Middle Ages

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
13th Century portrayal of Medieval social order: priest, noble, and peasant.
Tomorrow is a mystery,
but yesterday is

Icon history.svg
Secrets of times gone by
I'ma get medieval on your ass.
—Marsellus in Pulp Fiction[1]

The Middle Ages is a nebulously-defined period in European history, following the fall of Western Roman Empire and preceding the Renaissance. This time period is referred to as "middle" because it is between antiquity and modernity. Chronologically, this covers the years between the 5th and the 15th century CE.

Historians used to call the early part of the period the "Dark Ages," partly because of the lack of written records from Western Europe in the early post-Roman years left the era relatively obscure and mysterious to historians, and partly because it was perceived as an age of ignorance, brutality, and paganism. The phrase "Dark Ages" is now frowned upon in academic circles because 1. quite a lot has been learned about the time period and 2. people were actually doing creative and interesting things then — as they always do.

Those who ruled[edit]

Henry VI of England (ten years old!) is crowned as King of France.

Monarchy was the prevalent (but not only) form of government in Europe during the period.

In the early days, Monarchy was not strictly by primogeniture: when a king died, the strongest son or brother or uncle would be recognised as king (though quite possibly after the unfortunate deaths of all the most promising rivals). The kingdom might even be divided between siblings. Later, the oldest son would be seen as the only legitimate heir, even if he was so young that his kind Uncle had to act as regent for a while ("I'll look after England for you, young Edward. Why don't you and your brother go and play in that nice Tower?"). In some countries, a woman could take the throne if she had no brothers; in others, she could not rule but she could pass the right to her son. Even as late as Queen Elisabeth I of England, the monarch could name their successor. ("She whispered something about Dorothy's friend — does that ring any bells? Oh, and I think she mentioned a tartan skirt.")

Under the system known as Feudalism, Kings parceled out land to great lords in exchange for personal oaths of allegiance and promises of military service — and then so on down the hierarchy. A key question of the time was whether a man owed all his loyalty to his immediate lord (and so must support him even when the lord rebelled against the king) or whether everyone owed ultimate allegiance to the king. The second idea gained ground as the period progressed. The king was seen to have the same feudal relation to God, i.e. his right to rule came from above. To reinforce this, kings were anointed by Archbishops (and Emperors by the Pope) and were thus given a priestly role in governing, making it sacrilege to attempt to depose them. The Popes were semi-successful in inserting themselves into the "chain of command" in that they were sometimes able to assert their right as Vicar (i.e., Deputy) of Christ to depose a king (well, declare him deposed so that a powerful rival could legitimately take over).[2]

By the end of the Middle Ages formal feudalism was weakening and a more legalistic system of land tenure was coming in, but the idea that loyalty could be due to the state rather than to the current ruler was hardly yet forming. When a rebellion was successful, the new King had to legitimise himself by quickly explaining why the previous incumbent wasn't really the proper king at all. This was usually either by demonstrating that the ex-king (or an ancestor from x-generations back) had been illegitimate; or by some kind of No True Scotsman argument. A useful circular argument went "I was right to depose him because my rebellion was successful thus proving he wasn't the rightful king because God didn't protect him which proves I am the rightful king which proves God protects the rightful king". Anyone who spotted the logical flaws here would probably have been unwise to say (to the new owner of the Tower of London torture chamber) "Haven't you just proved that Divine Right of Kings just means Might is Right?"

It is difficult now to realise how shocking it was even as late as the 17th century for the English Parliament to claim the right to depose (and then condemn to death) an acknowledged legitimate King.

Other forms of government (such as republicanism in Florence or a sort of republic in Venice) existed also.


One of the most romanticized aspects of the Middle Ages was the knight. Fiction has often made these warriors out to be paragons of virtue. In reality, knights were typically aggressive and well-armed young men. It is likely tales of chivalry were meant to influence knights, and curb their excesses.[3]

The Church[edit]

Burning heretics in Paris, 1210.

