Defending the Middle Ages: We’ve Been Doing It Wrong

We medievalists all know the drill.

Somebody in public life says something disparaging about the Middle Ages, and we all leap in to insist that either
  • a) Europe in the Middle Ages was actually much more advanced/enlightened/sophisticated than the off-hand comment about people believing the world was flat suggests, or 
  • b) yes, absolutely, they’re right, medieval Christians were murderous thugs, barbarians of the first order who knew nothing of tolerance or diversity and probably ate babies for breakfast whenever they could get them.
Neither answer ever changes the public conversation one iota because everybody knows that whatever Charles Homer Haskins might try to insist about the real Renaissance happening in the twelfth century, there is no getting round the Albigensian Crusade and the massacres of the Jews in the Rhineland (the former called by the pope, the latter resisted by all the bishops and other leaders of the Church).

The more those of us who study the intellectual, institutional, and spiritual achievements of the period succeed in pointing to the great depth and complexity of the Christian tradition (including its criticisms of the very kinds of violence so often cited as paradigmatic of the Dark Ages), the more our colleagues who study the massacres and inquisitions reinforce the prevailing sense of the period as benighted and savage, and we are right back where we started, blaming Europe and its colonial offspring for all the woes in the world.

Our Enlightened and liberal predecessors would say we've been doing it wrong.

Maybe not Voltaire (I don’t really have much time for Voltaire, particularly his anti-Catholicism, although here I am judging him largely on his reputation, less on having read much of his actual work). But certainly Adam Ferguson and the other philosophers of Scotland who, unlike the Enlightened French, looked back over the eighteenth century not as a period of great aristocratic luxury, but rather as the period in which Scotland had first emerged from savagery. (Here I am leaning fairly heavily on the account in Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World [2001], which first got me started on this line of thinking.)

For the Scots, there was nothing to be taken for granted in the development of civilized society. Whereas the French could trace their tradition of court and urban life back to the time when Francia was Gaul, the Scots had never been brought under Roman rule and had no tradition of town-dwelling to speak of. Nor, in the early eighteenth century, when Scotland voted itself to Union with England, had they gained any great wealth from the adventures in colonization in which Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, and England had been engaged since Columbus’s momentous voyage. Rather, “[in] 1700 Scotland was Europe’s poorest independent country (Ireland...was governed by England, and Portugal still owned Brazil).”

And yet, within a hundred years, this small “underpopulated” and “culturally backward” nation of “fewer than two million people as late as 1800” would become the “driving wheel of modern progress” (Herman, p. viii). The contrast between the two Enlightenments could not be more striking. While the French spent the last decade or so of the eighteenth century attempting to wipe out every vestige of their medieval, “feudal” past, the Scots were busy building “the basic institutions, ideas, attitudes, and habits of mind that characterize the modern age,” all the while marveling that yesterday their ancestors had been savages (their word) living in hovels (Herman, p. 11).

Walter Scott, as always, put it perhaps most vividly. In the prefatory letter to his anonymously published Ivanhoe (1819), his epistolary character Laurence Templeton of Toppingwold, Cumberland, responds to his fellow Englishman the Rev. Dr. Dryasdust (living in the Castle Gate, York) about how much harder it is for English authors and readers to imagine the lives of their medieval ancestors than it is for the Scots (Scott was, of course, Scottish; he is playing an elaborate joke here):
It was not above sixty or seventy years [Templeton’s letter is dated November 17, 1817], you [Dr. Dryasdust] observed, that the whole north of Scotland was under a state of government nearly as simple and patriarchal as those of our good allies the Mohawks and Iroquois. 
Admitting that the author [they are talking about certain stories that another anonymous author has published, “like a second M'Pherson,” about Scottish antiquities; the joke is that this anonymous author was Scott himself] cannot himself be supposed to have witnessed these times, he must have lived, you observed, among persons who had acted and suffered in them; and even within these thirty years, such an infinite change has taken place in the manners of Scotland, that men look back upon their fathers’ habits of society, as we do on those of the reign of Queen Anne [when the Union was made]. 
Having thus the materials of every kind lying strewed around him, there was little, you observed, to embarrass the author, but the facility of choice....  Many men alive, you remarked, well remembered persons who had not only seen the celebrated Roy M’Gregor, but had feasted, and even fought with him. All those minute circumstances belonging to private life and domestic character, all that gives verisimilitude to a narrative and individuality to the persons introduced, is still known and remembered in Scotland...   
The Scottish magician, you said, was like Lucan’s witch, at liberty to walk over the recent field of battle, and to select for the subject of resuscitation by his sorceries, a body whose limbs had recently quivered with existence, and whose throat had but just uttered the last note of agony.
According to Dr. Dryasdust, the English author, by contrast, had things much harder, having access not to the memories of those whose manners and customs he was attempting to resuscitate, but only to
musty records and chronicles, the authors of which seem perversely to have conspired to suppress in their narratives all interesting details, in order to find room for flowers of monkish eloquence [so much for the Christian contemplative tradition], or trite reflections upon morals [and likewise for the many efforts on the part of the clergy to communicate Christian teaching to the laity].
Accordingly, it was near impossible (Dr. Dryasdust suggested) for the English author even to imagine what his ancestors had been like, never mind describe their customs and morals with anything approaching verisimilitude. As Dr. Dryasdust contended:
If you describe to [the English reader] a set of wild manners, and a state of primitive society existing in the Highlands of Scotland, he was much disposed to acquiesce in the truth of what was asserted. And reason good. If he was of the ordinary class of readers, he had either never seen those remote districts at all, or he had wandered through those desolate regions in the course of a summer-tour, eating bad dinners, sleeping on truckle beds, stalking from desolation to desolation, and fully prepared to believe the strangest things that could be told him of a people wild and extravagant enough to be attached to scenery so extraordinary. 
But the same worthy person, when placed in his own snug parlour, and surrounded by all the comforts of an Englishman’s fire-side, is not half so much disposed to believe that his own ancestors led a very different life from himself; that the shattered tower, which now forms a vista from his window, once held a baron who would have hung him up at his own door without any form of trial; that the hinds, by whom his little pet-farm is managed, would have, a few centuries ago, been his slaves; and that the complete influence of feudal tyranny once extended over the neighboring village, where the attorney is now a man of more importance than the lord of the manor.
This was the challenge, according to Scott, for the author wanting to say something about what England had been like in the Middle Ages, that in England “civilization has been so long complete” that it was almost inconceivable that the English had ever been as barbarous as their northern neighbors and now fellow-countrymen the Scots.

