5 clichés about the Middle Ages that we must get out of our heads.
Several myths about the Middle Ages that make us fall into an erroneous vision of the era.
The Middle Ages is a time of contrasts. Anyone who delves into it will be faced with a real enigma. Were they really so religious? Did they spend the day praying, or did they enjoy the pleasures of life? Were they terrified of sin? Did they consider women to be inferior? Why did the Church tolerate (and quite a lot) brothels, and at the same time proclaim the chaste life as the most direct way to God?
These are all questions that often give rise to a series of clichés about the Middle Ages, ideas that have been propagated in the Middle Ages.ideas that have been propagated over the years and that offer us a distorted vision of this important period.
Topics about the Middle Ages: memory of a distortion.
There is probably no other historical period more mysterious than the Middle Ages, nor more full of questions and contradictions. In part, we owe this to the two great conspiracies of history two great conspiracies of history that were responsible for shaping our present-day view of the period..
One, the black legend, was the work of the Enlightenment, which was very interested in presenting the Middle Ages as a universe of darkness, cruelty and ignorance. Its antithesis, the golden legend, which offers us a Middle Ages full of brave knights and beautiful ladies, was the work of Romanticism.
Both are too Manichean, too simple and childish, to constitute by themselves the medieval reality. The fact is that the Middle Ages probably lie somewhere in between.
Here you will find a brief list of clichés about the Middle Ages that still condition our way of conceiving that historical period, with explanations as to why they do not conform to reality.
1. They were always praying and did not enjoy life
Who has ever believed that the faith of these men and women was so violent, so exaggerated, that they abandoned the pleasures of life to devote themselves to prayer?
It is true that, at that time, existence without God was meaningless. It was a theocentric world, in which human individuality did not exist, and where the person was only important in the context of his own life. and where the person was only important in relation to the divine plan, that is, in relation to a universal collective. The Creator was everywhere and at all times: He could intercede in daily life, perform miracles, send signs to ensure success in battle... Yes, indeed, medieval man was extremely religious.
But does this necessarily mean that he shunned the pleasures of life? Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the Middle Ages (especially in its central centuries) was one of the epochs where pleasure and love were cultivated with the greatest zeal and refinement..
Paul Verlaine, the French symbolist poet, tells us that this era was sweet and delicate... He is not wrong. It is the time of troubadours who sing of the beauty of their lady; of feasts, banquets, jousts and Carnivals; of knights who compose love poems and epics; It is the time of Chrétien de Troyes, one of the most prolific writers of those years, who has left us such beautiful scenes as the one in his novel Perceval or the tale of the Grail, where he compares the whiteness and red cheeks of his lady to a field of snow stained by the Blood of a little bird. Only the delicate lyricism of the Middle Ages can provide us with such delightful passages.
2. They were sanctimonious and sanctimonious.
And again, another cliché born directly from the black legend promoted by the Enlightenment. No, medieval men and women were not prudes. They lived love with joy and hopeAnd we would probably be surprised to find that the Victorian era, much closer to ours in time, was much more self-conscious and moralistic when it came to sex and love.
Just one example: Régine Pernoud, in her marvelous book Eloise and Abelardtells us how William the Marshal, a knight of the Plantagenet court, met, on a road, a monk who had escaped from the court of the Plantagenets. a monk who had escaped from the monastery with his beloved in his arms.. Far from reproaching him for such an attitude, he takes pity on his unfortunate love and offers them money. But when the monk tells him that he has some coins that he intends to invest (i.e., he is going to engage in usury), William is furious, plunders the lovers and abandons them to their fate.
In other words: what for the Victorian era (the gestation of capitalism) would have been a mere business, for William was a sin; and while what for the nineteenth century would have been amoral (the flight of the monk with his lover), for William was nothing other than the triumph of Love.
As if this eloquent example were not enough to illustrate what Love meant in medieval culture, let us also cite the story of the prudent Eloise d'Argenteuil, who fell in love with her tutor, the philosopher Peter Abelard. When he asks her to marry him because she is pregnant, Eloise makes her opinion very clear, when she tells him that she prefers to be his whore rather than his wife.
For the young woman, as for many medieval men and women, marriage is a mere contract, and therefore constitutes true prostitution. It is only in free love that one can find the absolute purity of two hearts that give themselves; it may be that, in this sense, the medieval people are closer to us than we think.
3. They were brutish and ignorant
They only prayed and had blind faith, ergo they did not think. This is one of the most widespread clichés about the Middle Ages, and yet it is one of the most absurd ones.How can it be thought that human beings did not think for no less than a thousand years? The idea is absurd insofar as reasoning, curiosity and the desire to know are inherent to the human condition. So yes, indeed, the medieval people did think, and a lot.
