The age of contestation

The medievals liked to debate. By the end of the medieval period, the debates had grown into confrontations between groups, lifestyles and ideals.

One of the most enduring myths about the middle ages is that it was an age of speech supression, the lowest point in Europe’s history of freedom of thought. That theology took over all other areas of scientific and speculative inquiry; that the Church mobilised its resources to stifle debate and suppress heterodox voices.

To claim that this never happened at all is equally mythical. But the assessment is at best a wild over-exaggeration. By the time the Western medieval Church, that is its bishops, archbishops and the Pope started doing anything comparable to what happened later to people like Jan Hus, Martin Luther and Galileo Galilei, Europe had reached a level of debate, disputation and intellectual off-roading that carried in it the seeds of a modernity only barely glimpsed and dreamed of.

By the 13th century, there were few views in Europe which hadn’t begun to be challenged. Perhaps not as radically as from the 16th century onwards, but strongly enough to create the conditions of later ideas and ideals. In philosophy, the greatest challenge came from the rediscovery of Aristotle, which challenged old theological and philosophical certainties. To the point that the Bishop of Paris condemned Aristotelian-infused views in 1270 and 1277. That the condemnations didn’t have much effect goes to show how pluralistic and lively intellectual Europe had become. The 14th, 15th and 16th centuries were, if anything, an age of contestation which set Europe on a different glide path altogether.

Challenged by the universities, the mendicant orders and later, by the emergent group of humanists, late medieval Europe was a powder keg of ideas, where groups confronted each other in writing and disputation, while the secular and sacred authorities were scrambling to preserve orthodoxy. Europe was violent, intolerant and hypocritical, but one thing it was not: complacent. The clash of individuals and groups on the written page, the profusion of writing and the expression of ideas in an utterly unregulated book market enabled the West to metabolise centuries of reflection and intellectual experimentation and bring their fruits to bear on a world under construction.

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