It is fashionable to deride the Middle Ages. "Medieval" is normally an insult, a term of abuse. A new book begs to differ. Pondering the lessons of the book, one is drawn to massive contrasts between our own age and that of "the medievals". And the contrasts are mostly not in our favour.
Medieval people, beliefs and practices get a bad (w)rap from modern liberal elites. The latter, whether on the liberal left or the liberal right, see themselves as children of the Enlightenment and as forever advancing the Enlightenment project. Calling someone or something “medieval” is not often meant as a compliment.
This belief about medieval times is simply risible. The Enlightenment groupies and acolytes clearly do not get irony.
That anyone in the dark age which we now occupy, truly an age of superstitions and non-truth, feels able to look at other periods of history with sanctimony and superiority is breathtaking in its presumption. Those who do so are not merely hypocritical, however. They are ignorant of history. Not that this should be at all surprising, of course. We have given up teaching history, as Donald Trump recently sagely noted.
This age, not the medieval period, is the real ignorant age.
Tom Hodgkinson writes in The Spectator:
We can probably blame George and Ira Gershwin. It was that brilliant duo who, in 1937, penned the memorable lyric ‘They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round’. The song has been recorded by at least 15 artists over the years, from Fred Astaire to Lady Gaga, and is embedded in the consciousness of the West.
But its headline message — medieval people are stupid — is total nonsense. No one, as Professor Seb Falk points out in this brilliant study of medieval astronomy and learning, ever disbelieved the world was round, and medieval people were far cleverer than they get credit for. Half the population, for one thing, he says, were literate.
The idea that the Middle Ages was a time of superstition, brutality, short lives, non-stop dysentery and a retreat from rationality has many promoters. This slander is repeated in Pulp Fiction, when Marsellus says to his hillbilly attackers: ‘I’m gonna get medieval on yo’ ass.’ The myth has its roots in the Reformation, when Puritan reformers sought to discredit the 900 years that preceded them as a fog of ignorance.
Whether it the fault of the Gershwins or of Pulp Fiction or of something else entirely, it remains the case that there persists a spurious notion abroad that medievals were midwits, conned by the Catholic Church into believing fallacies. No, we are the midwits.
For a start, there is the myth that medievals were illiterate. As Seb Falk points out, half the medieval population were literate. Could we remotely say this about modern Western populations? We are NOT the most educated generation ever, merely the most schooled. And as everyone with any knowledge of our contemporary educational practices knows, we have managed to destroy in a mere generation the classical learning cultivated by “evil” medieval priests and practised for eight hundred years. That isn’t clever. Nor is believing that, after we have spent gazillions on educating our people only to have most of them remain uneducated, and a sizable minority functionally illiterate, we have an education population. Yet this is what we believe.
We are overloaded with “information” delivered on gadgets, but sadly underdone when it comes to “knowledge”, let alone “wisdom”.
Other myths abound, based not on any modern learning but on the superstitions of our own times. Like the myth that we are scientific and the medievals were not. This would be considered hilarious were it not so tragic. Today scientific? They had Galileo – yes, it is acknowledged that he had his Church opponents and his battles – whereas we have Michael “hockey stick” Mann and Neil “Professor Pantsdown” Ferguson, who between them have conspired with gullible politicians to deliver a world of poverty and misery based on fallacies. No one should call what they do “science”. The medievals did science. Indeed, they invented it.
The medievals also did philosophy, big time. Without the monks, we would simply not still have Plato and Aristotle. These were anything but dark ages. They had Thomas Aquinas. We have the airport bookshop version of philosophy, viz. A C Grayling, and the French goons Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida.
Then there is the much accepted assertion that we are now ruled by new myths and new religions – like environmentalism and sustainability – that have simply replaced the old, equally myth-driven religion of Christianity. Er, no. The old religion was based on truth. The new ones are not. This view of the new religion is a bastardised version of the old aphorism attributed to G K Chesterton, that once people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything. True enough, but not an argument for believing that the ancien regime was merely rule based on myth.
Another (related) myth is that the medievals were ruled by a “clerisy” while we are not. According to Merriam Webster:
English philosopher-poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) believed that if humanity was to flourish, it was necessary to create a secular organization of learned individuals, "whether poets, or philosophers, or scholars" to "diffuse through the whole community … that quantity and quality of knowledge which was indispensable." Coleridge named this hypothetical group the clerisy, a term he adapted from Klerisei, a German word for clergy (in preference, it seems, to the Russian term intelligentsia which we borrowed later, in the early 1900s). Coleridge may have equated clerisy with an old sense of clergy meaning "learning" or "knowledge," which by his time was used only in the proverb "an ounce of mother wit is worth a pound of clergy."
Joel Kotkin’s 2018 book, The New Class Conflict, explores this notion of a new clerisy. Kotkin, like so many of the modern secularist historians, is half right.
More fully informed students of the Middle Ages, like the historian Eamon Duffy, have done much to restore the reputation of medievals as being far more than mere intellectual vassals and the dupes of the old clerisy.
