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Why must one understand the medieval period in order to understand the evolution of human society?

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When scholars discuss medieval history, they are referring not only to a time period (the fifth century to the mid-1400s) but also to a place: Europe. What is crucial to understand about these so called "Middle Ages" is that they were a time of societal regression, during which the considerable progress that had been made in governance, legal theory, philosophy, science, mathematics and the arts, was turned back. In the absence of law and order, Europe slipped back into a state of chaos and brutality that had not existed on the continent for almost a thousand years.

The Roman Empire had not only ruled Europe, but also set up systems of governance and infrastructure that united hundreds if not thousands of warring tribes under one prosperous, well organized government. There existed a common currency, clear trade policies, trade routes, an army/police force and systems of governors and sub-governors that (for the most part) protected individual property, adjudicated disputes, and prevented any single part of the vast Empire from turning on another or on itself.

Once the Roman Empire crumbled, the trained soldiers who had been paid to protect the subjects of that Empire turned into ruthless mercenaries who raped, pillaged and murdered at will. The knowledge that had been accumulated at various universities was largely destroyed when those universities were raided by looters and the various factions that rose up in the enormous vacuum of power that existed after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The murder rate during the middle ages was astronomical, and has been estimated at 20 - 25 per 100 people. Think about that. 20 to 25 percent of the population in Europe died from homicides. Even the most violent cities in the world like Caracas, Bogota or Juarez come nowhere close to that murder rate.

The reason it is so crucial to study this period of history is that it provides an example of just how self-destructive humans can be, and how little stands in the way between a highly civilized, technologically advanced society, and complete chaos. At its peak, the Roman Empire represented the pinnacle civilization. It was far from perfect, but it mostly worked. People lived longer, were healthier, and had a reasonable amount of knowledge and culture at their disposal. Yet once the people who were paid to keep law and order stopped getting paid, they turned on the people they were charged to protect, and those people soon turned on each other.

Together, they plunged a great civilization into ignorance and perpetual warfare and it took almost one thousand years for human civilization in Europe to begin to recover. The experiences of Medieval Europe prove just how precious and tenuous civilization is, and hopefully serve as a lesson to us today that despite the progress we have made as a species, we still have the capability of destroying it all with frightening speed if we are not careful.

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