Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths – a book reviewHELEN M. VALOIS
“The Church is absolutely medieval!” How often have we heard that remark? It is meant to convey that Catholicism has not kept up with the intellectual, technological, and social advances of modernity, and is merely a throwback to those vilified centuries we’ve been taught to call the “Dark Ages.” In Ignatius Press’ new release “ Those Terrible Middle Ages!” historian Regine Pernoud demonstrates that this attitude is not only mistaken about the Church, but about the Middle Ages as well.
"The Church is absolutely medieval!" How often have we heard that remark, or the gist of it, used as a way of brushing aside Catholic teaching? It is meant to convey that Catholicism has not kept up with the intellectual, technological, and social advances of modernity, and is merely a throwback to those vilified centuries we've been taught to call the "Dark Ages."
In Ignatius Press' new release Those Terrible Middle Ages! historian Regine Pernoud demonstrates that this attitude is not only mistaken about the Church, but about the Middle Ages as well. Her analysis reveals that it is not the Church, but modernity itself that constitutes a mere historical throwback. In our own age, the paganism of ancient times is revived, after a welcome respite from it for almost a millennium. Those who decry the "neopaganism" of today's culture of death probably don't know that their characterization is historically justifiable.
"The term 'Renaissance' (Rinascita) was used for the first time by Vasari in the middle of the 16th century," Pernoud explains (p. 21). "He was saying exactly what he meant, what it still signifies for most people. . . . What are 'reborn' . . . are the classical arts and letters. In the vision, in the mentality of that time (and not only of the 16th century but of the three following centuries), there were two periods of light: antiquity and the Renaissance, the classical times. And between the two, a 'middle age' an intermediary period, a uniform block, 'crude centuries,' 'obscure times' (p. 21). . . . We are simplifying, of course, but no more than those who use the word 'renaissance.' And everyone uses it" (p. 23).
Pernoud's central point is that the Middle Ages were not "crude" and "obscure." Other things went on besides people dropping dead from the plague. For one thing, learning flourished, and although it had a Christian imprint, it wasn't severed from the wisdom of the ancients. Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance, quoted the ancients with great familiarity (p. 23). How many of the intelligentsia of today, on the other hand, can quote Bernard of Clairvaux?
What happened during the Renaissance, then, was not a rediscovery of the classical period, which had never been forgotten in the first place. What arose, instead, was a simplistic desire to imitate rather than learn from that period. "All beauty was summed up, in architecture, in the Parthenon, and in sculpture, in the Venus de Milo," as Pernoud puts it (p. 27). "Without taking anything away from the admiration aroused by the Parthenon and the Venus de Milo, what is surprising today is that such a narrowness of view could have been the law for some four centuries. Yet so it was: The classical vision imposed almost uniformly on the West admitted no other design, no other criterion than classical antiquity. Once again, the principle had been set down that perfect beauty had been attained during the century of Pericles and that, consequently, the closer one came to the works of that time, the better one would attain Perfection." It goes quite against the grain of popular opinion to hear the Renaissance spoken of as a time when creativity was positively squelched, but Pernoud convincingly makes this case.
One of the less salutary aspects of classical civilization that the Renaissance copied was centralized authority. After the fall of the Roman Empire, we are taught, society collapsed into chaos. Men began exploiting other men, as the separation between feudal lord and serf arose. It was a good 10 centuries before some semblance of social order and justice again appeared.
Actually, the waning of Roman oppression was a good thing. Pernoud sets the vilified concept of the medieval serf in a new light by pointing out that being a serf was a good deal better than being a slave. "The fact is, there is no comparison between the ancient servus, the slave, and the medieval servus, the serf. Because the one was a thing and the other a man. The meaning of the human person experienced a change between ancient and medieval times, a slow change, because slavery was deeply rooted in the customs of Roman society in particular, but an irreversible one" (p. 87). So while the lord/serf societal split was perhaps not optimal, it was much better than what humanity had been doing for centuries. It was not until the Renaissance had abandoned and maligned the medieval mentality that full-fledged slavery once again sprang up in our more "humane" modern times.
In keeping with the theme of her other work, Women in the Days of the Cathedrals, Pernoud also considers the impact of these social developments on the "weaker" gender. Both the depersonalization of the slave mentality and the tendency toward mere copying have negatively affected women. "Roman law is no more favorable to the woman than it is to the child," she reminds us (p. 101), cataloguing the many privileges and rights which women lost when the Renaissance took us back to Roman times. In a telling passage she shows how women have actively, if unwittingly, cooperated in their own re-enslavement into modern feminism, as she writes:
It is very disappointing: everything is happening as if women, overcome with satisfaction at having penetrated the masculine world, have remained incapable of the additional imagination required to bring to this world her own mark, which is precisely what is lacking in our society. It is enough for her to imitate men . . . Such observations . . . lead us to wish that this feudal world might be a bit better known by those who believe in good faith that women have 'finally left the Middle Ages': in point of fact, women have much to do to recover the place that was theirs in the time of Queen Eleanor and Queen Blanche (pp. 112-13).
Pernoud's presentation of "those terrible Middle Ages" scholarly, detailed, and at times demanding is well worth the effort it asks of its reader. While not directly apologetic in purpose, it becomes a vital tool at a time when "medieval" is enough of an offense to take the Church right off the map, as far as the current dialogue is concerned. But the opportunity to learn about the fascinating period of history improperly branded the "dark ages" shouldn't be missed, regardless. It appears that the only "darkness" involved is the ignorance and prejudice of our own days.
Helen M. Valois, M.I. "Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths - book review." Lay Witness (May 2001).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Helen Valois, a frequent contributor to Lay Witness, writes from Steubenville, OH.
Copyright © 2001 LayWitness
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