The Middle Ages were an era of mysticism, ruled by blind faith and blind obedience to the dogma that faith is superior to reason.
In the history of Western civilization, the period known as the Dark Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, was a period when Western Europe existed without any social organization beyond chance local groupings clustered around small villages, large castles, and remnants of various traditions — swept periodically by massive barbarian invasions, warring robber bands, and sundry local looters. It was as close to a state of pure anarchy as men could come. The feudal system grew out of the need for organized protection. The system, in essence, consisted in the peasants swearing allegiance to a lord, who claimed ownership of the land and a percentage of their harvest in exchange for his duty to protect them against military attacks.
This system brought some semblance of order, but no protection and no peace. Disarmed men were left in the total power of an armed ruler, who had his own military gang and who robbed them as ruthlessly as, but more systematically than, any foreign invader. The history of the Middle Ages is a series of internal and external wars: there were various lords struggling to enlarge their domains, foreign lords struggling to subjugate neighboring lands, and bloody, hopeless uprisings of desperate peasants, bloodily suppressed. It was also the longest period of stagnation — intellectually and productively — in Europe’s history.
The medieval period, under the sway of such philosophers as Plotinus and Augustine, was an era dominated by Platonism. During much of this period Aristotle’s philosophy was almost unknown in the West.
For centuries, nature had been regarded as a realm of miracles manipulated by a personal deity, a realm whose significance lay in the clues it offered to the purposes of its author.
The dominant moralists had said that man must not seek his ultimate fulfillment on earth; that he must renounce the pleasures of this life, whether as a flesh-mortifying ascetic or as an abstemious toiler, for the sake of God, salvation, and the life to come . . . . Whatever their concern with the individual soul, the medievals had derogated or failed to discover the individual man. In philosophy, the Platonists had denied his reality; in practice, the feudal system had (by implication) treated the group — the caste, the guild, etc. — as the operative social unit.
An entirely different view of man dominated the medieval Christian civilization. Man, according to Augustine, is “crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous.” Medieval mystics regarded man as an evil creature whose body is loathsome because it is material, and whose mind is impotent because it is human. Hating man’s body, they said that pleasure is evil, and virtue consists of renunciation. Hating this earth, they said that it is a prison where man is doomed to pain, misery, calamity. Hating life, they said that death and escape into some other dimension is all that man could — and should — hope for.
Man as a helpless and depraved creature, was the basic theme of medieval sculpture until the Gothic period, whether he was shown being pushed into Hell or accepted into Heaven.