Myths About The Middle Ages

HT to Joe Carter for linking to this mythbusting of assumptions about the Middle Ages, including my pet peeve, the notion that people back then believed the earth was flat.  Also that they didn’t bathe: Top 10 Myths About The Middle Ages – Top 10 Lists | Listverse.

The original Memorial Day order
Christianity and the Magna Carta
Between first sleep and second sleep
Luther on sex
About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • kerner

    Well…these “corrections” may be a little mythical themselves. The very first one about the death penalty turns out ot be something I learned about in law school.

    I was taught that death was the penalty for all the common law felonies, which were:

    Murder, Rape, Mayhem, Robbery, Sodomy, Larceny, Arson, Malicious Mischief, and Battery.

    Executions were rare because prosecutions, like all litigation, was rare, and often juries would not convict a sympathetic defendant.

    As to executions, the article is correct to say that common people were hanged, while gentlemen were beheaded. It neglects to mention, however, that the custom of “drawing and quartering” (see the movie “Braveheart”), which is to hang a person, but then disembowel and cut him in pieces while yet alive, was also developed during the middle ages for people who had especially offended the authorities.

    Experience with violence depended a lot on when and where you lived. If you lived in western France during the Hundred Years War, the odds were pretty good that you would experience a whole lot of violence and instability during your (possibly short) lifetime. Ditto if you lived anywhere the Vikings raided between 700-1100 AD.

    There might be more, but I have to quit now. I just think this guy is shading the truth somewhat.

  • kerner

    Well…these “corrections” may be a little mythical themselves. The very first one about the death penalty turns out ot be something I learned about in law school.

    I was taught that death was the penalty for all the common law felonies, which were:

    Murder, Rape, Mayhem, Robbery, Sodomy, Larceny, Arson, Malicious Mischief, and Battery.

    Executions were rare because prosecutions, like all litigation, was rare, and often juries would not convict a sympathetic defendant.

    As to executions, the article is correct to say that common people were hanged, while gentlemen were beheaded. It neglects to mention, however, that the custom of “drawing and quartering” (see the movie “Braveheart”), which is to hang a person, but then disembowel and cut him in pieces while yet alive, was also developed during the middle ages for people who had especially offended the authorities.

    Experience with violence depended a lot on when and where you lived. If you lived in western France during the Hundred Years War, the odds were pretty good that you would experience a whole lot of violence and instability during your (possibly short) lifetime. Ditto if you lived anywhere the Vikings raided between 700-1100 AD.

    There might be more, but I have to quit now. I just think this guy is shading the truth somewhat.

  • S Bauer

    We’re supposed to bathe?

  • S Bauer

    We’re supposed to bathe?

  • collie

    I’ve tried three times to go to the website and each time my browser goes into the circle of infinity. Maybe it’s because I have the stupid Vista operating system. I’ll just enjoy the comments.

  • collie

    I’ve tried three times to go to the website and each time my browser goes into the circle of infinity. Maybe it’s because I have the stupid Vista operating system. I’ll just enjoy the comments.

  • Tom Hering

    “I just think this guy is shading the truth somewhat.” – kerner @ 1.

    I just think this guy is engaging in apologetics for the Roman church’s period of temporal rule.

  • Tom Hering

    “I just think this guy is shading the truth somewhat.” – kerner @ 1.

    I just think this guy is engaging in apologetics for the Roman church’s period of temporal rule.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Actually, though he quite possibly embellishes a little, his is a much more balanced and historical view than most. I have read quite a number of things about medieval times – unfortuantely, they have suffered from bad press, especially since the enlightenment, because the “enlightened” wanted to make the previous ages look worse, because they were, well, ages in which faith dominated. Also Tom, as I’m fond of saying, Rome departed from us, not we from Rome. Thus the medieval church is OUR church, warts and all. We should not fall into the “gap theory” thinking prominent among some atheists (Richard Carrier) and those pesky Baptists :), which is in itself the result of “Enlightenment” thinking.

    A good website that tends to look at matters medieval, especially issues regarding medieval science, is the following: http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/ – it is run by some science historians, mostly Catholic.

    I also wish to submit the thesis that a lot of our understanding about medieval matters come from the Entertainment industry, and popular history books (which are more popular than history…).

