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What is History? Can we comprehend the medieval mind?
Covering the medieval mind is a big ask and I mustn’t pursue my usual digressions.
The quotations are interpretations of an area of history that we don’t know much about especially the early period. There are three books. The first two William Manchester, and Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger cover the early Middle Ages.
William Manchester says:
THE DENSEST of the medieval centuries—the six hundred years between, roughly, A.D. 400 and A.D. 1000—are still widely known as the Dark Ages. Modern historians have abandoned that phrase…
He goes on to say that very little is clear about that dim era and that intellectual life had vanished from Europe and literacy was often scorned. Wikipedia says that Manchester views the Middle ages as a dark era of technological stagnation, short-sightedness, bloodshed, feudalism, and an oppressive Church wedged between the golden ages of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Whilst Manchester’s view isn’t wrong, his account is certainly exaggerated.
The Catholic Church would also object to the thrust of the term Dark Ages, as this is when it grew from a small revolutionary group under the Romans, into an established bureaucracy and to the apogee of its power, under Pope Innocent III at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries.
The third book by Norman Cantor looks at a king at the beginning of the plague years in the twelfth century and we also look at another king a hundred years later (at the end of the Wars of the Roses).
The Medieval Mind (400 AD to ~1000AD)
The quotations without discussion give a glimpse of how people lived and how they might have thought. Can we understand them enough to comprehend why they acted? We are indulging in a thought experiment here rather than accurate appraisal of history.
William Manchester provides the following snippets, which taken together give a brief portrait of how ordinary people lived and presumably thought.
THE DARK AGES were stark in every dimension. …[I]n the year 1500, after a thousand years of neglect, the roads built by the Romans were still the best on the continent.
… Among the lost arts was bricklaying; in all of Germany, England, Holland, and Scandinavia, virtually no stone buildings, except cathedrals, were raised for ten centuries. The serfs’ basic agricultural tools were picks, forks, spades, rakes, scythes, and balanced sickles. Because there was very little iron, there were no wheeled plowshares with moldboards. The lack of plows was not a major problem in the south, where farmers could pulverize light Mediterranean soils, but the heavier earth in northern Europe had to be sliced, moved, and turned by hand. Although horses and oxen were available, they were of limited use. The horse collar, harness, and stirrup did not exist until about A.D. 900. Therefore tandem hitching was impossible. Peasants labored harder, sweated more, and collapsed from exhaustion more often than their animals.
The level of everyday violence—deaths in alehouse brawls, during bouts with staves, or even in playing football or wrestling — was shocking. Tournaments were very different from the romantic descriptions in Malory, Scott, and Conan Doyle. They were vicious sham battles by large bands of armed knights, ostensibly gatherings for enjoyment and exercise but really occasions for abduction and mayhem. As late as the year 1240, in a tourney near Düsseldorf, sixty knights were hacked to death.
Despite their bloodthirstiness — a taste which may have been acquired from the Huns, Goths, Franks, and Saxons — all were devout Christians.
The medieval mind and how they lived
The most baffling, elusive, yet in many ways the most significant dimensions of the medieval mind were invisible and silent. One was the medieval man’s total lack of ego. Even those with creative powers had no sense of self. Each of the great soaring medieval cathedrals, our most treasured legacy from that age, required three or four centuries to complete… Yet we know nothing of the architects or builders. They were glorifying God. To them their identity in this life was irrelevant. Noblemen had surnames, but fewer than one percent of the souls in Christendom were wellborn. Typically, the rest — nearly 60 million Europeans — were known as Hans, Jacques, Sal, Carlos, Will, or Will’s wife, Will’s son, or Will’s daughter. If that was inadequate or confusing, a nickname would do. Because most peasants lived and died without leaving their birthplace, there was seldom need for any tag beyond One-Eye, or Roussie (Redhead), or Bionda (Blondie), or the like.
Their villages were frequently innominate for the same reason. If war took a man even a short distance from a nameless hamlet, the chances of his returning to it were slight; he could not identify it, and finding his way back alone was virtually impossible. Each hamlet was inbred, isolated, unaware of the world beyond the most familiar local landmark: a creek, or mill, or tall tree scarred by lightning. There were no newspapers or magazines to inform the common people of great events…
Yet the toiling peasantry was unaware of the estrangement in the Church. Who would have told them? The village priest knew nothing himself; his archbishop had every reason to keep it quiet. The folk (Leute, popolo, pueblo, gens, gente) were baptized, shriven, attended mass, received the host at communion, married, and received the last rites never dreaming that they should be informed about great events, let alone have any voice in them. Their anonymity approached the absolute. So did their mute acceptance of it…
Among the implications of this lack of selfhood was an almost total indifference to privacy. In summertime peasants went about naked.
