By Danièle Cybulskie
I love the Internet. It has made good scholarship so much easier, and greatly increased the ability for medievalists to share rare texts, research, and camaraderie. We can now access things that would have taken overseas trips to access before, and that’s a beautiful thing. With great power, though, comes great responsibility (as Spiderman’s uncle once said), and for Internet users, the responsibility is to take a look at where your information is coming from.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen my reaction to an article I came across this week on an educational website (which shall remain nameless – I’m not about public shaming here). In the course of some work this week, I was innocently asked why I don’t talk much about torture because it seems like one of the things we know about the Middle Ages is that people were brutally tortured and punished with some regularity. I was curious about the question, so I followed the link I was given and found a website that goes on and on about how brutal the medieval justice system was (with gory examples of limb-lopping and eyeball-gouging), and that people lived in fear of becoming the next victim of it. That’s when I started to get upset.
As with anything you hear or read, if it sounds extreme, it probably is. Unless it’s the Middle Ages, of course, a time in which all hell broke loose and people started slaughtering each other over the twitch of an eyebrow. I’m kidding, but how often do we see that depicted as reality? The point is that the medieval period was not so different from our own time, when you look at the big picture of human nature. Were there harsh punishments for harsh crimes? Yes. Did people occasionally use torture in the interests of national security? Yes. As Larissa Tracy points out, there are recent, modern instances of torture in the interest of national security, but we’d be appalled if that meant our modern era was described in the same light as the Middle Ages. Why? Because we are convinced that we have been making steady (moral, intellectual) progress since ancient times. The more we look closely at that idea, the more complex it becomes.
Because of the Internet, there is a wealth of really great sources to go to with questions about the Middle Ages (as scholars do). We actually have quite a lot of information about medieval torture that’s been done by scholars like Larissa Tracy, and the medieval justice system by scholars like Daniel Lord Smail. They will tell you that medieval people did not live in perpetual fear of mutilation. If you read that they did, read further. Find the source of the article, and keep reading. The truth is out there (as Mulder and Scully will tell you – more pop culture wisdom).
As we get into the school year, I’m hoping more and more research will be done on my favourite time period, and that students (and teachers) will find the best of the best articles and publications by really great minds. Medievalists are out there, waiting to be discovered, and their research is fantastic. So, if you stumble across the typical “medieval people would sooner kill you than look at you” article, it’s worth it to keep digging until you find the real, three-dimensional Middle Ages. Its richness and colour are worth the dig.
Am unreasonably upset at finding another popular article that gets its medieval facts completely wrong. Another day of debunking begins…
— Daniele Cybulskie (@5MinMedievalist) August 28, 2015
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist