The Middle Ages Get No Respect

We’ve gotten past the point where textbooks call them the “Dark Ages,” but it seems that what up until now have been the most Christian centuries in the history of the West still get little respect from the mainstream, particularly in Hollywood. On the one hand,

 

In Kingdom of Heaven, Orlando Bloom plays a postmodern, angst-ridden Crusader.

 

filmmakers can’t seem to resist making movies about compelling figures and events from this period; we have The Lion in Winter, Kingdom of Heaven, and Timeline, not to mention the endless reiterations of the Robin Hood story.

On the other hand, films about the Middle Ages can’t bring themselves to convey any sort of positive impression about the era as 19th-century authors like Sir Walter Scott did. To be sure, the hero of the story is usually portrayed sympathetically, but the reason we are supposed to like him is that he is presented to us as not being a man of his time; he thinks and speaks 20th- and 21st-century sentiments while everyone around him is a font of ignorance and blind prejudice, ostensibly medieval traits.

A fresh example of this trend is now in theaters: Vision, a biopic of Hildegard of Bingen. If

 

In this illumination, Hildegard receives a vision and dictates it to a scribe.

 

you are not familiar with Hildegard, she was an interesting character, a 12th-century mystic who also composed liturgical chant and wrote treatises on various subjects. She has received a lot of scholarly attention in the last twenty years or so for being virtually the only woman to do these sorts of things in this period. Most of the attention has been respectful, although I recently read one scholar who tried to dismiss Hildegard’s visions as being simple migraine attacks.

The new film Vision follows the script I outlined above: sympathetic heroine in a barbarous and unenlightened environment. Check it out if you want to learn more about Hildegard’s many accomplishments. Just be sure to take the presentation of the milieu within which she operated with a grain of salt.

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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9 Responses to The Middle Ages Get No Respect

  1. Vic McCracken says:

    Jason, have you read William Manchester’s _A World Lit Only By Fire_? It’s an excellent social history of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Not quite certain what positive impression you envision for the period; I suspect that like most periods, including our own, the Middle Ages were a mixture of good and bad. Manchester does a nice job of chronicling the difficult life of the peasant in the Middle Ages, and he believes that they were called “The Dark Ages” for good reason. Nothing like the Black Death to brighten one’s day, ehh? Let us lift our glassed to the Inquisition . . .

    • Dr. J says:

      Vic, it seems that whenever I say something nice about an earlier era, you imply that I am trying to present it as a panacea. The Middle Ages certainly had all sorts of problems, and I don’t think anyone living today would want to endure the material standard of living of that time (or of any time prior to the 20th century). If we’re talking about standards of living for peasants, all of recorded history has been a “Dark Age.”

      On the other hand, the evils of the Inquisition and other bugbears of modern secularists are, without question, overblown. To take just one example, not too long ago I read a statistical analysis that showed that the death toll from all the centuries of witch trials combined was equivalent to an average day of executions in the USSR over its 70-year history. When it comes to the lives of peasants, the average peasant in 1300 had more to eat and more amenities than he did at any other point in history up until then.

      Its hardly fair to hold up the years of the Black Death as representative of the Middle Ages. That would be like saying we should understand all of American history through the lens of the influenza epidemic of 1919. The whole point of my post is that there is no balance in contemporary portrayals of the Middle Ages, no recognition that it was, in your words, “a mixture of good and bad.”

  2. Vic McCracken says:

    Hey Jason, thanks for your post. I don’t see you presenting the Middle Ages as a panacea. However, you never really clarify what in the Middle Ages you find so laudable. I suspect your approval has something to do with respect for religious authority or some such, attitudes much easier to come by at the point of a sword than in a society that recognizes religious liberty as a fundamental right. The calculus of death via witch trial v. Stalinist atrocities is lost on me. It’s not simply the weight of bodies that matters here; it’s also the intellectual edifice that makes it permissible to use the power of the state to root out religious heterodoxy. I suspect you agree with this too, good libertarian that you are. From my perspective your post is another example of the tension between your libertarian leanings and your vision of Christian establishment. Maybe I”m overlooking something laudable in the Middle Ages that you care deeply about, but at this point the merits of the age are unclear.

    • Dr. J says:

      Political decentralism, the code of chivalry, and scholastic philosophy are three laudable features of the Middle Ages I can think of off the top of my head. If by “respect for religious authority” you mean a situation where the overwhelming majority of people affirm the divinity of Jesus and other basic teachings of Christianity, then sure, that is a good thing, too. Although ends don’t justify means, I confess I haven’t shed too many tears over (for example) Charlemagne’s using the point of a sword to end human sacrifice in Saxony. If your problem with the Middle Ages is that they didn’t have liberal democracy, I guess you’d need to make an argument for why you think that is the best system. I’d say that your inability to think of anything positive about the Middle Ages (your previous statement about mixtures of good and bad notwithstanding) is evidence for my contention that our culture is unfairly prejudiced against the period.

      I think you are missing my point about the comparison of witch trials vs. Soviet (not just Stalinist) atrocities. You’re not a historian, so I wouldn’t necessarily expect you to know this, but in my profession there is endless handwringing over things like the witch trials and Inquisition (both of which are largely early modern, not medieval, phenomena, by the way) and comparative silence regarding the gulag. Today we have an intellectual edifice that makes it permissible to use the power of the state to root out all sorts of things in the name of Equality, and our intelligentsia can do little more than frown at the “excesses” of those who murder millions when operating in that mode. Our scribblers hate the Middle Ages because they hate the ends to which repressive means were aimed, but they are perfectly willing in many cases to condone repressive means aiming at ends they like, such as Equality.

      So if you want to allege that the Christianity of the Middle Ages was phony because it was the legal establishment, then I can say that the pursuit of “economic justice” through the use of the state (a project I believe you support to some degree) is phony, too. What’s the difference?

      I appreciate your willingness to initiate and carry on discussion with someone who disagrees with you on these topics.

  3. Vic McCracken says:

    Jason, nice reply. You wrote:
    _____
    Political decentralism, the code of chivalry, and scholastic philosophy are three laudable features of the Middle Ages I can think of off the top of my head. If by “respect for religious authority” you mean a situation where the overwhelming majority of people affirm the divinity of Jesus and other basic teachings of Christianity, then sure, that is a good thing, too. Although ends don’t justify means, I confess I haven’t shed too many tears over (for example) Charlemagne’s using the point of a sword to end human sacrifice in Saxony. If your problem with the Middle Ages is that they didn’t have liberal democracy, I guess you’d need to make an argument for why you think that is the best system. I’d say that your inability to think of anything positive about the Middle Ages (your previous statement about mixtures of good and bad notwithstanding) is evidence for my contention that our culture is unfairly prejudiced against the period.
    __________
    I don’t have a lot personally at stake in defending or dismissing the Middle Ages. My initial reaction to your post was to wonder why anyone would be so concerned with wanting to revive the Middle Ages from the presumed antipathy of modern scholars. I don’t personally see much to be gained from the endeavor, but I’m always open to being enlightened. I’m also reacting to the general theme that unites this post to others on your blog–the idea that modern elites have neglected the virtues of past ages. I simply don’t see this, but this could well be because I don’t work in your discipline. In my discipline I’m surrounded by Aristotelian’s, natural law theorists, Platonists, as well as Marxists, critical theorists, libertation theologians, and enlightenment liberals. I share mixed company, so I am wondering if some of our differences stem from the disciplinary boundaries that frame our conversations. You mention 3 features of life in the Middle Ages that are laudable. I’m sure there may be more (though the chivalric code? What’s that about?), but anachronistic treatments of history are nothing knew, so modern screenwriters and authors have good company, including Walter Scott, whose own Ivanhoe exemplifies an anachronistic treatment of the Middle Ages beholden to his own concerns formed in his late 18th-early 19th century Scotland (this thesis is developed in some detail in Stuart Kelly’s new book _Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented a Nation (2010)). I’m ambivalent about the merits of modern anachronism; I simply don’t see it as all that unique.

