The Middle Ages Were Pretty Interesting, Actually

In defense of a much-maligned part of human history…

The summer before tenth grade, I was assigned a book to read for AP European History called A World Lit Only By Fire. It was written by an elderly scholar of 20th-century history who, by his own admission, had never studied the Middle Ages before, or consulted any primary sources from the period. The blurb on the back of the book sums up its general tenor pretty well: “In handsomely crafted prose, and with the grace and authority of his extraordinary gift for narrative history, William Manchester leads us from a civilization tottering on the brink of collapse to the grandeur of its rebirth—the dense explosion of energy that spawned some of history’s greatest poets, philosophers, painters, adventurers, and reformers, as well as some of its most spectacular villains—the Renaissance.”

The Middle Ages, the book confidently informed us, were a thousand-year period during which literally nothing happened. Everyone just sat around in a puddle of their own liquefied shit, scratching their plague buboes, worrying, if they lived near water, whether all the great big ships were going to fall over the edge of the world. I mean, these people didn’t even have clocks. How do you even know what time it is if you don’t have clocks? Clearly, medieval people were idiots, who probably didn’t even think of themselves as individuals. Thank God the Renaissance came along, and everybody suddenly remembered that Greece and Rome had existed, and spontaneously invented Science, or we would probably all be dead.

Now, at this point in my adolescence, I was something of an amateur medieval historian. I had watched numerous episodes of a TV show called Cadfael, starring Derek Jacobi as a 12th-century Benedictine monk who solves murder mysteries, and I knew that lots of things had happened during the Middle Ages. I stormed in on the first day of school and gave my AP Euro teacher a piece of my mind. What about Roger Bacon! What about illuminated manuscripts! What about Gothic cathedrals! “And nobody in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat!” I fumed. “Washington Irving just made that up in the 19th century while writing a biography of Christopher Columbus on a tight deadline!”

My teacher, who was the JV wrestling coach, received my complaints benignly, but without any apparent interest. This, I have since discovered, is about as good a reception as you’re ever going to get if, in an ordinary social setting, you choose to launch into an unprompted rant about how the Middle Ages were pretty interesting, actually. Bearing this in mind, the popular conception of the Middle Ages still needs correcting. Most people, if they think of the Middle Ages at all, think of them as the “Dark Ages,” the long stretch of obscure barbarism between the glory that was Rome and the other glory that was the Renaissance. But that is false: they were pretty interesting, actually.

The Middle Ages are in the public imagination these days more than they were previously—and not just because of all of us have at least one friend who won’t shut up about Game of Thrones. The alt-right and “Bannon-style conservatives,” those charming new spurs on the evolutionary tree of white supremacy, have a special fondness for the period, believing that current conflict between “Islamic extremists” and “the West” is merely a continuation of an elemental “clash of civilizations” that began with the Islamic caliphates in Europe and the Crusader states in the Holy Land. The Crusader battle cry Deus vult (God wills) is cropping up all kinds of places, from YouTube comments sections to the walls of vandalized Midwestern mosques. At the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, a few polo-shirted knights-errant even came bearing faux-medieval shields.

None of this is anything especially new: white supremacists have a well-documented fondness for the Middle Ages, or rather, whatever Wonderbread version of the Middle Ages was being acted out on Hollywood soundstages in the 1950s. But the increased prominence of medieval references cropping up in right-wing hate speech has prompted a number of medieval academics to wonder if they should be publicly denouncing white supremacy to their college survey courses. (There was also a minor scandal in the world of medieval academia when a tenured professor at the University of Chicago was revealed to be an ardent camp follower of Milo Yiannopoulos, whom she inexplicably praised as a “chivalrous” defender of the weak). And there’s no denying that actually, teaching history correctly can sometimes change minds: Derek Black, a formerly active white supremacist whose godfather was David Duke, became disillusioned with his family’s ideology partly through being exposed to a more nuanced presentation of medieval history in college. (Now he’s apparently a graduate student of early medieval history. Deus vult indeed!)

It’s also worth pointing out that there is a separate, less prominent tradition of left-wing enthusiasm for the period, mostly in connection with early English socialism of the industrialization-skeptic, cooperative school. In 1888, William Morris wrote a novella called The Dream of John Ball, based on the so-called Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. This homage to John Ball, a renegade priest, was based on a remarkable speech he is said to have given to a crowd of discontented English farmers, as recorded in a slightly later Latin chronicle:

Whan Adam dalf, and Eve span, Wo was thanne a gentilman?’ And continuing his sermon, he tried to prove by the words of the proverb that he had taken for his text, that from the beginning all men were created equal by nature, and that servitude had been introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it pleased him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord. Let them consider, therefore, that He had now appointed the time wherein, laying aside the yoke of long servitude, they might, if they wished, enjoy their liberty so long desired. Wherefore they must be prudent, hastening to act, first killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors, and finally rooting out everyone whom they knew to be harmful to the community in the future. So at last they would obtain peace and security if, when the great ones had been removed, they maintained among themselves equality of liberty and nobility, as well as of dignity and power.

