The Medieval Founding Fathers of Democracy

In 1376, Nicolas d' Oresme (1323-1382) illustrated and translated The Politica from Aristoteles into French. Photo: Wikipedia. Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique (KBR 11201-02).

The Middle Ages appear in the fifteenth century in Latin as media tempestas. When Europeans use the term Middle Ages, they mean a dark period between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. The scheme comes from the Italian humanist Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374). He promoted a new interest in classical literature and society that was supposed to put an end to the obscure times since the fall of the Roman Empire. The situation was more complex however. The East-Roman or Byzantine Empire still existed and strongly influenced European culture, trade and politics. For many centuries, the Islamic culture on the Iberian peninsula and beyond was neither an isolated spot in Europe, nor was the rule of various French and German kings and emperors that obscure. Many cloister communities and ecclesiastical authorities contributed to the cultural and economical developments. The Cathedrals, artifacts and illuminated manuscripts are silent witnesses of the developments on the European continent.

People never stopped thinking and many refined concepts were shaped during those ‘obscure’ times. The Roman heritage and Christianity were the binding factors. From a political perspective, however, Europe was hopelessly fragmented and different languages and cultures came into being. Greek was not spoken anymore in West-Europe, but the Latin language made it possible for thoughts, persons and books to circulate from one end of Latin Christianity to another. Although Latin was spoken by a small minority, it meant a continuity and common European heritage. The role of Christianity can’t be underestimated neither. The Church copied the Roman hierarchical administrative system and above all the prestige of the Empire. Latin language and Christian faith united a politically fragmented Europe for a long time. Charlemagne tried, in vain, to copy the Roman empire, the German emperors were not successful neither. Only the name Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation got as close as possible.