Two Cheers for the Middle Ages!

The Middle Ages

by Johannes Fried, translated from the German by Peter Lewis
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 580 pp., $35.00
Musée Condé, Chantilly, France/Bridgeman Images
A country household in winter representing the month of February in the duke of Berry’s Book of Hours, by the Limbourg brothers, circa 1412–1416

Prejudice against the medieval runs deep. It is an adjective applied to atrocity, as in Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment on the men who murdered 126 people at a school in Peshawar and served “a dark and almost medieval vision.” It is also applied to all severe punishment, out-of-date technology (this “medieval” typewriter), and all illiberal attitudes. For many, the Middle Ages are ineradicably reprehensible, as well as comic: knights immobilized in their armor, fat monks panting after licentious nuns, ladies locked into chastity belts. The stand-bys of eighteenth-century derision have stood the test of time. Remember those angels dancing on a pinpoint? They still dance for those who believe that the medieval schools were engaged in a wasted intellectual effort.

Unfair! the medievalists have shouted, from the days when Edward Gibbon cried “Gone Away!” and set the enlightened hounds on the scent of decay and moldy monks that in his nostrils accompanied the fall of the Roman Empire. Unfair because it has been found again and again that our skills, laws, liberties, nations, and languages are the result of hard work in the millennium reputed dark, unlit by reason, and recessive from the sunshine of the classical civilizations, when perfectly formed philosophers sat debating in public colonnades, monk-free.

Our gratitude to that Greco-Roman civilization is seldom stinted, but those who came afterward have left castles, cathedrals, Italian and Flemish and Byzantine art, printing, plainsong, and parliaments, not to mention universities. Yet the black propaganda of Voltaire, Hume, Kant, and Mark Twain remains suspended in the air like soot in the old factory towns, while intellectuals crow over the birth of “modernity” like fancied fighting cocks. They will not enjoy the fattest of these books, a translation of Johannes Fried’s The Middle Ages, which has gone through three editions in the last six years and reads like a counterblast to the hot air of the liberal-humanist interpreters of European history.

They should begin at the end, with the epilogue entitled “The Dark Middle Ages?” where Fried shows his cards and rehearses the errors of the Enlightenment view of the period, as well as those of Romantic medievalism, with unsparing acuity. Then comes the eulogy, when he applies to the Middle Ages the terms of approval that modern periods are awarded by their fans. Western medieval people are commended by Fried for dynamism, for know-how in all fields of technology and art, for hungry intellectual curiosity, for capitalism, globalism, education, and all-around Vorsprung durch Technik. It was, he writes, the medieval pioneers who strangled the serpents of blind faith, ignorance, and unexamined hypotheses in the cradle.

Readers responsive to this rhetoric will be intrigued if not swayed by the way Fried deploys it. Even those who doubt that hot air is the best way of defeating hot air will be impressed by the main body of the work, which covers a thousand years of mostly Western and Central European history with magnificent confidence. He does justice both to the centrifugal fragmentation of the European region into monarchies, cities, republics, heresies, trade and craft associations, vernacular literatures, and to the persistence of unifying and homogenizing forces: the papacy, the Western Empire, the schools, the friars, the civil lawyers, the bankers, the Crusades.

Contrasting elements then coexisted in close proximity and on fairly equal terms, until a tendency to “de-hierarchization” began to predominate in many fields during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Popes and emperors still claimed universal authority, but with decreasing success. Marsilius of Padua was arguing that sovereignty lay with bodies of virtuous citizens. Other clerics held that in spiritual matters the whole church in council trumped the authority of its now duplicated heads at Rome and Avignon.

Fried traces this invigorating lack of consensus back to Charlemagne, king of the Franks and emperor of the West, who died in 814. His learned courtiers instigated a new Age of Reason by copying classical texts, both Christian and pagan, and by disagreeing over points of doctrine. It’s not clear why Reason starts there, when Irish, Anglo-Saxon, and Hispanic scholars had been copying classical texts and discussing doctrine long before Charlemagne was born. To be assured without explanation that he invented something called the feudal system will annoy most medievalists and mislead others, even at Frankfurt on the Main. However, the development of rationality is the theme of Fried’s book, and it is traced through the application of Aristotle’s logic in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century schools to the spread of its influence in ways that make it possible for Fried to postulate a “thought collective” among educated Western Europeans by the end of the period.

Perhaps there was such a collective. In Fried’s work its rise and achievement are given a priority that leaves not enough room for contrary cultural developments. One that is noted in his book is the almost universal expectation of the imminent end of all things, of the Last Days and Final Judgment predicted by Jesus and accepted throughout the early church. About every thirty years from the tenth century onward, this fear took possession of various, sometimes large bodies of men and women and inspired them to form mass movements. Collective penance, pentecostal enthusiasm, irregular crusades, unauthorized pilgrimages, messianic mobbing—all these engaged Christians who feared it might soon be too late.

