Mental breakthroughs

The calendar page for May in an 11th century manuscript from the Abbey of St Gall, Switzerland (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 394). The medieval calendar integrated the ancient Roman day-week-month system with the Christian liturgical year.

There is a time to innovate and a time to fall back on the certainties of past achievements.

As many of us are moving fast and breaking things, and others wall off golden ages to be recovered and restored, it’s quite useful to look back at an age, perhaps the only age, that tried to embody the ancient Roman symbol of Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions whose double-headed figure looked both backwards and forwards in time.

The medieval period was many things, too many things, which is why most people, who didn’t sign up to a lifetime devoted to understanding the most midunderstood part of European history, are so prone to misrepresent it.

The medieval mind was not unlike our modern mind, but in at least one way it was very different. It consumed itself with a project of convergence and reconciliation. It was eaten up by a desire to harmonize the Greco-Roman ideas and ideals with the Christian values it found itself often incapable of synthesizing and incorporating into the culture from which Europe emerged.

On the one hand, there was Aristotle. On the other, there was Scripture. On the one hand, there was Stoicism, on the other, there was St Paul. On the one hand, there was ancient authority, on the other, there were the original ideas that scholars worked out. Few believed these ideas were reconcilable, but the project was pushed through, despite the odds, despite the apprehension.

For the medievals, a new idea was synonymous with an undesirable idea. The mind stayed faithful to its evolutionary adaptive patterns: what hadn’t been trialed was regarded with suspicion and alarm. What is the point of challenging a tool which had proved to be successful in the past? Unless the problems have been reframed, there is little use for novel ways. We see this approach in full swing among traditional and traditionalist societies and cultures which have little or no patience for changing their ancestral ways. The most moderns of us find this framework unacceptable, but the most moderns of us have themselves little patience for looking through the eyes of those whose understanding of their fittedness to their environment depends on reproduction rather than innovation.

The medieval mind tried really hard to break away from the evolutionary strictures of its own constitution. Nothing is harder than to make someone see things in a different way. So, by setting out on a convergent path of bringing the past and the present together, as for example the work of countless medieval scholars tried to achieve in the area of developing an accurate and culture-viable calendar (the conquest of time), the medieval mind forced out new ways of seeing, or simply the fact that a new way of looking at things isn’t the threatening prospect it thought would be. And this breakthrough, which took centuries to mature, broke out into a myriad other breakthroughs, which created the mental space we inhabit today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: