Arguably, one of the most important reasons for the Catholic church’s wealth and power (reference the period from the end of the Roman Empire in 476 to circa 1100-1200 CE, so 600-700 years of largely undisputed dominance) was not that they controlled access to the afterlife, but that they were the only source of earthly learning, and so, in particular, the only organisation to master the technology of written communication.
We’re talking control of the store of all human knowledge (and so, much power) – books – which in those days were copied out by hand, on parchment, by teams of patient monks. And don’t forget letters, which were THE tool for controlling kingdoms and empires from afar. Unfortunately, only churchmen were able to write and read them. Think today – if you want to send an email, you need a smartphone, tablet or computer. And the person you’re sending it to would need the same sort of device to read it. For medieval kings, the tech was the Catholic church, and its handy supply of scribes and advisors.
Back then, if you weren’t a prince, a priest or a monk, the likelihood that you, or your heirs, would be literate was close to zero.
Princes had private tutors preparing them for their future roles as rulers. Priests and monks enjoyed access to the on-the-job training needed for their particular professions, which they were then able to exploit to exclusively control society’s store of knowledge, and to monitor and influence the exercising of the levers of power by their royal patrons. But for a local boss, a successful merchant, or mid-level military commander? Such powerful tools would have been out of reach.
And then, everything changed.
Britain’s famous ‘public’ schools (actually, very expensive, elitist, private educational establishments) were so-called because, once they had been established, anyone with the cash could send their (male) children to learn in them. Suddenly, minor aristocrats, military officers, even merchants, could ensure that their offspring, too, had access to the technologies of learning and communication that had so long been the province of the royals and the church.
Eton College was founded by Henry VI in 1440, but England was already way behind the curve in terms of the opening up knowledge. Over in the Italian peninsula, the concept of a ‘university’ (Wikipedia explains the origins of the term, and provides much more information than you’re likely to need), a body of students which was open to anyone willing to pay the fees and drink too much wine, had already been around for more than three centuries!
Today’s episode of our FREE Summer Series on the Medieval period in the Italian peninsula focuses on the ‘renaissance’.
No, not THAT Renaissance (the European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries), which will be the topic of next year’s Summer Series, THIS renaissance (the Renaissance of the 12th century, a period of many changes at the outset of the High Middle Ages), an earlier period of ‘rebirth’ which saw, amongst other social and economic changes, the foundation of a famous law school in Bologna, and an equally famous medical school in Salerno.
Why did that matter? As evidence of the waning power of the church, and as signs of the way that things would go in the second millennium…
Here are the links:
History page (where you’ll find previous episodes.)
A venerdì, allora.
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