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
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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 It is also applied to all severe punishment, out-of-date technology (this “medieval” typewriter), and all illiberal attitudes.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…


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