Fifteen (Mostly 19th-Century) Myths About The Middle Ages

There are a number of myths about the so-called middle ages: they thought that earth was flat etc. Most of these myths were fabricated in the 19th century. Why? Because that was the apex, in the West, of “Modernity,” the Enlightenment, when we told each other that we were more rational, more mature, more advanced than earlier generations. We were making progress (e.g., stealing Africans for slavery, child factory labor). We were “getting better every day, in every way” or that’s what we told ourselves.

In order to make this story plausible we needed a period of relative intellectual darkness (hence “the dark ages”) and inferiority. This is how cultural myths get started. They don’t have to be true. They need to serve a purpose, to be plausible, and they need a degree of ignorance in the intended market for the myth. About the same time, in historical theology, summaries replaced sources and Latin began to fall into disuse. After all, if we’re Enlightened and they were so barbaric, what is the point in reading them?

Have you ever wondered how the middle ages became “middle”? Relative to what? Says who? This move actually began with the Renaissance but intensified with the Enlightenment. To be sure, the Renaissance was an age of intellectual renewal but they also marketed themselves and the movements associated with the Renaissance and they wanted to set themselves apart from the earlier, ostensibly less enlightened periods of history.

These myths also, not coincidentally, served the correlate purpose of marginalizing Christianity. They still serve this purpose.

Here is the post.

Ps. A couple of caveats: 1. I don’t think most medievals bathed often; 2. Thomas did discuss angels and pins but not angels dancing on pins. It only seems like a silly question to those who know a priori there are no angels. That’s not Enlightenment as much as materialist dogmatism.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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17 comments

  1. The caveat is still in effect. Many people still don’t bath as often as they should. People believe in aliens from another planet – the universe is expanding – we will continue to be alone – if fuel weighs anything and it does, the fuel needed to travel (faster than light speed) grows exponentially with distance and speed – hence theories of trans-warp speeds and folding space! Not going to happen. We are uniquely alone in the universe! So no dancing aliens on a pin or anywhere else for that matter.
    Humanity is self-destructive and would have wiped itself out without the intervention of God. When the full number of the elect will have been gathered in – judgment day.

    In my study of the Islamic and Arabic history (not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arabs) their Renaissance took place before there Medieval period! They went from exalting the Greeks, Persians, and Indians in science, philosophy, and philology to a return to the Qur’an and their idea analogical reasoning – they rejected the Aristotelian Logical organon – too much Greek philosophical baggage. There is a lot of debate on why Islamic history did not develop as did the west and for that we have to look at the rise and fall of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires – the centuries after the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates. It was the dying embers of the Umayyad Caliphate that conquered the Byzantine strongholds in North Africa and converted the Berbers. They then swept into Spain and nearly beyond. Spain was Muslim for about 800 years.
    The twelfth-century Renaissance was due to the Muslim discoveries and translation work. And on and on.
    Albert the great was using the product of Islamic scholars and he had a direct influence on the Aquinas. The Spanish Jesuits like Molina, Fonseca, and Suarez and the concept of scientia media did not grow out of some intellectual vacuum but was already being debated by Muslim scholars in at least the 9th century before there were Sunnis and Shi’a.
    Ibn Taymiyya wrote “Against the Greek Logicians” and his critique of Aristotle’s Prior and Posterior Analytics anticipated that of the Logical Positivists.

  2. * before their Medieval period; *bathe; *their idea of analogical reasoning (Qiyas); *there is a lot of debate as to why Islamic..; *as it did in the West; *he had a direct influence on Aquinas; *and their concept of scientia media..; *but had already been debated; *

  3. Dear Dr Clark,

    Many thanks for this post! Only very slightly off topic, but what would be some resources you’d recommend for a protestant layman who’s interested in Medieval theology, not afraid of a bit of hard work, and would positively enjoy having to learn a little bit of Latin? I’ve read R W Southern on Western Society and the Church, Pieper’s Intro to Thomas Aquinas and listened to Carl Trueman’s lectures from WTS and I’m not really sure where to go next. I’d particularly appreciate anything you think would be helpful in helping me evaluate what is helpful and what’s less so about medieval theology.

    Many thanks for any help you can provide.

    Ed

  4. The comments on the Medieval period or “dark ages” are among the reasons why I sometimes introduce myself as a professional swindler o the young rather than as a history teacher. An era that produced the Romanesque and Gothic styles of architecture, began experimenting with vernacular languages, developed three-field cropping, and invented wagons with springs was far from dark.

    @Richard Chelvan: I sometimes wonder how much of “Islamic” civilization’s glory depended on Dhimmi peoples. After all, algebra was transmitted from the Hindus to the Arabs to the rest of us. Also, a forgotten step in the chain of translation from Greek to Arabic to Latin is Syriac, the language of Christians in the Fertile Crescent.