This was a recurrent electrical charge both in politics and in religion, and Fried does it justice although it sits ill with his insistence on the period as an Age of Reason. He seems reluctant to concede that hysteria kept pace and outstripped the achievement of the thought collective. By 1500 art, printing, theater, and song had enriched the West with a vivid backdrop on which the presence of Antichrist, the Last Judgment, the Devil, Hell’s Mouth, and torments were made clearer than ever before. Individual consciousness of sin was so intense that the attempted reformation of the church would turn into hell on earth.

Of course, the longing for peace and quiet deserves equal treatment. Limitations on war and restrictions on violence took on new forms in the Middle Ages, and the rejection of gross materialism inspired both the contemplative orders of monks and the bare-foot friars who went among secular men and women. This was the time of peacekeeping associations of all kinds, of hermits, and of the benevolent ladies called beguines; of places set apart for refuge and asylum, of hospices and leper houses; of quite long silences, which cannot play much part in the story of dynamism, innovation, and cupidity that Fried tells.

There is never a quiet moment in his Middle Ages, and his vocabulary is alive with fake urgency. Institutions and ideas “burgeon.” Churches, societies, and cultures are either “in flux” or “in ferment”; everything is either up-and-coming or out of date. Periods, peoples, and concepts are invested with personalities and powers that enable them to “grapple with logic,” “take pains,” “yearn for more,” “shake to the core,” or merely “march,” onward and upward unless briefly halted by “antiquated notions,” like the emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s imperialism. Not for long, while reason, faith, the West, and other abstractions are generously ascribed to one group after another. To carp at the language seems unfair when this is a translation; but the translator, Peter Lewis, is an experienced and trustworthy linguist.

Apart from the language, the critic must feel some chilly drafts through the holes in Fried’s splendid historical tapestry. If you want to know about the life and contributions of the Jews in this precocious Age of Reason, you must sing it yourself. He mentions only in passing that Jews were systematically excluded from the urban communities he discusses. While he sees Christianity as a unifying and homogenizing force, he has little to say about the different forms of Christianity developed and practiced in the Byzantine Empire after the East–West schism of the eleventh century.

Nearly a century ago, when the Cambridge Medieval History was beginning to appear, the papist provocateur Hilaire Belloc found a fatal flaw in the first volume: it does not mention the Mass once. A flaw, because in this period Mass (Missa) came to mean the act of worship that defined all Christians: clergy, laity, the whole population other than pagans, Jews, Muslims, and those heretics who did without priests. To have this rite celebrated all the way from Greenland to the Far East was no slight occurrence in the history of mankind. Hence Belloc’s surprise. Fried, who cannot be faulted for his emphasis on the intellectual summits of Christianity, does rather better than the Cambridge medievalists. By my count, he mentions the Mass twice.

While the US secretary of state was holding up the “dark vision” of the Middle Ages for detestation this past December, Alex Salmond, the former leader of the Scottish nationalists, was demanding a new Peasants’ Revolt in England, as an insurrection likely to prove beneficial to the Scots. Since a genuine Peasants’ Revolt would involve the decapitation of the archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Treasurer, and many other respectable officials, Salmond clearly has a strong stomach when it comes to confounding his enemies; but there are many who admire the revolt of 1381 as the nearest England ever came to a real live revolution.

Plebeian armies marched or rode to London, confronted the young king, Richard II, and his court, presented their grievances, massacred their enemies, and spread their cause far into the midlands and eastern counties. Burning charters, rent rolls, and law books lit the June skies; abbots and bishops trembled, barons kept out of the way, Flemish immigrants found that the only way to stay alive was to pronounce “bread and cheese” like natives. It was unruly, unkind, and destructive, but in the view of many historians, it was an essentially righteous uprising of the oppressed, who suddenly decided that enough was enough, and that the egalitarianism of the itinerant priest John Ball was good enough for them.

Juliet Barker scored a memorable bull’s-eye about ten years ago with her study of the Battle of Agincourt. Now she turns her unsparing eye on the events of 1381 and the general uprising of that summer with the consequent revenge of the authorities over the next two years, and rejects much of the narrative of events outlined above.

