The Dark Ages and the Age of Gold

The Dark Ages and the Age of Gold

by Russell A. Fraser


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ISBN-13: 9780691619286
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1787
Pages: 440
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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The Dark Ages and the Age of Gold

By Russell Fraser


Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06216-7


The Past As Prologue

The late sixteenth century in England is defined by a seriousness that might have satisfied Matthew Arnold, and that makes the centuries before it appear irresponsible in contrast. The Middle Ages, conversely, are like a Georgian prologue to the earnest Victorian thing, or like Shrovetide before the austerities of Lent, when

The people take their fill of recreation,
And buy repentance, ere they grow devout.

Or they are the Dark Ages, and the Renaissance a purposive scattering of the dark.

This is the aspect under which sixteenth-century writers were most apt to see their own time in relation to the past. Here is a cursory but a representative sampling of what they say on the subject. The Elizabethan critic William Webbe knows of "no memorable worke written by any Poete in our English speeche until twenty yeeres past." That eliminates Chaucer, whose talent is generally conceded but who is thought to have been unlucky in his birth. It is this unluckiness that Thomas Nashe has in mind, in commiserating the lot of "Chaucer, Lidgate, Gower, with such like, that lived under the tirranie of ignorance." When Sir Philip Sidney, who is more catholic in taste than his contemporaries, is moved to praise the medieval song of Percy and Douglas, he is constrained to temper praise, "so evill apparrelled [is it] in the dust and cobwebbes of that uncivill age." Reading and admiring Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, he does not know "whether to mervaile more, either that he in that mistie time could see so clearely, or that wee in this cleare age walke so stumblingly after him." Mistiness describes the perception of the past and rationalizes the benighted authority of those medieval writers and thinkers whom Renaissance Englishmen are apt to revile as "the barbarous nation of scholemen."

This reviling of the Middle Ages as a barbarous time is not peculiar to the English. In France, Guillaume Budé, the friend of Erasmus and an ardent panegyrist of the Greeks, declares himself thankful and a little surprised that anything of merit has been "saved from the deluge of more than a thousand years; for a deluge indeed, calamitous to life, had so drained and absorbed literature itself and the kindred arts worthy of the name, and kept them so dismantled and buried in barbarian mud that it was a wonder they could still exist." Peter Ramus, perusing the medieval commentaries on Aristotle, discovers in them "nothing that points to nature: nothing, if you regard the truth of nature, that is not confused, muddied up, contaminated, and distorted." Observation is distorted; so is the language in which it is couched. "The script was so ancient," says a German historian who is reading in the Lives of the Fathers, "that I had to become a boy again and go back to the elements." The Italian humanist, for example Lorenzo Valla, displays the same contempt for the Latin of the Schoolmen, those "confused, bloodless, and dry dialecticians!" Pico della Mirandola is instructed by a friend that the medieval writer, in his ignorance of good latinity, can hardly be said to have lived at all. Pico does not argue the point.

But now "after so many yeares of barbarisme," in the phrase of the poet Thomas Campion, the age of dross gives way to an age of gold. By convention the golden age is supposed to precede our own, which is held to represent one more stage in the decay of nature. That is the medieval supposition. Already in the fourth century, the Christian apologist Lactantius is disinclined to wonder "that a kingdom established on a mighty foundation, increased by the long labor of mighty men, fortified with mighty resources, should one day fall." Whatever is built up by human strength, even the greatly durable edifice of the Roman state, is open to destruction "since the works of mortals are mortal." The ultimate authority for this melancholy view of things is the Book of Esdras: "So you too must consider that you are smaller in stature than those who were before you, and those who come after you will be smaller than you, for the creation is already growing old ... and past the strength of youth" (11, 5:54-56).

Medieval man, though not obsessed with decay like the Apocryphal writer, assumes that history moves in the direction of entropy. "Ripeness is all." The assumption is not a trouble to him nor is there implicit in it any genuine sense of historical time. Typically, and waiving the great and fanatic exceptions like Joachim of Flora, he is not an eschatologist. He does not look backward or forward but is satisfied to live in the present. Abbot Suger, the master of St.-Denis, is notable for piety among the prime movers of twelfth-century France. But his piety is neither lugubrious nor fearful. On January 13, 1151 the old man lies dying and is observed by a contemporary thus: "He did not tremble in the sight of the end, because he had consummated his life before his death; nor was he loath to die because he had enjoyed to live." He is not ridden — like most of us? — by the consciousness of "unlived lines," is no longer striving "for something still to be attained" (Rilke). This equable man does not go out "like one who is rejected, who is thrown out against his will." In his death as in life, he is humanus satis et jocundus.

