Medieval Monday – What Were They Thinking?

Last month my medieval post [at the Seduced by History blog] generated a lot of discussion, and while some of it set me off, other points set me to thinking.  One point that was made was that you can’t judge the mindset of medieval people using modern worldviews and values.  True.  Very true.  So, curious as ever, I dove into my collection of history books to piece together a picture of what the mindset of the medieval world really was.

My bookshelf ... and also my cat Torpedo

My bookshelf … and also my cat Torpedo

Of course the first thing I discovered is that it was as drastically different within the different eras of the Middle Ages (commonly divided into Dark Ages, High Middle Ages, and Late Middle Ages) as our modern worldview is from any of those three.  A peasant living in the kingdom of the Franks under the rule of Odo the Great in 870 would have had a vastly different view of the world than a nobleman living in the England of Henry II in 1170, and both wouldn’t have recognized the values and thought process of a Venetian living in plague-swept Italy in 1370.  Life changed, and values with it, just as fast in the overly long stretch of time that we call the Middle Ages as fast as it changed from 1900 to today.

Okay, but what where those values, world views and thought processes like?

First of all, I just want to point out that that “famous” quote about medieval life being “nasty, brutish, and short” is a misquote.  The quote, written in 1651 by Thomas Hobbes, was in reference to warfare, not day to day life.  Yet somehow a lot of people have the mistaken idea that those words can be used to describe life in the Middle Ages, particularly the Dark Ages.

The reality of the Dark Ages was probably quite different.  According to Charles Van Doren, the people of the Dark Ages most likely didn’t think of their own lives as dark at all.  Sure, they were poor and uneducated, their lives were rural and small, and they were disconnected from everyone else in their so-called kingdoms.  But Van Doren’s theory is that none of that mattered, because the goal of life in the Dark Ages was not material, it was spiritual.

medieval cow womanAs he discusses in his book A History of Knowledge, Van Doren points to St. Augustine’s seminal work City of God as the primary intellectual motivator of the Dark Ages.  In City of God, written as the barbarian hoards were descending on Rome, St. Augustine says that while the material things of this world might pass away, it is the attainment of a non-material relationship to God that mankind should be striving.  This was a huge departure from the materialistic culture of the Roman Empire, but it was one that stuck.  After all, what better goal could your average person living anytime from 450 – 1000 have than something they had already attained: worldly poverty and spiritual riches.

Van Doren’s theory is that the centuries that we now call the Dark Ages were not a wasteland of underachievement and ignorance, but rather a time when the average person saw spirituality as worthy of merit, not wealth.  And it was a spirituality that bore a closer resemblance to the pagan past than what we think of as Christianity today.

By the year 1050 things were beginning to change.  As Norman F. Cantor discusses in his book The Civilization of the Middle Ages, Europe as it entered the High Middle Ages was a tapestry of vastly different ideals and achievements.  In England you had a culture that had been turned upside-down in the past couple of centuries as Viking invasions had rewritten both the laws and customs.  The king, Edward the Confessor, was pious but weak and his nobles saw no problem in waging personal wars against each other and their so-called sovereign for territory and position.  Further south, in France, you had a noble class, mostly descended from Italian and Rhenish nobility, engaged in similar local wars.  The German emperor, Henry III held more real power in his territory because of his connections with Rome, but this was not an era of centralized authority.

This was an era when most people still never traveled outside of twenty miles from the place where they were born.  Peasants were far more concerned with the unprecedented productivity of the land that they were experiencing than national politics.  The nobility felt this fluidity of fortune and looked for opportunities to seize power wherever they could.  It was an age of political maneuvering and small-scale battles.

Strangely enough, it still wasn’t an age when wealth mattered.  In fact, in spite of the fact that the economy was booming, money still wasn’t important to the people of the Middle Ages, not even by the twelfth century.  In the twelfth century, the heart of the High Middle Ages, status was all-important.  Status was gained through military and matrimonial victory.  If you were a noble it was all about who you had married and who you conquered in the process.  The rulers who made it to the top of the pile, Henry II of England, Philip Augustus of France, and Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, got where they were through strategic victories on private battlefields and through savvy negotiations in the bedroom.  They were able to maintain their empires through the same means.

Medieval-universityBut something else was going on behind the scenes, as Joseph R. Strayer demonstrates in his book Western Europe in the Middle Ages.  (These are all super awesome books, btw)  While the emphasis was still on status over wealth, in the High Middle Ages it was also becoming about the individual over the collective.  For kings a self-made man was one who battled his way to the throne.  For the common man, advancement could come through skill and hard work.

On the continent, in Flanders and Italy in particular, a new phenomenon was underway.  It used to be that all people could be classed into one of three categories: those who fought, those who prayed, and those who labored.  Now there was a new and increasingly powerful group: the bourgeois.  For the first time you had a small but influential class of people whose motto might just have been “show me the money”.  These people were increasingly rich.  They came from the lower tiers of the nobility, but also from the ranks of the peasantry who had made something of themselves.  They built cities, founded churches and religious orders, loaned money to kings, and advised the Church what to do.

Granted, it wasn’t quite time for the French Revolution yet, but this is where the seeds were planted.  Yes, the Church was the most powerful entity in Medieval Europe, but the Church was staffed with priests who came from very worldly backgrounds and who were more interested in politics than souls.  The twelfth century saw the rise of great universities that still exist today.  These centers of learning and inquiry were where most of the religious men from this time onwards came from.  By the thirteenth century the Church was powered not so much by the kind of spirituality St. Augustine advocated in City of God, but by the logic and proto-scientific inquiry of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.

