The orphanage of history

The 13th century was an age of information. Arguably the first one. The main challenge for the European writers and scholars of the period was the organisation of information, novel ways of processing the chaotic body of knowledge amassed during the late antique, early and high medieval period. Major breakthroughs were achieved in the area of digesting, distilling, structuring and standardising knowledge, science and cultural capital. It was a respite before another chaotic age of cultural inebriation which was the Renaissance. History moves in mysterious, oscillatory ways.

The Western 13th century is closer to the 21st than any other historical age. The two main operations in the written culture of that period were copy-pasting and compilation. What it lacked in originality it made up in architecture, in ways of assembling and re-assembling. By the 12th century, Europe reached a point of relative saturation. Too many ideas had taken flight, but no-one had paused to think what that meant. In politics, science and the arts, things were moving too fast. A housekeeping operation was in order. Europe was not going to be the same again. The West and the East were closer than ever. Time-honoured ideas were being challenged. Discoveries were being made.

By the end of the thirteenth century, new ways had been found to cope with the piles of information. Scholars developed new encyclopedias, compendia, reading aids and treatises designed to embrace the breadth of available knowledge. In many ways, this movement prepared the Renaissance, which was to capitalize on centuries of experimentation of innovation. The men and women of the Renaissance cast their efforts within a framework of breaking away from the past, but it was the past, and more precisely the recent past, that made their achievements possible. The humanists’ contempt for the ‘middle age’ was the disowned child of the Middle Ages. This kind of repudiation didn’t stop with the Renaissance. It is the hallmark of the 21st century, a period just as keen to disavow its progenitors as any previous age.

History is an orphanage filled with forsworn ages run by proud, forgetful scions.

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