A limited legacy

If size doesn’t matter, then quantity even less so. Short premises lead to large conclusions.

The arch-lesson of the Middle Ages is that a culture’s originality often needs a shortage of inherited capital. Achieving a lot with very little.

No culture ever develops in a void, but the conditions of its growth and transformation vary depending on what that culture has to build on.

In the passage from Antiquity to the period known as the Middle Ages, the West had to create a lot from scratch. Politically, socially, culturally and artistically, new forms emerged as old ones failed to capture the cultural momentum and get transmitted to new generations.

Scholars still debate the extent to which there was transmission and the extent to which there was interruption of ancient cultural transmission. But everyone agrees that the culture which emerged, and which we call medieval, was both indebted to the ancient Roman world as well as fully emancipated from it. On the scale of European history, it is one of the most original periods of cultural development. Enough of the Dark Ages myth already.

The limited legacy of the past allowed a culture to recreate itself almost from scratch. And to take control of its own destiny. It allowed it to be bold and innovate, and hack its way through the thicket of human history with tools it created for itself.

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