Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Medieval Myth

On an entirely different topic ...  

Given my historical interests, I have long been struck by how inaccurate popular conceptions of the Middle Ages are—summed up in the historically obsolete label of "Dark Ages." My usual example is the myth that medieval food was overspiced to hide the taste of spoiled meat, propagated by people who have never read a medieval recipe, let alone cooked from one, or spent as long as twenty seconds thinking about the consequence for a cook of routinely serving spoiled meat, disguised with expensive spices, to his boss. I also have a pair of accounts of scientific reasoning, one from a Norse saga and one from a 14th century North African.

I have just come across a delightful review of a recent book on the medieval foundations of modern science, written by a reviewer who shares my attitude towards popular confident ignorance on the subject.


At 12:06 PM, June 10, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...

I propose that people believe ridiculous things about all historical periods that have ever occurred.

The degree of ridiculousness is highest at the extremes (very long ago and very recently) where either no facts were recorded in a way we can easily interpret, or no clear facts have yet presented themselves.

The "ridiculousness curve" slopes jaggedly down from the beginning of time to its lowest point somewhere around the 1990s--though even there people cling to all kinds of hysterical mythologies (for example, that life in South Africa after apartheid was so much better because freedom)--before jaggedly rising again to the profoundly ignorant things people believe about what was going on a nanosecond ago.

By the way, I name the 1990s as the low point of the "ridiculousness curve" because the 1990s were 20 years ago. So while we still have access to a lot of original multimedia from that time period, by now we've also had enough distance to thoughtfully sort out what was really going on. Plus, most of us can appreciate using our own memories the finer points of what life was like then and contrast that with time periods immediately before and after, which we also remember well.

At 6:31 PM, June 10, 2015, Anonymous J Storrs Hall said...

Knowing that you write, and thus presumably enjoy, medieval setting fiction with a modern point of view, I wonder if you have read Michael Flynn's Eifelheim. My opinion: a high point for Flynn.

At 6:13 AM, June 12, 2015, Blogger Ilíon said...

O'Neill: "The myth goes that the Greeks and Romans were wise and rational types who loved science and were on the brink of doing all kinds of marvelous things (inventing full-scale steam engines is one example that is usually, rather fancifully, invoked) until Christianity came along. Christianity then banned all learning and rational thought and ushered in the Dark Ages."

The truth is, naturally, almost entirely the opposite.

The Classical world was a very irrational and superstitious (in both the ancient and modern senses of the word) place and culture. The *reason* that people have the idea that the ancients were paragons of rationality is because in the centuries of upheaval and invasion following invasion after the collapse of the Western Empire, the early Medieval Christians were able to preserve only so much of the cultural legacy of ancient times; and so they preserved what interested them: the more rational parts.

The truth of the matter is that "Dark Ages" Christianity *taught* mankind to be rational.

And then there is that amusingly named “Renaissance”, when ancient superstitions and irrationalities which Christianity had made unfashionable became fashionable again among the cultural elites -- *that* is what was ‘reborn’ – followed by the even more amusingly named “Enlightenment”.

At 2:54 PM, June 13, 2015, Blogger Godfrey Miller said...

In America, Hannam's engaging book was published as The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution.

For the perspective of a professional physicist, I recommend Steven Weinberg's history of science, To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science.

At 3:57 PM, June 14, 2015, Anonymous Doctor Mist said...

Heh, and interesting: the kindle of the British version is about half the price of the American. The "Look inside" image makes them seem identical except for fonts and formatting. The American edition is two years newer, so perhaps there is polishing.

At 4:35 AM, June 17, 2015, Blogger Tibor said...

I have never heard the "overspiced meat" story, just that the people then ate mostly meat. It is also very unbelievable given how expensive spices were in the middle ages (in Europe). Still I think the widespread (and correct?) impression is that people ate very little meat at all. In fact, even when my own grandmother was a child, people would usually only eat meat once or twice a week (she comes from a village, maybe it was different in the cities, but in 1930s refrigerators were still quite a novelty). Given how poor people were in the middle ages, this regular "overspiced meat-eating" would be an option for the nobility only.

By the way, are you familiar with Mike Loades, David? He is an author of several documentaries about the life in the middle ages and he points out to a lot of misconceptions about that time (people wearing only drab colours, plate armour being extremely heavy and making the knight almost immobile, arrows penetrating plate and so on). I think you'd like it. The overall message of his shows seems to be "these were intelligent people like us who came up with quite ingenious solutions to the same problems we face, using the technology that was available to them". There are some weapon-related shows of his uploaded on youtube called "Weapons that made Britan" and then there is this really nice documentary about everyday life in the middle ages called Going Medieval (

At 4:43 AM, June 17, 2015, Blogger Tibor said...

It also appears that Mike Loades is basically a neighbour of he is English, I thought he lived in Britain, but he seems to reside in the San Francisco Bay area.

At 10:41 PM, June 18, 2015, Anonymous MoneyHoMogul420 said...

The Middle Ages were a golden age for the soul. Yes, people overall were unimpressive as they have always been, but think of the creme de la crop. You don't see many strong warriors or God-inspired priests around these days

At 4:25 PM, June 26, 2015, Blogger George Haley said...

I often wonder why the majority of societies depicted in fantasy novels seem stuck at a medieval level of surplus extraction, despite having literal magic available.

At 8:31 AM, June 29, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...

@George Haley:

I've wondered similar things about the fantasy genre. Why are so many based closely on medieval European society in the first place?

For a genre called "fantasy" there doesn't seem to be much outside-the-box imaginatin' going on.

At 7:36 AM, July 02, 2015, Anonymous Stephen MacLean said...

A complementary article: ‘The Ambivalence of Our Interest in Mediaevalism’.

At 7:44 AM, July 21, 2015, Anonymous Levi Russell said...

Tom Woods' book How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization covers this subject very well, IMO, with an eye toward the University and development of science. He goes out of his way to find secularist references for his arguments.

At 1:46 AM, August 24, 2015, Blogger Towering Barbarian said...

@ George Haley and Power Child,
Depends on the novel I guess because I don't actually remember too many of such. The ones I'm most familiar with are Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age which was mostly short stories, J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth which actually varied (Hobbits were more or less 20th Century English, Gondor seemed more like a Hellenistic kingdom then medieval to me and both Dwarves and Rohan seemed to have more Norse then mainstream European values) and Lord Dunsany who was also mostly short stories but did include classical Middle Ages type stuff. If I were to describe the background I would actually say "pre-industrial" rather than Middle Ages because most of the stuff deviates from the Middle Ages in different ways for some fairly obvious reasons. ("Magic works" being near the top of the list).

To the extent that it is true I would argue the "gateway" factor. The European Middle Ages are exotic enough that no one would expect a setting that duplicates them to be the same as modern times but is also familiar enough that the author can immerse the reader in them without needing to provide a lot of footnotes and explanations. That said, I was pretty serious about not remembering many fantasy novels that were all that closely based on medieval European society in the first place so might I ask which novels it was you gentlemen had in mind? o_O


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