In the medieval mind there was also no awareness of time, which is even more difficult to grasp…
Medieval men were rarely aware of which century they were living in. There was no reason they should have been. There are great differences between everyday life in 1791 and 1991, but there were very few between 791 and 991. Life then revolved around the passing of the seasons and such cyclical events as religious holidays, harvest time, and local fetes. In all Christendom there was no such thing as a watch, a clock, or, apart from a copy of the Easter tables in the nearest church or monastery, anything resembling a calendar. Generations succeeded one another in a meaningless, timeless blur. In the whole of Europe, which was the world as they knew it, very little happened. Popes, emperors, and kings died and were succeeded by new popes, emperors, and kings; wars were fought, spoils divided; communities suffered, then recovered from, natural disasters. But the impact on the masses was negligible. This lockstep continued for a period of time roughly corresponding in length to the time between the Norman conquest of England, in 1066, and the end of the twentieth century. Inertia reinforced the immobility. Any innovation was inconceivable; to suggest the possibility of one would have invited suspicion, and because the accused were guilty until they had proved themselves innocent by surviving impossible ordeals —by fire, water, or combat — to be suspect was to be doomed.
Manchester is making a point forcibly and overdoing it. Certainly, medieval art and architecture when they got going (and they did early) were stunning. A visit to Cluny in Paris or the medieval collections in the Chateau de Chantilly, the Museum Island in Berlin, an exhibition of wooden statues from Kracow in Poland and a hundred other places will show the brilliance of medieval art. But, go to any major art gallery (for example the Uffizi in Florence) and the medieval treasures are by the Master of this town or that. There are no names until the transition to the Renaissance.
What hunger meant — Lacey and Danziger
Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger give a portrait of the year 1000 by following the pattern of the seasons and the illustrations of the monthly goings on in a manor house in The Julius Work Calendar from about 1020 AD.
Famine was ever present and haunted the imagination, say Lacey and Danziger.
Bede tells an affecting story of suicide pacts among the seventh-century victims of famine in Sussex: “Frequently forty or fifty emaciated and starving people would go to a cliff, or to the edge of the sea and leap over, to die by the fall or by drowning.”
Hunger was often present even in good times, when something failed. We experienced this in Pakistan in 1995. In the Northern areas, beans and other crops were plentiful, as were fruits, but we could get little fresh of either, as everything was grown to be dried for the winter. These people knew hunger in a way that we do not. In bad years the food ran out and they were hungry.
The Hunza Valley looked rich, but life was precarious there. The men had always to be repairing the high drainage channels, which was dangerous. Things went wrong and there wasn’t sufficient food for the winter. Everyone in the community knew about hunger.
Similarly, when the English penetrated these areas in the nineteenth century, they found that local men had little concept of self, they were the chattels of the local ruler: two examples of such rulers were the Wali of Swat and the Mir of Hunza.
Hunza men were sent over the passes to raid caravans in Tibet. They did not do this off their own bat, but as directed by their ruler. When caught and asked not to do this by the British, they said they could not, because they had no concept of not obeying the Mir.
The Late Middle Ages (1200 to 1600)
Edward III and Richard III
I’ll give the last word to Norman Cantor. We’ve jumped ahead in time to the Late Middle Ages.
Can we even understand the monarchs and what drove them? (That is, the pursuits of Kings, the measure of history that we have been trying to get away from.) Cantor says:
Edward III of England [1312-1377] in fact was an avaricious and sadistic thug who aimed to conquer much of Western Europe…
From the heated loins of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine had sprung a genetic order of fighting Royal monsters. Edward III was the epitome of this devilish breed. He was personally brave, a skillful general, a good organizer. Edward III’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince (so-called for his arms and his heart), was the exact copy of his ruthless, devious and greedy father.
Did contemporaries think of Edward III as an evil scourge? Plenty of French peasants did, but among the aristocracy and literate classes, aside from a handful of radical friars, he was not even considered a tyrant.
Edward III always couched his imperial ambitions in the language of hoary dynastic claims and refined aristocratic honor. He was the founder of the super-elite aristocratic Order of the Garter. His propagandists in letters and art presented him as a King Arthur incarnate, as the embodiment of European chivalry, as the exemplar of virtuous noble temperament, as the purest refinement of Christian militarism, a gentleman’s gentleman.
My partner Denise has great interest in a descendent of his Richard III (1452-1485), the last of the Plantagenets, who supposedly killed his nephews in the Tower of London. Denise has been a member of the Richard III Society for a very long time (she went to his re-internment in Leicester in 2015). The purpose of the Society is to exonerate Richard and redeem his reputation from Tudor and Shakesperean propaganda. But, I sometimes wonder if our modern sensibilities can even comprehend these long dead monarchs.
