Early medieval civilization

More than fifteen hundred years ago, pirates captured a British boy named Patrick from the largest of the British Isles. They sold him as a slave on the second-largest island, the island known as Ireland. Patrick was British, but not in the sense of Anglo-Saxon. The Angles and Saxons were only beginning to invade Britain at that time. Patrick was a Celtic Briton, trained in some Roman ways (including Christianity). He would become the patron saint of the Irish; he is the Saint Patrick who is dimly remembered every 17th of March with leprechauns, shamrocks, parades, and green beer.

After a few years, Patrick escaped from slavery. He ended up in France, where he joined a monastery and became active in the Christian monastic life. That life included the preservation of holy and historic texts, including the Bible and the Church fathers, but also various classic Greek and Roman writings. Patrick remembered the pagan Irish who had been his masters, and he felt a yearning to bring them the Christian Gospel. Sent as a missionary, Patrick preached the Gospel in Ireland. He also established monasteries like the one where he had lived in France. While the various Germanic tribes stirred around the mainland and the largest of the British Isles, Christianity and its literate tradition remained strong in Ireland. When Europe became more settled, Irish missionaries carried their Christian teachings and traditions back to Britain and the mainland. Like other Germanic tribes, the Franks embraced this form of Christianity, and in so doing they become the heirs of Greco-Roman civilization.

The same civilization was continuing unbroken in the Byzantine Empire. The western version of those traditions differed in small ways from the eastern version; over time, those differences would increase. Charlemagne was especially interested in preserving and spreading the literate civilization of the monasteries. His royal court included literate monks from the regions he ruled and also from beyond those regions. Even later raids from the Vikings could not extinguish the light of European civilization that had been inherited from Greece and Rome and had been perpetuated in the monastic movement, especially in Ireland.

Meanwhile, culture in western Europe had not come to a standstill. The Church was not merely preserving treasured documents from the past; it was also producing new literature, beginning with the Roman bishops Pope Leo the Great and Pope Gregory the Great. Other great writers of the early medieval time included Boethius (who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy), the writer known as Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and the Venerable Bede. All these writers contributed to the progress of civilization that was happening in Europe during the early Middle Ages.

Many Christians joined the monasteries. Others supported the monasteries with gifts, including bequests of land. By the time Carolingian rulers were being replaced by Capetians and Ottonians (Saxon kings named Otto who were crowned as emperors), some congregations and monasteries possessed great wealth in land, serfs, and treasures. This led to divergence from the original intention of monasteries, even abuse of the Christian religion. Rather than keeping their pledges of chastity, poverty, and obedience, monks had live-in girlfriends. They ate better than the peasants and even than some of the nobility. They used their influence to control the politics of the regions where they lived. Through these abuses, they were giving Christ and his Church a bad name in Europe.

A reform movement began in the 800s and gathered steam in the 900s, reversing this trend of worldliness and deceit in the Church. Associated with the Cluny Abbey in Aquitaine—then in the country of Burgundy, but now part of France—the Cluny Reform (or Cluniac Reform) spread throughout France, Spain, Italy, and England. Monasteries following the new set of rules (which reaffirmed the goals of earlier monasticism) networked with one another and were, for a time, the largest religious influence in Europe. Several leaders of this reform movement were later elected popes. Although Protestant Christians often think of reformation as a series of events during the sixteenth century, the Cluny Reform and later reformations of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries also helped sustain the life of genuine Christianity in a world that frequently tempts Christian leaders to depart from Christ’s paths and to travel their own direction. J.

The bane of civilization

Civilization has taken two wrong turns which are difficult to reverse. Gasoline-powered automobiles and purely residential land developments are so common in the United States that they are taken for granted. A world without these two features seems like science fiction or fantasy, but such a world would be better than our present condition in many ways.

Nineteenth century inventors in Europe and in North America experimented with several ways to improve transportation. Steam power was favored at first, but electric cars were also tried. By the end of the century, gasoline-powered internal combustion engines had prevailed over other kinds of powered vehicles. Gasoline seemed to be a more efficient energy source, requiring less time to refuel and more travel between refueling stops than electric vehicles. Gasoline was also less expensive, being a byproduct of the production of other petroleum-based chemicals such as kerosene. Electric starters and the use of lead in gasoline to prevent engine knock made gasoline-powered cars the prevailing choice of consumers in the twentieth century.

What’s wrong with gasoline-powered cars? Problem one is air pollution. Some air pollution comes from wildfires, dust storms, volcanoes, and cattle; some comes from factories, power plants, and landfills. A great deal of air pollution comes from transportation. Sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other dangerous chemicals are produced by burning gasoline. Expensive fuel additives and automobile components try to reduce air pollution from automobiles, but the benefit is insufficient. Problem two is expense. Every generation of cars is more complicated than the previous generation because of safety devices, anti-pollution technology, computer-operated components, and conveniences. What once was a helpful tool that cost a few hundred dollars and was easily maintained and repaired by the typical owner has become an investment of thousands of dollars that requires maintenance and repairs by trained professionals. Problem three is volume. Every day the roads are packed with cars (as well as trucks, buses, and motorcycles) carrying people to and from work, school, stores, social events, and other destinations. People arrive in bad moods because of the traffic. Road rage is increasingly common. Problem four is the constant construction, widening, and repair of roads, making them less usable for months, sometimes years, before the project is completed. The benefit of automobiles is largely offset by the burden these tools have become.

Around the middle of the twentieth century, the convenience of automobiles led to a change in housing patterns. At first, the United States had imitated Europe with several urban centers separated by vast regions of farmland. Small towns along transportation corridors met the needs of farmers and travelers, but most non-farmers lived in cities. They did not really need cars: they could walk to school, to work, to church, and to neighborhood stores, or they could ride a bus or a trolley to get where they wanted to go. Churches and stores did not need parking lots. People knew their neighbors because they passed each other on the streets and sidewalks and alleys. After World War II, new housing developments began to be built in the suburbs. Each house had a carport or a garage, because the only buildings in walking distance from each home were the homes of neighbors. Stores and churches built in the suburbs now needed parking lots. People did not need to meet their neighbors—they went from their houses to their cars and drove wherever they were going—to work, to church, to shop, or to the gym to exercise, since they were doing much less walking than before.
Several factors led to this new way of living. A strong economy allowed families to live further away from the cities and to drive their cars wherever they wanted to go. Attempts to end segregated education through busing persuaded a lot of families to move farther away from urban areas. Simple stubborn individuality and independence made American workers decide to live where they wanted in spite of inconvenient distances to work and shopping and church. Land developers persuaded Americans we wanted to live this way, with big housing developments and big shopping malls and superstores and everything else that goes along with these changes.

I grew up in the suburbs. I don’t hate them unconditionally. But for nine years, living in the suburbs, I was still able to walk to school; and, when we wished, my parents and I could walk to church. My father rode the train to work for several years, until the company built a new office structure in the suburbs; after that, he had to drive to work. My mother drove to the grocery store every Friday; most weeks she carpooled with my grandmother and my aunt. Occasionally the family would drive to a shopping mall to buy clothing or Christmas presents.

Now it’s a rare day when I do not drive a car. I drive to work and back. I drive to church and back. Usually I drive to the store and back—the nearest grocery store is about a mile from my house, so if I have enough time and little enough to carry home, I sometimes walk there. I drive to the bank, to the doctor’s office, and to the mall. I drive to the mechanic, or on occasion I have to pay to have the car towed there.

Civilization has spent centuries building these problems. They cannot be fixed overnight. But, in the words of Bill McCay, “There has to be a better way.” Tomorrow I will describe a better way. J.