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The Middle Ages weren’t just “dark”


When you think about the Middle Ages you usually picture dearth and pestilence, violence, tortures and wars, peasants under the rule of a sadistic king or feudatory, creepy monks, scheming popes, inquisitors, ignorance, superstition, the end of the world in the year 1000 a.D. A long period too quickly labeled as “dark”, just a time of passage between the splendor of the classic era and Renaissance.

That’s another misinterpretation, because history itself is a constant transition, an ongoing process, not only the Middle Ages. But this is what we learn at school.

A first approximate schematization is about the contrast between empire and papacy, secularity and theocracy, in which feuds and noble dominions look for an increasing autonomy. Actually, in these times, national states start their slow development and the fight between laity and clergy begins when centralization of powers has already started.

The collective imaginary includes a heavy decadence of scientific thought, with progress and evolution interrupted for a thousand years on behalf of subservience to a religiosity that doesn’t allow any study: humanity isn’t central anyway (like during Humanism) and if you do it you can get burned alive. Not to mention all the mortification of the flesh and aesthetic pleasure.

A frame from The Name of The Rose

The truth is multifaceted. We cannot say that all those things never happened, but at the same time troubadour poetry and courtly love are born, such as many inventions. The plow on two wheels and with two blades, glasses, new techniques of intensive farming, the mechanical clock, universities, markets, the compass and many other instruments that helped explorers and navigators like Columbus.

Speaking by, the idea of a flat Earth was almost totally abandoned. The results obtained by Galileo, Newton, Kepler, are based on previous studies. The concept of God pushed to the observation of nature, a way to learn more about the creator and his (or her?, nah, too soon) “job”.

Prejudices can also be positive, though. Sagas of brave knights, tournaments, battles, ventures, the pure love of a princess. That’s what inspire the Society of Creative Anachronism, an international association with more than 30 thousand enrolled from 20 thousand “realms”, dedicated to reenactments of feasts, royal banquets, dances, workshops, all the aspects of an idealization of the Middle Ages.

A reenactment by the Society of Creative Anachronism, pic from their website

According to the French historian Jacques Le Goff, “if you study the Middle Ages, you will see that is different than us, than what Europe has become today. You will have the impression of making an overseas trip. Never forget, however, that the men and women of this era are our forbearers, and that the Middle Ages was a key moment in our past, and that therefore a journey to the Middle Ages can provide you with the double pleasure of meeting both these strangers and yourself at the same time”.

Although is hard to label more than a thousand years of History, the Italian writer Umberto Eco – the author of The name of the rose – said something like that about that period. All those things we are still dealing with are invented in the Middle Ages: banks and promissory notes, the latifundium organization, local administrations structures, class struggles, pauperism, the diatribe between state and church, universities, mystic terrorism, trials, hospitals and bishoprics, even touristic organizations: just replace the Maldives with Jerusalem and you will have everything. Michelin guides included.


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