Lacey and Danziger say somewhere in their book, about the year 1000 in Britain, that all the source material could be read in an afternoon. We don’t know much about this period of history and what we do know doesn’t make that much sense because no matter how hard we try we can’t put ourselves inside the heads of the inhabitants. We can’t even really understand how they lived.
This is an extreme example but it is a major problem. We can’t even understand those close to us. How did our grandparents and their parents live? We know a little bit about the First World War and the Second World War. We might know something about the Cold War and the Vietnam War but they are receding.
We can’t even remember when childhood diseases killed children in large numbers in our grandparents or their parents era, which is why stupid people today don’t get their children vaccinated.
Similarly, Laurie Lee in his book Cider with Rosie 1959 describes growing up in a southern English valley in Gloucestershire in the first half of the twentieth century before WWII. The people in the valley didn’t seemed to have changed much from medieval times, except that they were relatively prosperous and a very few did venture far away and did come back. Most, however, never left the valley until the advent of the car and the bicycle. And, even then the old ones never left the valley, until the regular bus excursions to the seaside in the 1930s. We still discovered tiny vestiges of this in corners of rural southern England in our travels in 2014.
Understanding more than the basics of history is very difficult indeed. The purpose of this series of articles is not to criticise mainstream historians. They have a very difficult job.
The aim is to examine the question: What is History? from different perspectives and to try to provide some sort of answer, even if it isn’t very satisfactory.
Key words: medieval mind, ordinary people, how they lived, dark ages, middle ages, early middle ages, high middle ages, late middle ages, medieval art, hunger, Edward III, Richard III, William Manchester, Robert Lacey, Danny Danziger, Norman F Cantor, Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie, E F Knight, Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game, Sir Francis Younghusband, Hunza, Yarkand
William Manchester A World Lit only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, portrait of an age Little, Brown & Co, 1992
The quotation in the Introduction comes from the start of the book p. 3 in my Little, Brown & Co. first paperback edition of 1993. The quotations in General are from pp 5-6 and the Medieval Mind from pp 21-23.
Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger The Year 1000: what life was like at the turn of the first millennium: an Englishman’s world Little, Brown & Co, 1999
The quotation is from The hunger gap section.
Norman F Cantor In the wake of the plague: the Black Death and the World it Made The Free Press, 2001
Quotations from pp 37-38.
An overview of the books
William Manchester A World Lit only by Fire
The book is in three parts or essays, the first of which and the one we are concerned with is The Medieval Mind and is about the Early Middle Ages. The second The Shattering is about the transition from the High and Late Middle Ages to the Renaissance (Manchester keeps up his roiling pace and critique of nobles, Kings and Church). The third One Man Alone is about the greatest hero of the age, according to Manchester, Ferdinand Magellan 1480-1521. (Links and more information below)
Incidentally, I wrote about this in Scuba Diving in the Philippines 1 we saw Magellan’s cross in Cebu City. It is here on Cebu that Ferdinand Magellan landed in 1521 and was subsequently killed at the battle of Mactan against a minor chief on a neighbouring island who refused to send him tribute. Magellan’s death was entirely unnecessary, perhaps a boast made to the ruler he was staying with. We stayed on Mactan Island near the airport.
Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger The Year 1000
The year 1000 is, as its subtitle suggests, what life was like in Britain in the year 1000. Lacey and Danziger base their book on a rare survivor from the period the Julius Calendar and the months and seasons.
The Julius Work Calendar and its illustrations month by month head each chapter for the year 1000. This helps to give the text a seasonal theme to what is really a rather eclectic collection of surviving material not all from the same time. The Julius Work Calendar circa 1020 was prepared possibly by a scribe at Canterbury Cathedral (the illustrations can be viewed online).
Norman F Cantor In the Wake of the Plague
Goodreads In the Wake of the Plague
New England Medical Journal on In the Wake of the Plague
This book as the subtitle suggests is meant to be about the black death and the world it made. The black death is used only loosely as a hook to tie a series of relatively unrelated events and information together. Nevertheless, it has some interesting things to say.
The three books are commentaries rather than rigorous histories but the authors analysed secondary sources in some detail with reasonable academic rigour. What they say may be open to rebuttal, but for our purpose it doesn’t matter, because this third article is about how virtually impossible it is to place ourselves in the context of history, particularly when the source material is scanty.
All three books are written by authors who consider themselves historians and have academic credentials, but they are the sort of books (including many cited in this series) that are dismissed or heavily criticised by other mainstream historians.