As Dominic Selwood has noted:
There are historians – and then there is Eamon Duffy. This book resoundingly demonstrates, yet again, why the veteran Cambridge professor is quite unlike the rest. From 1992’s The Stripping of the Altars to 2001’s The Voices of Morebath, Duffy has revelled in punching irreparable holes through accepted wisdom …
Behind Duffy’s simple, readable and delightful prose is an implicit anger that the medieval world has been systematically misrepresented – that Reformation thinkers and their heirs have abducted medieval Christianity and buried it in a pit for toxic waste. Duffy won’t stand for it, and he goes on the offensive, relishing the chance to set the record straight.
Duffy’s revisionist scholarship has neutered many of the arguments of the Henry VIII acolytes who disdained medieval Catholicism. He also neuters the claim that Christians in the Middle Ages were simply run by the priests, had no learning or holiness of their own, and needed to be set free from this yoke by making up their own religion, as eventuated with the Reformation and Protestantism’s subsequent splitting into over a hundred thousand postmodernist versions of Christianity.
The problem with the medievals, according to the Enlightenment version of history, was mainly religion and, in particular, Catholicism. The solution was Protestantism, the handmaiden of the secularist Enlightenment, and a new world order of liberalism in which the ancien regime was pilloried, buried and replaced, bit by bit, by what today is, weirdly, thought to be a new “light age”.
Let us do a little comparison of two different epochs.
The medieval world gave us learning, the preservation (by the monks) of classical knowledge, (real) universities (begun by the Church) , astronomy, science (driven and funded by the Church), the invention of flight, the astrolabe, clocks, real faith in a real religion, real education, Chaucer, the Magna Carta, soaring cathedrals of magnificent beauty, real celebrity/leaders (like Henry V, Richard the Lionheart and The Black Prince), exploration, a true sense of history, genuine and collaborative scholarship by genuine scholars, a belief in truth, proportional responses to pandemics, hospitals that treated more than one disease. Much, then, to be admired rather than bizarrely dismissed as quaint.
The world of the twenty-first century has given us climate madness, Covid fascism, fake celebrities, reality TV, everyone getting a faux education, academics for hire, opioid crises, unenlightened dictatorship in place of liberal democracy, the false golden calves of ideology, brutalist, ugly architecture, empty hospitals, postmodernism, presentism and Churchillian leaders like ScoMo and Boris “windfarms” Johnson. Leaders in inverted commas who are mere facsimiles of the real leaders of yore, cardboard cutouts strangely suited to our fake times and to today’s supine, ignorant masses.
Just about the only statesperson in the world today who could bear comparison with great leaders of the past is a nonagenarian British monarch of the ancient line and the old virtues.
Ours is a world about which books with titles like The Madness of Crowds are written. Not so smart, not so enlightened, then.
The medievals had learning. We have schoolies.
Much of the Enlightenment and of the sadly lingering Whig version of history – that all human history is simply one of progress, of things getting better, of humans becoming more aware, intelligent and better educated – to which it gave rise, was a man-made response to what the smart alecs of the day, like Voltaire and Spinoza, deemed to have been the God-made medieval dumbness to be overturned and cast aside forever.
Alas, they and their historicist tosh won out, with the assistance of the modern age’s realpolitik invented by that early modern iconoclast, Machiavelli.
The estimable historian Herbert Butterfield eviscerated the Whig version of history some time back. Outside the well-known advances in medicine and technology, so ably catalogued by the likes of Matt Ridley, can we really say that an era of violence, terrorism, world wars, the dictatorship of relativism, the culture of death that involves the legally sanctioned killing of anyone unborn or old who isn’t convenient and unthinking ideology signifies progress in any sense whatsoever – in morals, educational attainment, humility, self-awareness or any of the traditional virtues?
We don’t even recognise, let alone practise, the virtues any more. Instead we simply make up our own, fashionable “values”. Like tolerance. Or diversity. Which turn out not to be really tolerance or diversity at all, but brutal social media-driven cancel culture.
Life is always getting better, they say. Really? Just look around for a minute. Currently, we are all effectively locked up, or otherwise have severe constraints imposed upon us by a ravenous state apparatus that has used that same technology so lauded by Ridley to consign us to the status of serfdom. A deep state of no deep thought to which none of us consented rules our lives. The unelected make decisions on our behalf, and the police beat us up and fine us for breaking so-called laws to which none of us agreed. Elected governments spend our money. Money we don’t actually have. And they think this is good government.
I term this barbarism. Not the good life.
The problem with the medievals, according to the Enlightenment version of history, was mainly religion and, in particular, Catholicism. The solution was Protestantism, the handmaiden of the secularist Enlightenment, and a new world order of liberalism in which the ancien regime was pilloried, buried and replaced, bit by bit, by what today passes for a new “light age”.
Go buy the book by Professor Falk. It is called The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery. It will be available from 20 November 2020.
I love contrarians who correct the b.s. believed by the unthinking public and parroted by so-called intellectuals who inhabit think tanks, our ersatz universities and the uncivil services of our day.
I also think that the late Giles Auty, that renowned truth-teller, superior thinker and writer of impeccable prose – and recently cut down in his prime at eighty-six years young – might now be smiling on the truths expertly revealed by Professor Falk.
There remains much work to be done in reversing the belief that so many abroad seem to entertain – that we are the ones living in the light age, unlike those poor sods of medieval times. As a race, we simply now prefer look away from the essential but painstaking task of doing due diligence on the lies we are fed. That would involve effort, application and a skill set and mindset to be found in earlier times but alas, not so much in our own.