The role of the Papacy evolved during the Middle Ages. After consecutively being Ostrogothic, Byzantine and Frankish pawns during the early Middle Ages, it eventually evolved into the Papal States,Wikipedia which was effectively a theocratic state in Italy. Kings curried the Pope's favour to legitimize their rule. Coronations were often conducted by bishops, so a king ruled his kingdom as God ruled mankind.[4] Popes and kings did not always have good relations. The Investiture Controversy concerned whether the King or the Pope had the right to appoint bishops. Conflicts between Italian and French cardinals, the latter originating from the Avignon papacy, led to the Western Schism.Wikipedia During the schism, these Popes had to curry Kings for favor themselves. The election of Martin V, the first of the Renaissance Popes, finally ended the schism.

The Crusades[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Crusades

The first Crusades were a dramatic example of the Pope's temporal power, and the later Crusades an example of their lack of power once the ball was rolling. After a series of major initial successes in the First Crusade, the later wars did not go well for the Crusader states, eventually ending with their steady collapse and expulsion from the Levant. The Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople (despite it being a Christian city), before it was discovered that the Emperor who they had promised support was unwilling to pay them. The Crusaders proceeded to burn down and loot the city, resulting in the collapse of the major Christian Empire that had until that point in time served as a bulwark for Europe. Nice one, guys. Crusaders did bring new things home with them however, such as a taste for sugar, spices, and architectural design.[5]

Decline of Church supremacy[edit]

Monks hand-copied the Bible, which was written in Latin rather than the vernacular. As a result (in addition to poor literacy rates) few laymen could gainsay the Church's interpretation until translations began appearing. People who questioned the Church's party line tended to be exiled or die rather messily,[6] as did the first translators of the Bible. As the Middle Ages wore on, secular rulers tended to accrue more powers and jurisdiction within their own kingdoms as religious authority became seriously weakened by the great schism and the plague. New religious movements such as Lollardism, Hussitism, and the Cathars continued to undermine the Church, but the Church's spiritual monopoly would not be successfully challenged until the Reformation.

It is also commonly assumed that the Middle Ages were a time of widespread religious intolerance and mass witch burnings. In reality, the inquisition did not get going until the end of the Middle Ages,[7] when Pope Innocent VIIIWikipedia blamed a spate of bad famines and other problems on witches. Sicily stands out as one example under Roger II, while Alfonso VI of Toledo was also known for toleration of competing religious groups.


Early 15th Century study of astronomy and mathematics.
Also see Wikipedia's Science in the Middle AgesWikipedia

The fall of the Western Roman Empire and the gradual loss of fluency in the Greek languages made a large part of the ancient corpus of texts inaccessible. Combined with the unstable political situation, the early Early Middle Ages were a period of scientific stagnation. The ascension of Charlemagne ushered in the first of the medieval renaissances, the Carolingian Renaissance.Wikipedia Intellectuals from all across Western Europe gathered in his court, AlcuinWikipedia being the most notable. The Carolingian minuscule developed in that period was later misidentified by the humanists, and forms the basis of our current lower-case typefaces.

A later economic, religious, and political revival would all later lead to the Renaissance of the 12th century.Wikipedia Gothic Architecture was born in this period, the culmination of experiments in engineering and possible Islamic influence. The successes in the Reconquista of Spain led to an active process of translation of ancient Greek texts through the detour of their Arabic translations, often enriched with new commentaries. Translations of Jewish and Islamic texts were not uncommon either.[note 1] This is why many of our mathematical and scientific concepts, such as algebra and azimuth, have Arabic-derived names.

Physical sciences[edit]

13th Century explanation of how a spherical Earth works. Flat Earthers have no excuse.

Chemistry as a field did not exist yet; instead there was alchemy, which was preoccupied with such pipe dreams as turning lead into gold and discovering the elixir of immortality. Despite this, they were integral in the development of the chemical sciences, their main fault lying with the lack of a unifying theory for the field. Alcohol distillation, gunpowder, and metallurgy figure among the discoveries made under alchemy. Despite the frequent presence of con artists, the field was generally taken seriously by rulers and lay people alike until the late 18th century, when it was rapidly overtaken by modern chemistry.

And of course, people believed the Sun revolved around the Earth. But they didn't believe the Earth was flat. Knock it off. (The common people might have assumed it was flat, but educated people throughout the Middle Ages knew it was round.)


The germ theory of disease was not understood. Contrary to popular belief, Christianity meant a relaxation of rules concerning dissection, and dissections were performed on a regular basis since the 13th century.[8][9] Mondino de LiuzziWikipedia wrote the first modern text on anatomy, and his first public dissection was sanctioned by the Vatican.