    Another recommendation: For anyone interested in the pre-Luther church, the reforming efforts of the concilliarists, and a plethora of medieval theologians and philosophers that will upset the current view of those times, you can have alook athe thesis work of my good friend, Tim Enloe. So as not to have this comment holed up in the moderation queue, I’ll post the link in a following comment.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Actually, though he quite possibly embellishes a little, his is a much more balanced and historical view than most. I have read quite a number of things about medieval times – unfortuantely, they have suffered from bad press, especially since the enlightenment, because the “enlightened” wanted to make the previous ages look worse, because they were, well, ages in which faith dominated. Also Tom, as I’m fond of saying, Rome departed from us, not we from Rome. Thus the medieval church is OUR church, warts and all. We should not fall into the “gap theory” thinking prominent among some atheists (Richard Carrier) and those pesky Baptists :), which is in itself the result of “Enlightenment” thinking.

    A good website that tends to look at matters medieval, especially issues regarding medieval science, is the following: http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/ – it is run by some science historians, mostly Catholic.

    I also wish to submit the thesis that a lot of our understanding about medieval matters come from the Entertainment industry, and popular history books (which are more popular than history…).

    Another recommendation: For anyone interested in the pre-Luther church, the reforming efforts of the concilliarists, and a plethora of medieval theologians and philosophers that will upset the current view of those times, you can have alook athe thesis work of my good friend, Tim Enloe. So as not to have this comment holed up in the moderation queue, I’ll post the link in a following comment.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    So here is that link I promised:

    http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/catholic-conciliarism-and-the-protestant-reformation/712522

    Tim is a good guy, though not a Lutheran (yes, that does happen, occasionaly.. :) )

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    So here is that link I promised:

    http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/catholic-conciliarism-and-the-protestant-reformation/712522

    Tim is a good guy, though not a Lutheran (yes, that does happen, occasionaly.. :) )

  • kerner

    Louis:

    you gave me your e-mail address once, but I have forgotten it.

    please give it to me again. here’s mine:

    kernerlaw@sbcglobal.net

  • kerner

    Louis:

    you gave me your e-mail address once, but I have forgotten it.

    please give it to me again. here’s mine:

    kernerlaw@sbcglobal.net

  • laventus (LCC)

    I think he is painting a ‘rosy picture’ of medieval life as well.

    In the John Keegan’s ‘Face of Battle”, Keegan writes that the level of violence in early 15th Century was much higher than it is now.

    Makes sense, in that nobles had private armies and there was no police (apart from the Shire Reeve ~ sheriff). Disputes between common people were often settled by violence. Nobles sometimes fought private wars, etc…

  • laventus (LCC)

    I think he is painting a ‘rosy picture’ of medieval life as well.

    In the John Keegan’s ‘Face of Battle”, Keegan writes that the level of violence in early 15th Century was much higher than it is now.

    Makes sense, in that nobles had private armies and there was no police (apart from the Shire Reeve ~ sheriff). Disputes between common people were often settled by violence. Nobles sometimes fought private wars, etc…

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Kerner – I dropped you a line.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Kerner – I dropped you a line.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’m not very knowledgeable about the historical realities of that period, though I do find it very interesting (nearly irrelevant factoid: I once ate at a restaurant in Český Krumlov, Czech Rep., that served only Medieval fare; it was probably a bit touristy; but it had a nice view of the river).

    The article protests, “There was no conspiracy to keep the Bible from the people,” but I have to ask: Even if the chains on the Bibles weren’t there to keep the people from reading them, what languages were most of the Bibles (and Masses) in during most of this time? My understanding is that most things theological were carried out in languages the common man didn’t understand, until the end of the Middle Ages. Is that a myth as well?

    I quick perusal of the comments there shows that quite a few people take issue with claims made in the original list.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’m not very knowledgeable about the historical realities of that period, though I do find it very interesting (nearly irrelevant factoid: I once ate at a restaurant in Český Krumlov, Czech Rep., that served only Medieval fare; it was probably a bit touristy; but it had a nice view of the river).

