Those Awful Middle Ages

While every age is a mixture of blessings and hardships, good ideas or actions, and bad, the Middle Ages were once depicted as especially dark. But modern scholarship has long known that is a very superficial judgment.

For example,

Farming has always meant hard work, and those who farm today, even in America, often work long, hard hours, but today farmers work practically all year long with little rest.

“Plowing and harvesting were backbreaking toil, but the [young, healthy] peasant enjoyed anywhere from eight weeks to half the year off. The Church, mindful of how to keep a population from rebelling, enforced frequent mandatory holidays. Weddings, wakes and births might mean a week off quaffing ale to celebrate. And when wandering jugglers or sporting events came to town, the peasant expected time off for entertainment.

There were labor-free Sundays [all the many Feast Days too]. And when the plowing and harvesting seasons were over, the peasant got time to rest, too. In fact, economist Juliet Shor found that during periods of particularly high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants might put in no more than 150 days a year. —– Lynn Stuart Parramore, Why a medieval peasant got more vacation time than you. Reuters, 2013. 

— See How Dark Were The Middle Ages? Anthony Esolen 

See also 25 Myths of the Middle Ages

A reviewer writes of Those Terrible Middle Ages by Regine Pernoud

The Renowned French historian Regine Pernoud begins with a lament as to how poorly medieval Europe is regarded: “medieval” is often used as a pejorative term, if not an outright insult. This common view is not borne out of well-informed study, but one of ignorance among both historians (most shamefully) and non-historians alike. Along the way she dispels the major misconceptions of the “Dark Ages” which began in the Enlightenment.

For human rights, especially those of women, the Enlightenment was a step backwards because of the re-introduction of Roman law which placed power in the hands of the patriarch (pater familias) at the expense of all other family members. Roman law was, “the law par excellence of those who wanted to affirm a central state authority” by means of conferring much authority to the military and property owners (p. 100). It is only in the past century that women’s roles have returned to the dignity and importance that they had in Medieval Europe.

The growing power of the state, with the use of Romans law, undermined the Church’s role, not to the betterment of society but to its detriment: the Concordat of Bologna (1516) gave the French king powers to appoint bishops and abbots which would facilitate the Church as a state tool, rather than an independent religious institution, for successive centuries; the Church’s active role in the emancipation of serfs and denouncements of colonialism and slavery were repelled by lawyers idolizing the imperial rule of Pax Romana. Everywhere the customary law of Medieval Europe emphasizing well-worn custom and mutual responsibility was slowly replaced by the overarching Roman Imperial law of “use and abuse” (p. 92).

She is also highly critical of the Age of Reason because of its often slavish imitation of Classical culture, while Medieval culture had the courage and imagination to find its own voice, capable of standing on its own.

Pernoud not only praises the role of Celtic influence on literature, but also how medieval poetry, letters, and the roman blossomed into a unique force, quite distinct from the Classical one.
Pernoud’s arguments and citations are in line with modern scholarship. Medieval Europe was not a trough between two mountains of human achievement. It was an era of unique accomplishments which quite often surpassed not only those of Classical Greece and Rome, but also those of the succeeding eras. This a highly recommended antidote against the usual unthinking and unfounded prejudices.

… Pernoud, gives the reader a refreshingly original perspective on many subjects, both historical (from the Inquisition and witchcraft trials to a comparison of Gothic and Renaissance creative inspiration) as well as eminently modern (from law and the place of women in society to the importance of history and tradition). Here are fascinating insights, based on Pernoud’s sound knowledge and extensive experience as an archivist at the French National Archives.

The book will be provocative for the general readers as well as a helpful resource for teachers.

Scorned for centuries, although lauded by the Romantics, these thousand years of history have most often been concealed behind the dark clouds of ignorance: Why, didn’t godiche (clumsy, oafish) come from gothique (Gothic)? Doesn’t “fuedal” refer to the most hopeless obscurantism? Isn’t “Medieval” applied to dust-covered, outmoded things?

Here the old varnish is stripped away and a thousand years of history finally emerge — the “Middle Ages” are dead! long live the Middle Ages!” —-

The infamous Inquisitions of old viewed some serious philosophical and theological differences as treasonous, subversive of the very nation itself. This was a tragic and myopic aberration in Christian history, ceased long ago, thank God. But ironically it was all taken up again by the Enlightenment with its attempt to enforce new nihilist orthodoxies with unprecedented forms of inhuman technological surveillance and brutal forces unseen in all of human history.

“Hellfire” from the skies

The Enlightenment’s New Order rained “hellfire” and other missiles on new “heretics” in spectacular “shock and awe” campaign-attacks broadcast live on television for all the world to see.

One thought on “Those Awful Middle Ages

  1. Thank you!

    By the way, don’t get me started on how Medieval Science is almost always denigrated. It was as lively and innovative as it could have been, given the communications of the day. And, which would be surprising to a LOT of people, the Catholic Church was the biggest supporter of science and scientific research.

    I can recommend “The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science” by Seb Falk.

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