All this a good 400 years before Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, or the Declaration of the Rights of Man!

The internet, too, has awakened a new kind of enthusiasm for medieval cultural products: these days I see a lot of medieval art, a great deal of which is hilariously odd (sometimes intentionally, other times unintentionally), making the rounds on social media. In a more serious vein, there has also been a lot of interest in sharing medieval art that depicts people of color, disrupting the mistaken notion that medieval Europe was some kind of monochromatic country club.

Now, we mustn’t go too far in the other direction: the Middle Ages were not some kind of utopia of happy farmers and cheerful craftsmen, as the early Arts & Crafts socialists sometimes liked to imagine. Nor, as I’ve sometimes seen it claimed on the internet, was it an inherently more “tolerant” era than the post-exploration era of conquest and imperialism, due to the fact that there was no “racism” and no “slavery.” It’s true that medieval people didn’t think about race in the biological terms that modern racists do—to the extent that medieval thinkers had a “scientific explanation” for race, they theorized that it was climate-based, such that if you relocated and adjusted to a drastically different climate, your children would likely be born looking like the natives, not like you—but they definitely drew distinctions between different “peoples,” and religious hatreds, particularly anti-Semitism, were often extremely virulent. And while slavery wasn’t a visible fixture of the social order the way it had been in the Roman world, or as it would become again in parts of the early modern world, there was a lucrative slave trade in non-Christian slaves between Eastern Europe and the Middle East. From these “Slavs,” in fact, we derived our word “slaves.”

On the other hand, a lot of other stereotypes we associate with the Middle Ages are simply wrong. Medieval people didn’t really burn women as witches: that was an innovation of later centuries. And although Neil deGrasse Tyson cautions Flat Earthers that their thinking is “five centuries regressed,” educated people in the Middle Ages never believed the world was flat. No: some clever bastards in antiquity had deduced the roundness of the earth through careful observation of the sky and of the horizon, long before the invention of the telescope. Scholars of the Middle Ages preserved this ancient knowledge, and re-confirmed and expanded upon it through their own calculations. (That the Earth is a globe is certainly not something I’d ever have figured out on my own, without having been told. Possibly, I am too stupid even to have lived in medieval times.)

So how should we think of the Middle Ages, then? Well, I don’t know. For starters, it’s a huge swathe of historical time: the Middle Ages encompass approximately the years 500-1500. It makes as much sense to say, “what should we think of everything that happened between 1500 and 2500?” (“What, everything?” you would exclaim. “The colonization of the Americas? The invention of the accordion? The shocking discovery that our entire universe is a poorly-designed video game being focus-tested in another dimension? It’s too much!”) Europe is a big geographic region, too. When we talk about the Middle Ages, typically, we’re just talking about Europe—you could theoretically talk about “medieval” China if you want to designate the same group of centuries, but since Chinese history is divided into a completely different set of periods based on its own civilizational timeline, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. But even if we’re just talking about the European continent and immediate environs, that’s still a lot of space, subdivided into a lot of ever-changing units.

Typically, the giant block of “the Middle Ages” is split into roughly three parts: the early Middle Ages (500-1000), the high Middle Ages (1000-1300), and the late Middle Ages (1300-1500). The late Middle Ages shade imperceptibly into the equally vague period known as “the Renaissance”: and it was during “the Renaissance” (and, later, during “the Reformation” and “the Enlightenment”) that people began talking about the “the Middle Ages” or even “the Dark Ages,” writing off the preceding ten centuries as a useless detour. The high Middle Ages have gradually managed to shed some of the “Dark Ages” stigma: this was the time of troubadours, of soaring Gothic cathedrals, of vigorous scientific and philosophical inquiry, of quasi-modern literature like the letters of Abelard and Héloïse (which conclusively demonstrate that the feelings people have when they’re being ghosted by an ex have not altered a jot for the past 900 years), so the idea that “nothing” was going on during this period is fairly quickly disproven.

The early Middle Ages (500-1000), however, still get a pretty bad rap: it’s thought of, even by some academics, as a period of cultural and technological stagnation. But I want to put in a good word for the early Middle Ages as a time period that is well worth studying, and not just because it produced a lot of interesting texts and beautiful art. It was a time, after all, when a massive political confederation (the western Roman Empire) was slowly, and sometimes painfully, reconstituting itself into new political units. Given that much of recent human history has been the story of the building and sundering of political unions, and that our species may be doomed to come together and pull apart in this cyclical way for the foreseeable future, it seems worth paying attention to exactly how this happens at particular historical moments, with a view to doing it with more goodwill and less bloodshed on future occasions. It is also true that The Economy Was Weak during the early medieval period, broadly speaking, relative to the periods before and after—but given the pace at which we are devouring our own planet, we might think to be grateful that things slowed down a bit for five hundred years. The Romans, to give just one example, systematically hunted the great beasts of North Africa and Mediterranean Europe almost to the point of complete extinction, out of their intense appetite for animals to torture in gladiatorial games—and many people died in this agonizing way too, of course, for the edification of the Roman populace.

