One of the points I try to underscore when I teach in my field is that my students need to rethink their understanding of the medieval. Typically, insofar as my kids think of the Middle Ages at all, it tends either toward a Knight’s Tale/Monty Python and the Holy Grail vision (which in turn owes more than a bit to Mark Twain) or to the line in Pulp Fiction: “They’re gonna get medieval on your ass.” The image they bring in is typically ultraviolent, filthy, and benighted (even if beknighted, as well).
This is of course due to the current tendency to think of everything that has gone before as being prelude to the glory of Us. I would argue that this idea runs back to the early Romantics, who saw themselves as building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land, or to the French Revolutionaries who believed they could eliminate culture and tradition by reasoned fiat, or even to the folks in the 15th C. who hung the term medium aevum on the period. Darwin, meanwhile, allowed folks to hang a veneer of science on their own prejudices, so that a Castle of Perseverance could be seen by Hardin Craig in the 1950s as a Neanderthal on the way to modern theater, or a Beowulf (pre-Tolkien) could serve primarily as a means of studying the development of English rather than as a worthwhile literary work. One can also find examples in such important works as Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages — which has recently been retranslated as Autumn of the Middle Ages — which, although not sneering at its subjects, does condescend toward them from time to time. We see it in politics as well, as latter-day progressives (a term that carries a vector within itself; progress implies direction and destination) love to charge folks who disagree with them as trying to “turn back the clock” — a manifestation of Frye’s myth of progress. And again, if someone is accused of being medieval in their thinking, they aren’t being compared to Anselm or Aquinas, or even Chaucer’s Boece.
All this came to mind this afternoon as I read an article that ran at HuffPo a few days ago. The author’s name is unlisted, but he or she is apparently affiliated with Notting Hill Editions. In any case, the article is a very nice examination of the bias I’m describing. The author borrows a page from Edward Said’s playbook:
I’ll call this prejudice “medievalism”; I realise medievalism usually describes the practice of those who study the Middle Ages, not denigrate them. Still, the same could be said of Said’s re-coining a word, Orientalism, which previously had been used to describe those who neutrally studied the East, to mean those who belittled it – so perhaps for the purposes of this essay, we might be allowed to take out the word on loan. Medievalism: the unsubtantiated belief that people in the Middle Ages were by definition stupider, more naive and more violent than people who came after them.
Although I think Said is responsible for considerable mischief in the continuing march toward relativism, the people of the Middle Ages are safely dead, so the old fraud’s theories may be less troublesome here. In any case, this Notting Hill Editions article is well worth your time, and may become required reading for my students in the future.
H/T: My friend, colleague, and occasional commenter kpk.