Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Medieval antecedents

The child is father to the man, so the saying goes. In the same way, the medieval world gave birth to the modern world of today. To understand why we act the way we do, both as individuals and as nations, we often need to look back to our childhoods.

The University of Washington Alumni Association's annual history lecture series this year is entitled "Medieval Origins of the Modern Western World," delivered by Prof. Robert Stacey. As a one-time medieval history major myself, I showed up for the sold-out series last night expecting a rather superficial summation of the more exciting events of the period, a number of anecdotes that might appeal to the average guy who's been out of school for a while.

I was pleasantly surprised.

The series contains just four lectures. I regret having missed the first one, entitled "The Oddity of the Modern West," while I was in California. This week's lecture discussed the origins of one such "oddity": "The Separation of Religion from Politics." Dr. Stacey's lecture was one of the best I've heard in the years I've attended these lectures at the UW. It was well delivered, highly organized, and crammed with information. The lecture managed to cover 1,700 years of history without our ever losing sight of the primary point that Dr. Stacey intended to make: that events and conflicts during the middle ages led ultimately to a sharp break with the past in the way Western man viewed the state -- how he understood the basis for the legitimacy of government and the objectives for which he believed government to exist. This break was centuries in development, but culminated in the aftermath of the religious wars of the 17th century.

In just under two hours of lecture time, Dr. Stacey discussed the fusion of worship and secular life in the Roman household and imperial government; St. Augustine's City of God, and the misunderstanding of his concept of the "two cities" by subsequent religious and political thinkers; the virtual fusion of priestly and secular functions in the Carolingian monarchy; the Investiture Controversy between the papacy and lay rulers of the 11th and 12th centuries, leading finally to a line drawn between lay and religious government; the Reformation conflicts and the theocracy of Calvinist Geneva; the Edict of Nantes; the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, emphasizing the religious rather than secular conflicts played out in that war; and the ultimate evolution of the state, in the wake of the moral exhaustion bred by the religious wars, into an entity that commanded allegiance and offered its benefits apart from the religious beliefs of either its ruler or its citizens.

As an undergraduate, I took a very good course in political theory, a course that covered these same topics; Dr. Stacey's single lecture pretty much summed up all the understanding (and more) that I took away from that undergrad class after the finals were over.

So props to the Alumni Association and to Dr. Stacey. I look forward eagerly to the two remaining lectures, "Limited Government" and "Love and Marriage."


belt_316 said...

My name is Derek Belt and I'm with the UW Alumni Association. Thank your for the props and for attending the 2011 HLS. Professor Stacey is a star, and we are hearing so many good things about his lectures thus far.

Could we post your note on the UWAA's blog, Blog Down to Washington? I really want to give Professor Stacey a digital high-five, and your post is very thoughtful. We would be honored to cross-promote your blog while drawing attention to Stacey and the HLS.

Email me at: Thanks!

Derek Belt said...

This post is featured on the UW Alumni Association's Blog Down to Washington.

Enjoy the remaining two lectures!