What Use are the Middle Ages?

Part II


Mark W. Rabuck, Ph. D.

Department of History

Germantown Academy





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Thus the middle ages are important for two main reasons: they have never really left us, and their memory has served to inform some of the most significant cultural movements we teach.  And yet we face two difficulties in presenting the medieval millennium in our courses on modern Europe.  Time is obviously the most important.  We do not want to spend too much time teaching material that our students will not be responsible for in May.  Second, most quick summaries of medieval culture fail to get at what is really important about the middle ages in light of what came afterward.  If you learned the middle ages the way I did back in the day, you were taught about the feudal pyramid (never really existed), the manorial economy (it existed, but it had been transforming to a market economy over the previous three centuries), that superstition ruled the day (I’ll get to this in a second), and that the church was omnipresent and corrupt (yes and no, as I explained above).


When I teach the Middle Ages to my AP European History students, I boil the “need to know” aspects down to three key themes.  First is the epistemological transformation of Europe from a society based on authority to one based on empiricism.  Second is the evolution of the basic unit of European society from the community to the individual.  Finally, I stress that the invisible world, the supernatural, played a much different role in the Middle Ages than in our own.


My students often have a hard time coming to terms with the significance of Humanism.  They read excepts from the Prince and can understand Machiavelli’s point, but they fail to see any great revolution in his method.  After all, what handbook for rulers would not rely on historical examples as the basis of its argument?  Indeed, that is the very basis of the critical writing they struggled to master in their freshman years.  They fail to grasp how any other system could be possible.


Hyena from a medieval bestiaryAnd yet, for a thousand years, the guiding principle of writing seems to have been “believe what you read, not what you see.”  Things were correct because textual authority proved them, not because of local or empirical proofs.  The dialectical method of Scholasticism, pioneered by Peter Abelard and perfected by Thomas Aquinas, certainly emphasized the role of logic, but only as a way to decide between competing textual authorities. To put it bluntly, if St. Jerome said that clouds were cotton candy and you could find no verse in the bible to suggest otherwise, than candy it was.  My favorite example of this is they hyena.  Back in the fourth century BCE, Aristotle used the hyena as an example of the importance of empirical observation.  He criticized those who believed that hyenas were hermaphroditic, pointing out that, while the markings on hyena’s hindquarters do give the appearance of two sets of genitals, there were in fact both boy hyenas and girl hyenas.  Five centuries later, the Roman historian Pliny, writing to enthrall a popular audience, had read Aristotle, but decided that empiricism was dull.  To him, all hyenas were both innies and outies.




Medieval naturalists from Isidore of Seville on had no access to Aristotle, but they did read Pliny.  They accepted his observations uncritically.   It did, after all, serve the needs of these Christian writers,  who saw in the hermaphroditic hyena a chance to condemn cross-dressers and homosexuals.  One might argue that medieval writers did the best they could with the sources available, since few monks in medieval Europe would ever have occasion to actually observe a real hyena.  But authority trumped observation for other species as well.  Did you know that mother pelicans commit suicide, so that they might feed their young on their own blood? 



Pelican from a medieval bestiaryThey don’t, but it was commonly accepted in the Middle Ages.  After all, the natural world was thought to exist to guide mankind towards a better understanding of the divine plan.  What better way to demonstrate the sacrifice of Christ than the pelican, even if no-one actually saw a momma pelican ever do this.


This is why we often regard medieval people as being overly credulous.  After all, are not our own perceptions a better indication of the way the universe works than some centuries-old text?  But before we condemn medieval thinkers for their gullibility, we should consider how much of our own worldviews are shaped not by logic and observation, but by the same blind faith in authorities we trust.  How many of the people in this room believe in neutrons?  In neutrinos?  In photons?  In quarks?  Have you ever seen any of these particles?  I haven’t, and I am only dimly aware of the mathematics that prove their existence.  No, I believe in these sub-microscopic particles because I have put my faith in a bunch of brainy science guys to explain the way the universe works to me.  So, while we pride ourselves on the superiority of our twenty-first century empirical viewpoint, we should realize that we are more medieval than we often let on.


The second “need to know” point from our all-too-brief survey of the Middle Ages is the trend away from the community and towards the individual as the basic unit of society.  This idea is somewhat abstract, fuzzy, and requires a bit of explaining.  However, as you will see, it leads nicely into the idea of humanism.   


At first blush, a society without a clear concept of the individual seems counter-intuitive.  Did it really take Descartes’ thought to awaken Western society to the idea of Self?  Obviously not.  A notion of the self persisted in medieval Europe just as it existed in Communist Russia and China.  And our own society certainly values our connection to the communities of which we are a part.  I am not just an isolated unit drifting through society.  I am defined by my ties to my family, my church, and various levels of government.  However, I doubt anyone in this room would question my right to challenge the authority of any one of those communities if I believed that my individual rights were being abused by them.  In other words, our idea of society has at its core our right to associate freely with communities.  If we disagree with their core philosophy, we have the right, even the obligation, to leave.


Not so the Middle Ages.  Then, in legal documents, I would not simply be identified as Mark W. Rabuck, but as Mark, son of William Rabuck, of the City of Philadelphia, or the parish of Our Mother of Consolation.  I would exist less as an individual with connections to communities than as network of relationships itself.  The difference may seem subtle, but in practice, it was immense.