In fact, it was at this time that the most sincere and passionate attempt was made to reconcile reason and faith.. Yes, God has created mankind, they said; and he has created it with a brain, he has created it with thought, with rational capacity. Therefore, trying to reach God through logic is not only viable, but perfectly coherent with what God expects of us.
Thus, the philosophers of the Middle Ages embarked, as early as the first Middle Ages, on a titanic enterprise: to access the revealed word of the Bible through reason.
Many were the attempts and many were the fruits, but such an objective was doomed to constantly run up against a multitude of contradictions. For, is it possible to demonstrate the existence of God, as Thomas Aquinas tried to do in the 13th century? Is it possible to give a logical explanation to the biblical facts? How to rationally unravel the mystery of the Divine Trinity...? The Middle Ages was the most vehement and moving experiment in attempting such a harmony; from the 14th century, with William of Ockham at the head, the abyss separating reason and faith became increasingly unfathomable.
As a result of this yearning for Truth, with capital letters (which historical clichés attribute only to the classical period or to the Renaissance, when it is obvious that this is not the case), the Middle Ages gave birth to the doctrines of the human mind, the Middle Ages gave birth to the universities, corporations of students and pupils who were governed by their own rules and who used dialectics. and which used dialectics (discussion) to unravel the truths of faith and life.
And hand in hand with the universities, student groups appeared in the burgs, the merry goliards: obscene, quarrelsome, drunkards and brothel-goers, which by the way the Church tolerated as a necessary evil.
These first university students were also the first to form the typical youth riots and to raise their protest against what they did not consider fair; just as it is still done today in the universities.
4. They were misogynists
This time there is a lot of truth in the cliché. Yes, the Middle Ages is a misogynist era, but let's be clear: no more so than classical or modern times. In fact, women's freedom and power were much more curtailed in Ancient Greece (when women lived in seclusion in the gineceos of the houses) and in 17th century Europe.
In fact, misogyny became more radical as the Middle Ages progressed. In the last centuries, especially from the 13th century onwards, we already find very misogynistic positions among the thinkers of the time. Part of the blame was placed on the recovery of Aristotle's work; from the Greek scholar was extracted a theory that proclaimed that the birth of a woman was due to a corruption of the semen or to a bad nutrition of the mother.
Theology only ratified the supposed female inferiority, an idea against which some timid voices were raised, such as that of Christine de Pizán, considered one of the first feminists in history.
However, there were there were some very powerful womenHowever, there were very powerful women, such as the influential abbesses who were in charge of monasteries (not only of nuns, but also mixed, where men and women were separated only by the church!), or the great medieval queens, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, a strong and independent woman who left her mark on history.
In general, the feminine ideal was the Virgin Mary; that is, the completely asexual woman who is also a mother. Female sexuality was a real taboo (at least at the theological level, since, as we have seen, in everyday life people had their ups and downs), and women who showed a certain sexual appetite were associated with the figure of Eve, the primordial sinner.
5. They did not wash
I would not like to end this brief review of some of the most hackneyed clichés of the Middle Ages without mentioning the typical argument that they did not wash. Obviously, they did not wash every day. The concept of assiduous hygiene is a relatively modern one, so their cleanliness might seem incredibly precarious to us today.
But yes, the fact is that they did wash. Wealthy people had their own bathing systems in their homes, as well as cosmetics and cleaning utensils. Everyone else had to go to the had to go to the famous Casas de Baños (bathhouses), establishments that proliferatedThese establishments proliferated in the cities, inspired by the Roman baths and the Arab baths. In these places they washed, chatted and ate and, what we may find most surprising... Women and men were introduced naked in the same basin!
As expected, most of these bathhouses had to close, accused of promoting lust (many of them were in fact undercover brothels). But the truth is that the main cause of closure was hygienic: after the Black Death, no one wanted to risk a stinker getting into the water of a basin with him.…
Ignorant, crude, ordinary, self-righteous, cruel? even today, the medieval term is still used to refer to something lurid.. Without wanting to idealize an era that of course had its shadows (and quite thick), I think that before getting carried away by clichés we have to contrast the information we have. And not only with regard to the Middle Ages, of course, but in all facets of our lives.
- Pernoud, R. (2011). Eloísa y Abelardo, ed. Acantilado.
- ÍDEM, (1986), What is the Middle Ages, ed.
- Legoff, J. (2003). In search of the Middle Ages, ed. Paidós.
- Troyes, C., (2018). Perceval o el cuento del Grial, Alianza Editorial.
- ABELARDO, P. (1983). Historia de mis desventuras, with a preliminary study by José María Cigüela. Ed. Centro Editor de América Latina.