Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Era from 500 to 999: Highlights

The Venerable Bede, one of the men
who tried to hold back the night

The 500-999 section of the Chronology starts here. The links there will lead you to the Listings.


The West has fallen, and with it the night. These are the "Dark Ages," the early Medieval Period between the fall of Rome and the gradual lightening leading to the High Middle Ages and then the Renaissance. The literary production is largely that of churchmen: a few more Church Fathers, and then the earliest English literature, comprised of hymns and church history and what not, except for the rousingly pagan Beowulf (despite the Christian glosses added by prickly scribes).

Meanwhile, to the east, Islam has been kindled with the revelations to Muhammad starting in 610, and by 1000 or so has produced the longest national epic attributable to a single poet, Persia's Shahnameh by Ferdowsi.

India is in the latter part of her Classical Period; the age of the Vedic literature and the epics is past. Local vernacular literatures are on the rise, though notable Sanskrit stories, plays, and lesser epics are still being produced. From the fringes of the sphere come Atisha's Bodhipathapradipa (a pillar of Tibetan practice), and the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle) of Sri Lanka.

Chinese literature reaches its pinnacle with the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) Dynasties (rivaled only by the later Ming, 1368-1644). Poets rule the day, though the period also sees the creation of the only Chinese work with the status of "sutra": The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch.

Finally, Japan comes on with a roar, emerging from legend into history. From this period we see anthologies of poems and stories; folktales; court diaries; and the two foundational works of history and mythology, Kojiki (A Record of Ancient Matters), and Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan), both completed within a decade of each other. There is great cultural borrowing from China and Korea, including the rise of Buddhism alongside the indigenous Shinto practice. In the Asuka (538-710), Nara (710-794), and Heian (794-1185) periods, Chinese monks are coming to Japan to teach, and Japanese monks are going to China to learn. Most notable, perhaps, is the Japanese monk Kukai (late Nara), who brought back Shingon Buddhist teaching from China, and is credited with creating the Japanese syllabary based on Chinese writing.

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