Premodern marriage, for instance, had less to do with the joining of two young lovers than with social and economic alliances between families.  Romeo and Juliet found this out the hard way.  Weddings were celebrated by a series of gifts, signifying social connections between kin groups even among the Europe’s poorest populations.  Stephanie Koontz’s excellent book on the history of marriage shows how this idea of marriage lasted well into the eighteenth century, when Enlightenment ideals of individual fulfillment began to shift marriage into the realm of personal fulfillment.  The premodern attitude is nicely summed up in the tale of an eighteenth century youth who intruded on his father making wedding arrangements.  When he tried to have his opinion on the matter heard, his father promptly told him to mind his own business.  This attitude is essentially a holdover from the medieval mentality, where the community trumped the self almost every time.  


The difference can first be seen in these representations of the last supper, made less than fifty years and fifty miles apart. 


Last Supper, Siena Cathedral Museum

Leonardo, The Last Supper


The first is from Siena around 1450, and it strongly resembles every prior representation of the last supper in Christian art up to that point.  Christ, the central figure, has his importance signified by his size.  Perspective is clearly not important to the artist, nor is the need to individualize the apostles, beyond a black halo assigned to Judas. The last supper is shown as a timeless moment, where Christ offers his body and blood to his apostles in the act that became the central act of the Christian liturgy. 



Two generations later, Leonardo da Vinci broke radically with tradition.  Not only did he employ the new techniques of the renaissance to add depth to both the figures and their environment, but he also changed the narrative moment from “This is my body” to “One of you has betrayed me.”  The switch gave Leonardo the opportunity to explore individual reactions to this bombshell, changing the emphasis from eternality to individual psychology.  And there, in a nutshell, is the difference between the medieval and early modern mentalities. 


Finally, the Middle Ages was a world in which the barriers between the physical world and the invisible world were much less absolute than they are now.  Thus, while we live in a world with sharp distinctions between natural and supernatural, there was no firm boundary between the two in the Middle Ages.  For the most part, we assume that we stick to the surface of the earth, recover from disease, and sink thirty foot putts because of causes that can be ascribed to fixed natural laws. Not so in the Middle Ages, where a host of angels, demons, and saints stood just beyond the realm of consciousness (in case you were wondering, it would be Saint Christopher to whom you would pray for the putt).  Everything that happened in this world was connected in some way to the invisible world, and vice versa.  This falls not because of this,

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but because God wills it.  The more sophisticated might appeal to some Platonic ideal of like attracting like, yet in the end, it all boils down to a system of causality that modern science would dismiss as superstitious.


There were distinct disadvantages to living in a society where good and evil spirits determined the outcome of events—if it got sick, it meant that demons had afflicted me. If I got well again, that meant a saint had interceded in my behalf with God. My advisor in graduate school told me once of a ninth century peasant who visited no less than three different shrines of St. Maximus searching for a cure for his lameness, only to be told in a vision “Oh, you must be looking for Saint MaximINus.”  When the correct devotions were made, the peasant recovered.  Honestly, I’m not fond of my HMO, but given the choice…


My students often ask me quite bluntly, how could people have been so stupid for so long? Clearly, there was no evidence in the physical world of miracles occurring.  Obviously, good people died of disease while bad ones recovered?  How could they have put up with this nonsense for so long?  I agree with them that it is nonsense, but then I challenge them to defend their own purported rationalism with the following anecdote, which I first heard from Professor John Boswell at Yale:



Bloody Peasants!

Suppose a rip opens up in the time-space continuum and a peasant from the thirteenth century drops through. You have been assigned to show this visitor around the school until a way can be found to take them home again. The peasant is goggle-eyed at the wonders of the twenty-first century.  You show him the switch that creates a magic day, a box with moving pictures, and a larger box on wheels that moves with neither horse nor ox.  You can’t help but feel a little smug, so you take him outside and point upwards.  He is duly impressed with airplanes and helicopters.  Then, you close in for the kill.


“See the moon up there?” you ask.  “We’ve been there.”


“Gosh,” the peasant says, who now somehow finds himself able to speak modern English.  “You have been to the moon.”


Now, GermantownAcademy, the school where I teach, has an honor code, and our students know better than to lie to our guest, so you are bound to answer with a “No.”


“Ah,” the peasant says.  “But close friends and relatives, people you know and trust, they have been to the moon?”


If you are like me, you know no astronauts, and again you must answer honestly.  “No, but I’ve seen people walking on the moon personally.”


“All the way up there?  I thought the moon was far, far away.”


“Well it is,” you reply.  “But remember the little box with moving pictures?  I saw it on there?”


“Ah, and you believe everything you see on that little box?”


“Well, no…”


“But you can trust representations of people walking on the moon that you see on that little box with moving pictures?”


Again, you have to say: ”No.”  So then you offer: “But I’ve seen moon rocks in museums…”


“I see,” the peasant says with interest.  “And exactly how do these rocks differ from the ones all around us?”


Meekly, you say: “I don’t know.”


Now it is the peasant’s turn to be smug. “So how do you know that people have been to the moon?”


There is only one answer.  We take it on faith.  That does not mean we are stupid or gullible.  It simply means that we trust other people to make certain judgments about the universe around us and the way it works.  We may not understand all aspects of the systems around us, and we may not be able to provide scientific proof of everything that goes on around us.  But that’s OK.  We go about our lives, trusting in the laws of the universe to keep things going.


So, perhaps, five hundred years from now, in Space-Vegas, some jerk will be at a podium explaining that twenty-first century people were not ignorant savages simply because they believed people had been to the moon or because they let Britney Spears have children.  And that their vision of who they were owed as much to their distant ancestors as to the previous generation.