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More things people think are medieval but aren’t

April 21, 2013

A few weeks ago I posted about how inexcusable it is to say that in the Middle Ages thirty counted as old age. The post was surprisingly popular. In the same spirit, here’s a list of some more things that people think of as “medieval” but aren’t. I imagine my readers know most of these already, but they’re worth reminding yourself about every once in a while.

Divine right of kings. Oppressive medieval political doctrine, right? Nope, invented by the English king James I in the early 17th century. Most ancient cultures thought that the king’s authority was God-given, or even that the king was himself a god, and thus that his rule was absolute and unquestionable. Medieval Christendom introduced the idea that the king guides man in his temporal life, the Church in his eternal, and the latter is really more important. Protestants either did away with the institutional church or subordinated it to the state, and fell back on the earlier model. Catholic rulers like Louis XIV jumped on board in the late 17th century, but before him French politics were defined by the competition for power between royalty, nobility, and clergy. Oh, and Aquinas argued that rebellion against tyrants can be justified in extreme cases.

Slavery. Yes, there were slaves in medieval Europe, as in ancient Europe, as in almost everywhere in the world up to the 19th century, and even today in some parts of the world. But the Church did a lot to combat it, and by the end of the medieval era it had all but died out. Then the discovery of the Americas, with the concomitant establishment of colonies and need for more laborers than were willing to migrate, revived it in a new and more brutal form. The American South before the Civil War relied more than any other slave-holding society on the delusion that its slaves were subhuman, and treated them accordingly. It’s true that serfdom was a key component of feudalism, but being a serf is different from and much less bad than being a slave. You were bound to the land you worked and had no right to leave it (though you paid rent and could be evicted), but you owned the fruits of your labor apart from a certain amount of time spent working the landlord’s fields, and were not yourself property of the landlord, able to be arbitrarily beaten, bartered, or sold.

Witch hunts. Remember the Salem witch trials? 1670s Puritan New England. That’s not an anomaly, that’s typical. Burning witches was explicitly opposed by the Catholic Church for most of the Middle Ages, and was often itself a crime punishable by death. In the late 15th century the Renaissance papacy made it permissible (for political, not religious reasons), but it didn’t take off until the Protestant Reformation, and then mostly in Protestant countries. Also, far fewer people were executed than you might think–only about 50,000 across an entire continent over the span of a few hundred years.

Exorcisms. These too became a regular feature of church life only in the 16th and 17th centuries, but this time mostly in Catholic countries. There’s certain structural similarities between these and witch hunts; both are ways of dealing with claims that the devil is active in the world and we humans have to do something about it. I might even speculate that Catholics resorted to exorcisms because they believe your fate can be changed while Protestants burned the witches because unrepentant witches were clearly not members of the Elect, and so there was no point in trying to save their souls: what mattered was protecting the community. But that might be uncharitable to the Protestants.

Alchemy. Again, 16th and 17th centuries. This, witch hunts, and exorcisms are all related. They take place during the Scientific Revolution, with its turn towards naturalism and desire for power over nature, and they all involve the thought that entities previously thought supernatural were actually in a sense within the world, entities like any other than could both exert force and have forces exerted on them.

Vampires. These feel medieval because they were invented by Bram Stoker in his 1879 novel Dracula, a work of Gothic horror. Gothic means here, essentially, “pseudo-medieval”–stories 18th and 19th century people dreamt up when they wanted to fantasize about living in the Middle Ages. Aspects of the vampire legend floated about before Dracula, of course, and some date back to the Middle Ages and earlier, but no medieval would recognize the vampires found in the stories we now tell about them.


What I find most fascinating about all this is how so many of the things the pejorative “medieval” relies on for its effect actually come from the Renaissance and Early Modern era, and from Protestant Europe not (as “medieval” implies) Catholic Christendom. It’s almost as if these are aspects of our culture (America is a Protestant country, after all, so the only culture I know is Protestant whether I like it or not) that we want not only to disown, but to define ourselves against, to make them into what we’re protesting. Might the Protestant impulse actually be better directed against Protestantism itself? If so, would the protest be lodged from a Catholic point of view, or from one even further from Catholicism than what is being protested? Is the authentic form of protest a Catholic “protest against protesting as insufficient for dealing with the present situation,” or a Puritanical “protest against the product of each act of protest as insufficient”? (Cf. also how the debate over purity has begun to resurface among the “new atheists.”) These are intriguing questions but I don’t yet know what to say about them.

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