To man in the Middle Ages, all time is present time. For this reason, the myth of the Golden Age does not excite him to speculation and has not much currency in his writings. Renaissance man differs on this head as he is increasingly the victim of incertitude and dislocation. Equilibrium is already a kind of dying and a welcoming of death: "his first minute, after noone, is night" (John Donne). As every day is frustration, conceived in prelude to that more propitious day which must succeed in unknown fate, equilibrium gives place to despair. To the man at sixes and sevens, the wasting towards death is insupportable:

Death, at whose name I oft have been afeard
Because I wished this world's eternity.
(2 Henry VI, 11, iv, 89-90)

It is this man who engenders the consciousness of historical time. In the Renaissance the pastness of the past is first perceived; concurrently the future, unspoiled because unrealized, begins to beckon seductively. To look backward and forward is the hallmark of the modern age (in which the classical past is resumed) and betokens its sickness. "Non omnis moriar" is perverse.

Perverseness is figured in the heaping up of memorials: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins"; as also in the hypothesizing of a better time to come. (The present is an interlude, or vale of tears.) In the formulations of Renaissance poets, the better time is discovered initially in the past.

The Golden Age was when the world was young,
Nature so rich, as earth did need no sowing,
Malice not known, the serpents had not stung,
Wit was but sweet affection's overflowing.

But how explain the sense of progress and even millennium which the Reformation communicates, exactly as it seeks to return to the primitive purity? The answer is that progress in the "modern" age is implicitly regressive, an attempt to repudiate the old-fashioned or medieval acquiescence in the darkness that awaits us all. In contemporary jargon, the master-motive is "genito-fugal" (Ferenczi), where the modifier denotes not only the beginning but the end.

The earth that's Nature's mother is her tomb,
What is her burying grave, that is her womb.
(Romeo and Juliet, 11, iii, 9-10)

The ending and beginning are the same. The proclaiming of a millennial future differs only lexically from the invoking of a vanished Saturnian Age. Each is despairing and fraught with good hope. Potentially, "What's past is prologue." In the Renaissance, as the implications of this hopeful saying begin to be grasped, the convention of decay begins to be inverted. The process of inversion is as follows.

First comes the backward glance that takes in despondently the breaking of nations and the colossal heap of detritus that is the past. Example: Edmund Spenser, after Du Bellay, reflecting on the Ruines of Rome.

Behold what wreake, what mine, and what wast,
And how that she, which with her mightie powre
Tam'd all the world, hath tam'd herselfe at last,
The pray of Time, which all things doth devowre ...
O worlds inconstancie!
That which is firme doth flit and fall away
And that is flitting doth abide and stay. (111)

When Roger Ascham muses on the corruption of the Latin tongue, which in its pure state endured scarcely a hundred years, he is reminiscent of Lactantius in the "good cause" he postulates. "No perfection is durable. Encrease hath a time, and decay likewise, but all perfit ripenesse remaineth but a moment." All things fall and are built again; or, more poignantly, having fallen, continue to decline.

But Ascham is a reformer and optimistic with respect to the present. Having spoken to his morose point of view, he does not infer, as he might logically, that our old stock cannot be inoculated. Instead he looks about for a nostrum. He finds it in antiquity, which comprehended all knowledge to the degree that men can do so. That is in the beginning the orthodox view. Early in the sixteenth century, Erasmus bespeaks it. "I affirm that with slight qualification the whole of attainable knowledge lies enclosed within the literary monuments of ancient Greece. This great inheritance I will compare to a limpid spring of whose undefiled waters it behoves all who truly thirst to drink and be restored."

There is in Erasmus's prescription no thought of transcending antiquity. The great excitement that attends on the rediscovery of classical learning derives initially from the more modest hope of retrieving the Golden Age. This hope inspires the fifteenth-century humanist and supports him in his task of rendering Greek poetry and history in Latin. To Lorenzo Valla it appears that if the Middle Ages were unhappy in producing no single scholar, "the more we may congratulate our own times, in which, if we but strive a little further, I am confident that not only the Roman city, but still more the Roman language, and with it all liberal studies, shall be restored." Contemporary physicians see that restoration as imminent with the translating of the Greek physician Galen. Like Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, the first man of modern science, they look forward to the time when "anatomy will ... be cultivated in our Academies as it was of old in Alexandria." They are not yet imbued with the philosophy of progress. Their commitment to the past is, therefore, a kind of enslavement. Like Jacobus Sylvius, who taught Vesalius at the University of Paris, they are inclined to believe that any structure occurring in modern man and not in the writings of Galen can only be due to degeneration in modern man. To arrest the process of degeneration and decay, they seek to emulate the antique past. "For what naturallie can go no hier must naturallie yeld and stoupe againe." That is Ascham's law.

But now it is qualified, as art is enlisted in nature's redress. In the great house near St. Albans where Sir Francis Bacon passed his youth, a picture of Ceres, to whom man is indebted for the sowing of grain, is moralized with the words: Moniti Meliora. Instruction begets improvement. Years later the auspicious saying appears again — it is verified now — in preface to the Great Instauration. Charles II, as confidence grows on the age, commits his subjects to "a further repairing [of] the Decayes of Nature, untill Art have done its last, or, which is most probable, Nature cease to be, or be Renewed." Art enhances Nature (Ars Naturam adiuvans) and puts an end to yielding and stooping. That is how the Italian jurist Andrea Alciati interprets an emblem in which Fortune or instability is posed against Mercury, in whom art and application are personified and fused. On that fusion the Renaissance relies to reverse the decay of things.

