The age of faith, commonly known as the medieval period, the Middle Ages or by some the dark ages. A time, it is commonly supposed, which was dogged by superstition, ignorance, a progress stifling church, and the burning of scientists and for that matter anyone who the church didn’t like. Such an image is of course not only fanciful, but demonstrably false. Yet, for its evident falsity, it is still the common image of the Middle Ages in the mind of the average person. Why is this?
Simply put it’s because this is the common image that has been put forward since the enlightenment, which has been passed down from generation to generation, and the view that is still propagated by the media. If one were to ask the common man what he thought the average person looked and lived like, he would probably say dirty, brutish and short. But this just isn’t true. In the middle ages, people bathed regularly, cleanliness was important indeed in 13th century France the following saying was composed ‘Venari, ludere, lavari, bibere; Hoc est vivere’ which translates to ‘to hunt, to play, to wash, to drink, – This is to live!’ A far cry from the idea of the unclean peasant. Indeed the roman baths which had existed since ancient times were still in regular use by the public. The bath houses were after all very cheap if not free (depending on where they were located). The public houses were a common meeting place as well, and central to public life in larger towns and cities. It is often supposed that filth and dirt was what allowed the Black Death (1347-1351) to spread so quickly but this is in fact
What about his living in squalor and often starving? This is again a falsity. Even the lowest villeins, lived in relative luxury to the poor in other societies of the time, most if not all peasants lived in thatched cottages; these were relatively well made wattle and daub houses. These houses while certainly not as homely as those of the modern period were certainly not the dank hovels of the common imagination. Compared to the living conditions of nomadic peoples in Asia (steppe peoples who lived in yerts and tents), or African and Arab nomads who also lived in tents. They were quite well made and furnished with rugs which had been prepared at home by the women of the house, or in poorer homes straw mixed with fragrant herbs was strewn on the floor. It was divided into a few rooms, the kitchen, the sleeping rooms and a small dining area being standard. The design of the building was also one of masterful execution. The thatched roof allowed for a level of natural insulation, keeping heat in during the winter and releasing it during the summer. As well as this they also had a number of windows, which were kept closed through the use of shutters (as glass panes were rare and expensive). In the houses of the more well off, they were better furnished; Wall trappings, canopy beds, larger living space as well as better construction materials and standards (brick and wood houses for the most part). Despite the disparity in wealth and housing (which in a less obvious sense still exists today, as we cart our poor off into council flats and tower blocks and largely ignore them), food was rarely lacking for anyone.
Even the homeless could expect a good meal or two a day, with the presence of monasteries, alms-givers and associations of the poor brothers, being present to give regular food and shelter to even the poorest in society (something which is sorely lacking in modern society, wherein the government supposedly ‘cares’ for our poor). On the subject of food, a common myth must be addressed, the rich feasted daily, and the poor barely ate anything and had never heard of meat! What a preposterous suggestion. In the Mediaeval period, fasting was significantly more stringent and more common than today. It was generally required that on all Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays all people would abstain from meat. Fasting periods were also significantly longer than they are today (which thanks to the post-Vatican II era has been reduced to two days a year and some find that too hard to do). Fasting was mandated every day of Advent, all Ember days, Christmas Eve, Septuagesima-tide, all of Lent and on the last two Sundays leading up to Advent, as well as the Rogation days and major vigils. The laws on what could be eaten were so stringent that many would faint if they were to be expected to do the same. A person was allowed to subsist on one meal a day, which must be of a small size and not exceed a certain weight. Regarding the thought that peasants were starving on the daily and eating relatively little food, this is of course another crock of nonsense. The diet of the average peasant consisted of a rather healthy diet, of vegetables, fruits, meats and fish. They drank alcohol, (beer and ale in the UK and, wine on the continent) due to the general condition of local water (well water being clean and drinkable however). We know the kind of food peasants ate from archaeological research, this includes all manner of local vegetation ‘there were the legumes (beans, peas and lentils), and garden vegetables (radishes, celery, squash, carrots, cabbage, onions, cucumbers in the East, and later also lettuce and spinach,) a multitude of herbs, and the various fruits and nuts of the areas’. As well as this people ate meat, this category including poultry and other birds such as ducks, geese or pigeons. Fish was also plentiful, as most people lived near some body of water or at least could trade with those who did. The typical meal was that of bread or porridge alongside the companaticum (food accompanying bread, such as sausages, cold cuts, or cheese). It was even likely that a number of peasants also owned and kept bees to get both Honey and Beeswax.
