Most Americans get their ideas about the Middle Ages from popular culture, like “Game of Thrones,” or from the inevitable rigmarole after a politician refers to “a crusade.” In other words, it’s all dragons, dastardly politics and religion-inspired violence. Yet, the European Middle Ages — a period spanning more than 1,000 years — was much richer (and weirder) than even some of the best fiction or political spin.
In 638 A.D., the Caliph Umar took the city of Jerusalem and pushed the boundaries of Byzantium back toward what’s now modern Turkey. This militant expansion, some scholars and pundits say, was the beginning of a centuries-long, still-ongoing clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam. “For centuries,” the Daily Mail claimed in a November 2015 article about the Islamic State , “Islam and Christianity were locked in a brutal conflict most have forgotten. The horror . . . is that for jihadis it’s as real today as it was in the Middle Ages.” Indeed, the Islamic State is often accused of attempting to re-create a “medieval society.”
But there’s evidence that, at the outset of Islam’s spread, Christians and Muslims worshipped together. Then, throughout the Middle Ages, from Iberia to North Africa to the Middle East, Christians and Muslims behaved like the neighbors they were. Sometimes they feuded, sometimes they ignored one another, and sometimes they helped each other. Certainly there were episodes of horrific violence between them, such as the sack of Jerusalem in 1099 , but there were plenty of other instances of Christian kings hiring Muslim mercenaries against their Christian rivals, or Islamic merchants trading freely with both Muslims and Christians, even while the Third Crusade raged. As late as the 16th century, France had no problem making an alliance with the Ottoman Empire against their common foe, the Holy Roman Empire. We should always be aware of the long, deep historical roots of religious violence, but we also have to be aware that, just like other kinds of violence, it has specific historical circumstances that create it.
Those pious denizens of the Middle Ages: They “would believe what they were told against the evidence of their own eyes,” as the BBC put it, and were deferential at all times to authority. The words of the 19th-century historian Jacob Burckhardt capture their zeal best: In the Middle Ages, “human consciousness . . . lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues.” In other words, it was a period of mystics , charlatans and the naive.
But not everyone spent all their time thinking about God, and some were critical of religious authority. After all, people are people, and they naturally had many interests — including sex, which people in the Middle Ages spent plenty of time thinking, writing and joking about. Sometimes, they worried about avoiding sin. Sometimes, they used sex to strike back against that fear, using comic set-pieces to critique the “virtue” of their clergy; the punch line of one 13th-century poem about a lascivious priest was “one hole satisfies many fools.”
Even in the midst of a Crusade, an anonymous Christian writer could strongly criticize the worldly corruption of its participants and question whether the Crusade should have ever been called.
Over the past few years, critics have asked why “Game of Thrones,” set in a medieval milieu, is so white. Author George R.R. Martin has explained that “Westeros is the fantasy analogue of the British Isles in its world” and thus appropriately white.
In fact, although nowhere near as diverse as any modern metropolis, medieval Europe pulsed with difference, both racial and religious. Jews and Christians lived together in most major cities. Large portions of Iberia were under Islamic control (Arabs and Berbers, primarily) for nearly 800 years, from 711 to 1492. Recent archeological findings (along with textual sources) in England and France have shown that people originating from North Africa and the Middle East lived in Europe from the 8th century onward; that evidence is now overwhelming.
Race was something that people in the Middle Ages thought about (though in different ways than we do), and it was something that they had no problem depicting as part of their shared history — for instance, the late-11th-century statue of black Saint Maurice in Germany’s Magdeburg Cathedral or heroic Feirefiz (literally “half-white and half-black”) in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s early-13th-century romance “Parzival.”
In 2012, President Obama addressed a Maryland audience on the subject of climate change and its deniers. “We’ve heard this kind of thinking before,” he said. “Let me tell you something. If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. They would not have believed that the world was round.” Bristling at similar flat-Earth jabs, pundit Glenn Beck likewise declared on his television show that it was Italian scientist Galileo Galilei who “fought against the power structure of his own time to enlighten mankind that the Earth wasn’t flat.” But did people before the age of discovery really believe the world was flat?
No. This one’s a zombie myth. It’s been debunked so many times, it’s hard to keep track. Yet, it probably persists because of how tied we are today to misconceptions about the Middle Ages — anti-science, technologically backward, and (maybe most important) having lost Greek and Roman learning. In other words, it has everything to do with our notions about the “Dark Ages.”
To be clear, the idea that the Earth was flat was a pre-Christian Nordic one that didn’t survive much longer than the Christianization of Scandinavia in the 9th through 12th centuries. Throughout the rest of Europe and the Mediterranean world, throughout the entire Middle Ages, people knew exactly what the Romans and the Greeks did: that the world is a sphere. This is extraordinarily clear from the large number of surviving medieval maps, such as the wonderful map of the world in Britain’s Hereford Cathedral , and from references in various texts like those written in the early 8th century by the Venerable Bede .
Thank the preservation group English Heritage, the History Channel or even Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt for propagating the idea that the Middle Ages placed harsh constraints on “curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world” and “the claims of the body,” in Grenblatt’s words. Many interpret the Middle Ages as a period when intellectual inquiry went dormant and the dominance of religion either stopped the progress of mankind or actively worked against those few brave souls trying to lift humanity up.
In reality, the conception of the Middle Ages as the “Dark Ages” began with the Enlightenment. These 17th- and 18th-century thinkers started considering how adherence to religion defined the ages of history. Before Christianity was “antiquity” (for them, good). The spread of Christianity was the “middle age” (bad). Then came the Renaissance revival of classical learning, when religion was cast off, beginning the modern world (good). Anything that held back that modern world was regressive, therefore “medieval.” Aristocracy held back equality, while the church held back science, and so on.
True, the Middle Ages contained violence, repression and terror. But those years also saw the creation of artistic marvels, the birth of the university, breakthroughs in the natural sciences and literature that still moves the soul. Modernity is no different.