education

Debunking the Middle Ages

One way of looking at history is in terms of progress. Many historians and fans of the subject laud Rome for its advances in military organization, infrastructure, and civics. Similar adulation is often heaped upon the Renaissance for the strides made in philosophy, arts, and sciences during that period, which in turn set the stage for the Age of Enlightenment. But what of the time between shining antiquity and the rekindling that was the Renaissance?

Alternately called the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, and the Medieval Ages, the time period from roughly the 5th century to the 15th century is usually framed in the West as its own era of history. It should be noted that people alive during this period did not see themselves as existing in some in-between age. While not arbitrary, these Ages are an artificial lens created by historians to make events manageable by putting them into groupings based on patterns and paradigm-shifting events. These simplifications allow people to condense the enormity of history into sentences and paragraphs, though sometimes much is lost in the process of compression. Other times these frames distort what actually occurred, like a tinted lens. In an effort to unpack a few pieces of overly condensed history, here is a mix of large debates and small misnomers about the medieval world.

The “Dark” Ages

The period in Europe between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance is known by several scholastics and history buffs as the Dark Ages. Increasingly though, this perspective is falling out of favor. To mark this era as one without light (a metaphor for learning and intelligence) is less a sober judgement and more an admission of preferences, especially as archeological evidence continues to mount in favor of the complexity of medieval European life.

Wide-spanning trade and conquest were pillars of Roman superiority, though these interactions did not stop after the Western Empire’s dissolution. There is an image of the medieval European, that of a farmer living in a mud hovel, their clothes also caked in mud. With the Roman roads in disrepair this peasant is isolated and without community. By and large, this is a tremendous overstatement. Of course, for some, life changed dramatically when imperial forces and institutions withdrew from their holdings, but this was mostly a drastic shift for nobles and officials in high places. Life for the average peasant in Europe saw little change throughout the Middle Ages, and even into much of the Renaissance. Wealth and technology were, and arguably still are, often hoarded by those at the upper echelons of society. Cities grew larger over time, but they did not cease to exist for a span of ten centuries. Medieval Europeans built and lived in cities as well, newer archeological evidence has shown. The construction methods and materials were slightly cruder than their Roman counterparts, but this is a difference of degree not kind. Intercontinental trade continued as well, with Vikings, Carolingians, and multiple Slavic peoples traveling across land and sea in their mercantile pursuits, often crossing paths with Arabs, Indians, and Chinese traders in ports and cities along the Silk Road and elsewhere.

It should also be said that the continent did not devolve into chaos either. People often imagine constant raiding, warfare, and all the horrors those things entail. The violence of this period is real and should not be downplayed, but it is not unique. Constant warring and the costs derived from such were one of the major factors in the downfall of Rome, and for all its Humanism, the wars fought during the Renaissance were some of Europe’s deadliest up to that point. Rather than absolute mayhem, authority figures who had been secondary to Rome’s took their places in their absence. Church officials, those who managed to hold on to their wealth, and warlords served as political administrators in many regions (sometimes in cooperation), putting in place laws and regulations none too different than their aristocratic forebears. Certainly, these were not ideal political structures, yet the history of nobility and monarchs does not paint them in a flattering light either. Kings could be just as brutal as warlords. Sometimes the only thing distinguishing them were titles and bloodlines. In fact, many early medieval kings were simply landed warlords who were recognized as local rulers by the Church and who managed to pass their land on to their son(s), making the distinction less relevant in a broader context. Given all this, why are some still convinced that the Middle Ages were just that, not a time fascinating in its own right but a regrettable era separating two greater ones?  

It is undeniable that the Romans were assiduous record keepers. An efficient bureaucracy was one of many strengths that enabled them to conquer and maintain their enormous empire for as long as they did. Similarly, the printing press gave rise to an abundance of written insights into the Renaissance for future generations. Historians specialize in a variety of disciplines, though textual analysis remains central to many. For those historians, it is understandable why some would be biased against a time period with fewer written records, an indisputable fact about the Middle Ages. However, it is important to note this as a partiality. Judging a society’s worth or “brightness” by the amount of records they produced, a number which cannot include lost or destroyed records, is not an objective measure but a quantified opinion. History is a nuanced interplay of different groups, a constant push and pull of various forces in various arenas. To look at one figure and decide that is the defining statistic of an era is counter to the mission of deepening our knowledge of the past.