In attesting to its success the emblem writers, who render the common understanding in moralized pictures, are unanimous. Mercury tunes the broken lute in an illustration contrived by Joannes Sambucus, who offers the hopeful legend, Industry corrects Nature (Industria naturam corrigit). Death, who is depicted by Gabriele Rollenhagio as toying with the sceptre and crown, is overmatched at last by erudition, depicted as the wise man with one hand on a book and — a nice and significant conjunction — the other grasping a globe. It is the emblem that presents Francis Bacon, whose ambition is "to make the mind of man, by help of art, a match for the nature of things." Rollenhagio's motto (Vivitur ingenio, caetera mortis erunt) appears also in Vesalius, on the tomb of the mourning skeletal figure of the Fabrica (1543). "Genius lives on, all else is mortal." The sense of the epitaph adorning that great recension and modernization of anatomical knowledge is not mournful but exuberant. Knowledge is power.

But Bacon and his age have got it wrong, and so much we are learning belatedly, after some cost. Baudelaire anticipates this learning more than a hundred years ago: "la vraie civilization," what is it? "Elle n'est fas dans le gaz, ni dans la vapeur, ni dans les tables tournantes. Elle est dans la diminution des traces du féché originel" (Mon Coeur Mis à Nu, XXXII). The Age of Reason has little truck with the doctrine of original sin, does not estimate the problem Baudelaire is posing — or say, to qualify: the master spirits of the age, the great men in whom the Weltanschauung is realized, these men are impervious to the idea of "concupiscence." All problems, on the resolving of which progress attends, are — as we should say, "exogenous." (The argot of different times and "theologies" is amusing; the point of view which informs the exotic words is familiar enough, over the centuries.)

One entail of the hopeful psychology which I associate to the Age of Reason is the doctrine of Imitation. Ascham, who conceives it as a means of retrieving our fallen condition, provides a directory to the restorative virtues of classical writers. On his diagnosis, the study of Cicero nourishes and revivifies more than all others. That is because Cicero was an imitator himself, able and willing to enlarge his own capacity by going to school to the past. Just as "Tullie did not obiter [incidentally] and bichance, but purposelie and mindfullie, bend him selfe to a precise and curious Imitation of Plato," so we who come after are to imitate Tully, that the world's great age may begin anew and the golden years return. To bring back the age of gold, the early sixteenth-century critic Marco Girolamo Vida advises aspiring writers "to follow the trusty footsteps of the ancients" and to "steal and drive the spoil from every source." Joachim du Bellay, defending his native language, proffers the same advice. On his view, "Being natural does not suffice to make poetry a labor worthy of immortality." Art, which is founded on the imitation of Greek and Latin authors, must collaborate in the work.

Horace, as he is the great spokesman for this position, becomes the great Cham to Renaissance critics. His admonition, never to lose touch with the Greek patterns by night or day, is taken as emphasizing the sovereign value of artifice in salving and recurring the fall. Thomas Campion, interdicting rhyme as "vulgar and unarteficiall," equates what is merely natural with what is unlicked or unamended by art. He proposes to compass the siglo de oro by imitating the more artful verse of the ancients.

There are of course skeptics, even in the Renaissance, who do not believe in artifice (or in anything else) as the vade mecum. Rabelais is one of them. "How comes it," he inquires, affecting stupefaction, "that in the abundant light of our century, in which by some special gift of the gods we see all the better disciplines recovered, there are still found everywhere men so constituted as to be either unwilling or unable to lift their eyes from the more than Cimmerian darkness of the gothic time to the evident torch of the sun." John Donne almost a century later sees his hopeful contemporaries as still involved in that darkness. He is therefore bemused that "the world ... should glorifie it selfe, or flatter, or abuse us with an opinion of eternity." On his less sanguine understanding, "there is a reproofe, a rebuke born in ... [nature], a sensible decay and mortality of the whole world." The disconcerting conclusion of a skeptical observer like Donne is that modern man, so far from overgoing his forebears, is in comparison to them a diminished thing. And in fact to be modern, in the lexicon of an unprogressive poet like Shakespeare, is by definition to be trivial or slight. The "modern quill" of the Rival Poet, whom Shakespeare reprehends in the Sonnets, comes too short as it is modern. The "wise saws and modern instances" at which he glances in As You Like It are not so wise as pretentious.


Excerpted from The Dark Ages and the Age of Gold by Russell Fraser. Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Preface, pg. vii
  • Contents, pg. xiii
  • I. The Past As Prologue, pg. 1
  • II. Poetry and the Illative Voice, pg. 38
  • III. The Father of Lies, pg. 77
  • IV. The Regiment of Virtue, pg. 116
  • V. The Woman of Jericho, pg. 157
  • VI. The Language of Earth, pg. 185
  • VII. The Seeds of Psyche, pg. 217
  • VIII. The Oil and Water of Poetry and Truth, pg. 264
  • IX. Procrustes’ Bed, pg. 301
  • X. The Watch That Ends the Night Works Consulted, pg. 337
  • Works Consulted, pg. 377
  • Index, pg. 397

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