Sunday, November 1, 2009

Those Terrible Middle Ages: sticking up for the medieval

Various folk have been waging a (mostly losing) fight to rehabilitate the medieval. Against them are all those down the years who, in their attachment to the Classical heritage, have seen the medieval period as an interlude of darkness until Western civilisation “returned” to its classical roots during the Renaissance. It is not helped that medieval political arrangements seem very different to our own: far more so than those of Classical Rome or Greece, which helps the classicist case.

Then there is simple chrono-centrism—we are so much cleverer than them because we’re later. (Modern academe is rife with this: I have heard a speaker at an academic conference criticise Bernard Lewis on the grounds that he was so old he was an undergraduate in the 1930s, so obviously deficient in his understanding—to the clear approval of the audience. Apparently, further study does not make you more perceptive: a truth many academics certainly demonstrate daily.)

These strands can come together in a potent brew—the medievals did all sorts of things differently from us, so they must have been dumb. And history is a story of progress, so the further back you go, clearly the worse things are. A story of progress: except for the Dark Ages of course, so the medievals must have been really bad.

Feudal sometimes seems to mean lacking whatever I think my period has achieved. To C18th historians, feudal often meant obscurantist, lacking in rationality, rationality being conceived of as congenial consistency. To C19th historians, feudal often meant anarchy and disorder. Conversely, English constitutional history was always inclined to a somewhat more rosy view, at least about such things as Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort.
C20th historians and economists increasingly tended to try and understand the medieval in its own terms—there is something of a cottage industry in economic history in teasing out the rational adaptation to circumstances underlying medieval institutions. The wider intellectual culture still seems to be inclined to dismiss it as a period of ignorance, superstition and incapacity. The recent growth of the “California School” of historians trying to explain how the West didn’t really rise—and certainly not by any worthy efforts of its own—owes some of its resonance to such attitudes. (Corporations as a post-medieval creation indeed. That would be a surprise to the corporation of the University of Oxford, recognised as such in 1231. Or those who traded in shares of the dams on the Garonne River which—when its final form of the Societe Toulousaine d’Electricite du Bazacle was nationalised by the French government after WWII—had been a limited company for almost eight centuries.)

Regine Pernoud’s Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths is a fun book sticking up for the medievals. Pernoud spent most of her career as an archivist at the French National Archives, and her passion for primary sources certainly comes through. Not in ostentatious quoting, but in insisting that scholarship should go back to such sources and by telling tales of her own experience in prominent historians repeating falsehoods that a trip to the archives could dispell.

Pernoud starts of with some of her own experiences in happily accepted myths about the medieval period, and then takes us through various forms of myths and debunks them in various chapters suitably labelled (Clumsy and Awkward, Torpor and Barbarity, Of Frogs and Men, Women without Souls, The Accusing Finger) before moving on to make a plea for a better sense of history and better teaching of history (she has a few suggestions).

I rather enjoyed it all. Pernoud has a lively writing style. She also has a moderately Catholic perspective, but it does not notably get in the way. The book very much concentrates on the French experience, but that has a certain corrective value in itself.

I did have some cavils. It is easy to show medieval serfdom was a superior state to outright slavery. Nor is her assertion that it was also superior to post-medieval serfdom in Russia and Eastern Europe hard to support. Trying to portray it as a form of benevolent welfarism rather overstates the matter, however.

Perhaps her strongest point is in showing how much of what the medieval period gets blamed for actually occurred in the post-medieval period. The case of Gallileo, for example. In particular, Pernoud argues that the rediscovery of Roman law had various deleterious effects—such as on the status of women and the tendency towards monarchial absolutism. She points out that there are plenty of medieval references to women speaking and voting in various assemblies but that Roman law’s more patriarchal conception of male headship of households was very antipathetic to such. That women had to be granted the vote in the late C19th and C20th was not some dreadful medieval legacy. Her discussion of such matters is a useful corrective to simple-minded notions of linear history.

Those Terrible Middle Ages is an enjoyable, informative and accessible promotion of a more informed understanding of the medieval period.


  1. Her assertions about Roman law are just wrong (sorry, I shouldn't just wade in on someone else's blog like this), but then I'm a lawyer...

    As regards the status of women, Roman law was relatively enlightened: women's property rights survived divorce, the Romans long had unilateral no fault divorce (ie, the same as us post 1975) and a conception of census voting (that is, votes based on a property qualification that can be reached irrespective of gender). Women could inherit (and did, regularly, we have ample records) and had considerable testamentary freedom (once again, many records). All of this was lost in later centuries, and lost completely.

    Of course -- like most legal systems -- Roman law changed over time. Early Roman law was patriarchal (that, presumably, is what she is referring to), but it changed quickly and adapted well to social change. Pagan Roman law was rather enlightened. Then the Christians got hold of it and it started to track back to what it had been originally (but never completely; too much water had flowed down the Tiber for that).

    It has become unfashionable to say it, I think, but the Dark Ages actually were rather dark, and watching the Catholic Church try to dig itself out of that particular aspect of history is not always particularly edifying.

  2. Roman law was relatively enlightened by, say, Greek law standards (outside Sparta).

    Women did, however, rather better under Germanic and Celtic law, which a lot of Dark Age law was based on, being largely "the custom of the area". Of the 30 surviving Anglo-Saxon wills, 10 were from women and they read just like the male wills.

    One of the themes of medieval history is Church Canon law taking over from Germanic and Celtic law (for example, in matters of marriage).

    Women had an economic, intellectual and literary presence in the medieval period that was conspicuously greater than the early modern period. The things that were lost, particularly in property rights, were lost mostly after the medieval period.

    There were a lot of Dark things about the Dark Ages. The status of women was not, comparatively, one of them. Not that was something the Catholic Church could take much credit for--apart from its insistence on consent in marriage and convents as refuge--given its otherwise deeply misogynistic theology.

  3. Pagan Roman law (Digest of Ulpian) required consent in marriage; this was watered down by the time of Justinian but still present. Convents as refuges was a pagan borrowing (otherwise Homer's story of Ajax the Lesser's treatment of Cassandra in Athena's temple has no bite). I have long agreed with Robin Lane Fox that paganism and Christianity were very different animals, but there were still borrowings. Refuge is one of them. So is quite a bit of Catholicism's Mariolatry.

    I should also mention that women retained control of their own property during marriage, and that if the husband borrowed any of it, it had to be repaid before all other debts. When joint investments were terminated by divorce, the principle of commixtio came into play, where moneys (and profit) were repaid in the proportions they went in. This is similar to the operation of constructive trusts at common law.

    There is quite a strong case that Romano-Celtic law, especially that which pertained in Wales, was the most enlightened of all of them, true, and not just with respect to women. Unlike many of the Germanic laws, which did not draw a distinction between murder and manslaughter (this really messes with your legal system after a while), Romano-Celtic law did retain that subtlety, and a lot more besides. The Welsh can feel rather ripped off at what the Normans inflicted on them...

  4. Ward-Perkins makes the point that the last bit of the Western Empire to fall to the German barbarians was when Edward Longshanks conquered Wales. (So, not quite Normans or Norman law any more ...)

    To be fair to Pernoud, it was not actually marriage law she was referring to, since the Church had long since taken over that. It was more Roman public law, with its very masculine public space she was talking of.