One last thing to note about the so called Dark Ages is that this time period is not meant to be generalized globally. It is Europe-specific. Some fall into the trap of imagining that a slowdown in their definition of progress in one part of the world means that the entire globe was in decline. Contrary to this is the Islamic Golden Age, to name just one concurrent historical era that shatters this overapplication of the term. Generally dated from the 8th century to the 13th or 14th century, the Islamic Golden Age saw several dynasties (or more correctly caliphates) rise to global economic, military, political, and religious prominence. Beyond these realms, scholars in these empires also advanced several fields of math, medicine, astronomy, philosophy, poetry, architecture, and calligraphy, among other disciplines. History is both nuanced and complex. Wrapping hundreds of years across millions of miles into a neat sentence or two is fine as an introduction to most historical topics, but it is never the full story.

Spicy Spoiled Meat

On a less serious note, here is a popular myth I find quite interesting. It is sometimes said that one of the main reasons for the popularity of natively Eastern spices in the West was their ability to cover up the taste of rotten meat. This myth is bizarre and appeals to the sense of how small details about the past are often counterintuitive to how we see things today, but it is still a misnomer. When one gets past this misnomer’s intrigue there are at least three obvious arguments for why this could not have been the case. Firstly, imported spices throughout the Middle Ages were quite expensive and thus not widely accessible to the general public. They were a fad among the rich, favored for their novelty. Nobles and aristocrats were not wanting of livestock or wild game, so rotten meat was never on the menu for them. But what of commoners? Meat was rare but not unheard of in the average peasant’s diet, though if they wanted spices they had options other than imports. Europe has its own native herbs and spices, and peasants who wanted to season their food would often forage before turning to the spice trade. And lastly, even without refrigeration, preserving perishable food was not a difficult task in the Middle Ages. Smoking, drying, salting, and brining were all ancient methods of extending the shelf life of meats and other consumables that remained common knowledge for centuries. While lacking our modern understanding of germ theory, Medieval Europeans still had the cause and effect knowledge that people who ate spoiled meat tended to get quite ill. While the people of the Middle Ages had less tools at their disposal, it is simplistic to write them off as ignorant or crude. If you do not already sympathize with peoples of the past, consider how future generations will look back at us, and perhaps that might soften your judgements.

The Black Death

Unfortunately still topical is the plague known today as the Black Death. This name is a relatively modern invention, though. Contemporarily, the bubonic plague was known as the Great Mortality. Leading theories in Europe at the time were that the pestilence was caused by a foul ocean wind from the east, or that it was divine punishment for societal wrongs. Less far off, though still not entirely correct is the newer misconception that the plague was transmitted by rats hitching rides in ships and caravans travelling along the Silk Road and related routes. This is somewhat true, though specifically the rats were carriers of the carriers, as it was actually fleas on the rats that were infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Not knowing this, physicians and plague doctors tried all manner of remedies, the majority of which we now know either had no effect or were actively harmful, such as bloodletting. When one thinks of plague doctors the iconic black overcoat and beaked mask often come to mind. These were actually designed in the 17th century in response to another plague. Aromatic flora was placed inside the beak, the thought being that pestilence was spread through miasma, a type of harmful or stagnant air, and that breathing through strong smelling items would protect the mask’s wearer. To me, these masks recall gas masks and the garb as a whole hazmat suits. The science behind the approach might have been half-baked, but in it one can see progress toward our modern understanding.

Works Cited

Hodges, Richard. “The Not-So-Dark Ages”. Archaeology, vol. 51, no. 5, 1998, pp. 61–65. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41771532, Accessed 19 June 2020

Kaye, Donald and Larry I. Lutwick. “Plague: Blame the flea, not the rat”. Healio, healio.com, 16 Feb 2018, http://www.healio.com/news/infectious-disease/20180212/plague-blame-the-flea-not-the-rat, Accessed 20 June 2020

Pelz, William A. “‘The King’s in His Castle . . . All’s Right with the World’: The Collapse of the Middle Ages”. A People’s History of Modern Europe, Pluto Press, London, 2016, pp. 1–17, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1c2crfj.5, Accessed 19 June 2020

“The Islamic Golden Age”. Lumen Learning, lumenlearning.com, courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldcivilization/chapter/the-islamic-golden-age/, Accessed 20 June 2020

Troy, Eric. “Spices Were Used to Mask the Taste of Bad Meat in the Middle Ages Through the Renaissance”. CulinaryLore, culinarylore.com, 30 March 2014, culinarylore.com/food-history:spices-used-to-cover-taste-bad-meat/, Accessed 20 June 2020

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