The Middle Ages make us look uncivilised
We're told the medieval era was full of flat-earthers, witch-drowning and deaths by Iron Maiden. But that's pure fiction, says Patrick West
It’s customary among journalists today to describe barbaric and senseless behaviour as “medieval”, and the reaction to recent beheadings at the hands of Islamists in the Middle East has been no exception. In the Times Matthew Syed applied the word to Islamic fundamentalists’ treatment of women, while a Daily Express headline spoke of “The chilling medieval society Isis extremists seek to impose in Iraq”. Perhaps Pulp Fiction is to blame. In Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Marcellus Wallace famously exclaims: “I’m gonna get medieval on your ass”, reinforcing the cliché of the Middle Ages as an era of savagery. Still, today’s hacks do history no favours by repeating this lazy and misguided stereotype.
If only Islam in the Middle East would return to medieval values. A thousand years ago, the Muslim world was far more civilised than Christendom, with Islamic civilisation the torchbearer in the fields of chemistry, medicine and astronomy. Though relatively backwards by comparison, Christian Europe was relatively free of ISIS-style extremism and barbarism. Religious fringe movements such the Lollards in England or the Anabaptists in Germany were either short-lived, tolerated or expelled to the New World.
Islamic State-style religious extremism was not a feature of the medieval era, but rather of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. It was the 16th and 17th centuries that saw Puritanism, the Inquisition, the massacre of Huguenots and Irish Catholics, witch-drowning, the burning of heretics and holy wars across Europe. The Middle Ages were relatively civilised by comparison. Indeed, medieval Canon Law stated that witches didn’t exist.
Of course, journalists alone aren’t wholly to blame here. We’ve all been subject to this myth of medieval barbarism ever since the Renaissance, and Europe’s consequent desire to depict the interregnum between the Fall of Rome and its rebirth as a dank and brutish time.
The Victorians reaffirmed this caricature in contradistinction to their own times (albeit with a large element of romanticism – hence the Gothic Revival). They created the legend that it was common belief in the Middle Ages that the world was flat. As J B Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth, Columbus and Modern Historians (1991) explains, the Greeks determined that the Earth was a sphere by 500 BC. Most educated European maintained this to be true thereafter. In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas gave the globe’s spherical nature as a standard example of scientific truth.
While Aquinas did ponder in his great work “whether several angels can be in the same place at the time”, neither he nor any other medieval scholar agonised over whether how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. The first reference to this comes in 1618 (by a Protestant). There was no taboo on dissection in the Middle Ages (a practice imported from the Middle East), and spices weren’t added to mask the foul taste of rotten meat: such spices from the Orient were vastly expensive and instead the practice of smoking, curing and salting was widespread. That quintessentially “medieval” torture device the Iron Maiden was an 18th-century invention, the first citation of it being in 1793.
The Church and monks in Ireland preserved knowledge of Roman civilisation. It was the Church that helped to establish the first universities in Bologna, Oxford and Paris. The medieval era also gave us writers that are still read today: Boethius, Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch and Machiavelli.
The Church was not the censorious tyrant of Hollywood legend. As the historian David Linberg writes: “The late medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led.” Again, it was later, darker era that saw the Church become more intolerant: Copernicus wasn’t persecuted in the 16th century, but Galileo, in the 17th century, was.
While some Muslims and Christians are prone to dwell on the dogmatism and brutality of the Crusades, it was these adventures in the Holy Land that brought Christendom into contact with Muslim advances in science and technology – not least with what we today call Arabic numerals. The medieval epoch was a thoroughly outward looking one. In 986AD the Icelandic seafarer Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to spot America, while Leif Erikson was the first to set foot on it.
In more recent times, film and television, from Braveheart to Game of Thrones, has perpetuated the popular misunderstanding that the Middle Ages was a time of constant fighting, bloodshed, torture and execution. In reality, the most common forms of punishment in Europe were exile, public humiliation and fines. When execution did take place it was usually through hanging rather than beheading – a fate reserved only for the nobility and rarely the public spectacle of lore. In England, medieval civilisation also saw the institution of trial by jury.
Of course it’s easy to swing the other way, as did G K Chesterton and 19th-century anarchists, romanticising the Middle Ages, and depicting it is as an era of agrarian simplicity, freedom, chivalry and banquets. Nevertheless, to brand something abhorrent as “medieval” is a historical hangover from the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Victorian eras. Such arrogance and lofty thinking is particularly misplaced considering the violent world we live in today or of the horrors of the last century. That which we abhor as uncivilised and abominable should really be called “Baroque” – or perhaps “20th century”.
Patrick West is a columnist for spiked-online.com