In addition to being a period of ignorance, superstition, illiteracy and unchallenged authority, the Middle Ages have a reputation of being a time of silly certainties, cozy resignation, cognitive autopiloting and simple-mindedness.
But the medieval men and women were as prone to restlessness and anxiety as humans have always been, or shall ever be. They were like us, and we are like them.
Here are five reasons why Western Europeans would have ended up in the claws of anxiety and existential trepidation in the 14th century. Why the 14th? Because many key things changed around that time.
1. Spiritual anxiety. If faith was often taken for granted in the medieval period, the men and women of the 14th century woke up to new forms of spirituality. The terrain had been prepared in previous centuries, but by the 1300s, Western Christianity had begun to develop a more expressive, intensive and creative relationship to God. In art, more humanised forms of expression were being explored. In literature, new genres were being pioneered. Western mystical practices began to percolate into all strata of society. People, regardless of their former pieties, started to look towards Purgatory. Heaven may not be within reach, but the reparations in Purgatory, mediated by the Church, were a viable option which was worthy of investment. Not just money, but also piety, intimate, participatory, perspectival spirituality, inward-looking, transformative. And especially anxiety-conducive. For the terrors of Hell, the impatience of personal redemption, the pietistic fervour and the deep self-identification with an increasingly humanised Christ took the West by storm and led, in a straight line, towards the Reformation and beyond. The multitudes which had followed, literally or figuratively, in the footsteps of a St Francis, St Clare or St Dominic in the previous century, allowed their minds and bodies to be moved by 14th-century mystics, hermits and missionaries like Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Bridget of Sweden, William Flete, or the Brusselian Heilwige Bloemardinne. The anxious heart that would move the mountains of history.
Time to cool down a bit.
2. Literary anxiety. By the 14th century, Western scholars began to shift their attention towards ancient authors in a way which their predecessors had not. The classical past had never died during the medieval centuries, but a renewed interest in ancient Roman authors, sparked by Italian proto-humanists like the Florentine Petrarch or the Paduans Albertino Mussato and Lovato Lovati, put European letters on a different track. The nascent humanism was many things, but it also represented an obsession with the writings and the style of Cicero. During the 14th century, the leading humanists competed over who could imitate Cicero’s complex Latin structures, eloquence and illustrious prose better. To reproduce the ‘medieval style’ in an age bewitched by ancient elegance was, for the Latin writers of the age, a terror worse than Dante’s febrile visions.
3. The temptation of the absurd. The 14th, a century which will live in the infamy of the worst epidemic ever to strike the European continent. The 50 shades of the Black Death of the 1340s and 1350s were a source of infinite terror, distress and anxiety for the European populations, from the first peasant to the last nobleman and woman. The second half of the 14th century was experienced as a walk through the ruins – not just the ruins of a decimated Europe, but the ruins of old expectations. War, famine, disease could take you and your family away, as ever, but the tectonic force of the bubonic plague was without precedent. What’s the point of trying to improve one’s fortunes if the plague comes and sweeps everything in the blink of an eye? Some, like Giovanni Boccaccio and Geoffrey Chaucer, managed to nurse their anxiety by sublimating their worse fears into world-shattering story-telling. If the Decameron is not the most successful yet clinically untested anti-depressant ever produced, I don’t know what is.
4. Financial anxiety. With the advent of a credit economy and the emergence of the Italian banking system, all the rulers of Europe wanted to open a bank account, preferably with a bank in Florence, and start spending money they didn’t have. Not everyone was of good credit, and bankers soon understood that the biggest clients may also be the worst, dragging the banks into the ground, like the kings of England and France, stuck as they were in a spiral of conflict and warmongering we romantically refer to as the Hundred Years War. More like a hundred years of solitude for the balance sheets.
5. Wanderlust. The medievals didn’t travel much. By the 14th century, they didn’t travel as much as they would’ve wanted. Marco Polo published his book Il Milione around 1300. (Side note: the name of the book, written in Genoa by Polo’s prison cellmate Rusticello, had nothing to do with Who wants to be a millionaire, but it is a derivation of Polo’s nickname ‘Emilione’, Emilio being Polo’s middle name; there, priceless trivia.) The book told the stories of Polo’s travels to Asia in the 1270s and 1290s. An instant success, the book prompted many Europeans to explore the Far East, some more successfully then others. In the 1320s, the Franciscan friars Odoric of Pordenone and James of Ireland went to Beijing. The Florentine Giovanni de Marignolli ended up in Quanzhou near Taiwan in the 1350s. The travel bug hit Europe hard. Cartography developed at breakneck speed, while the public imagination was filled with stories from the East, many of them as fantastical as the anxiety grew around the idea that the rest of the world may not be as uninhabitable and unreachable as ancient authority had decreed. Another anxiety, another age, one of exploration and discovery, lay around the corner.