    You wrote:
    _______
    I think you are missing my point about the comparison of witch trials vs. Soviet (not just Stalinist) atrocities. You’re not a historian, so I wouldn’t necessarily expect you to know this, but in my profession there is endless handwringing over things like the witch trials and Inquisition (both of which are largely early modern, not medieval, phenomena, by the way) and comparative silence regarding the gulag. Today we have an intellectual edifice that makes it permissible to use the power of the state to root out all sorts of things in the name of Equality, and our intelligentsia can do little more than frown at the “excesses” of those who murder millions when operating in that mode. Our scribblers hate the Middle Ages because they hate the ends to which repressive means were aimed, but they are perfectly willing in many cases to condone repressive means aiming at ends they like, such as Equality.
    _______________________
    It sounds like we operate in very different academic worlds. I know of no scholars who defend the gulag, and I’m unaware of anyone who appeals to equality as a reason to kill anyone, so I see no real parallel to religious inquisitions that wield the power of the state to root out heresy. You do a really nice job of pointing to an important normative claim about the role of the state. You are absolutely right–I believe that “social justice” (this would need to be defined more precisely, but you are correct that equality figures into this to some degree, though I frame this as a corollary to the prior value of individual liberty) is a proper end of the function of the state in a way that enforcing religious orthodoxy is not. But you yourself recognize certain ends as basic to the proper function of the state, ends that are no less modern. You and I agree, I hope, that enforcing religious orthodoxy is not the proper function of the state. You and I both I agree, I know, that protecting individual liberty is a proper end of state action. So in the end your response basically gets back to the issue about which we disagree–you believe that “equality” is not a proper end of statecraft, while I believe that equality is one value among several that properly shape state policy.

    • Dr. J says:

      Chivalric code: aid the church, respect women, protect the defenseless. What’s not to like?

      I didn’t mean to imply that Sir Walter Scott gave us a completely accurate picture of the Middle Ages. Although he doesn’t invent things out of whole cloth, he certainly idealizes many things. The point was that he was willing to look for the good where today’s writers usually do not.

      I don’t know of anyone who defends the gulag, either. In my world, most scholars just find it not worth talking about. They don’t like that it happened, but don’t wish to dwell on it because it could raise uncomfortable (for them) questions about the Enlightenment project, to which many of them are deeply committed. Conversely, they hate the idea of Christian civilization, so they wax eloquent about the evils of a handful of episodes during the medieval and early modern periods. You would probably find very interesting the debate that has been going on for the last twenty years in the historical profession between the minority who find Nazism and communism equally nasty and the majority who condemn Nazism but urge more “understanding” in treatments of communism.

      • Vic McCracken says:

        On Nazism and communism, you’ll need to enlighten me on which scholars argue for appreciative approaches to Soviet atrocities. I am aware of Western Marxists who draw a distinction between traditional Marxism and the oppressive statism that became it’s contemporary face in the Soviet regime (I’m thinking of critical theorists like Habermas, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse–theorists sympathetic to Marxist critiques of capitalism but equally critical of soviet oppression). Shlomo Avineri’s _The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx_ (1971) exemplifies more nuanced approaches that treat Marx contextually without imposing anachronistic dismissals of Marxist thought drawn from the darkness of the Soviet era. We might be speaking about different things here, admittedly.

        • Dr. J says:

          I feel like I’m belaboring this point, but I suppose I’m expressing myself poorly because you still don’t seem to understand what I’m saying. To repeat, the scholars to whom I’m referring do not “appreciate” communist atrocities. Rather, they view the ends to which those measures were directed as a substantially mitigating factor.

          The most publicized (although by no means only) example of the debate to which I refer occurred in the wake of the publication of The Black Book of Communism in the late 1990s. There is a brief discussion of it in this review of the book that appeared in First Things.

  4. Vic McCracken says:

    Thanks for the reference, Jason. I’m not familiar with this debate, so it’s nice to be enlightened.

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