    The article protests, “There was no conspiracy to keep the Bible from the people,” but I have to ask: Even if the chains on the Bibles weren’t there to keep the people from reading them, what languages were most of the Bibles (and Masses) in during most of this time? My understanding is that most things theological were carried out in languages the common man didn’t understand, until the end of the Middle Ages. Is that a myth as well?

    I quick perusal of the comments there shows that quite a few people take issue with claims made in the original list.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    No todd, that is no myth. But one has to remember that few of the languages were used by the scholars anyway – it was mostly Latin. Part of Luther’s genius (in the objective sense) was the – let’s call it the codification – of German, grammar, because it had not been widely used in the written word up to that point (I’m not saying “not used”, I’m saying not widely used).

    It was a given – if you had the brains to persue theology (and law and..) you did it in Latin. Maybe one should view this as an error of omission, rather than an error of comission.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    No todd, that is no myth. But one has to remember that few of the languages were used by the scholars anyway – it was mostly Latin. Part of Luther’s genius (in the objective sense) was the – let’s call it the codification – of German, grammar, because it had not been widely used in the written word up to that point (I’m not saying “not used”, I’m saying not widely used).

    It was a given – if you had the brains to persue theology (and law and..) you did it in Latin. Maybe one should view this as an error of omission, rather than an error of comission.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Sorry – omit the “,” between “German” and “grammar”.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Sorry – omit the “,” between “German” and “grammar”.

  • kerner

    I don’t know why the RCC thinks it has to sugar coat the middle ages. It seems to me that German and Norse barbarism were a lot more responsible than Roman Catholicism for keeping the “dark ages” dark. Civilization seemed to cruise along alright in the Byzantine east.

  • kerner

    I don’t know why the RCC thinks it has to sugar coat the middle ages. It seems to me that German and Norse barbarism were a lot more responsible than Roman Catholicism for keeping the “dark ages” dark. Civilization seemed to cruise along alright in the Byzantine east.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    It maybe a bit “rosy” in its outlook, but it is kinda refreshing after reading article after article of how primitive and neanderthalic the people of the middle ages were.

    “In the John Keegan’s ‘Face of Battle”, Keegan writes that the level of violence in early 15th Century was much higher than it is now.” -#8 LCC

    I honestly doubt there we are less violent than the 15th century. People in all times and ages love to justify themselves by saying we have grown out of the sins of the past. When in reality, we actually haven’t changed. Is there any real difference between the wars of feudal lords and gang lords? The only people who think we aren’t as violent are people who don’t get out much. How can we read about parents beating up coaches and think we aren’t violent? My mother recently sat on a jury for a murder trial where a guy was pretty much shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So I don’t buy the idea we are less violent. Just more efficient.

    ““There was no conspiracy to keep the Bible from the people,” but I have to ask: Even if the chains on the Bibles weren’t there to keep the people from reading them, what languages were most of the Bibles (and Masses) in during most of this time? My understanding is that most things theological were carried out in languages the common man didn’t understand, until the end of the Middle Ages. Is that a myth as well?” – #10 tODD

    Unfortunately, many of our protestant brethren have taken the cynical view of chained up Bible in order to disparage the church of the Middle Ages and that is his focus. On the other hand, it is true that all things theological happened in the Vulgar language (Latin) and whether it was intentionally done or unintentional it accomplished much the same thing. People didn’t hear the word of God.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    It maybe a bit “rosy” in its outlook, but it is kinda refreshing after reading article after article of how primitive and neanderthalic the people of the middle ages were.

    “In the John Keegan’s ‘Face of Battle”, Keegan writes that the level of violence in early 15th Century was much higher than it is now.” -#8 LCC

    I honestly doubt there we are less violent than the 15th century. People in all times and ages love to justify themselves by saying we have grown out of the sins of the past. When in reality, we actually haven’t changed. Is there any real difference between the wars of feudal lords and gang lords? The only people who think we aren’t as violent are people who don’t get out much. How can we read about parents beating up coaches and think we aren’t violent? My mother recently sat on a jury for a murder trial where a guy was pretty much shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So I don’t buy the idea we are less violent. Just more efficient.