Contrary to what most people believe, bathing (even public bathing) was very popular in the Middle Ages, despite attempts of the Church to ban it because of supposed immorality and the spread of syphilis. The bathing culture eventually died out after the Renaissance, influenced by new, yet erroneous, medical opinions.


See the main article on this topic: Heroic medicine

Following Ancient Greek and Roman practice, physicians associated certain emotions (Humours) with diseases and bodily fluids. It was believed illnesses were the result of said fluids being out of balance. Treatment meant draining "overabundant" fluids.[10] The practice of bloodletting — meant to correct blood-related afflictions in the "sanguine" — is still shorthand for quackery and medical woo.

The Black Death[edit]

The Plague in Florence, 1348.
See the main article on this topic: Plague

In the 14th century, bubonic plague came to Europe, a catastrophe turning the people to desperate measures. Many blamed Jews for outbreaks of the disease.[11] The reasoning was that Jews were not suffering in similar numbers as Christians (most probably due to better personal hygiene and sanitation), therefore Jews were deemed to be behind the outbreak. The pope himself thought this was ludicrous, as a lot of Jews were dying of the Plague, but waited until after the worst of the anti-Jewish fervor to do anything because he knew its popularity was such that he had no chance of containing it at its height. Accusations that Jews "poisoned wells" and thus spread plague were recycled even up to the Holocaust.

Others believed the plague was a curse from God, and that only by getting right with the Lord could they end the nightmare. Flagellants resorted to whipping themselves as a show of piety and repentance.[12]

According to scholars, Vox in Rama,Wikipedia issued by Pope Gregory IXWikipedia around 1233, is the first official church document that condemns the black cat as an incarnation of Satan, and consequently it was the death warrant for the animal".[13] It is also claimed that this worsened the Black Death a century after Gregory's time, because the plague was spread by rats which were unchecked in Europe due to the decline of cat numbers.[14] Nice one, Greg! Though one is tempted to say it served 'em right for killing innocent kitties.

The Black Death began in central Asia and spread west, devastating large swathes of central Asia, Asia Minor and the Middle East before hitting Europe.[15] Most accept that the Black Death was caused by a bubonic plague, although there are alternative theories of the Black Death and some research provides evidence that the plague was pneumonic, an airborne infection spread from human to human, not bubonic, one spread by the fleas on rats.[16] Furthermore, in recent research the rats are exonerated as reservoir hosts for the Black Death.[17] Keep in mind that no one knew about the tiny invisible demons in the stagnant baptismal font cesspool like E. coli, Enterococcus and Campylobacter, or that cramming a bunch of people next to each other in a room and having them sing songs despite coughing and sneezing could spread disease making the church a focus of infection.Wikipedia[18] Even today, when was the last time the infectiously ill and highly contagious faithful were turned away at the door for having the cold or the flu? (Or COVID, sigh.[19])

Italian agricultural calendar, 1306.

The consequences were fairly mixed. The reduced population led to an increase in demand for workers, which temporarily improved the bargaining position of the poor and the standing of women as both were needed to replace dead workers.[20] Of course, it was not to last, as many nobles attempted to enforce serfdom even more harshly as the population recovered, ultimately succeeding in Eastern Europe (until they were overthrown in the early 20th century), while the position of women declined once a conservative backlash took hold.


The Middle Ages saw considerable improvement in the matter of feeding people, such as the introduction of the wheeledWikipedia plough,Wikipedia which allowed the cultivation of the heavy soils in Northern and Eastern Europe, and the three-field systemWikipedia which increased agricultural productivity of the land under cultivation. It was at least in part the greater population (density), following as a result of expanded and more efficient cultivation, which created the fertile environment for the spread of the Black Death.



See the main article on this topic: Literature

Literacy levels were low in the Middle Ages, but many stories were preserved through oral tradition. Most written works in this period were in Latin.[21] Some writers bucked this trend, such as Geoffrey ChaucerWikipedia and Dante Alighieri,Wikipedia who wrote in vernacular, a trend that began in Italy and France before spreading more widely in the 14th century.


