The Idea of a Middle Ages

A Companion to the Medieval World,The Idea of a Middle Ages

By Edward D. English and Carol Lansing

A Companion to the Medieval World, edited by Edward D. English and Carol Lansing (Wiley. 2009)

Introduction: Understandings of the European Middle Ages have long been shaped by the old master narrative, in contradictory ways. The name itself was, of course, coined first by Renaissance humanists to characterize what they saw as a long stagnant, barbaric period between the cultural flowering of Antiquity and its rebirth in fourteenth-century Italy. The idea was taken up by Enlightenment philosophes, who saw the period as one of superstitious ignorance. The term medieval is still commonly used to evoke savage barbarity; medieval scholars were amused when in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction Ving Rhames turned on his former torturers and threatened to “get medieval” on them.

“Medieval” continues to be associated with backwardness, darkness, indiscriminate violence. Bruce Holsinger has recently analyzed the ways in which politicians and pundits in a bizarre twist of Orientalism use the term to characterize Islamic opponents like al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In 2006, Donald Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of Defense, said of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: “He personified the dark, sadistic and medieval vision of the future – of beheadings, suicide bombings, and indiscriminate killings.” Some professional medievalists have echoed this approach, faintly, when they argue that the Middle Ages are best understood in terms of The Other or the grotesque.

Other views of the medieval were also driven by ideology. Crucially, many of the great source collections were created in the eighteenth century by professional religious who sought to demonstrate the rationality of medieval religion while protecting the property and reputation of their contemporary Church. The emphases in those collections have profoundly shaped the fi eld of medieval history: orderly edited sources attract the most study. Popular culture has had a variety of infl uences as well. With the opening of travel to a wider number of people from the mid-nineteenth century, Anglophone travelers and expatriates created a huge literature describing, for example, medieval and early Renaissance Italy, especially the city states, often with an emphasis on the oppressive hands of a retrogressive Catholicism. The same period – even in the United States, founded as separate from the evils of the old European regimes – saw a romantic fascination with medieval culture and architecture. The Middle Ages were popular with pre-Civil War southern aristocrats worried about honor and chivalry. Movies throughout the twentieth century brought a variety of ideas about what was medieval to popular culture. This was done complete with knights riding by the occasional telephone pole and enriched by the use of a faux dialect called “speaking medieval.”

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