The Myths of the West (I) (The Middle Ages)

The Myths of the West (I) (The Middle Ages)

Written by Alfonso Elizondo


In order to try to decipher the great enigma occurring in the nations of the West at the moment, I have turned to some historians and experts in Medieval art to analyze what has happened to Western myths, both the Christian myths of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and the alliance between the monarchy and the primitive sciences of the Enlightenment and the present era, where there is no ideology or religious myth, but instead a kind of process of adaptation to the new digital world where rationality is disappearing while narcissism, hatred and xenophobia are rising.


In the first part of this brief analysis of the myths of the West we will discuss the Middle Ages. According to the visual arts teacher Nancy Marble, the human being of that time was steeped in a cultural and intellectual obscurantism that relegated him to a state of wretchedness and permanent involution, because his personal life was dedicated to not committing any sin against God and his laws so as to not lose his place in paradise. His existence was subordinated to the spiritual world but viewed from the perspective of suffering that would earn him a place in heaven.


The great intellectual achievements of Greece did not continue when Greece was replaced by the Romans who became the great power of the Mediterranean and managed to build a vast empire with no greater interest in mathematics and other scientific disciplines than was strictly necessary for administering the conquered territories. In addition, the Romans allowed the Catholic Church to be the only political and spiritual ruler of the Western world, and its leaders promoted an even greater rejection of scientific knowledge.


Under these conditions Europe entered a period of stagnation between 500 and 1450 AD, when human beings believed that the planet Earth occupied the place referred to in the book of Genesis. At that time the Christian priests acquired great power allowing them to systematically oppose all pagan wisdom and they sought to abolish any activity related to analytical thinking.


The combination of the Roman attitude towards theoretical knowledge and the Christian predisposition towards science were determining factors in a social structure where the study of the laws of nature had no importance. The only scientific information used was contained in compendiums and works that attempted to summarize the knowledge generated by the Greeks.


Four Mathematical Disciplineswas a book written by St. Isidore of Seville (560-636) dealing with arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy which studied the laws of the stars. He described the shape of the world, the celestial sphere, the planets, their movements and the stars. He believed the Sun was made of fire and that it was bigger than the Earth and the Moon. For St. Isidore there were only seven planets with their own motion in their crystalline sphere. These planets were spinning in the opposite direction to the spheres of the fixed stars, because otherwise the ‘world would be shattered,’ because of the speed of the rotating sphere.


There were countless misconceptions about the Milky Way and other more visible celestial phenomena, but never any contribution of new ideas or theories. By that time Ptolemy’s geometrical concepts had already been forgotten and the Universe of the educated man of that era was described poetically by Dante Alighieri in his imaginary journey in the Divine Comedy published in the fourteenth century. He imagined a universe consisting of concentric spheres around the Earth which was in the center. The last sphere was the firmament of the fixed stars, whose shell enclosed the created Universe. Just beyond that was the Kingdom of God that was immaterial and composed of pure light where the Blessed and the Angels lived.


Added to scientific ignorance and abandonment of rationalism during the Middle Ages was the denial of human evolution in the creationist concepts and the overactive participation of the Devil. According to the biblical story, God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to test their faithfulness and obedience, commanding them to eat of all the trees in the garden, except one, called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but he did not forbid them to eat of the tree of life, telling Adam that if they ate the fruits of that tree they would die. The Devil or Satan took advantage of this one rule and deceived Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit and gave some to her husband and he ate it. This disobedience led to their expulsion from Paradise and God punished them with death, pain, shame and work, a phenomenon known as Original Sin.


The Devil or Sin used to be represented as a winged serpent with two legs or in the shape of a dragon that probably indicated its angelic origin. So the devil became one of the most frequently recurring motifs in Western European visual arts that show the devil devoid of beauty, harmony, reality and structure and constantly changing its shape. This was designed to frighten, to control and to govern a society battered by plagues, wars and misfortune. Terror was a fixture in paintings, engravings, façades and artistic expression of every kind, creating an atmosphere of repression where the Devil stood as the main cause of the woes of that time.


At that time in the fourteenth century, great nobles or kings turned patrons and promoters of exquisite exotic luxuries had become fashionable, so that the monarchs, aristocrats and even the bourgeoisie were seduced by nobility. Out of that came the early Gothic which, along with different Italian features spread all over Europe in 15th century through different means like tapestry, miniatures and panel paintings.


A little later, the three Limbourg brothers emerged, marking the difference between the Christian and the pagan and initiating a new stage in the artistic and scientific vision of the Christian period that began with the Renaissance and ended with the French Revolution. So this article is only the first part of a series of four articles on the myths of the West.