The Romance of the Middle Ages

Political reactionaries and orthodox Catholics are often accused of engaging in nostalgia for the Middle Ages. The accusation is peculiar, for similar reasons as the accusation that American conservatives are nostalgic for the 1950s. Insofar as the Catholic prefers the Middle Ages for its religion, or the monarchist and neofeudalist prefer it for its social organization, or the European (French, English, etc) nationalist honors it for giving birth to his country, such a person is not indulging in nostalgia, but acting on loyalty to a universal principle or a living people. What’s more, genuine nostalgia for the Middle Ages, just like nostalgia for the 1950’s, is quite widespread, and not only among Catholics or on the Right. This manifests itself in popular culture as a fascination with fantasy and fairy tales, of knights, castles, witches, wizards, fire-breathing dragons, palace intrigue, beautiful princesses in distress, jolly friars, peasant simplicity, King Arthur, Merlin, Robin Hood, Rapunzel, and Briar Rose. Of course, such reveries are hardly a faithful picture of the Middle Ages, but they are imagined in at least vaguely medieval settings. It is this medieval nostalgia, that of popular fantasy, and not the principled approval of Catholic monarchists, that I wish to consider.

There is no shortage of people who regard any positive sentiment toward the Middle Ages as foolishness. The main criticisms of medieval times are that 1) it was an awful time to be alive, a time of violence, poverty, and injustice, and 2) it was a culturally sterile time, making no significant contribution to literature, art, or science. The criticisms are independent, and there are historians who dispute one or both of them. However, even if it were true that the Middle Ages were a millennium of time wasted on violence and superstition, acknowledging this would not dampen their hold on our imagination, which was never drawn to this time by the thought of cultural achievement or admirable economic arrangements to begin with.

Americans in particular can understand the romance of the Middle Ages, because it is like our own romantic attachment to the Wild West. The Middle Ages was the Wild West of Europe, a time of weak central government, in which resulting anarchy great acts of heroism and villainy were possible, and the safety of the innocent might depend on the courage and martial prowess of one man. Nostalgia for the Middle Ages, if that’s what it is, certainly doesn’t idealize the Middle Ages. If anything, it would prefer to exaggerate how violent and chaotic they were, just as Western movies no doubt exaggerate how violent day-to-day life was during the early settlement of western America.

Drama and excitement are part of the appeal of Wild Wests, but there is another part, which is the real reason for hostility to the Middle Ages. Each people particularly cherishes the memory of its own Wild West, far more even than the memory of its own Lost Golden Age. (Does Western Civilization even have a Lost Golden Age? There are ages we admire for their accomplishments or heroism, but is there any time during which we like to imagine all was basically right under heaven?) A people sees the characters of its Wild West as revelations of that people’s character. Americans are still cowboys at heart, underneath the constraints of civilization, or at least so we like to imagine. Medieval kings, princesses, and wizards have a special appeal to Europeans and the European diaspora as revelations of the European spirit, still living underneath our science and ubiquitous social control. The things we are supposed to approve–science, democracy, bureaucracy–are forms that can be adapted by any people; the stories of how we were before we had those forms are stories of us in ourselves.

Thus the hostility to any fond remembrance of the Middle Ages, and the desire to destroy or de-Europeanize fantasy and fairy tales. They are a sign that we Europeans don’t yet entirely hate ourselves.