paper to have these ideas written on it. Probably the most immediate and interesting precursor was the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Written just a few weeks earlier, the Virginia Declaration of Rights was the work of George Mason and Thomas Ludwell Lee, a distant cousin of Robert E. Lee. The Declaration of Rights has a few lines in it that are worth noting like, “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights of which . . . they cannot deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Admittedly, Thomas Jefferson said it rather more concisely, but he was not the author of the concepts, “all men are created equal,” or, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  
The Charter Oak where the Connecticut charter was hidden in 1662;
           Each American Colony had a charter, which George III ignored. 
Thomas Ludwell Lee’s younger brother, Richard Henry Lee, got in on the act when he declared in 1774, “Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” Jefferson echoed this almost word-for-word in the Declaration of Independence. Like Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Franklin also had a hand in the wording; he went through after Jefferson was done and added in all the references to a Supreme Being. Thomas Jefferson, after all, was a deist and didn’t believe in one.
The format, as well, is nothing new. The English wrote countless charters and declarations, like the Petition of Right of 1628 or the Bill of Rights 1689. They should have understood what the Colonies
John of England Signs the Magna Carta
were about; after all they also had a great love for writing complaints down on a piece of paper, then waving it under the nose of the hated king and saying, “read this, or else…” King John, back in 1215, probably had similar sensations to George III, when he was staring down at the Magna Carta with irate nobles all around. The Magna Carta declared,We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable.” The wording may differ, but the sentiment is the same.  
But we can’t possibly enter into a discussion about declarations of independence without mentioning the Declaration of Arbroath. It was written to the Pope in 1320 and though it presently resides in France, the Declaration of Arbroath is the core of all Scotland ever stood for. Edward I claimed Scotland, and Robert the Bruce was begging the Pope to lift his excommunication so he could become king. The Scots wanted their freedom and they made it abundantly clear in the letter. It was probably the first document to express the belief that the rulership of the 
Declaration of Arbroath
country ought to be in the hands of the people rather than the king. The document was summed up with a last, desperate declaration,“...for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
So, Thomas Jefferson didn’t write the Declaration of Independence. He never even claimed to have come up with the ideas it contained; he wasn’t the author, he was just the scribe. He was summing up on one large piece of paper what hundreds of people had fought and died for over the centuries before. He, like the fifty-four other signers of the Declaration of Independence, affixed his signature to his death warrant. Like the writers of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Magna Carta, or the Declaration of Arbroath, he knew that he had reached the end of the line. He was willing to stake everything; peace at any cost wasn’t enough…he wanted his freedom.
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

~ Rose and Psyche