Following the Romans, egg temperaWikipedia (and for a while encaustic paintingWikipedia) was the main painting medium. The Byzantine Empire gradually evolved from realistic painting in the Roman tradition (see this encaustic Pantokrator from Sinai) to the hieratic Orthodox icons we know today (see this Pantokrator painted by Feofan Grek). The Byzantine iconoclasm and aversion did not affect Western Europe however, and they gradually moved towards realism, culminating in the Renaissance and the discovery of oil paintingWikipedia.


1475 depiction of Paris.

The enduring architectural legacy of the Middle Ages includes the many castles, churches and cathedrals of Europe. Gothic Architecture was all about height and light, rib-vaulted stone skeletons supported by flying buttresses, the result of significant developments in engineering. In some instances these engineers became overambitious, building cathedrals that collapsed under their own weight or in a stiff wind. Castles also became gradually more grand over time, often incorporating designs learned during the crusades and as a result of the development of gunpowder artillery. Even the earlier Romanesque churches are impressive, beautiful buildings in their own right.

Castles originated in the 9th and 10th centuries, after the fall of the Carolingian Empire resulted in its territory being divided among individual lords and princes. Over the approximately 900 years that castles were built, they took on a great many forms with many different features, although some, such as curtain walls and arrowslits, were commonplace. European castles first became built of stone like they were in the east after the crusades of the 14th century, rather than the smaller wooden buildings as they had typically been in the past. Although gunpowder was introduced to Europe in the 14th century, it did not significantly affect castle building until the 15th century, when artillery became powerful enough to break through stone walls. While castles continued to be built well into the 16th century, new techniques to deal with improved cannon fire made them uncomfortable and undesirable places to live.

A star fort,Wikipedia bastion fort or trace italienne, is a fortification in a style that evolved during the age of gunpowder when the cannon came to dominate the battlefield. It was first seen in the mid-15th century in Italy. The design of the fort is normally a pentagon or hexagon with bastions at the corners of the walls. These outcroppings are present for the purpose of a total, panoramic view of the battlefield. Because of the bastions, archers and cannon operators can hit any target on the battlefield without having to lean over the wall and expose themselves. Passive ring-shaped (enceinte) fortifications of the Medieval era proved vulnerable to damage or destruction by cannon fire, when it could be directed from outside against a perpendicular masonry wall. In addition, an attacking force that could get close to the wall was able to conduct undermining operations in relative safety, as the defenders could not shoot at them from nearby walls. They were built of many materials, usually earth and brick, as brick does not shatter on impact from a cannonball as stone does.[22]

Back to the future[edit]

How the Klan sees itself.

Misconceptions about the past, and the Middle Ages in particular, have been around for a long time. Nazi Germany appropriated medieval symbolism in its propaganda,[23][24] and the Ku Klux Klan misappropriated medieval knighthood in their structure.[25] Medievalists recently taken to fighting back against misappropriation of medieval icons and misrepresentation of medieval history, particularly by the alt-right, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other white nationalists since the August 2017 Unite the Right riots/rally Charlottesville, Virginia.[26] The misappropriations and misrepresentations include use of "Vinland" instead of North America, the use of Knights Templar, "Saracen Go Home", "Deus vult", and other things related to the Crusades.[27] Several medievalist academic organizations have issued a repudiation of these misrepresentations:[25]

As scholars of the medieval world we are disturbed by the use of a nostalgic but inaccurate myth of the Middle Ages by racist movements in the United States. By using imagined medieval symbols, or names drawn from medieval terminology, they create a fantasy of a pure, white Europe that bears no relationship to reality. This fantasy not only hurts people in the present, it also distorts the past. Medieval Europe was diverse religiously, culturally, and ethnically, and medieval Europe was not the entire medieval world. Scholars disagree about the motivations of the Crusades—or, indeed, whether the idea of "crusade" is a medieval one or came later—but it is clear that racial purity was not primary among them.

Additionally there is also the Christchurch terrorist attacks at Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, 2019 that killed 51 and injured 50 more by its Australia-born perpetrator Brenton Harrison Tarrant. The shooter's guns contained references to certain medieval battles such as the Battle of Tours (France) in 732 as well as Charles Martel (considered a hero by many white nationalists) and the Battle of Acre (Israel) in 1189 which involved the Crusaders fighting the Egyptian Mamluks in addition the manifesto (The Great Replacement named after the French/Identitarian version of the white genocide conspiracy theory by Renaud Camus) quotes Pope Urban II's speech ordering the retaking of Jerusalem and the First Crusade.

