Between year 1 and year 1000, two major chapters were written. Across Eurasia, late classical civilisations which had peaked around 100-200 had waned or fallen by the 400s. Then, by the 800s a revival came: new heights were reached in T’ang China, in the Baghdad Caliphate, the Khazar Khanate, Mayan Mexico, Byzantium and Carolingian Europe. But this was not to last.
By year 1000, the rulers and the ruled, the forces of tradition and innovation were becoming increasingly distanced from each other. The glue of personal social relations was slowly coming unstuck.
The Muslim world and Christian Byzantium were soon to be attacked by Seljuk Turks from Asia, followed by the Ottomans. Old Byzantium was on a slippery slope.
Charlemagne’s Frankish empire had subsided and a motley patchwork of European states had replaced it – to be harassed by Vikings, Magyars and Arabs.
T’ang China had disintegrated and divided: though reunified by 979, the richly creative T’ang period was not equalled for 500 years. India, already split into squabbling Hindu states, was soon invaded by Afghan Muslims, who changed everything India stood for. Tibet had disintegrated and Japan and Indonesia were losing impetus.
The year 1000 marked a relative culture-depression in the Americas too. Mexico’s classical period, 200-900, gave way to a militaristic Toltec period. As with the ascendant Incas southwards in the Andes, the cultural and spiritual finesses of earlier times had deteriorated greatly into rampant power-politics.
Imperialism was growing worldwide. Surreptitiously, humanity was becoming more jaded, obsessed with acquisition, power and grandeur. The majority was belaboured with serfdom and hard work, protected neither by the laws of civilisation nor by tribal traditions.
The fall of classical civilisations had led to an incremental loss of dignity and culture: ‘every man for himself’ was becoming more common. Things were changing: population and towns grew larger, new land was colonised and new agriculture was developed – especially in Europe. Something new was germinating.
Europe had no great, noble past to emulate. Charlemagne had brought temporary grandeur and the Church had been a transnational binding force, yet European heritage, stability and unity were weak. This insecurity gave impetus for innovation, rugged individualism... and fighting. The Normans, modernised former Vikings, took advantage of this: they penetrated many European courts and bishoprics, grabbed territory and exerted a powerful influence for centuries.
Europe gained a certain coherence, education and self-respect from the Church. In the coming high middle ages churches, monasteries and universities were built, growing in influence. Religious institutions were becoming big employers, protectors and investors, offering absolution from sin for favours rendered. Church and State vied for power, growing increasingly separated.
Royalty bore down on ordinary people through taxation, law, military ventures and nepotistic lordly appointments. Available space was slowly filling up and the great forests were diminishing. Business and merchant classes expanded. Society was complexifying and the stakes were rising.
Only in Europe did the arrival of the Millennium mean anything. Some feared that humanity was already lost to sin, entering the End Times. Preachers did well amongst the many dispossessed and underprivileged escapees of feudalism who swilled around the byways and towns of Europe.
When the Millennium passed uneventfully, Europeans unconsciously felt a sense of reprieve, of licence to do what they wanted. Moral codes and practises were sundering: some people withdrew disgusted into monasteries, while others indulged in ribaldry. Power and faith, peasants and aristocrats, occupied different spaces in a dividing body social.
Such a separation happened worldwide: social relations were distancing. Courts and temples became isolated, ceremonial, megalomanic or oppressive. Countryfolk increasingly worked for others, drawn into a wider economy through taxes and tithes. Ancient social obligations were severed, with new, often arbitrary, rules replacing them.
Hardship was common. Yet medieval cultures were to tread new ground, gifted with their fair share of thinkers, saints and goodly souls – and with their bullies, manipulators and degenerates too.
All this formed a basis for modern times to come. Amidst traditional medieval structures, new forces were slowly germinating. In Europe, this was an increasingly secular and populist evolution, growing in momentum with population size and with expanding, alienating, less familial, urban cultures.
What once had been ancient natural justice upheld by elders was, by 2000, to become democratic human rights upheld by faceless institutions and judiciaries. The absolute power anciently invested in priests and rulers was gradually shifting into the hands of varied and jostling vested interests – initially nobles, later businessmen and politicians.
Power was retained by the relatively few, yet it was decentralised into a multi-polar system. Government, usually monarchy, was to become but one player in the power equation, not the sole player.
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 1998, 2012.
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The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium was partially written in 1997-98 and never published.