That’s So Medieval: The “Backward” Middle Ages

If anyone wishes, for any reason, to annoy a medieval historian, a good practice is for him to exclaim, in a voice of loud disgust of some undesirable event, person, or idea, “that’s so medieval!” Similarly, the medieval historian Mark Gregory Pegg is particularly fond of a quotation from (I think) W.H. Auden suggesting that a good way to end a conversation is to mention the words “Middle Ages,” effective because this will kill any interest in further discussion. Who, after all, could be interested in so backward an age? The prominence of this expression as a term of derision indicating backwardness (in the moral sense of the term), bears witness not only to a poor understanding of the Middle Ages, but a poor understanding of modernity.

In this view, the Middle Ages had nothing worthwhile to offer, nothing of interest to the modern man who has heroically thrown off the chains of his past barbarism and is busy tweeting his way into modernity. The Middle Ages don’t even deserve their own name; they are simply a “middle age,” a boring (or terrible) in-between period, a dark age between the splendor and civilization of classical antiquity, the glories of Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment of the Modern World. They are a time best forgotten about and ignored, a time that modern man has moved beyond, out of darkness into light, progress, and modernity.

This rests, of course, on an evolutionary way of seeing the world. Evolution might simply mean, as Chesterton put it, that a creature called an ape over time turned slowly into a creature called a man. This does not describe a moral process, simply a scientific one of biological change in a species over time. And yet, since Darwin, the evolutionary view has described not only the development of animal species, but the moral development of human society as well. Human society is progressing, not only biologically, but morally. It become more technologically advanced, tolerant, and moral moving either toward the inevitable or always distant (in different versions of the story) Utopia. Anything undesirable in society can simply be dismissed as a remnant of the medieval past. And so temporal backwardness comes to imply moral backwardness.

Such a view is flattering certainly. A man can look at the past in derision, applauding himself, assuming the he is a better person merely because he happened to be born at a later time of day. It is also convenient. A man need make no effort to better himself; the sheer passage of time guarantees it. Ideological opponents can be dismissed simply by being backward, medieval, or “on the wrong side of history.” Their views thus need not be rationally refuted or given a fair hearing, they can simply be ignored, shouted down, and perhaps even turned over to the inquisition for questioning. It is also thoroughly absurd; a man might as well assume that he is more moral at 5pm than he was at 9 am. Perhaps he is, but if so, the sheer passage of time will not bring it about. And he might not grow more moral, he might even grow worse.

In some respects, perhaps the modern age has grown worse despite its claims of progress. The modern age has seen world wars, slavery, and genocide on a mass scale. The Middle Ages had no equivalent of a world war and practically no slavery, while genocide was a discovery of the modern world. The Middle Ages persecuted Jews, modernity tried (and may be trying now) to wipe them out. Not so in the Middle Ages– they were too backward. Modern man may praise himself for having eliminated slavery, but he eliminated a vice of his own making.

The modern man is precisely in the position of a man who inherits a house in good condition, proceeds to knock a series of holes in the walls, fixes them after a time, congratulates himself on repairing them, and then criticizes the backwardness of his father for the condition in which he received the house. And at any rate, slavery was abolished by the backward people, the ones who didn’t care about the effect of abolition on economic progress. They had a silly old-fashioned idea in the dignity of man- an idea even more backward than the Middle Ages- but perhaps too backward for modernity.