    I further find it intriguing that for Thomas Aquinas and Moses Maimonides, there was ultimately no conflict between reason and revelation; but Ibn Roshd had to bifurcate the two (my criticism of Van Til, Clark, Schaeffer: they mistake Thomas’ account of Ibn Roshd for Thomas’ own beliefs).

  5. Richard, what do you mean by “their Renaissance took place before their Medieval period”? What is labelled the “Islamic Renaissance” is usually thought to have begun around the 9th century with philosophers such as al-Kindi. Isn’t this “medieval” by almost anyone’s reckoning?

    The whole story of medieval philosophy and science in Europe and the Mediterranean needs a major reevaluation. The usual tale is too linear (not to mention rather Whiggish, tracing the tale of how all science leads to us), from the Greeks to the Arabs to Western Europe. There is evidence of philosophical activity in the 9th century in Arabic, Greek (everybody seems to ignore the existence of Byzantium) and Latin. Ibn Taymiyya wasn’t the only strand of medieval Islamic philosophy (from the little I know of him, he was a critic of much of what was going on?). He was certainly predated by many who made positive use of Aristotle’s Organon (e.g. Ibn Rushd/Averroes); these would have a much greater influence on Latin scholasticism. But nobody just sat on the ancient learning; everyone used, modified and developed classical traditions for their own cultures.

    The network of transmission was also not simply a linear chronology, nor a download from one monolithic culture to another. Byzantine medical texts made their rounds in the Latin and Arabic worlds in the 9th and 10th centuries. One might also note that major 9th c. translators of Greek works into Arabic were Christians (e.g. Hunayn ibn Ishaq). And while much of the 12th and 13th century classical translations was mediated through Arabic sources and commentators, contact with Byzantium was not negligible. Robert Grosseteste apparently knew Greek. Aquinas made use of the translations of Aristotle by William of Moerbeke – from Greek to Latin – not Gerard of Cremona’s Latin translations of the Arabic translations.

  6. I always find it an interesting twist that I was largely taught these myths in my high school and earlier Christian history curricula and had most of them debunked by my medieval history professor at UCD (she didn’t debunk the bathing one). She was adamant that that the term “Dark Ages” was a misnomer and totally gave a false impression of the time. The good fundamentalists writing the A Beka curriculum were equally adamant that the Dark Ages were Totally A Thing and that we were rescued from them by the Protestant Reformation.

    • Jennifer-

      I had a very similar experience. As you mentioned, I think for those of a fundamentalist bent the “Dark Ages” is as much a useful fable as it is for Enlightenment afficieonados, since they don’t typically see a visible church between the Patristic Period and the Reformation (or more properly, the Radical Reformation), minus a few where’s (Peter) Waldo moments. That being the case, it’s easy for them to believe that there were centuries where nothing but superstition, fragmentation, and debauchery reigned since there wasn’t really a church anywhere as far as they can see.

    • Jennifer, which in turn props up the Protestant cultural narcissism about literacy–nobody in the west would be able to read if it weren’t for the Reformation. Logocentrism + printing press = widespread and sustained literacy. And all the neo-Calvinists say, Amen.

  7. The first history I read, by Marten and Carter, who I think might have been a couple of AngloCatholics, calls the Middle Ages just that. The title of the Dark Ages is reserved for the period between the fall of Imperial Rome and the beginning of the Middle Ages (which they define as the Norman Conquest), and the authors give, as the reason for calling them the Dark Ages, that so little was known about the history of the period, i.e., they were “dark” to historians.

  8. Doubtless Primae Noctis is a myth, but it is certainly older than the 19th century. Beaumarchais died in 1799 and Mozart in 1791. The play, Marriage of Figaro and resulting opera appeared in 1784 and 1786, respectively.

    • And even earlier than that Voltaire wrote of it. Nevertheless, the point still stands that it is of very dubious historicity.

  9. As regards not bathing, it’s not just medievals. I don’t think the famous message of Napoleon to Josephine, “Ne te lave pas, jarrive” is apocryphal, and Alfred Lord Tennyson and his wife were known for their failure to wash.

  10. The research I’ve seen indicates the baths were used often up to the Black Plague. At which time, most of the use was discontinued, as it was thought to contribute to the spread of the disease. Like most public baths, men, women, and children would participate together.

    Primae Noctis is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, making it older than the written Bible.

  11. Anyone who has read the beginning of Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica” can debunk the flat-earth myth:

    “Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained. For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself. Hence there is no reason why those things which may be learned from philosophical science, so far as they can be known by natural reason, may not also be taught us by another science so far as they fall within revelation. Hence theology included in sacred doctrine differs in kind from that theology which is part of philosophy.”

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