A closer look at the chronicles and legal records suggests to Barker that this was not so much a revolt of peasants, that is, of small or middling cultivators tied to manors and their hereditary status of unfreedom. It was instead the revolt of all but the highest classes of landowners, with craftsmen, townsmen, minor officials, and even gentry and clergy who considered themselves overtaxed, overgoverned, and misgoverned by profiteering oligarchs unable to defend the coasts against French raiders or lead successful counterattacks into France. The rising was a response to the failure of the upper class, rather than to the class system. Its brief success was owing to the accidental absence of the king’s powerful uncles and better military commanders, so that when the insurgents of Kent and Essex reached the outskirts of London they were confronted by a fourteen-year-old boy-king—Richard II—rather than a bristling battalion of men-at-arms.

British Library, London
‘Harrowing,’ in which a boy follows a harrow with a slingshot and stones to scare away birds and keep them from eating the seeds; from the Luttrell Psalter, circa 1325–1335

If New York is London, then Kent is Connecticut: not geographically, but quasi-sociologically. At two open-air meetings this boy agreed to all that the rebels wanted, including the abolition of hereditary unfreedom (unknown in Kent), the nationalization of the wealth of the church, free trade throughout the kingdom, and pardon for offenses committed meanwhile. While the king’s clerks were, on the king’s orders, writing out dozens of charters of emancipation and exculpation, to be rushed out to the shires and villages, some of the more Leninesque insurgents were let into the Tower of London and murdered the archbishop and the treasurer, before conducting door-to-door decapitations in the city.

So much is well attested, even if the chroniclers tend to dramatize and vilify the plebeians. Like many modern Englishmen they wanted only to kill the lawyers, the politicians, the foreigners, and certain landlords in the hope of building a fairer society. Unlike modern Englishmen, they actually did the killing, but only up to a point.

What stopped them was the astonishing courage of young Richard, who when the mayor of London killed the rebel chief Wat Tyler in a brawl, rode forward and shouted to the rebels, “Go home. I will be your leader”—and they went, either awed by the divinity that doth hedge a king, or unwilling to kill the king who had authorized the small charters of emancipation they had tucked into their hats and purses and belts. As far as they were concerned, the goose had laid the golden egg. For the next two or three weeks, many English subjects enjoyed a holiday from many of the constraints that had held good for centuries.

Their liberation was not a pretty sight, but for later historians, politicians, and poets this holiday inspired all subsequent English freedom fighters, and tolled the knell of passing feudalism. In fact the rebellion passed much more quickly than the feudalism; villeinage, or ownership of people, had been on the way out before this, but the emancipation was soon canceled while workable serfdom persisted. As the uprising spread, it did so entirely in the name of “King Richard and the True Commons,” with sealed parchment to justify and pardon the mayhem.

Barker concludes that the king did in fact sympathize with the rebels; he rescinded his concessions reluctantly and was convinced from then onward that it was the upper rather than the lower classes who were truly dangerous. If so, he was right: earls were to depose him in 1399 and murder him, not churls. But it seems fanciful to read his mind as it was in 1381, when there is really no evidence either way.

The respect for royalty and sealed parchment shown by bloody-handed butchers of men may seem paradoxical, but Chaucer’s England was like that. An armed population was subject to law, the sword, custom, and market forces in often inharmonious collaboration, with violence never absent. Nor was religion; but bishops tended to be civil servants, and Bishop Despenser of Norwich rode armed from head to foot looking for rebel heads to split open. Both barons and senior clergy needed armed retinues to protect them from robbers and from one another; townsmen fought like cats to defend their trades and borough status. Intimidation and thuggery were endemic, but the reach of the king’s and other administrative systems and servants was long and intrusive, and the agents of royal, church, and private law made a good living.

Such a situation gave birth to continual unrest and discontent, and Barker sees 1381 as the year in which the usually diffuse strains of public anger came together, started by a new sort of poll tax to pay for a war against France already lost or discontinued. It was a brief opportunity for anyone with a grudge, grievance, or vendetta and living within a hundred miles of London or York to kill, despoil, humiliate, and rob their enemies in the king’s name. The suppression of the revolt from July 1381 to July 1383 was a chance for some of the victims and the offended authorities to kill, despoil, humiliate, and rob in turn, or pardon those who could pay. There were to be no more attempts to levy a poll tax until the time of Charles II, but there was no reform of justice, no abolition of trade restrictions and charges, and politics were handed back to the king and his barons.

Barker’s book is a thorough and workmanlike study, a world away from Fried’s comprehensive coverage of the whole medieval continent in flux, but offering a close look at what things were actually like in part of one island off the shore of that continent in one year, insofar as the documents will let her. And where was Chaucer, while his England was in turmoil, and “Jack Straw and his mob” were murdering the Flemish weavers? History does not relate. As his patron was John of Gaunt, the most hated man in England for the time being, my guess would be “under the bloody bed,” as the Irish say.