Scott's answer—that thanks to the continuities in “manners and sentiments which are common to us and to our ancestors, which have been handed down unaltered from them to us, or which, arising out of the principles of our common nature, must have existed alike in either state of society,” it should be possible for the English author to represent something of “the opinions, habits of thinking, and actions” of his medieval ancestors—is fascinating in itself for what it can tell us about the growth of national sentiment among both the Scots and the English by the early nineteenth century, most particularly Scott’s emphatic insistence that “our ancestors were not more distinct from us, surely, than Jews are from Christians” (a major theme of the novel).

For medievalists wanting to champion our continuing study of the Middle Ages, however, it is the veritable grail. Were the Middle Ages a period of backwardness, savagery, and oppression? Scott would say, “Yes!” (Just wait till the Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert gets his hooks into the virtuous Jewess Rebecca of York.) But—and this is important—only in comparison with what England and Scotland had subsequently become. The whole point of Dr. Dryasdust’s complaint is that it was much harder for the English author or reader even to comprehend how different life’s circumstances had been for his or her medieval forebears, whereas all the Scot (like Scott himself) had to do was walk out his door.

If the Middle Ages seem barbarous to us—HURRAY! Clearly, our circumstances now are as different as those of the Englishman sitting snug in his parlor were from those of his ancestors eking a living out under the rapacious eyes of their feudal lords. Thanks to Haskins, we medievalists have spent so much time trying to apologize for the good that came out of the Middle Ages that we have obscured the reason that philosophers, historians, and novelists in the nineteenth century were so fascinated by them: precisely because they were trying to figure out how their ancestors, whom echoing Scott they all acknowledged to have been barbarians, had somehow stopped being quite so barbarous, perhaps having become even something close to civilized, although even then they weren't necessarily convinced that it would last.

As J.S. Mill (his father James was a Scot) observed somewhat gloomily in On Libertythinking on how the great nations of Asia had (to English eyes in the mid-nineteenth century) lost their former vitality and originality: “What are they now? The subjects or dependents of tribes whose forefathers wandered in the forests when theirs had magnificent palaces and gorgeous temples, but over whom custom exercised only a divided rule with liberty and progress. A people, it appears, may be progressive for a certain length of time, and then stop: when does it stop?”

Far from being confident that their own countrymen had escaped forever from their former barbarism, Scots like Scott and Mill were all too aware how thin the veil was between savagery and civilization, however snug their parlors and however dry-as-dust the sources at their disposal for imagining their ancestors’ passions and motivations. “Our ancestors,” Laurence Templeton assured the Rev. Dr., “were not more distinct from us, surely, than Jews are from Christians; they had ‘eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions’; were ‘fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer’ as ourselves. The tenor, therefore, of their affections and feelings, must have borne the same general proportion to our own.”

Why study the Middle Ages? Because the Middle Ages, for all their savagery as well as their sophistication, are us.

Originally published on Fencing Bear at Prayer,  February 19, 2016

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1887


  1. Dear Dr. RFB:

    I love the fact that you are a lover, and not a taxidermist, of the great traditions & truths of the Medieval world. The truth is alive, and dangerous. The academic Left appear to want beauty, goodness, truth, and justice all rendered harmless, stuffed & mounted, and under their control.

    I'm one of the Unauthorized Evil Legion Of Evil members, and am very much looking forward to your upcoming course. Cheers, Binks.

  2. What effect, if any, did the Medievalists of the Victorian era have on national self-conception?


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