Make the Middle Ages Dark Again

I miss the good old days. You remember. Back when the only thing people knew about the Middle Ages is that they were Dark and filled with evil barons wresting a living off the back of their serfs, not to mention lecherous clergy imprisoning young maidens so as to rape them and then accuse them of witchcraft.


You remember, right? What it was like when the Middle Ages were Dark? The Roman Catholic Church made slaves of everyone, stripped them of their sense of dignity and independence and made social status a matter not of achievement, but birth. The Church hated science and industry and did everything in its power to keep people in chains. It guarded its authority with the sword and the stake, stifled all innovation, and fed the common people lies.

And why were these Ages so Dark? There were no universities, no towns, only castles with dungeons. Monks huddled in their cells thinking dark thoughts about sin, while Vikings stormed across the countryside, raping and pillaging and capturing Christians to sell as slaves. The Church refused to let anybody learn to read in case they got hold of the Bible and threatened its power.

Meanwhile, in the convents, women went mad, hysterically imagining themselves beloved by God, some even going so far as to have visions of being married to Christ. They were encouraged in these “absurd and puerile” delusions by their priests, themselves driven mad by their unnatural celibacy, who, when they were not seducing nuns, were inventing lies about witches having sex with the Devil, all the while blaming the women for inflaming their lust.

There was no commerce, no learning, no art. All was drab and colorless because the Church hated beauty. The kings were barbarians who knew nothing of law. The Church encouraged the worst superstitions so as to keep the laity bewitched and in fear of God. The barons thought nothing of torturing their own laborers, while the Church was ever on the lookout for heretics to burn at the stake.

Even the high culture was infected with superstition, as the Church coerced the laity into building great cathedrals simply in order to assert its power. Whereas the ancient Romans had build a great civilization (never mind the conquest and slaves), the Middle Ages knew only decadence and decline, thanks to the Church. There was no great literature or philosophy, only the demented ravings of the scholastics, who wasted their lives arguing such stupidities as how many angels could dance on the head of a pin and insisting that the world was flat.

And then along came Charles Homer Haskins (1870-1937) and ruined everything.


Haskins – you know him, he was the first professor of medieval history at Harvard, “the first academic medieval historian in the United States” (Wikipedia) – Haskins wrote a book about the twelfth century in which he argued – pace Jakob Burckhardt – that the Middle Ages were the opposite of Dark. Where others saw darkness, Haskins saw light:
The European Middle Ages form a complex and varied as well as a very considerable period of human history. Within their thousand years of time they include a large variety of peoples, institutions, and types of culture, illustrating many processes of historical development and containing the origins of many phases of modern civilization. Contrasts of East and West, of the North and the Mediterranean, of old and new, sacred and profane, ideal and actual, give life and color and movement to this period, while its close relations alike to antiquity and to the modern world assure it a place in the continuous history of human development. Both continuity and change are characteristic of the Middle Ages, as indeed of all great epochs of history.
This conception runs counter to ideas widely prevalent not only among the unlearned but among many who ought to know better. To these the Middle Ages are synonymous with all that is uniform, static, and unprogressive; ‘mediaeval’ is applied to anything outgrown, until, as Bernard Shaw reminds us, even the fashion plates of the preceding generation are pronounced ‘mediaeval.’ The barbarism of Goths and Vandals is thus spread out over the following centuries, even to that ‘Gothic’ architecture which is one of the crowning achievements of the constructive genius of the race; the ignorance and superstition of this age are contrasted with the enlightenment of the Renaissance, in strange disregard of the alchemy and demonology which flourished throughout this succeeding period; and the phrase ‘Dark Ages’ is extended to cover all that came between, let us say, 476 and 1453. Even those who realize that the Middle Ages are not ‘dark’ often think of them as uniform, at least during the central period from ca. 800 to ca. 1300, distinguished by the great mediaeval institutions of feudalism, ecclesiasticism, and scholasticism, and preceded and followed by epochs of more rapid transformation. 
Such a view ignores the unequal development of different parts of Europe, the great economic  changes within this epoch, the influx of new learning of the East [Greek and Arabic], the shifting currents in the stream of mediaeval life and thought. On the intellectual side, in particular, it neglects the mediaeval revival of the Latin classics and of jurisprudence, the extension of knowledge by the absorption of ancient learning and by observation [a.k.a. science], and the creative work of these centuries in poetry and art. In many ways the difference between the Europe of 800 and that of 1300 are greater than the resemblances. Similar contrasts, though on a smaller scale, can be made between the culture of the eighth and ninth centuries, between conditions ca. 1100 and those ca. 1200, between the preceding age and the new intellectual currents of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
This in itself was bad enough – suggesting that a thousand years of history might merit detailed study, rather than being lumped together under a single heading – but Haskins did even worse. He called the central period of this thousand years a “renaissance,” too, and suggested that out of it arose many of the institutions and ideals of succeeding centuries:
The Middle Ages exhibit life and color and change, much eager search after knowledge and beauty, much creative accomplishment in art, in literature, in institutions.... The epoch of the Crusades, of the rise of towns, and of the earliest bureaucratic stats of the West, [the Twelfth Century] saw the culmination of Romanesque art and the beginnings of Gothic; the emergence of the vernacular literatures; the revival of the Latin classics and of Latin poetry and Roman law; the recovery of Greek science, with its Arabic additions, and of much of Greek philosophy; and the origin of the first European universities. The twelfth century left its signature on higher education, on the scholastic philosophy, on European systems of law, on architecture and sculpture, on the liturgical drama, on Latin and vernacular poetry.
Gone was the superstitious gloom, the distrust of science, the ignorance of law. Gone was the Europe isolated by the Church from the high cultures of the East. Gone were the barons ignorant of justice and the scholastics ignorant of reason. Gone were the illiterate laity, gone were the hysterical nuns, gone were all the lecherous clergy and the villainous kings (well, most of them). In their stead were thoughtful women and men, eager for knowledge, scouring the libraries of East and West for the wisdom of the ancients and of their more recent commentators, including Arabic authors (yes, sorry, everyone, this is old news). Thanks to Haskins, medievalists for the better part of a century (he published this study in 1927) came to believe that their period was one of great intellectual, artistic, commercial, jurisprudential, political, and scientific achievement, rivaling even the fifteenth century in significance, most certainly not a period that was at all “dark.”