One class of persons who could not participate in the uprising of oppressed groups in 1381 was Jews. Their communities had been expelled nearly a hundred years earlier—in 1290—by King Edward I, and individuals were only allowed back under special license. Two hundred years of the Judaic presence were simply obliterated. However, anti-Semitic iconography continued to be produced in England: pictures of men in funny hats with large hooked noses and straggling and pointed beards, or women in gaudy green raiment with rings in their ears. The houses of Jews portrayed in these images were thought to hold heaps of gold, broken and defiled crucifixes, idols, cats, and the bodies of Christian children who had met the fate of those still-popular young saints William of Norwich, Little Hugh of Lincoln, and Adam of Bristol; for Merry England had been the nursery of the Blood Libel, according to which Jews sacrificed Christian babes.

If that was how English gentiles might have imagined Jews, Sara Lipton explains, they would have been disappointed in every way. In Dark Mirror, her meticulous survey of medieval depictions of Jews from many cities and countries across Europe, she finds that where hostile or derisive they were based not on the actual Jewish appearance (which was usually the same as that of the Christians among whom they lived) but on the effort by artists and sculptors to symbolize the moral blindness and materialism of all who failed to recognize the divinity of Christ, whether Jews or not.

By way of support of this proposition, she finds no caricature of Jews earlier than the eleventh century, however fiercely they were blamed by some of the church fathers. Christian veneration of Jewish scripture and Jewish prophets and Christ and the apostles meant that the Jews portrayed had to look venerable. So they were given hats like mitres, long beards, and scrolls; and Lipton deduces the conical brimmed headgear assigned to less venerable Jews after around 1000 to derive from those quasi mitres. Yet the hats shown in early manuscripts look more like those of Mexican peons than those of such noble Hebrews as Melchisadek the priest-king. To identify Jews by their hats seems a weak link; which is not to say that such a link may not have existed, but that the illustrations in Lipton’s book don’t support it. Besides, if a modern unbeliever were to be denoted by his hat, why would that hat be reminiscent of those worn by ancient witnesses to the truth and foretellers of Christ? Was that irony?

After that, it was a short step to depicting the tormentors of Jesus as hideous grimacing figures, hatted or bareheaded; and so “in giving visual form to loveless looking, medieval Christendom learned to look with hate” on their Jewish friends, neighbors, and creditors. This is not when the hatred began: the laws of the seventh-century Visigothic kings of Spain and the tracts of Agobard against the Jews of Lyons in the ninth century are full of it, as Lipton concedes; but the increasing emphasis on Christ’s bodily suffering and the need to avenge it on unbelievers of all sorts made the Jewish presence seem subversive and offensive, even when tolerated and protected by rulers and churchmen.

Although Old Testament Jews continued to be shown in stone and glass as holy and handsome, the conventions of book illustration and wall painting tended to include jabbering, gesticulating, and jeering Jewish onlookers as in the Quentin Matsys Ecce Homo now in Madrid or the nasty hags at the Circumcision in a French manuscript of circa 1400. Such distorted images, we are assured, were not intended to rouse hatred of living Jews or wound their feelings, like the cartoons of the twentieth-century Nazi press. The increasing segregation of Jews in the West after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which insisted that they wear distinctive badges, was not the result of visual demonization; the visual demonization was not confined to pictures of Jews, but resulted from a theological drive to increase the devotion of the laity to the Life of Christ. If so, we learn yet again that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. If not, the argument of the book is still worth reading, as art history.

The intentions of the artists are still a problem. When Charles Dickens’s illustrator George Cruikshank engraved Fagin in the Condemned Cell for Oliver Twist, he showed an unmistakably vile old Jew afraid to meet his merited fate on the gallows. Dickens made him unable to pray or show remorse even in that state. Yet neither author nor artist intended to attack or insult Jews. Their aim was to deprecate crime, child abuse, and cruelty, but they could not resist making their second-order villain Jewish, a caricature of the known fence Ikey Solomon.

Fagin is also endowed with charm, hospitable manners, and concern for his young disciples. We think we know him; we don’t hate him nearly as much as his creator did. Nevertheless, he became a type by which all Jews were measured, and found wanting by racial purists. There is no reason to suppose that Dickens and Cruikshank were any less pure in their intentions than were the twelfth- and thirteenth-century scribes; and yet it would be a naive apologist who explained the Hebraic Fagin as merely a moral fiction, unconnected with London Low Life of the 1830s.

The “advance praise” for Dark Mirror on the back of the jacket announces that it is “a spectacular achievement.” One statement begins with the adverbs “Compellingly, thoughtfully.” I wouldn’t go quite that far but the publisher has done Sara Lipton proud, with full references, frequent text illustrations, and fourteen color plates, at a competitive thirty-seven dollars.


Nasty Images of Jews July 23, 2015