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Middle Aged Notes

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Okay, a couple of things here, on a day that’s sort of crowded for time.

First, the reason why what you “know” about the Middle Ages is so completely wrong about the Middle Ages is that what you “know” is actually the myth of “Medieval stagnation and repression” put out first by the Renaissance and then by the Enlightenment.

The narrative is so entrenched now that it is almost impossible to get people to discard it.   First, it says, there was the reign of religion and the Church, that controlled everybody’s lives and forbid the study of real science.  Scientists were hounded and condemned.  The world was “demon haunted” and men and women quaked in fear of fairy tales and heresy trials.  Then a few brave souls came forward to fight for the right of people to use their eason and be guided by it, instead of being guided by silly superstititions out of the Bible.  Behold!   The modern world!

This is so much nonsense, it’s difficult to know where to start debunking it.   The Middle Ages were actually a better period for science than the Renaissance was, and the Church–although it had a lot more influence than you and I would be comfortable with today–actually supported most of that science.

Copernicus was a figure of the Middle Ages, not the Renaissance.  It was he, not Gallileo, who first provided proofs that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa.  His book was dedicated to a Pope, who had Copernicus’s theories taught to students in the Vatican school.  Those theories were still being taught in the Vatican school and in the Cathedral schools of several Christian cities right through the time Galeleo was being condemned. Sounds like there’s a story there, doesn’t it?  Well, there is, but that’s another rant for another time. 

Whoever it was who said that there was a Middle Ages throughout Europe is quite right.  I talk about England because I studied English literature, so I know more about England than I do about the same period in Italy or Germany.

But I also talk about  England because I am a resident citizen of the Anglophone sphere, and the intellectual history of England is my intellectual history in a way that the intellectual history of Italy is not.

England has always had an unusually large and powerful middle class relative to those in other European countries, but more important than that, England has always been culturally middle class in a way that no other country in Europe has ever been, even those that frequently lacked aristocracies.

It’s odd to read about the Medici, for instance, because in one way–they were bankers, haute bourgeoisie (upper middle class) in origins and business activity00they were nearly the definition of middle class.  Culturally, however, they were aristocratic, to an extent that even a monarch like Henry VIII couldn’t have gotten away with in England.

As to whether there was a middle ages in Turkey, the answer may be–maybe not.  “Medieval” was a term invneted to specify a stage in intellectual history that came between the classical world of Greece and Rome and the “modern” period inaugurated by the Renaissance or the  Enlightenment, depending on where you were standing at the time.  That’s what the Middle Ages are the “middle” of. 

I don’t know enough about the intellectual history of Islam to be sure, but my guess is that this schema would not work for Muslim countries.   There was a flowering of science and reason in the Muslim world in what is the high Middle Ages in Europe, but unlike Europe, and unlike the Christian Church, Muslim contries and Muslim religious authorities largely rejected that flowering and eventually repressed it.  

There really is a period of religious hegemony and repression that corresponds to Enlightenment fables about the Middle Ages, but it didn’t take place in Europe or under control of the Catholic Church–it took place in Islam. 

In the same period of time that Muslim authorities were condemning the works of Averroes and trying to wipe them off the face of the planet, the Catholic Church was busy throwing fistfuls of resources at European scientists, many of them monks, because Aquinas had convinced the Church not only that there was no conflect between science and religion, but that the study of nature was a kind of prayer, because in studying nature we had our one chance to look into the mind of God.

Written by janeh

December 16th, 2009 at 9:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Middle Aged Notes'

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  1. What one written source would you recommend to dispel some of the conmon misconceptions about Medieval times–primarily in the UK and western Europe?


    16 Dec 09 at 11:53 am

  2. I like the Barbaras – Barbara Tuchman and Barbara Hanawalt. But my favourite way to find something about the medieval period is to go to my local university library (which has a greater range than my local public library) and browse in the section that has lots of social history in it.

    After all these years, I still have a fondness for Norah Lofts’ novels about the period, and of course there’s Cadfael.


    16 Dec 09 at 1:20 pm

  3. Whenever someone asks me for “one written source would [I] recommend,” I cringe. As Jane says – our sources are filled with the interpretations and assumptions of generations – all with their own objectives. My students always want a synopsis rather than the source material. This semester, my students didn’t read the Odyssey (yes- it was assigned), so I made them sit through two videos and my lecture. When they complained that all three variations said something different about the work, I told them to go back and read it.

    Having said that, I know most people won’t go ‘read around’ in the Middle Ages. It’s something I like to do, but not everyone does. My only real suggestion is read more than one book on the topic. Look at the author’s qualifications and other works. This will help you assess the angle the author is likely to take. The Middle Ages are not simple or easy to condense. What was going on in Italy was politically different than what was happening in England, but people traveled and traded information, literature, art. The kings of England needed the Medici banking industry to keep their country running – not to mention funding those pesky battles with France.
    Anyway – authors of history have agendas, whether it be to glorify a period or person or country. Know the agenda and you can assess the quality of the information. Norman Cantor used to be the guy to read; I have heard that R. W. Southern is a reliable source. I enjoy the PBS televised series on the Medicis, but I avoid stuff done by the History Channel – too many inaccuracies.

    by all means – read Cadfael – one of my favorites.


    16 Dec 09 at 5:29 pm

  4. Ok – authors of history sounds terrible. Instead, insert authors who write about history – or something like that.


    16 Dec 09 at 5:31 pm

  5. I believe my question was stated:

    What one written source would you recommend to dispel SOME OF THE COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS about Medieval times–primarily in the UK and western Europe? I didn’t ask for a definitive all-inclusive tome nor did I say I expected a synopsis. I am a middle-aged adult and a librarian for many years and don’t expect to be addressed as though I were a lazy undergraduate. Although I have no borrowing privileges at a university library I do have on hand PUBLIC LIBRARY CORE COLLECTION NONFICTION, 13th edition. I can easily look in there but was merely asking if anyone had a recommendation that might be helpful. Excuse me for asking.


    16 Dec 09 at 5:43 pm

  6. Ummmm- what would be better to dispel some common misconceptions than a fairly standard and broad-based book by any of the well-known authors writing in the period?

    If the names of some of our favourite authors in that category aren’t the kind of suggestion you expected to get, well, maybe someone else can come closer to your requirements. I can’t.

    I also don’t address undergraduates, lazy or otherwise, differently than I address anyone else. They’re humans too.


    16 Dec 09 at 8:04 pm

  7. jem My apologies – I didn’t mean to suggest that you were lazy – only that I don’t believe there is a single source for information or that would dispel common misconception.

    I just finished grading papers and posting final grades for the semester. It’s a very frustrating time of the year.


    17 Dec 09 at 2:29 am

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