To crown it all, only a few years previous Haskins had helped establish the Medieval Academy of America so that everyone interested in studying the Middle Ages, not just academics, could perpetuate this cheery vision. As the Academy describes its mission:
The Medieval Academy of America is the largest organization in the United States promoting excellence in the field of medieval studies. It was founded in 1925 and is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The academy publishes the quarterly journal Speculum, and awards prizes, grants, and fellowships such as the Haskins Medal, which is named for Charles Homer Haskins, one of the founders of the Medieval Academy and its second president. 
The Medieval Academy supports research, publication, and teaching in medieval art, archaeology, history, law, literature, music, philosophy, religion, science, social and economic institutions, and all other aspects of the Middle Ages. 
Membership is open to all persons interested in the Middle Ages. The Academy holds an annual meeting each spring.
It is enough to make you weep. What about the vision of the Middle Ages as a period of warfare and mayhem? What happened to the evil barbarians and demented priests? It is almost as if the Medieval Academy wants people to learn about the Middle Ages, how they were important in the history of human civilization, so much so that membership in the most prestigious and largest American organization “promoting excellence in the field of medieval studies” is open to everyone who would like to join, “including, but not limited to, independent scholars, secondary teachers, graduate students, curators, librarians, and college and university professors of all ranks and at all types of institutions.”

Not that it matters. Despite the best efforts of medievalists for almost a century, to the general public, the period is still best described as “Dark.” Just look at the popularity of The Game of Thrones. Back in the Dark Ages – say, about five or ten years ago – there was even a blog about all of the ways in which the media insisted on using “medieval” to mean whatever it was supposed to mean in Pulp Fiction (1994) when Marcellus Wallace promises the security guard who had sodomized him, “I’ma get medieval on your ass.”

It’s too bad. Maybe if we medievalists hadn’t been trying so hard to make people understand that the Middle Ages weren’t “mediaeval,” they wouldn’t be so appealing to the neo-Nazis as a period to which they would like to return.*

*My point being, if it needs clarifying: it doesn’t matter what medievalists say, people are going to make whatever use they like of “medieval” imagery. Don’t get me started on the way in which modernity caricatures the medieval Catholic Church.

For my caricature of the Dark Ages: thanks to Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889); and William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

Quotations from Charles Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927), pp. v-vi, 3-5.

Image credits: these were the first two images returned by a Google search on “medieval.” Do with that information what you will! Knights, Town (Budapest)

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