middle-aged degeneracy

The excessive dependence of the Middle Ages upon the past is part of that Golden Age complex which besets most civilizations, though medieval men carried it to an unusual degree. They believed that they were “little men in the twilight of the world” or “dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants” (the ancients). Both the primitive Church and Augustan Rome loomed out of the mist of the past as towers of civilization from which society had fallen, no matter if the Augustan Romans saw themselves as degenerates from the time of Cato, who in turn bewailed the lost Saturnia regna. Had the medieval mind looked only backwards to Eden, medieval thought would have been primitivistic; it would have had no idea of progress. But the fact that the incarnation came after the fall, and the resurrection after the crucifixion, was productive of hope. Nonetheless, exaggerated respect for the past caused several medieval eccentricities, among them the curious practice of reverse plagiarism. A modern plagiarist takes the writings of a famous man and passes them off as his own; with greater modesty, a medieval writer was likely to gain an audience for his own writings by attaching to them the name of a great pope or Father. Their worship of the past checked originality, just as our own worship of everything new promotes superficiality. The use of the word “primitive” is instructive. To us it means crude and barbaric; but through the time of Samuel Johnson its connotation was favorable: the Good Old Days.