Jul 11th, 2010, 08:15 AM
Getting medieval on society
When I was little I was fascinated by medieval material culture. No real reason why, I just thought that playing Knights and Saracens was more fun than playing Cowboys and Indians. It all kind of culminated when I took an interest in the historiography and legendization of King Arthur. The odd thing is that even though I could tell you the lifetimes of Crétiens de Troyes and Thomas Malory, as well as the archaeological conjectures of when and where the historical King Arthur lived, I assumed that modern scholars had a very piecemeal understanding of medieval history. I had no idea, for example, that there was a precise and generally undisputed chronology of the kings of Europe from Charlemagne to the present. I had a stint in 8th grade where I was very interested in the Knights Templar (this was years before Dan Brown's nonsense, of course) and that was my first inkling that there is a lush picture for us of medieval life. However, I lost my interest in the subject for some time and I could never bring myself to study the humanities realm of the middle ages.
When I declared myself as a Religious Studies major years later, I found myself intensely pulled toward the middle ages for the same reasons that pushed me away years earlier. My tastes had changed in such a way as to make me more meaningfully interested in the Middle Ages than I ever was before. The net result is that I feel like most of my discontent with contemporary society is best illustrated by comparisons and contrasts with medieval society. I think medieval man suffers a lot of libel because it's very convenient for us to revise history in a way to do so. Kids today have a very deliberate ignorance about the period from the fall of Rome to the Enlightenment because they're conditioned to use it as a thousand year straw man. This is something that annoys me a lot.
I think the best example is the present-day atheism scene. In my experience, there's a significant number of people who are well-informed about their motives for not believing in a god, and they shape their understanding of the world in a coherent manner taking the absence of god as a reasonable a priori. Far, far more abundant however are kids (some of whom are quite old) who are atheist because they associate atheism with intellectualism and prefer the idea of a world without God as an easy out. Most atheists have no clue what the arguments for and against theism are, they just have a strong emotional association with atheism that makes them equate religion with a very narrow definition that suits their needs. To put it bluntly, most atheists I've met identify as such (as opposed to "non-religious" or "agnostic") because they want to be perceived as intelligent without being bothered by the tedium of intellectual exploration.
As "The Age of Faith", the Middle Ages have to be slandered. It's necessary for the medieval people to be dunces in order for modern society to feel good about itself. This is something that's gone on since the Reformation more or less, but I feel like it's becoming more and more of a bad medicine. Because of the xenophobic fear of kingship and that Anti-Catholicism has historically been the unifying cause for the Left and Right in the United States, Americans are especially dumb about anything that happened between 33 and 1620 AD.
One thing that happened in my early studies of medieval history was that the portrayal of the Church as a luridly materialistic and politically amoral body led me to not consider myself a Catholic for a few years when I was too young to admit it to my parents (about age 9-14). I came back to Catholicism as long as I could keep my skepticism, but I had basically the same "water under the bridge" view of the medieval Church as most Catholics have today. In recent years, though, the more I study the outside pressures of medieval society the more I appreciate the Church as an overwhelmingly positive force that gave us the good parts of today's Western Civilization. Did they do bad things? Were they rife with corruption? Did they bring the Reformation on themselves? Yeah, absolutely. At the same time, I'm pretty convinced that without the Church the West would be a cultural wasteland and socio-economically we'd look like Sub-Saharan Africa. And we'd be lagging by centuries in terms of science, too, even though the modern attention span prefers to draw conclusions from Galileo rather than the actual mainstream opinions of historians that Catholicism has been overwhelmingly positive in pushing science forward.
Medieval man is painted as a flat-earth illiterate with a love of warfare. If you read the political scenes of the time, I think medieval society was far more adroit about diplomatic sanity. The next time the world's great empire falls, I don't think we'd do a better job than the Europeans did after Rome.
For the record, I think that one of the great tragedies is that if not for CLIMATE CHANGE we'd today observe The Condemnations of 1210-1277 as the emblem of the Renaissance rather than Gutenberg's printing press, and we'd be centuries ahead of where we are now. Compared with most other periods of human history, including significant chunks of the modern era, even the 12th century was a pretty swell time to be alive. Things were going up and up and up, then the earth got cold and society spiraled downward in the 14th century. Fun fact that everyone should know and nobody does: "The Dark Ages" was a moniker designated for "The Low Middle Ages", which accounts for only half of the medieval period. The Dark Ages and the proto-Renaissance High Middle Ages get lumped together out of sheer intellectual laziness. In the former, people were incredibly brilliant in dealing with the hands they were dealt, in most cases that was trying to restore Europe from anarchy while half of the continent was reverting to the Iron Age for economic gain. The best analogy I could think of for my girlfriend was, "Imagine that Europeans settled America and the US was formed with an awareness of the Native Americans but no cultural interaction because the natives moved to secluded areas. Then in the midst of the Great Depression, half the tribal nations come out of nowhere with Sherman tanks and operate a Blitzkrieg on FDR."
Barbara Tuchman wrote "A Distant Mirror" which basically compared the tribulations of the 20th century to life in the 14th century. It's a great read, but it doesn't do a good job of painting a full picture. People refuse to pay respect to the medieval man because it forces them to realize how little respect they should pay themselves.