    ““There was no conspiracy to keep the Bible from the people,” but I have to ask: Even if the chains on the Bibles weren’t there to keep the people from reading them, what languages were most of the Bibles (and Masses) in during most of this time? My understanding is that most things theological were carried out in languages the common man didn’t understand, until the end of the Middle Ages. Is that a myth as well?” – #10 tODD

    Unfortunately, many of our protestant brethren have taken the cynical view of chained up Bible in order to disparage the church of the Middle Ages and that is his focus. On the other hand, it is true that all things theological happened in the Vulgar language (Latin) and whether it was intentionally done or unintentional it accomplished much the same thing. People didn’t hear the word of God.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Even if the chains on the Bibles weren’t there to keep the people from reading them, what languages were most of the Bibles (and Masses) in during most of this time?”

    I have personally read the English translations of the Bible from about 800 and 1100. So they existed. I think I read that Bible was also in German before Luther, but hand copied, so it was rare.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “Even if the chains on the Bibles weren’t there to keep the people from reading them, what languages were most of the Bibles (and Masses) in during most of this time?”

    I have personally read the English translations of the Bible from about 800 and 1100. So they existed. I think I read that Bible was also in German before Luther, but hand copied, so it was rare.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Fun and interesting list, but they left out my favorite: people only lived to age 40.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Fun and interesting list, but they left out my favorite: people only lived to age 40.

  • trotk

    The issue with the Bibles being under lock and key is warped in most modern texts. The common man couldn’t read, and therefore trusted the priest to teach him. If that arrangement is cemented in several hundred years worth of practice, it is easy to see how it would be taken for granted that only the priests and monks had access to the Bible.
    But the path to the priesthood, and especially to being a monk, was pretty open. A peasant child could be placed in a monastery by his parents and end up with the ability to read and access to the Bible.
    Mass being in Latin was not to keep it in the dark, although I am sure some priests enjoyed the power it gave them when they were the only one present who understood the words. Instead, it was in Latin both because it was common between cultures and because it was viewed as one of the three holy languages. Anyone who cared to live at a school (ie – a monastery) could learn Latin.

  • trotk

    The issue with the Bibles being under lock and key is warped in most modern texts. The common man couldn’t read, and therefore trusted the priest to teach him. If that arrangement is cemented in several hundred years worth of practice, it is easy to see how it would be taken for granted that only the priests and monks had access to the Bible.
    But the path to the priesthood, and especially to being a monk, was pretty open. A peasant child could be placed in a monastery by his parents and end up with the ability to read and access to the Bible.
    Mass being in Latin was not to keep it in the dark, although I am sure some priests enjoyed the power it gave them when they were the only one present who understood the words. Instead, it was in Latin both because it was common between cultures and because it was viewed as one of the three holy languages. Anyone who cared to live at a school (ie – a monastery) could learn Latin.

  • Joanne

    I think you must have lost some comments because someone had mentioned that the Middle Ages are usually divided up into the early, middle, and late periods. And, that the worst things that we remember about the Middle Ages generally come from the late period, 1300-1450. I was going to recomment Barabara Tuchman’s popular history, A distant mirror : the calamitous 14th century, as an easy read to get into the time and place. She focuses on one man of a baronial family in northern France and manages to cover 2 peasant wars (Flanders and Paris), the 100 years war, the Black Death, and one particularly ill fated crusade that flames out in Bulgaria. It leaves our hero in a dungeon waiting to be ransomed.

    I think the Medieval woman of independent means and power we are looking for is Eleanor of Acquitane, if we are not allowed to count the blood-thirsty, spit-fires in Constantinople. However, a truly good woman of the Roman East, Anna Comnena, wrote the Alexiad, a political and military history by way of a panegyrical biography of her father, Alexias I. It’s a great read is you like battles and sieges. This period is the 12th century, the high middle ages. Anna wrote the Alexiad in Attic Greek.

    One other mention. There were 16 (or 19) German translations of the Bible into German before Luther’s. Three in Plattdeutch alone. And, when James Bodley and Thomas James were founding the Bodlean Library at Oxford in the 17th century (way after the Middle Ages), all the important books were chained to the shelves. Only Dons could take a book out of the library, and only graduate students were allowed into the library. Undergraduates be damned. Also, Thomas Bodley wasn’t having any play books in his library, so when a stack of 1st folios of a Mr. Shakespeare’s dramatic works came in as a donation, they went right out the back door again. “Not in my library.”