There is also an idea, that the Middle Ages were a dark, dull and unenlightened time. This, once again is highly untrue. Public feasts were common; games such as Football and Rugby have their origin in this period, songs and ballads were also extremely common and many are still known to this day. Epic poetry continued unabated in the tradition of Rome and Greece (Beowulf, Chaucer’s Canterbury tales, the song of Roland, the Nibelungenlied, the Cantar mio cid etc. were all written and recited at this time). As well as this the idea that this period was dull is completely antithetical to what the mediaevals say about themselves. Indeed, the games and feasts of the time were extremely riotous, Christmas was celebrated with heavy drinking and feasting. As well as this the religious nature of mediaeval society meant that a large section of the year was spent feasting, and enjoying the feasts of the saints. Public figures held and sponsored feasts for the common people and the local people had time away from working the land. Indeed, the peasant worked less than most modern office workers do (the peasant was given all Sundays, major feasts and their vigils off of work, the modern office worker has an average of 4-5 weeks of holiday per year).
The idea that the mediaeval period was somehow backwards and un-enlightened as well as disconnected with the rest of the world, is still incorrect. The Byzantine Empire still stood until the very end of the Mediaeval period, and with it there was access to the trade routes of India, China and the eastern nations, which Europeans still regularly used. Indeed, it was on these paths that Marco Polo later travelled precisely because they were so well known to Europeans as they had been in regular use for the previous few centuries. Indeed, it was only the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans and their subsequent blockage of the trade routes that kicked off the age of exploration.
The Byzantine Empire’s existence meant that all the knowledge of Rome was still preserved in what was the Eastern Roman empire. The Byzantines continued to develop technology and Greek philosophy within its borders. Indeed, there are technologies which the Byzantines possessed that, to this day, we cannot replicate (the production of Greek-fire and Damascus steel). In Western Europe technology and knowledge were not behind that of Byzantium but rather in line with it. The knowledge of the Romans and Greeks (contrary to what later writers claim) was continued and commented upon. The works of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Homer, Vergil, Ovid, Pliny and many others were still used, printed and commented upon. The Scriptures were well known and well-studied. Great Volumes of Philosophy, Theology, History and Literature were all produced in this time. Also note that after the Crusades (the first being in 1095 may I remind all readers) there was a significant leap forward in European technologies and knowledge. Furthermore, how can one say that Europe was backward at a time where thousands of Cathedrals, Castles, Public buildings and many other buildings were being erected? The style of Gothic architecture is so grandiose and well-built that most of the buildings which were erected in this style still stand today. When it took hundreds of years for buildings so grand to be created, so grand that the style was re-invoked in its own restoration movement in later centuries. How can the Cathedrals of Chartres and the Church of St. Mary Redcliffe be considered barbarous?
Furthermore, to claim that the Europeans were ignorant and un-scientific is laughable. The scientific method as we know it was developed in Europe with the actions of Roger Bacon and his contemporaries. The Peoples of Europe, especially after the first Crusade were part of a brand new world. They had trade contacts with Byzantium, India, China and Russia. European traders knew the routes of the Silk Road and made maps of the world (though somewhat rudimentary). The concept of the University began in Europe, where for the first time since the days of Rome, men could study for a long period in a purely studious atmosphere. Even the very teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, a doctor of the Church in his own right: St. Albert the Great, was a respected biologist. He is widely remembered for his attempts to feed Iron to Ostriches (yet another proof that Europe was well connected and Europeans well-travelled). This is an unfair observance, he was engaged in the scientific method of Experimentation and observation, debunking in his work what was a widely held belief in most parts of the world. There are numerous other examples of the well-connected nature of Europe: the tower of London was home to at various points Lions, tigers, polar bears and even an elephant at one point. Pope Leo X was gifted an Elephant by the king of Portugal.
If this is true (as it is) why is the popular image of the middle ages as that of a period of dark, un-enlightened barbarism? The answer is that during the Renaissance and ‘Enlightenment’ periods the view of the age of Faith was that it was a period mired in superstition, which prevented human progress and that it was a true dark age. This mentality was used to deride the church, the very term Mediaeval became a synonym for un-enlightened and barbarous. This mentality stuck with people, so much so that it became the popular image. This does matter as the saying goes ‘he who controls the past, controls the present’. By keeping up this false image of the middle ages, the cultural narrative is thus firmly poised against the church, against monarchy and against the holy society of the middle ages. Having, however countermanded this view, I ask you all to look back at the Middle Ages, not as an unenlightened and stupid period, look back at it as the glorious age of Faith and the model for a good and Catholic society and you will change the world for the better.
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