Proto-History Or The Middle Ages

The European nations are divided into two main groups: those which had a "glorious" Middle Ages period out of whose crises the Renaissance came out, and those which had a minimal, insignificant, derived one. The former created most of the civil, spiritual and cultural history of Europe. On the one hand, this was because the occidental Middle Ages had inherited and capitalized on the Greek and Latin heritage without which nothing lasting could have been created in Europe. On the other hand, it was because the Middle Ages made history of that ethical chaos which reigned in Europe after the invasion of the Barbarians. It's fairly evident that almost all of the modern European culture is the exclusive creation of those nations with glorious Middle Ages; moreover, historical consciousness and, more recently, historicism are also a creation of those nations. The more insignificant the medieval heritage of a nation, the more unclear its historical consciousness. Even the very notion of "history" has a different role within a culture with glorious Middle Ages (such as France, Germany, Italy and England). When the 19th century promoted historicism, giving spiritual value to all human artifacts included in a temporal duration, this concept was more successful in precisely those countries with a great medieval tradition. The 19th century can rightly be called "the century of history". But, even though huge efforts were made in order to get to know the history of any country, the elites were only interested in the past of some countries. All that was written about the other countries was interesting as mere material, information, or arguments to justify a certain historical idea. It has to be admitted that the 19th century, as well as the beginning of the 20th century, showed a more sincere and more constant interest in an African or Australian tribe (obviously for their ethnographical and sociological value) than in the history of Romania, Bulgaria or Serbia... Individualism, positivism and lack of symbolism, which naturally derived from the century of historicism, had nothing of value to find in the past of peoples without glorious Middle Ages, that is: without great personalities or facts, without written documents, without important social or economic changes which could have formed the basis of a great historical thesis. It seems nowadays, however, that historicism, on the one hand, as well as individualism and positivism have been left behind. In the last century, the historical event as such was considered to be the ultimate fact which found its meaning within itself. Nowadays, this notion has started to lose ground and it is considered more like the manifestation of an irrational force ("destiny", "people", "symbol"). A historical fact is no longer interesting in itself, nor integrated into a chain of human deeds which preceded it (economic, social or political). Most of the times nowadays, the historical fact becomes the key to understanding a person or a historical period; it symbolizes, it totalizes. Moreover, the lack of interest towards "the historical event" – of an individual or a community in a certain place and at a certain moment – has increased since the beginning of the 20th century. It is enough to remember the ethnography, folklore, sociology and anthropology which were looking for the category, behind the mere fact. In some way, all these sciences eliminate Man from History, taking only Life into account. But, in the last 20 years, these sciences (which were created by the "historical spirit" of the 19th century) started to lose ground. Life, as such, interests less and less and other things seem to take over: it is not the social or economic category anymore; it's the destiny or the symbol. That is where the passion the elites nowadays have for pre-history, races, religions, mythologies and symbols comes from. The 19th century was the most opaque century the European culture has ever known; the symbol was totally inaccessible to it. (That is why symbolism found refuge in poetry and in freemasonry, and "mysticism" in spiritualism.) What is happening nowadays in the European culture makes us believe we will soon witness the restoration of the symbol as a tool of knowledge. For the time being, we should notice that, at least in some countries, the interest has swung from history to proto-history. It is not in the Middle Ages that tradition is being sought, but in the very cradle of the race, at the beginnings of a people. A pre-historical "document" which 50 years ago was of no interest except for the specialists, has nowadays a spiritual, symbolic value. The past is not valuable anymore because it was history. It is valuable because it was original. The document is of secondary importance, it is the sign, the symbol which remain. There is less interest in text criticism and chronology; the priority now is the understanding of the document. All this "understanding" is less rigorous nowadays; it investigates beyond the text and beyond the outline of the monument; the search is for the symbol embodied in it. And the "symbol" exists not only where there was a glorious participation in the history; the symbol is to be re-found, together with other original phenomena, sometimes in a purer form and better expressed, in areas "without history", but with a lot of pre-history... Romania didn't have glorious Middle Ages, but it had a pre-history equal – if not superior – to those of other distinguished European peoples, creators of culture. Compared to the German Middle Ages, ours fade away; compared to the Italian Renaissance, ours, dating from the 18th century, is rather minor. But proto-history puts Romania on the same footing as the Latin and Germanic peoples. If the new sciences find their definitive place in European culture, it is the peoples with proto-history and not those with Middle Ages which will be valued. Paradoxical as it may seem, this is a true statement. Wasn't it the Russian Revolution, through its messianic vision, which made that country a leader among the others? ("Messianic vision" is, in fact, passion for proto-history understood à rebours: another original phenomenon.) And isn't Norway nowadays much more present in European culture through its proto-history (which lasted until the Middle Ages) than Holland, which had fertile Middle Ages and a magnificent Renaissance? Aren't Syria and the Caucasus much more appreciated in contemporary culture for their prehistory and proto-history than Dalmatia, with such flourishing Middle Ages and such an original Renaissance? If this is so, Romania has a great opportunity to revalue its spiritual and cultural past. It is not Romanian history that would interest Europe. In fact, history as such interests less and less those who create culture – it's becoming more and more a favorite food for the masses. (Do you remember that "transformist" literature flourished in the days of decay of the evolutionist theories, when the biologists were trying out new hypotheses?) Romania has a remarkable prehistory and proto-history. In this land, an original phenomenon took place. There have been manifestations of symbols here and traditions have been transmitted. All these things, which were treated with a mediocre interest 30-40 years ago, are very much appreciated nowadays. The origin of a symbol is worth the discovery of a dynasty of pharaohs. It is much more interesting to discover the cradle of a people than to decipher a medieval manuscript. It is not so "glorious" anymore to create history. It's much more valuable to belong to an original "race". It is, but then it is not, interesting to have a great literature, valuable modern art, and personal philosophy. But all these things are taken over by being part of a great spiritual tradition which has its roots in proto-history and which history has only altered. Such being the cultural phenomenon taking place in Europe, we must admit it suits Romania fairly well. It would have been very difficult for us to develop our cosmic and historical experience according to the 19th century guidelines. With our lack of Middle Ages and Renaissance, we would have been overtaken by other peoples from the very start. Things are different nowadays. If we know how to take advantage of the equality being offered to us, we will become a presence in European culture – even if it is for just one or two generations. We should not forget that the Scandinavian countries joined the European culture at the end of the 19th century – when individualism and Protestant drama were in vogue in France – and stayed until after the spiritual moment which produced their entrance went away. However, discovering the symbol, after so many centuries of opacity, will not capitalize on the European spirituality merely for a few generations... In order to "take advantage" of this European spiritual moment, some reforms should be made, which we will not delude ourselves to believe they will occur soon. For instance, our current preoccupation with "history" should urgently leave room for anthropo-geographical, pre-historical and proto-historical studies. Balkan research should be retrospective to the prehistory of the peninsula. All these things should be understood, obviously, in a different way from that which drives our scientists nowadays. We should try to foresee the future European spiritual orientation in order to work in advance and reach clear conclusions which foreign scientists might take into account when the time comes. If we don't do it this way, we'll repeat the drama of Romanian science: we started Romance philology studies after they had been started in other countries; we study folklore after others discovered it; we do everything after the others have already done it. This time, because the European moment seems to be propitious, and having the "original phenomenon" at home, we could surmount our poor reputation.

by Mircea Eliade (1907-1986)