  • Joanne

    I think you must have lost some comments because someone had mentioned that the Middle Ages are usually divided up into the early, middle, and late periods. And, that the worst things that we remember about the Middle Ages generally come from the late period, 1300-1450. I was going to recomment Barabara Tuchman’s popular history, A distant mirror : the calamitous 14th century, as an easy read to get into the time and place. She focuses on one man of a baronial family in northern France and manages to cover 2 peasant wars (Flanders and Paris), the 100 years war, the Black Death, and one particularly ill fated crusade that flames out in Bulgaria. It leaves our hero in a dungeon waiting to be ransomed.

    I think the Medieval woman of independent means and power we are looking for is Eleanor of Acquitane, if we are not allowed to count the blood-thirsty, spit-fires in Constantinople. However, a truly good woman of the Roman East, Anna Comnena, wrote the Alexiad, a political and military history by way of a panegyrical biography of her father, Alexias I. It’s a great read is you like battles and sieges. This period is the 12th century, the high middle ages. Anna wrote the Alexiad in Attic Greek.

    One other mention. There were 16 (or 19) German translations of the Bible into German before Luther’s. Three in Plattdeutch alone. And, when James Bodley and Thomas James were founding the Bodlean Library at Oxford in the 17th century (way after the Middle Ages), all the important books were chained to the shelves. Only Dons could take a book out of the library, and only graduate students were allowed into the library. Undergraduates be damned. Also, Thomas Bodley wasn’t having any play books in his library, so when a stack of 1st folios of a Mr. Shakespeare’s dramatic works came in as a donation, they went right out the back door again. “Not in my library.”

  • laventus (LCC)

    Here is the quote from “The Face of Battle”, page 116:
    “… It concerns the commonplace character of violence in medieval life. What went on at Agincourt appals and horrifies the modern imagination which, vicariously accustomed though it is to the idea of violence, rarely encounters it in actuality and is outraged by when it does. The sense of outrage was no doubt as keenly felt by the individual victim of violence five hundred years ago. But the victim of assault, in a world where the rights of lordship were imposed and quarrels of neighbours settled by sword or knife as a matter of course, was likely to have been a good deal less surprised by it when it occurred.”

  • laventus (LCC)

    Here is the quote from “The Face of Battle”, page 116:
    “… It concerns the commonplace character of violence in medieval life. What went on at Agincourt appals and horrifies the modern imagination which, vicariously accustomed though it is to the idea of violence, rarely encounters it in actuality and is outraged by when it does. The sense of outrage was no doubt as keenly felt by the individual victim of violence five hundred years ago. But the victim of assault, in a world where the rights of lordship were imposed and quarrels of neighbours settled by sword or knife as a matter of course, was likely to have been a good deal less surprised by it when it occurred.”

  • Joanne

    Sir, you mock me! Green Oaks at dawn, pistols, at 12 paces. Don’t be late.

  • Joanne

    Sir, you mock me! Green Oaks at dawn, pistols, at 12 paces. Don’t be late.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    #19
    Said author most not get out much if he is not encountering violence. It is a matter of course for people to solve issues between neighbors by means of their fists, blades, and guns.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    #19
    Said author most not get out much if he is not encountering violence. It is a matter of course for people to solve issues between neighbors by means of their fists, blades, and guns.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    sg @ 16 – Yes, I encounter that one very often!

    DRLi21C – I agree with you, it all depends where you live. My evidence – about 0.5 inches of lead permanently lodged in my groin.

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    sg @ 16 – Yes, I encounter that one very often!

    DRLi21C – I agree with you, it all depends where you live. My evidence – about 0.5 inches of lead permanently lodged in my groin.

  • Joanne

    sg @ 15 is basically right about the early translations into the various vernaculars of the text of the Bible. However, in the case of the English language, a new language as languages go, 800 and even 1100 are robbing the cradle. It’s a kindness to call it Old English where Anglo-Saxon is more descriptive.

    Now, Barbara Tuchman’s calamitous 14th century just happens to be the same century of John Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer. Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into Middle-English is well known. However, it is not so well-known that Chaucer was only incidentally a poet, but primarily a diplomat for the Kings of England to various rulers of Europe. Ms. Tuchman is careful to mention Chaucer’s diplomatic work whenever she runs across it. Chaucer spent a great deal of time in Italy.

