WARNING! The following post is full of personal opinions (based on solid fact and years of research) and blatant historical revisionism! Read on at your own risk!
So. Last week I gave you a brief run-down of the High Middle Ages and what made it such a unique period in history. It was a time of political stability (inasmuch as politics can ever be stable), of economic prosperity, and cultural flowering. Yes, the same Middle Ages that people are always accusing of being narrow, dark, and barbaric. Those aren’t the Middle Ages I’m talking about.
No, if I had to move back in time to live somewhere further back than 200 years ago (because let’s face it, if I could go back in time to live I would have chosen to live in late Victorian England), I would have wanted to live in the England of Henry II.
One of these days I’ll tell you all about Henry II and what made him such a freakin’ awesome king. In a nutshell, he took a kingdom that had been crippled by bitter inter-family war and made it into one of the largest, most respected, and most prosperous kingdoms in all of Europe. Remember, when Henry II was king at least half of the kingdom he ruled was on what we think of as French soil. His marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, along with producing 10 children and enough drama to fuel several films and books, added the kingdom of Aquitaine to English possessions.But it wasn’t just the vast conquests of England that make me keen on living their during Henry II’s reign. Henry was focused on making his homeland strong. This was an era of enlightenment before the Renaissance. Oxford was officially recognized during Henry’s reign. Cambridge would be founded 20 years after his death. Education was being systematized and formalized. More importantly, it was happening. This wasn’t an era of mere subsistence. It was a time when thought and innovation was flourishing.
I might have liked to have been a nun living in an abbey in Henry’s reign. During this era if a woman wanted to excel at learning, if she wanted to be a great thinker and a doer of great good, she could be that person within the context of the Church. Remember, this was the era of Hildegard of Bingen, who was considered to be one of the greatest minds of her time. Kings of nations throughout Europe would write to Hildegard to hear her counsel on everything from faith to matters of state. They would come to her.
Or maybe I would have wanted to be a craftswoman. The High Middle Ages was an era of immense productivity in all sorts of crafts. With a booming economy came a demand for goods. And it wasn’t just men who made these goods. In fact, entire industries, like beer-making and spinning, were dominated by women. What’s more, during this era women were allowed to join certain guilds. They were also allowed to own their own shops and businesses in many areas. You could be a woman and still be an entrepreneur and respected member of society.
You could also inherit property. It wasn’t until the era of the Black Death that inheritance laws were tightened to only allow men to inherit. During the High Middle Ages, if a man died without a male heir, his wife or daughters could inherit. In many cased daughters inherited along with sons. It wasn’t an equal inheritance, mind you, but it was far better than the Early Middle Ages or the Late Middle Ages. Or the 19th century, for that matter!
In fact, women such as Eleanor of Aquitaine herself inherited entire kingdoms. Eleanor was a queen in her own right long before she married Henry. She was so powerful as herself that Louis, the king of France, sought her hand in marriage long before Henry. She married him too, and a miserable match it was. The union was later dissolved and once again Eleanor became the most eligible woman in Europe. So banish the idea that medieval women were helpless pieces of property from your mind right now!
Now, of course, the thing that most people cringe and grimace about when it comes to moving back in time to the Middle Ages is the standard of living. And I’m not saying that medieval medicine was in any way comparable to modern medicine. Yes, a third of men died in battle or of battle wounds and a third of women died in childbirth. But it wasn’t as if there was no medical recourse for anything ever. And people ate healthier in the High Middle Ages (and had enough to eat, I might add, because it was a prosperous time), they got more exercise as a matter of course, and tobacco hadn’t been discovered yet.
People also tend to complain that life in the Middle Ages was dirty. Well, I’ve already ranted about that at length in this blog post. To summarize, cleanliness was, in fact, a major part of medieval life and people did bathe and understand basic hygiene.
All in all, I think it would have been a pretty sweet time to live in. Life was good, humanity was progressing in all sorts of ways at a faster rate than it had for centuries, and as far as they knew the future looked bright. So next time you’re tempted to use the term “medieval” to describe something backwards and awful, stop to remember that not all of those Middle Ages were all that bad.