Medieval European history has been an ongoing fascination for me for the past couple of years, probably since reading 1453: The Holy War For Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West by Roger Crowley. Here is a huge chunk of history – roughly a thousand years! – that is virtually ignored in most Western Civilization courses. People refer to it as “The Dark Ages” as if nothing happened, as if it was just a parentheses in history between the glories of the ancient and modern worlds.
But the Middle Ages are far from a parentheses. In reality, they were a time of tremendous development and growth in the sciences, in culture, in language, and in technology.
Now we come to Thomas F. Madden, Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University. I have listened to several of Dr. Madden’s Modern Scholar courses, and I just finished his series of lectures on medieval Venice.
How important is Venice? Have you ever heard the phrase “sail the seven seas”? That phrase originates from navigating the seven seas of the lagoon in which Venice was built. The seven seas no longer exist, but they have become a metaphor for world navigation. The Venetians were either directly or indirectly involved in almost every major event of the Middle Ages. They practically ruled the Mediterranean basin through trade and had quarters in almost every influential city of Europe, including Constantinople.
The Venetians built giant fleets for the Crusades. They accumulated tremendous wealth by trading through Constantinople to Asia. They built a small empire based almost entirely on their ability to accumulate wealth. Popes begged them for their help; emperors visited the doge’s palace requesting loans. The Venetians were amazing.
And this all came from a city built on islands and logs driven into the sandy bottom of a lagoon.
Their history is tortuous and complicated. It is endlessly fascinating.
It never ceases to amaze me that there is always more history to learn. There truly is no end to the perspectives and contributions of people I’d never heard of, and I consider myself fairly well read in history.
And Thomas Madden? He recalls these obscure people as if they were in yesterday’s newspaper. He never ceases to engage me, and I cannot wait for the next couple of series I have gotten from the library – a history of the papacy and a broad 36-lecture series on the Middle Ages.