Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Those Middle Ages? Not So Terrible

We don’t take reality seriously. We don’t open our minds and hearts to the totality of experience. We accept certain preconceptions and plunge ahead blindly, shoving aside data that does not fit our “truths.” That is one of the points made by Msgr. Luigi Giussani in The Religious Sense, the focus of CL Schools of Community through much of 2011; and it is a central point in Régine Pernoud’s remarkable, short book of historical essays Those Terrible Middle Ages! 

Nowhere is our refusal to follow facts more obvious than in our “study” of the so-called Middle Ages. Our ridiculous reduction of the years between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance (roughly AD 500–1500) is well captured in this actual and typical grade-school dialog reported verbatim reported by Pernoud:

Teacher: What are the peasants of the Middle Ages called?
Class: They are called serfs.
Teacher: And what did they do, what did they have?
Class: They were sick.
Teacher: What illnesses did they have, Jérôme?
Jérôme (very serious): The plague.
Teacher: And what else, Emmanuel?
Emmanuel (enthusiastically): Cholera
Teacher: You know your history very well. Let’s go on to geography.

Throw in the Crusades, the Inquisition, and knights in shining armor wielding lances, writing romances, and trampling those poor serfs—and you have summed up our received notion of a thousand-year period that is really several distinct periods, according to Pernoud (1909–1998), a renowned French historian with a special interest in Joan of Arc.

But it must all be true: I learned it in school.

I have already posted on Pernoud’s book in passing. Having finished it now, let me summarize her work by stating some facts, about which modern scholarship is now in almost universal agreement, despite what you or I may remember from History 103:

The Renaissance was not what we think. Those scholars and artists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries did not rediscover classical culture, they only desired to imitate it. Library catalogs from the preceding millennium prove this: we had the classic literature all along. Our misunderstanding that Western culture reawakened in the Renaissance after a thousand-year snooze has resulted in what Pernoud calls “an anathema on the Middle Ages.”

In architecture, the Romanesque and Gothic styles of the Middle Ages were extraordinary. Unlike today’s vain, secular architecture, they were fully aligned with the sacred, and—something we can’t appreciate now—many cathedrals, abbeys, and other structures were painted in vivid colors. Pernoud: “An Armenian prelate visiting Paris at the end of the thirteenth century [said] that the façade of Notre-Dame resembled a beautiful illuminated manuscript page.”

The literature of the Middle Ages may be ignored but it was exceedingly rich. Today’s research libraries groan with volumes of Greek and Latin, but little is readily available from the Middle Ages. “Nothing,” writes Pernoud, “gives a better idea of the narrowness of our cultural conceptions, we who are so proud of our reputation as a people of haute culture.” The Middle Ages gave rise to the French epic, courtly poetry, and that very modern genre, the novel. Meanwhile, the book began to spread in the form of the codex (single pages bound together) instead of the volumen (the ancient scroll).

Musical language, as we know it today, was developed then. Gregorian chant dates to the seventh century, and the very names of our notes (do-re-mi) are from an eighth-century hymn in honor of John the Baptist.

The relationship of feudal lord and serf was not that of master and slave. The latter terms apply to the Roman Empire—and to the colonizing nation states of Europe after the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, lord, vassal, and serf were tied together by a complex net of social relationships that centered on the sole source of weath, land, and its cultivation and defense. No longer ruled by Roman imperial law, communities heeded local custom. Subsidiarity was a living principle. The feudal king had no sovereign power, but was a lord among lords.

Women had more rights in the Middle Ages than at any time until the day before yesterday. These rights were the direct result of the end of Roman law and the arrival of Catholic Christian culture. Nowhere is this cultural change better illustrated than in The Master of Hestviken, Sigrid Undset’s great tetralogy, which I have called the best books I ever read. When Olav and Ingunn’s betrothal is challenged by the very family members who arranged their marriage as children, it is Bishop Torfinn of the Catholic Church who stands for the man’s and the woman’s right to choose their own partners. Within the medieval Church itself, women enjoyed an extraordinary power. In at least one remarkable case, convents of men were placed under a woman’s authority. Pernoud (chuckling to herself): “Would a project of this kind have the least chance of succeeding in our time?”

In a penultimate chapter, “The Accusing Finger,” Pernoud discusses the Inquisition openly and without prejudice. Like the Middle Ages, the Inquisition turns out to be a single term for a number of distinct historical narratives, and few of these reflect negatively on the Catholic Church in Pernoud’s telling of them.

Finally, Pernoud addresses “History, Ideas, and Fantasy,” returning to the topic with which I started this post. I quote:

History is of interest only when it is a search for truth; it ceases to be history the moment it becomes something else. . . . It is so easy, in fact, to manipulate history, consciously or unconsciously, for a public that is not knowledgeable about it. . . . The Middle Ages is privileged material: one can say what one wants about it with the quasi-certitude of never being contradicted.

One can make “The Middle Ages” prove just about any cockamamie theory—say, about the Catholic Church and its treatment of women or heretics—or one can look straight at the facts and write real history, as does Régine Pernoud.

Next on my Amazon list: Pernoud’s Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses.

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