You Say “Medieval” Like it Is a Bad Thing

You Say “Medieval” Like it Is a Bad Thing December 14, 2017


The other day a person whose ignorance was only exceeded by his confidence said dismissively, “That sounds medieval!”

My unspoken thought was, “You say that as though it is a bad thing.”

I had already treated him rather roughly, trying to shake some sense into him on a couple of points, so I let his remark go unchallenged. But upon reflection I think anyone who dismisses something merely because its provenance is medieval is guilty of more than “chronological snobbery”–he’s an idiot.

I think it is particularly important for self-styled conservatives (as this fellow claimed to be) to hold the medievals in high esteem.

We own them so much, and they have been so unjustly maligned.

The very fact that this may strike you as absurd only strengthens my case.

The world we enjoy today, with so many of its benefits, has roots in the medieval world. But because roots go beneath the ground, and are dirty as a consequence, we easily overlook them. But here are just two of the institutions which got their start in that time: our hospitals and our universities.

Of course there were physicians and intellectuals in the classical world, but there was nothing on the scale that we see in the medieval world. There we see institutions founded that have taken a systematic approach to healing and to study. This is because the medievals believed in the unity of truth and that its pursuit is a high calling. And the practices that follow this pursuit reflect upon the wisdom of the Creator and glorify him.

We see evidence of this in the very buildings that are still with us throughout Europe, and in the traditions that have been handed down to us–academic robes with their hoods for example, or the pomp and circumstance, which is a medieval procession, obviously.

Blindness to the medieval roots of the modern world is only slightly less reprehensible than the lies that are circulated about what medieval people actually believed, the worst of them being, “People in the Middle Ages believed the world is flat” and “People used to think that because the earth was at the center of the cosmos, that made it the most important thing of all.”

Both these notions are outright falsehoods, proven false again and again by scholars. (If you doubt me on this–and just about everyone does doubt me when I say this–just read C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image, or Remi Brague’s The Wisdom of the World.)

To set the record straight, for the thousandth time: medieval intellectuals believed the world is round and they had a pretty good idea of its circumference. And yes, they did think of the earth as the center in one sense, but like a drain, where the heavy things go. They actually believed, paradoxically, that the true center was high heaven where God dwells. So in their minds things were graded higher in importance the farther you went from the surface of the earth.

Now, since these things can be known by anyone who cares to know, why aren’t they better known?

Simple: because people want medieval people to be stupid. It makes them feel better about themselves.

But vain and ignorant people should be humbled–especially when they purport to be conservatives. A true conservative recognizes his debts. And we owe far more to the medievals that we care to admit.

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