John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

Myths about the Middle Ages

Hat tip to: m_francis 

James Franklin has a collection of links (some of them dead) in an attempt to debunk some common myths about the Middle Ages. This list is a summary of his longer essay here: The Myth of the Renaissance, where he argues that the Renaissance was a period when thought declined significantly, bring to an end a period of advance in the late Middle Ages.

I note two of the items on Mr. Franklin's list -- the one about Medieval thinkers believing the Earth was flat, and the one about why Catholics eat fish on Fridays, I myself have encountered in the last week. The comments below are his.

Here is his list.


James Franklin

There are so many myths about the Middle Ages, it has to be suspected that the general level of "knowledge" about things medieval is actually negative.
Here are some of the more famous ones.

  • In the Middle Ages it was believed the earth was flat.

    There's a whole book devoted to refuting this one: J.B. Russell's Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York, 1991) (review; also `The myth of the flat earth'.)
    The facts are that the Greeks knew the earth was spherical from about 500 BC, and all but a tiny number of educated persons have known it in all times since. Thomas Aquinas gives the roundness of the earth as a standard example of a scientific truth, in Summa theologiae bk. I q. 1 art. 1.

  • The scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

    This has not been found in any scholastic, nor has the allegation been found earlier than in a Protestant writer of 1638. See `Heads of pins'; further; discussion.
    Aquinas does discuss "whether several angels can be in the same place at the same time" (Summa theologiae bk. I q. 52 art. 3), but that does not quite have the farcical ring of the original.

  • Medieval lords had a ius primae noctis: a legal or customary right to sexual relations with the newly-married wives of their underlings.

    There's a whole book on this one, too: A. Boureau, The Lord's First Night: The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage. In short, there's nothing in the story.
    (The same author wrote The Myth of Pope Joan but I don't include this myth as I don't think it's ever been seriously believed.)

  • Some medieval Pope (unnamed, of course) instituted fasting from meat on Fridays to help the fishing industry of the Papal States.

    Mediev-l archives `Fish on Fridays' thread.

  • The alleged fragments of the True Cross would have added up to a whole forest.

    In a truly obsessive piece of scholarship, Charles Rohault de Fleury's Memoire sur les instruments de la passion de N.-S. J.-C. (Paris, 1870) counted all the alleged fragments and showed they only added up to considerably less than one cross ... more

  • Vikings wore helmets with horns

    How would you know Hagar the Horrible was a Viking if he didn't have horns? ... the facts

  • Chastity belts.

    A report; an article.

  • An early medieval church council declared (or almost declared) that women have no souls.

    History of the error.

  • "In the times of St Thomas it [woman] was considered an essence as certainly defined as the somniferous virtue of the poppy ...St Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an imperfect man"

    These claims are made in the introduction to Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, one of the founding texts of feminism. Aquinas believes all humans have the same essence. Though not exactly a believer in the equality of men and women, he did not call women imperfect men. details.

  • Religious taboos prevented medical dissection of bodies

    Katherine Park's book on late medieval dissection

  • The medieval burning of witches.

    Medieval canon law officially did not believe in witches. There were very occasional individual witch trials in the Middle Ages, but the persecution of witches only became a mass phenomenon from around 1500. The height of persecution was in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries ... article; resources.

  • The feudal system.

    Depending on how strictly it is defined, the feudal system, in the sense of a hierarchical system of property-based legal obligations between lords and vassals, is a later invention. This is argued in S. Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals (reviews). However, it is true that there was a manorial system or generalised protection racket, something like the "feudal system" of popular imagination.

  • The Renaissance.

    The thesis that there was a rebirth of learning in Europe in or around the fifteenth century, after a thousand years of darkness, is too diffuse to admit of clear agreement or disagreement. Nevertheless, the claim that the "Renaissance" is almost entirely a beat-up, put about by a gang of anti-Catholic art historians, has much to be said for it. See `The Renaissance myth'.

  • There's more ... and yet more ...
  • A book, Regine Pernoud's Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths tackles a number at once ... review.
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