Rome may not have “fallen” in the dramatic fashion that’s sometimes popularly imagined, but the societies that were once territorially encompassed by the western Roman Empire did change a lot during the Middle Ages. It is a rather interesting thing, if you wander through the pre-modern section of any art museum, to move through the “Roman” rooms to the “medieval” ones. You go from a lot of marble sculptures of jacked dudes (sans their original paint, and sometimes, alas, sans their original arms, thanks to the ravages of time) and elaborate funerary portraiture, to—well, usually, lots and lots of images of the human body in excruciating pain. Saints staring fixedly at skulls, martyrs smiling blandly while holding simulcra of their soon-to-be-gouged out eyes in a little dish, contemplative mothers holding plump, ugly babies, those same mothers standing weeping while an emaciated, adult version of their child is crucified before their eyes. The medieval world, very generally construed, was a world that devoted a lot of imagination to human suffering, and also to the love and pity that the witness of suffering gives rise to. You could call this a morbid fixation, of course, but if you are the sort of person who gets tired of the way modern society constantly pushes human suffering under the rug, or treats it as a cheap form of entertainment, something about this openness resonates—something about it feels profoundly sane, for all its discomfiting oddness.

Now, I don’t mean to say that the Middle Ages were some kind of paradise of tenderness and empathy. That it was not, as a general matter, as the victims of any pogrom during the period could certainly tell you. Warring nobility were incredibly violent: the Crusades were to some extent simply an attempt to get as many of them as possible to get out of Europe and kill helpless people in some other damn place. The medieval Inquisition, though not as wide-ranging or bloody an institution as it’s sometimes presented in popular culture, was, when operational, as thorough a mind-fuck as anything in 1984, with “spiritual physicians” diligently seeking to reprogram their patients back to orthodoxy. And life generally could be very hard, of course. Much of the population was bound to the land, and while in some places peasants voted on local councils and probably wielded some degree of de facto control over their own affairs, their horizons were very restricted, and as in all agrarian societies, when the weather was unfavorable too many seasons in a row, a lot of people died. Medieval medicine was not all quackery—a medieval recipe for an eye salve was recently discovered to actually be incredibly effective at killing MRSA, for example—but it wasn’t great, and there was a decently high likelihood that you were going to die a medically gruesome death.

But! But! But! The past is another country, as they say; and as with countries very distant from one’s own, distant periods in history are both startlingly familiar and fascinatingly strange. When studying any time in history, it is always an interesting exercise to look for human beings you recognize beneath the strange trappings of historical difference. Many of us office-worker types, for example, will perhaps relate to medieval scribes. Their candid marginalia, scrawled alongside the text of the books they were painstakingly copying, speaks of a general dissatisfaction with the tedium of their work (“Now I’ve written the whole thing, for Christ’s sake give me a drink,” wrote one irritable monk), shading into the kind existential dread that often comes over us in hours of drudgery (“This is sad!” wrote another. “O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, ‘The hand that wrote it is no more.’”)

I myself have a particular fondness for medieval Irish monks, who were something like the perpetual international students or H1-B visa-holders of the early medieval world, constantly cropping up in distant courts and monasteries with their slightly off-kilter Latin and their intellectual bags of tricks. Ireland had never been part of the Roman world, nor did it have a formal written language until the Latin alphabet was introduced with the coming of Christianity, but the Irish quickly developed a reputation for scholarly talent. One Irish monk, Sedulius Scottus, installed himself in Liège in the mid-ninth century, where (in between flattering his warring patrons, much as academics do today) he wrote Latin poetry extolling a simple but pleasurable life:

I read or write, and I teach or search for truth;

I call on heaven’s throne by night and by day.

I eat, drink freely, and with rhymes invoke the muses:

and snoring I sleep, or keep vigil and pray to God.

Another, anonymous Irish poet, installed at a continental monastery around the same time, was very fond of his white cat, Pangur Bán, writing a delightful poem in Irish about their happy cohabitation:

When we two are (tale without boredom)

alone in our house,

we have something to which we may apply our skill,

an endless sport.

… He is joyful with swift movement

when a mouse sticks in his sharp claw.

I too am joyful

when I understand a dearly loved difficult question.

Though we are always like this,

neither of us bothers the other:

each of us likes his craft,

rejoicing alone each in his.