William Manchester’s book deserves further consideration because it is certainly the most rivetting and also the most criticised. Lacey and Danziger’s book is short and a good read too. Cantor’s book is quite readable but I wouldn’t recommend it as highly.
William Manchester and A world lit only by fire
Wikipedia on A world lit only by fire
A world lit only by fire is an unusual book because it came about when Manchester fell ill in 1989 and in recuperation could not continue with his work on the third volume of his biography of Winston Churchill. He decided instead that writing a book on the medieval world would be good therapy. Yet, he did check it with academic experts in the field whom he knew. He apologises that the work is all from secondary sources and those not new. Yet, he has constructed a weird and wonderful book that actually seems to convey something new. Some new questions perhaps. Manchester himself says: Complete at last, this book is a source of pride…
Denise and I read it some years after publication on strong recommendation and were engrossed by it. That is not to say it doesn’t have problems.
Wikipedia says that professional historians have rejected Manchester’s book because of factual errors and its interpretations. One critic in particular says that that Manchester’s claims about diet, clothing, and medieval people’s views of time and their sense of self all ran counter to the conclusions of 20th-century historians of the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, College Board’s in the USA use the book for Teaching the Advanced European History program to high school students wanting to study history at university.
For my point of view, it is irrelevant whether Manchester is right or wrong because he is telling a good story and we are conducting a thought experiment to see why history is incomprehensible, when one can’t begin to place oneself in the context of a difficult and obscure period.
The Medieval or Middle ages period (400 AD to 1500 AD)
I often get confused about this and suspect most people do. The Medieval or Middle ages stretch from around the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. But, the Renaissance itself is tricky. And, the Middle Ages blend into the Renaissance. There is no clear delineation.
Why should there be? Old patterns linger on beyond their time and new ones emerge quickly, seemingly out of nowhere, which adds further elements to the investigation of What is History? (That is, the periods themselves and the dates are artefacts introduced to aid understanding supposedly. I may or may not get around to this.)
The Medieval period is divided into three subsets:
1 Early Middle Ages 400 to 1000 (5th to 10th C)
2 High Middle Ages 1000 to 1200 (11th to 13th C)
3 Late Middle Ages 1200 to 1600 (14th to 15th C)
Wikipedia Timeline of the Middle Ages
The Julius Work Calendar
For those interested in taking a look at the pages of the ‘Julius Work Calendar’ one can find them online at the British Library Images Online section.
British Library The Julius Work Calendar
You might also enjoy this page, a compendium of more medieval illustrations of rural life also from the British Library
Wikipedia Labours of the Months
About medieval calendars and how they worked: Video from the J. Paul Getty Museum
About medieval books in general, the video Gems of History accompanies the Rothschild Prayer Book Exhibition at the National Library of Australia May to August 2015. The Library also had a wonderful video of the entire prayer book in the exhibition but haven’t kept it for public view online, perhaps for copyright reasons (but it is a shame). Wikipedia however has further information and some lovely illustrations from the Prayer Book. Wikipedia says: Since its sale in 1999 it has held the world record price at auction for an illuminated manuscript. In 2014 it was purchased by Australian businessman Kerry Stokes from Christie’s New York.
Edward III and Richard III Kings of England
Wikpedia on Edward III
Encyclopedia Brittannica on Edward III
Wikipedia on the Plantagenets
Wikipedia on Richard III
Wikipedia does a fair job of the story of finding Richard’s remains. However, one should note that the universities and authorities attempted to rewrite history, particularly ignoring the work of John Ashdown-Hill, but also downplaying the work of the Richard III Society. It should be emphasised that without John Ashdown-Hill’s research, the stubborness and diplomatic skills of Philippa Langley and the support and money raised world-wide by the Richard III Society, Richard’s remains would never have been discovered. Both John Ashdown-Hill and Philippa Langley were awarded MBEs in October 2015.
Link to Richard III Society
The anecdotes about Hunza in the 19th century come from Sir Francis Younghusband in his Great Game wanderings. He was the last of the great adventurers in the style of Sir Richard Burton. Younghusband’s experiences in Yarkand and Hunza, are cited by E F Knight Where three empires meet 1893 and by Peter Hopkirk in The Great Game 1990.
The photographs are an eclectic mix of medieval images from three trips to Europe. I have many more of cathedrals, stained glass, sarcophagi and other things. Apart from Notre Dame Cathedral most have been selected as typical medieval art and are mostly from the later two periods. I have seen but don’t have good photographs of early medieval material. The aim is to provide a contrast with the depiction of the medieval period as grim and devoid of innovation. Medieval art and medieval cathedrals are wonders of humankind.