Medieval Racist graffiti

In fact, racism as we know it originated after the Middle Ages, as a result of the heavy use of African slave labor and a rationalization for enslaving one group of people. The Middle Ages was full of religious bigotry, just not racial bigotry. Specific examples of non-whites living within the Middle Ages include Sir Morien (who is officially described as black in the story of the same name), the Muslim/Saracen convert to Christianity Sir Palamades and his brothers Safir and Segwarides, Feirefiz (a character in Parzival aka Percival described as being both black and white), and most importantly Al-Andalus/Islamic Spain (inhabited by Muslims, Christians and Jews) and Norman-Arab-Byzantine Sicily an era of the island of Sicily, Italy which was you guessed it inhabited by Norman French Catholics (the very people behind the conquest of England in 1066), Greek Byzantine Orthodox (the Byzantine Empire) and Arab Middle Eastern/North African Muslims (who originally conquered the island) of which Roger II (the Catholic king of the island) and Muhammad al-Idrisi (a Muslim poet) who created the most advanced world map in the Middle Ages at the time in 1154 not counting Robert de Clari interacting with a Christian king from the African country of Nubia in The Conquest of Constantinople and Ahmad ibn Fadlan's meeting the Volga Vikings of Russia (then known as simply Rus) in 922.

See also[edit]

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Middle Ages.

External links[edit]


  1. We still know philosophers such as Ibn Rushd and Ben Maimon with their Latin names, Averroës and Maimonides respectively.


  1. Pulp Fiction (1994): Quotes IMDb
  2. http://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2012/06/24/william-the-conquerors-england-and-its-relations-with-the-papacy/, William the Conqueror's army carried a Papal flag to Hastings.
  3. Medieval Chivalry, Dr. Richard Abels, US Naval Academy.
  4. The Divine Right of Kings, JP Sommerville.
  5. What was gained from the Crusades?
  6. Cathars, Kenyon College.
  7. http://web.archive.org/web/20080523174317/http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/mm00e.html
  8. "In the 13th century, the realisation that human anatomy could only be taught by dissection of the human body resulted in its legalisation in several European countries between 1283 and 1365." Philip Cheung, Public Trust in Medical Research? (2007), p. 36.
  9. "Indeed, very early in the thirteenth century, a religious official, namely, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), ordered the postmortem autopsy of a person whose death was suspicious." Toby Huff, The Rise Of Modern Science (2003), p. 195
  10. Sex, Society, and Women, University of Rochester.
  11. Jewish History Sourcebook, Fordham University.
  12. The Flagellants Attempt to Repel the Black Death, 1349, An account of their activities.
  13. Donald W. Engels (1999). Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat. Psychology Press. pp. 188. ISBN 978-0-415-21251-9. 
  14. Veterinary History, Volumes 12-13. Veterinary History Society. 2003. p. 254. 
  15. The History of Human-Animal Interaction — The Medieval Period Library Index
  16. Thorpe, Vanessa (2014-03-29). "Black death skeletons reveal pitiful life of 14th-century Londoners". The Guardian/The Observer. Retrieved 2014-04-03.
  17. Hurd, Hilary "Rats are exonerated as reservoir hosts for the Black Death". BioMedCentral
  18. Holy Water May be Harmful to Your Health, Study Finds
  19. https://apnews.com/article/us-news-public-health-coronavirus-pandemic-us-supreme-court-california-3832bd8444a4bd753828c4d576eb6cd5
  20. The Devastating Impact of the Black Death on Marriage and Family in Medieval England
  21. The End of Europe's Middle Ages -Languages and Literature, The University of Calgary.
  22. "Star Forts". Types of Castle and The History of Castles. Castle and Manor Houses Resources.
  23. The Third Reich Nazi Propaganda 1935-1938 Propaganda Posters (Boston College)
  24. Der Bannerträger ("The Standard Bearer"), by Hubert Lanzinger, circa 1935 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  25. 25.0 25.1 Medievalists Respond to Charlottesville (August 18, 2017) The Medieval Academy Blog.
  26. When Neo-Nazis Lay Claim to Your Field (Sep 15, 2017) On the Media (WNYC).
  27. What to Do When Nazis Are Obsessed With Your Field: How medieval historians can counter white supremacy. by David M. Perry (Sep 6, 2017) Pacific Standard.