Well, that’s all very nice and hygge-like, you might say, but these guys were monks: they were societal elites, to some extent. What about the lives of ordinary people? That’s always hard to speak about with much specificity: in societies where written literacy is limited and durable writing materials are costly, there’s always a problem of elite bias in surviving sources. From John Ball’s speech in the 14th century, we can gauge that there were probably festering discontents among the working classes, but we don’t have too many of their own words.

Literary accounts aside, one way to try to imagine yourself into the body of an ordinary person from another time or place is through a human universal: music. There’s a lot of surviving music from the high Middle Ages and onwards. Medieval scribes developed a system of musical notation called “neums,” which isn’t as precise as modern musical notation, but gives a pretty good idea of what the tune was supposed to be. From written descriptions and from manuscript illustrations, we also know what kinds of instruments were popular, and from this, a presumably fair approximation of medieval music can be reconstructed.

One of the biggest and most interesting collections of medieval music are the Cantigas de Santa Maria, written down in the 13th century in what is now Spain. These songs were centered around the Camino de Santiago, an important pilgrimage route that attracted rich and poor pilgrims alike, and was lined with hospitals to provide the travelers with food, drink, and housing along their way: people made the journey to express devotion, do penance, or seek healing for their illnesses. Many of the songs have strong affinities with Arab musical forms, reflecting the fact that much of the Iberian peninsula was under Muslim governance throughout the Middle Ages, and that there was, despite frequent political and religious conflicts, considerable cultural interchange between Christian and Islamic kingdoms.

There are lots of recordings of the Cantigas available, and speaking as a complete musical ignoramus, they are awfully fun to listen to. This is not Gregorian chant (not that I have any problem with Gregorian chant!), nor does it bear much resemblance to what we think of as “classical” music. These are songs made to walk to, or dance to: you can imagine people singing them together to enliven the long pilgrimage route. Some of the songs are simply lovely, like the song about a nun who falls pregnant and prays to help to the Virgin Mary, who then miraculously and painlessly removes the child from her body; or the song about a woman who prays to Mary to save her dying silkworms, promising in return to make her a beautiful silk altar-cloth by a particular feast-day. Mary saves the farm, the woman somehow completely forgets to make the altar-cloth, but then, in a second miracle, she discovers that the good silkworms have woven the cloth themselves of their own accord. Other songs, meanwhile, are completely bananas, like the song about a fornicator whom the Devil persuades to cut off his own penis and then kill himself. Mary intercepts his soul in the nick of time, as the Devil is carting it triumphantly off to hell, and restores the suicide’s life—but, sadly, not his penis. (The first line of this insane ditty, incidentally, is “Non e gran cousa,” which means something like “It’s No Big Deal”). Along similarly horrifying lines, there’s also a song about a priest who spots a spider in the communion wine, but, knowing the wine is already consecrated, faithfully drains the cup, spider and all; when he subsequently sickens and prays to Mary for help, she guides the physician to make a small hole in his arm, after which a live fucking spider crawls out of it (MARY WHY), which the astonished congregation of nuns decide to keep as a pet. Additionally—while there are a handful of predictably skeevy songs about Jews and Muslims getting up to evil deeds—there are also a number of songs with a marked theme of interfaith entente, like the song about how a Muslim king besieged by another Muslim king calls on his Christian allies for help. They come to battle with a banner of the Virgin Mary, and Mary, seeing this, helps the Christians’ Muslim friends to victory. It’s not exactly Kumbayah, but the refrain of the song is probably not something the Deus Vult crowd would be hugely in favor of: Pero que seja a gente / d’ outra lei e descreuda / os que a Virgen mais aman / a esses ela ajuda. “Though they may be of another law and unbelievers, those who love the Virgin most, them she will help.”

A very frequent theme of this strange repertoire of songs is that Mary will help literally anyone. It doesn’t matter what you did; it doesn’t matter if you screw up your penance; it doesn’t matter if you even believe in her. Ask and ye shall receive; she is your mother and she will take care of you. Opiate of the masses, you could call it, to get people on the road and spending money on pilgrimage souvenirs. But I still can’t help but find it rather moving. This belief in universal love crops up too in one of the best-beloved works of the high Middle Ages, the “Showings” of Julian of Norwich, which is the first known work in English by a female author. Aged thirty and near death from a severe illness, this “poor unlettered creature” (though she was perhaps laying that part on a bit thick; women weren’t allowed to preach, and so often resorted to “visions” to express their theological views) had a lengthy fever-dream in which she saw the whole of the created universe sitting small as a hazelnut in the palm of Christ’s hand. From this mystic vision, she understood that God had made this fragile thing, and loved it, and would keep it; that he existed in full communion with all the suffering in the world; that although sin existed, God had pity for everyone, most of all for weak and miserable sinners, and would never abandon anyone, but would help every living thing to become good. The most famous line of Julian’s vision is also perhaps the best supplication ever made for dire times:

And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

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