Are you still with me?  We’ve gone from being a society content with its own material and intellectual poverty, simple in its spirituality and outlook, to a civilization with a sound economy, growing by leaps and bounds, in which status was king but wealth, individuality, and knowledge were beginning to be the measure of a man.  Two very different worlds.

And then it all blew up and fell apart.

Medieval_marketJust when life was good, when the immense forests of Europe were being cut down to make enough space for people to live, when peasants were contentedly excused from their feudal duties because they could easily pay scutage instead of providing labor, when monasteries were more like a cross between a university and a country club and universities were teaching metaphysics and methods of reason and deduction that would lead to the scientific method, when rediscovered knowledge began to filter back into the west from the east as trade became more prevalent, it all fell down like a house of cards.

If you want to get a good idea of what happened to set Europe back a couple hundred years in terms of development and standard of living, read Barbara W. Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century.  I’ve actually written an entire series of blog posts about the various issues that brought Europe to its knees during this time: famine and climate change, the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Papal Schism.  So instead of rehashing all of that horrifically fascinating history that made up the Late Middle Ages, I just want to talk about what it did to people’s attitudes.

Basically, it wrecked them.  All of the optimism of the High Middle Ages was gone.  Europe experienced a collective period of manic-depression.  Death could be around any corner, so you should either live it up and not care what happened or punish yourself for your sins and wait for the better life that was to come.  Suddenly material things became much more important because there was no telling when you were going to lose them.

When the English invaded France and it looked like they were going to win the Hundred Years War, soldiers looted noble homes and sent “stuff” back to England.  The average English home in the early 1400s was outfitted with pilfered French goods.  This was a huge change from, say, the Viking invasions of the Dark Ages.  Back then you were more likely to suddenly find your English house stocked with Danish goods than to find a Danish house decked out with English stuff.  Warfare had changed from conquer and settle to smash and grab.

This is also when the Church became more militant about squashing any opinion, especially scientific ones, that didn’t agree with their bottom line.  And yes, that’s the right metaphor.  In the 14th century the Church underwent a civil war.  Coming out of that there was a feeling that it needed to crack down on differences of opinion in order to maintain the level of political and social control that it had had back in the High Middle Ages when things were good.  Why?  Because there was big money in being the only spiritual game in town, in selling indulgences and relics.  And after the curtain was pulled back by the Papal Schism, giving the average man a glimpse into the corrupt inner workings of the Church, the rumblings that would eventually lead to Martin Luther and the Protestant revolution were already being heard.

So what were people in the Middle Ages thinking?  What were those attitudes that we can’t compare to the way people think now?  Well, as Strayer suggests, because the vast majority of primary resources that exist about the Middle Ages were written by and about less than 10% of the population, we can only guess what the other 90% of the population was thinking.  Granted, we can make educated guesses based on court records, papal decrees, and laws that were enacted.  For example, repeated attempts by the clergy in Paris in the 13th century to shut down the many public bathhouses due to an outbreak of syphilis probably doesn’t indicate that the prevailing attitude in the city was one of anti-cleanliness and chastity.  The importance of the brewing, spinning, and soap-making guilds, all female-dominated professions, in the High Middle Ages is a strong indicator that women were not expected to exclusively stay at home under the power of their husbands or fathers.  The prevalence of court cases in which a woman sued to have a man who had seduced her be forced to legally marry her, and won those cases too, indicates that it was not so much of a man’s world as we might be tempted to think.

And since this post is now twice as long as I intended it to be, I’ll leave it there.  The point is that attitudes changed drastically throughout the span that we think of as the Middle Ages.  If you’re a writer wondering what the world your characters inhabit might be like, keep in mind that the ever-changing tapestry of medieval thought was just as complicated as the world we live in now, even if the overall worldview was different.

[This post is a repost of the article I wrote for the Seduced by History blog this past weekend.  All images are in the public domain in the US, except my bookshelves]

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3 thoughts on “Medieval Monday – What Were They Thinking?

  1. Post completely made my night *happy sigh* I read a book on history once that stated many women had affairs, children were born and it wasn’t a huge deal. I think it also stated if a person was homosexual most shrugged it off until mid 17th? Or do I remember it incorrectly?

    Anyway, I’ve tried to tell people you cannot truly compare that life to this one. It had its own complications, thought processes, challenges. Can you imagine a life without TV, radio, canned goods and lack of huge manufacturing warehouses? If you want bread, you made it. (And I do, but I don’t grind my own flour, milk my own cows, etc) If I remember, many grew their own fruits and veggies, eggs weren’t as abundant as they are now. Spices extremely expensive.

    I can’t pretend to understand but it doesn’t stop me from marveling at their ingenious ways to cope and survive.

    • Yeah, as far as I understand it, the High Middle Ages were a whole lot more permissive than most of the rest of history until now. Especially when it came to sexual relations. I mean, in a society where a huge number of men were not allowed to marry at all because of the political and inheritance issues people would do whatever they wanted in the name of love. That’s actually a large part of what “chivalry” was all about. And I think, although I haven’t done research on it, that homosexuality was more accepted than it would be for many hundreds of years afterwards.

      Of course all that changed in the 14th century, but before that it was a pretty cool time to be alive. And you wouldn’t necessarily have to grind your own flour. You could take your wheat harvest to the miller who would do it for you. 😉

      • I would love to hear more about chivalry and the truth of how it started, why and what it truly meant 🙂 Anything I try to find (very limited, tiny library here) leads back to Camelot and while it’s a nice love triangle, it doesn’t tell me the facts. So if you ever have a spark to write it…I’ll be here stalking for it 🙂

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