Page:Western Europe in the Middle Ages.djvu/49

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
33
THE MAKING OF EUROPE

activities. The Roman tradition had lost most of its vitality, and the German tradition was not sufficiently developed to be used as a substitute. The Romans of the Late Empire were content with what had been done before. They imitated Virgil and Suetonius; they wrote commentaries on classical works of literature; they prepared encyclopedias which contained all essential knowledge in a few hundred pages. The Germans had their legendary stories and poems, but they could not believe that these barbaric productions were equal in value to the highly polished, sophisticated Roman works. The German stories survived as part of the oral tradition of the northern peoples, but it was centuries before most of them were written down. Meanwhile, there was great respect for the Roman intellectual and literary tradition, but little understanding of it. Few of the Germans ever mastered the art of reading Latin, and the great majority of the Romans cared as little for the survival of their literature as they did for the survival of the imperial government. The only learning that was absolutely essential was some knowledge of grammar and syntax and some knowledge of private law. These needs could be met by the preparation of little books of excerpts which illustrated rules of language or of jurisprudence. Even this limited intellectual activity was too much of an effort for most of the inhabitants of Western Europe, and by 800 an educated layman was rarely found outside of Italy.

The disappearance of educated laymen contributed to the political and economic weakness of the Germanic kingdoms. With no literary standard to preserve linguistic unity, colloquial Latin split into dozens of different dialects. The absence of linguistic unity made it hard to secure political unity. For example, the people of Aquitaine, who did not speak the same dialect as the people of the Seine valley, were suspicious of rulers who came from the north. The fact that most laymen could not read or write made it difficult to carry on the normal functions of government. The central authorities received few written reports from