  • Joanne

    sg @ 15 is basically right about the early translations into the various vernaculars of the text of the Bible. However, in the case of the English language, a new language as languages go, 800 and even 1100 are robbing the cradle. It’s a kindness to call it Old English where Anglo-Saxon is more descriptive.

    Now, Barbara Tuchman’s calamitous 14th century just happens to be the same century of John Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer. Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into Middle-English is well known. However, it is not so well-known that Chaucer was only incidentally a poet, but primarily a diplomat for the Kings of England to various rulers of Europe. Ms. Tuchman is careful to mention Chaucer’s diplomatic work whenever she runs across it. Chaucer spent a great deal of time in Italy.

  • katy

    I think the first mistake (on both sides of this discussion) is to generalize

    “Middle Ages” and “Europe” were [fill in the blank]).

    Violence was widespread “at all times and everywhere” (as my freshman composition students used to dramatically say).

    I think we owe it to our Medieval ancestors to view them as distinct peoples living in a variety of “ages” and places, not one homogenous lump of barbarism (or genius).

    Before my career was interrupted by my firstborn, I was on my way to a second MA in Medieval Studies (the first English Literature). I found the professors of Medieval subjects much more sympathetic, tolerant (in the old sense), and knowledgeable of Christianity than any other era. I remember my militant feminist Steinem-toting Chaucer prof. gushing to me about gated gardens as metaphors for chastity and virtue and the Woman in 14th century poetry (and then rattling off 5-6 verses from the Song of Solomon). I remember my Old English prof. cutting my fellow-student’s hubris pretty low when he asserted, as only these new atheists can, that of course that damn monk ruined the purely pagan Beowulf by imposing those horrible Christian themes into the poem.

    Those who dismiss the Medieval (early, late, middle, whatever) eras forget that the Renaissance and Reformation were birthed by Medieval men. I am reading “A Conservative Reformation” right now, and the author beautifully describes the time before Luther as burning embers, smoldering and white-hot, but waiting to be fanned into flame. Australian theologian Sasse reminds us that Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy did not think of themselves as “Lutheran and Reformed” or even “Protestant.” They were still Catholic (although maybe not Roman), and thought of themselves that way.

    The Christian student of history has an advantage, because he sees the generations before as all fallen, and in the same boat as his own generation. If better, only in some ways; if worse, only in different ways. Our world is not progressing, except toward Christ’s return.

  • katy

    I think the first mistake (on both sides of this discussion) is to generalize

    “Middle Ages” and “Europe” were [fill in the blank]).

    Violence was widespread “at all times and everywhere” (as my freshman composition students used to dramatically say).

    I think we owe it to our Medieval ancestors to view them as distinct peoples living in a variety of “ages” and places, not one homogenous lump of barbarism (or genius).

    Before my career was interrupted by my firstborn, I was on my way to a second MA in Medieval Studies (the first English Literature). I found the professors of Medieval subjects much more sympathetic, tolerant (in the old sense), and knowledgeable of Christianity than any other era. I remember my militant feminist Steinem-toting Chaucer prof. gushing to me about gated gardens as metaphors for chastity and virtue and the Woman in 14th century poetry (and then rattling off 5-6 verses from the Song of Solomon). I remember my Old English prof. cutting my fellow-student’s hubris pretty low when he asserted, as only these new atheists can, that of course that damn monk ruined the purely pagan Beowulf by imposing those horrible Christian themes into the poem.

    Those who dismiss the Medieval (early, late, middle, whatever) eras forget that the Renaissance and Reformation were birthed by Medieval men. I am reading “A Conservative Reformation” right now, and the author beautifully describes the time before Luther as burning embers, smoldering and white-hot, but waiting to be fanned into flame. Australian theologian Sasse reminds us that Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy did not think of themselves as “Lutheran and Reformed” or even “Protestant.” They were still Catholic (although maybe not Roman), and thought of themselves that way.

    The Christian student of history has an advantage, because he sees the generations before as all fallen, and in the same boat as his own generation. If better, only in some ways; if worse, only in different ways. Our world is not progressing, except toward Christ’s return.


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