Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Decentralized Society: Church Towers Bear Witness

I again make reference to “A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to Saint Louis (3rd Edition)”, by R.H.C. Davis

Davis uses the architectural styling of various church towers built throughout Europe to illustrate the decentralization of society that began with the decrease in Roman influence.  He begins with a review of monumental architecture during the time of general Roman rule, preceding the early Middle Ages:

Under Roman rule the general style of monumental architecture had been recognizably uniform in all the provinces of the Empire, from Britain to Africa and from Spain to Syria.  In the Dark Ages, something of that uniformity had been maintained…the buildings of the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Lombards, and Franks were built as imitations (though sometimes poor imitations) of the Roman or Byzantine style.  But in the period from 900 to 1250 this uniformity ceased completely…in the Latin West there was a whole medley of different styles.

One factor in this change, occurring over centuries, certainly could have been the lack of communication amongst the various tribes when compared to Roman times.  However, it certainly seems reasonable to expect that it is also the result of a lack of a centralizing, top-down government.

He offers, as a means of verification of his statement, that one takes a road trip:

It is only necessary to travel across Europe, watching one type of church-tower give place to another as one passes from province to province, or sometimes even from valley to valley.

He then goes on to describe the differences: from Saxony, to the Rhineland, to Lombardy, to Rome, and France:

They stand as monuments to the intense localism of the High Middle Ages, when every man’s ‘country’ (patria) was not the kingdom, duchy, or county in which he lived, but his own town or village.  An echo of this sentiment may still be caught by the French peasant who refers to his village as mon pays [my country], but in the Middle Ages it was all pervading.

Even in this period during the tenth century, when the beginnings of what would be known to German historians as the first Reich, the decentralizing tendencies were controlling.  This Reich was formed under Henry I, and later his son, Otto the Great.

Yet the Reich was not a kingdom – not in any modern sense.  There were very distinct regions, each with distinct identities and customs.  The Saxons, Franks, Swabians, and Bavarians each constituted different duchies, and each claimed a distinct tribal origin.  A fifth duchy, Lotharingia, while not claiming tribal origin, survived from the time of its partition to Lothar II, the great-grandson of Charlemagne.  It too maintained a unique identity, and the people did not hesitate to call themselves Lotharingians (in the area of Lorraine, German Lothringen).

The distinctions, region by region, extending to the area of law:

Even the law might change from village to village; a thirteenth-century judge pointed out that in the various counties, cities, boroughs, and townships of England he had always to ask what was the local customary law and how it was employed before he could successfully try a case.  The legal uniformity of the Roman Empire had disappeared completely, and law, like the architectural style of the church-towers, varied from parish to parish.

Davis describes medieval civilization as “firmly rooted.  It grew out of the earth, as it were.”

By the middle of the thirteenth-century, these distinctions began to fade, although even by this point there remained two distinct cultural traditions in Latin Christendom: one in the north and west (primarily French), and the other in the central and southern regions (German and Italian).

Italy and Germany, besides being home to both the Papacy and Empire, maintained something similar to Carolingian feudalism – considered backwards from the French point of view.  In contrast, France and England developed along the lines of feudal monarchies and ultimately nation-states.

As we have seen the results of nation-states in the wars of the 20th century (and the European colonialism in the centuries preceding this), perhaps it was not the Germanic tradition that was “backwards.” 

The decentralized form of political organization, a form of panarchy, if you will, relied on local culture, tradition, laws and justice.  Not a perfect solution certainly (check heaven for that), but in a world made up of individuals – each with his own characteristics and desires – one size certainly does not fit all, and decentralization offers to each the opportunity to find a home – and to feel at home.

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