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.

8 Responses

  1. The Modern Age was born with a vituperative hatred for the Middle Ages, and as the defects of the Modern Age became more and more apparent, its vituperative hatred began to sound more and more like a recommendation. After living for two centuries with modern bureaucrats, one begins to think that the monks of Enlightenment nightmares could not have been all bad. After living for one century with modern architecture, one begins to think that the men who built gothic cathedrals knew something we have forgotten. I think this is a kind of nostalgia and a kind of escapism. To those who chide us for escapism, I simply say make me a world I am not so eager to escape.

    Speaking of the vituperative hatred of early Moderns for the Middle Ages, I just read this rich specimen by Condorcet. Once it became clear that one could say many of these things about the Modern Age, the Middle Ages became much more attractive.

    “In the disastrous epoch at which we are now arrived, we shall see the human mind rapidly descending from the height to which it had raised itself, while ignorance marches in triumph, carrying with her, in one place, barbarian ferocity; in another, a more refined and accomplished cruelty; everywhere, corruption and perfidy. A glimmering of talents, some faint sparks of greatness or benevolence of soul, will, with difficulty, be discerned amidst the universal darkness. Theological reveries, superstitious delusions, are become the sole genius of man, religious intolerance his only morality; and Europe, crushed between sacerdotal tyranny and military despotism, awaits, in blood and in tears, the moment when the revival of light shall restore it to liberty, to humanity and to virtue.” Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, Outlines of a Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind (Baltimore: J. Frank, 1802), p. 106.

  2. Condorcet’s historical overview has an odd charm, partly from knowing who it was that would shortly thereafter put him to death.

  3. I believe that, for us, the charm of the Middle Ages is like the charm of the Arabian Nights, the charm of the exotic – Of a world utterly different to our own.

    In the traditional division of the Ancient World, the Middle Ages and the Modern World, the Middle Ages seem to us like an interlude; the art, architecture, literature, mathematics, science and philosophy of the Renaissance link up seamlessly with Antiquity. Montaigne is the successor of Horace and Tartaglia is the successor of Diophantus and in the History of Ideas (as our 19th century forebears would have dubbed it), the Middle Ages count for nothing.

    In my own field, the reception in amplexu, as we say, of the Roman Law tells the same story. The German Pandektists and the Code Napoléon are the successors of Justinian, Trebonian and the Classical Jurists and owe little or nothing to the more than a thousand years that separate them.

    The same is true in great things, as well as small. On 1 March 1516, 60 years after the invention of printing and after more than 10,000 works had issued from the presses, the New Testament was published for the first time in Europe. Johann Froben, a bookseller in Basle, published Desiderius Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum omne Within 30 years, chairs of Greek and Hebrew were established in Universities all over Europe and vernacular version after vernacular version was published.

    That, for me, marks the end of the Dark Ages. In fact, I concur with Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford and Vice-Chancellor of the University, the co-editor of Liddell & Scott’s Greek Lexicon (and the father of Alice, the inspiration of Alice in Wonderland when he wrote that “Europe came out of the Dark Ages with the Greek Testament in her hand.”

  4. As a teenager, I developed a feel for the romance of the Middle Ages – probably derived from Tolkien; and I still prefer it to almost any other period.

    At first it was the idea of a simpler, agrarian, hobbit-like society that appealed – and I enjoyed William Morris’s utopian version in A Dream of John Ball; but that is not really valid.

    To really appreciate the Middle Ages, I think one needs to see everything refracted through the lens of the Church and Christianity – then one can appreciate the unity or integration of nearly all aspects of life – and its link to the transcendent. Very appealing!

    On the other hand if religion is subtracted from the Middle Ages, then it seems just sordid and full of suffering – as depicted in a movie like Jabberwocky, or a book like the Time Travellers Guide to the Middle Ages (which has, I think, just two pages about Chrstianity)

  5. Michael,

    I don’t entirely agree. There are many other times and places equally unlike ours, but the Middle Ages is particularly interesting to us because it is recognizably a stage of our own peoples and civilizations.

  6. Bruce,

    It’s interesting that the characters in Tolkein’s world are not Christians, at least not explicitly. I think this is because there is an element of nostalgia in all great fantasy, of an enchanted world lost forever, but for Tolkein and his readers the Church was very much alive and part of their present world.

  7. People say they hate the Middle Ages because of its poverty, violence, and ignorance, but was medieval Europe really so exceptional in these regards? Not compared to us, but compared to the past as a whole, including all ancient and non-European peoples. Couldn’t one list many, many portions of the histories of non-Western societies that were as bad in these regards as even the “Dark Ages” (say, 500–1000AD in Europe)? Yet we reserve no special scorn for these past peoples or their cultures. Hatred of the Middle Ages, especially when extended to the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) and the Renaissance (1300-1500), is clearly related to the fact that the peoples of those times were European Christians, i.e. us.

  8. People do not know the MA were actually cooler than it is usually taught. The guild system gave good laborers a fair chance to start their own business. Rural landowners were not rent-seekers, they rather operated agrobusinesses shipping processed food to the cities, and simply paid the employees with land, not money. Such manors could be purchased for money, did not require nobility or a donation from above. War between nobles was not very bloody because they tried to capture each other for ransom.

    Coolest thing: no lawyers! In Germany, I mean. Any literate man could read the very simple laws like the Sachsenspiegel and could defend himself or someone else. In England, every literate man had one get out of jail card:

    Outside of Spain, the Holy Inquisition killed on the average one person per year. Witchcraft trials required proving the defendant killed someone with witchcraft, and that is only possible if they actually poisoned someone to death. In Italy it was so mild, that people accused with crimes tried to get judged by the HI not the civilian authorities.

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