It’s often very hard to break away from inherited ways of thinking. Like ways of thinking about the past. When it comes to conflict and power struggle, we tend to credit the modern period as an age of ideological competition and dismiss the ancient and medieval past, in Europe and elsewhere, as ages of antagonism between individuals and their followers. According to this reading, the distant past is about people less than about ideas,while the modern age is seen as having discovered the benefit of fighting for an idea and dying for a cause. And the truth is that the conflict of ideas has permeated European culture since the classical period. Conflict is so built into the European fabric that many historians have seen in the ideological fragmentation the key to Europe’s historical success.
Another received idea, perhaps as widespread as the previous one, is that the distant past was an age of stasis while reform, change and progress are notions which the moderns have invented. Most people associate the medieval period with an age of faith, which amount for many to the darkest moments of humanity’s long journey: persecutions, torture, censorship, monoculturalism, ignorance, intolerance, antiscientific, etc. Though no age is ever sheltered from any or all of the above, however enlightened, superior and liberal it might think it is, the medieval period was far more troubled than most of us imagine. Post-classical Europe was born of a multitude of parents, each with their own genetic material, expectations and potential. It took Europe more than a thousand years – and arguably that journey hasn’t ended – to understand its parentage and recognise its matrix. And that matrix turns out to be a tapestry of interweaved conflicts, ideas, philosophies, visions, approaches, agendas, out of which the West came out as strong, as vulnerable, as guilty, as repentant as that knowledge admitted. And it still comes out of it.