Language and myths

When we look back over the last thousand years, we see the formative stage of our European culture today, just like seedlings caught in the process of becoming full plants.  In particular, we see two things: we see European languages developing and becoming fully-fledged idioms of communication and literacy, and we see proliferating stories germinating into new mythologies.

The men of the Renaissance bequeathed the Middle Ages to us, a contemptible period, they said, in the history of Europe serving as a bracket between the illustrious past of classical antiquity and the expectant present. But not everything sitting in the middle is necessarily a bracket(able) irrelevance. Many of those men delivered the historical charge in languages which hadn’t existed before the medieval period. While those who used Latin were forgetting that the ‘middle’ period had been, first of all, an age of transmission enabling them to stand in judgement at the gates of the Renaissance. The humility of the dwarf standing on the shoulder of giants quickly turned into the proud champion marvelling at her own eminence.

From a language point of view, the medieval period may be described as a Linguistic Age. It was during the 1000 years or so between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance that most Western European languages came into their own and, what is even more important, they achieved the level of respectability once exclusive to Latin. Seen from this point of view, the Middle Ages also represented the great approchement, like a courtship period between lovers. You may test this: if you’re an English speaker (and hopefully not a linguist or a historian), try reading Beowulf and then Chaucer and see which one makes more sense. If you’re a French speaker, try reading La Chanson de Roland and Brunetto Latini’s Trésor and see which one you can understand. The same goes for most other Romance and Germanic languages. The reason why we understand texts from the 15th century and not from the 10th (unless we don the philological armour) is that the middle ages were the great linguistic forge in which the modern age was hammered.

Where two or three gather in human fellowship, there mythology is with them. Societies never cease to give birth to new myths, and our age is no different, despite what some neo-humanists may argue. Nevertheless, the medieval period was also a myth-factory for the modern age. The Renaissance admittedly rediscovered many ancient myths and stories, which the Middle Ages had brushed aside. Yet these never kept Western world in a tighter grip than the myths forged during the 1000-year bracket. Chivalric romance, nationalism, correctness and orthodoxy are just some of the many medieval dividends we’re still cashing out today.

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