As evidenced in Geertz’s essay, a thick description of culture is one that does not simply examine cultural behaviors and artifacts, but seeks to understand the motivation behind these behaviors. Thus, a thick description of the twelfth century in Europe might not only examine the types of governmental structures and various institutions, but explore how and why these structures and institutions came to be. By employing this thick description, we can better understand the culture of Europe in the twelfth century, as this method provides a holistic evaluation of society, from the philosophies that guided it to the structures that emerged as a result of these philosophies. Geertz identified that understanding culture is based on ethnography, which is the study of not only culture, but certain behaviors and beliefs that influenced the shape of the culture. In other words, understanding culture is an understanding of not only historical events, but the psychology that motivated these events as well.
Europe in the twelfth century is considered to be the peak of the high middle ages, with a subsequent renaissance that saw Europe begin to form various transformations in regard to politics, religion, and economics. What we can see about the culture of this period is that it was an amalgamation of previous cultures, and therefore was considerably diverse. This diversity contributed to significant growth in various religious, artistic, and economic ideas. For instance, there was the influence of science based on Greek methodologies and philosophies, along with Arabic influences in regard to mathematics. There was a revival in regard to the rule of law, which was based on Roman structures. There was also the rise of the Catholic Church, which quickly grew in prominence throughout Europe, which subsequently influenced architecture in the gothic style that was beginning to emerge as the dominant style.
Perhaps the most dominant institution during this time was the Catholic Church, and when we apply Geertz’s thick description of culture, we can begin to understand the influence the Church had within the culture. The Church informed not only how virtues and values that people should live by, but it also introduced the idea of justice and law, which were based on biblical definitions of justice. The rise of gothic architecture in the twelfth century can be attributed to a sense of honoring the church, as the style was designed to pay homage to God. At the same time, advancements in architecture also allowed these churches to employ new designs that allowed them to be larger and taller than ever before. These technological advancements were therefore mostly employed to service the church.
At the same time, there was also an increased importance on education, which gave rise to the first universities. Universities were also largely religious institutions, as education was closely associated with learning more about religious doctrine. Increased education also provided better opportunities for wealth, which was made possible by the emergence of towns that also became centers of commerce. With the advent of towns, there was also more of a need to employ legal systems as well as various forms of entertainment, which led to a reemergence of plays and public performances modeled after the Greek tradition.
While the above descriptions of the twelfth century might be a historical representation of the culture during the era, Geertz’s method of a thick description would lead us to explore how and why these changes occurred. First, it can be assumed that due to the diverse influences that seemed to center upon Europe in the twelfth century, which resulted in the sharing of knowledge that led to scientific and technological advancements. These advancements helped contribute to the growth of the Catholic Church as an institution, which gave it more power and influence. It therefore spread its influence with the development of universities and the building of more churches, which were distinguished by their gothic architecture. The gothic style was considerably advanced, and served as a public symbol of the Church’s dominance. The reason the Church was accepted and favored by the common public was because it provided doctrine that gave meaning to an individual’s life, as religion tends to inform how people should live, and it also established stability within various communities with its legal institutions. In other words, the Church protected the people by providing structure and an avenue for justice, and it gave people direction and purpose, both spiritually and practically in regard to economic opportunities. The people of twelfth century Europe began to see they had a shared culture, even with those from other regions, because they were united by their religious faith. These social advancements furthered scientific and technological growth. At the same time, communities began to center upon church locations, creating towns, and this led to further growth in economics and the arts.
The thick description of culture, as it applies to Europe in the twelfth century, can therefore be seen as being rooted in the growth of the Catholic Church, but with an understanding of the various ways this institution transformed culture throughout Europe. The Church provided people with a sense of optimism, as it was a time of considerable progress in numerous areas, such as science and the arts. Whereas Europe before the twelfth century was largely a collection of various vassal states, the renaissance of this century brought various people together, both ideologically and physically, with a collective and shared culture that transcended the boundaries of nations during this era.
- Geertz, Clifford. The interpretation of cultures. Basic books, 1973.