Rotten teeth, famines, plagues, torture, bodies hanging at the gates of cities, feudal lords with the right to leave … The Middle Ages have a very bad press. So much so that the main Spanish medievalists have signed a manifesto in which they claim the good name of the period they study and which, they argue, is essential to understand the contemporary world. Without the Middle Ages, neither most of the languages we speak, nor the measurement of time, nor the cities in which we live, nor many of the recipes that we prepare would exist, not even the influence of the Roman and Greek classics, rescued in medieval monasteries.
“We can say that everything that had to do with backwardness, ignorance, ignorance, unhealthiness, barbarism, cruelty, fanaticism, horror, misery, monstrosity, violence … ”, reads the text that emerged from the seminar The medieval legacy, organized by Maria Jesus Fountain and held at the Julio Caro Baroja Institute of Historiography of the Carlos III University of Madrid, of which Fuente is emeritus professor of Medieval History. “The word is a stigma that medievalists take with stoicism, but in this year of the pandemic, the term has increased its use to describe very diverse matters,” continues the manifesto signed by more than 70 researchers from the main Spanish universities. “Thus are statements such as ‘Don’t be medieval to me and support science and medicine’, or you can read ‘believing yourself to be sophisticated, this medieval left’. When criticizing the support for public education, one can find: ‘they have a dislike for the concerted that is primitive, medieval.’
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The bad reputation of the Middle Ages reaches into politics, journalism and reaches all corners of popular culture —in Pulp Fiction, the gangster Marcelus sums up the torture to which he is going to subject a guy: “We will practice medieval with your ass” – despite the efforts of some well-read authors such as the Italian Umberto Eco. The author of The name of the rose wrote in the apostilles to his famous novel: “It goes without saying that all the problems of modern Europe, as we feel them today, were formed in the Middle Ages: from communal democracy to the banking economy, from national monarchies to cities, from new technologies to the rebellions of the poor… The Middle Ages is our childhood to which we always have to return to make our anamnesis ”.
“The Middle Ages is a time of light,” explains María Jesús Fuente, who received the Leonor de Guzmán essay award in 2020 in reference to the illustrated medieval manuscripts. He considers that it is a period that “has been idealized a lot or has been considered a cursed time.” This professor points out that the infundios began almost since the name was created in the Renaissance and that authors such as Voltaire contributed to spreading the medieval hoaxes. As another signatory points out, the philologist Alberto Montaner, one of the great experts on El Cid, it was precisely the enlightened who forged the worst clichés about the period because they considered it “the age of feudalism in politics and obscurantism in intellectual matters.” . “Hence the image of a Middle Ages of stately dungeons and inquisitorial dungeons, witch hunts and bonfires for heretics. In reality, the Inquisition as it was known in the 18th century had arisen at the dawn of the Modern Age (late 15th century), while the witch hunt was an unknown phenomenon in the Middle Ages and developed among the XV and XVII centuries ”.
Paraphrasing the classics, all the signatories consulted answer the question of “what have the medievals done for us”. “The Castilian”, says Ricardo Córdoba, professor of Medieval History at the University of Córdoba. “It is a medieval language. The division of time, the method of counting dates by the year of Christ’s birth, the current division into autonomous communities is also absolutely medieval. And, with some exceptions, we continue to use the names of the saints, which have a medieval origin. Not to mention gastronomy ”. Universities, a very ecological management of natural resources, the insertion of minorities in the legal fabric or medicine and algebra – we must not forget that the Middle Ages is both the Christian and the Islamic world – are other highly cited contributions by the experts.
Isabel del Val, professor at the University of Valladolid, maintains: “Our roots are there, in the cities and urban life.” Part of the topics around the Middle Ages are due to the fact that it is a very long period, lasting almost a thousand years, from the end of the Roman world to the Renaissance, which implies that some parts are known much better than others. “There is more distance between the beginning and the end of the Middle Ages than between us and the discovery of America,” he points out.
The role of women in social life, explains del Val, was also much more important than you might think: “In the 9th century, a woman named Duoda lived on her husband’s estate, which is a high character of the Carolingians. He writes a book for his son, he runs a family farm. Is it a dark age? We know little, but it doesn’t seem very dark either ”. Ana Echevarría Arsuaga, a professor at the UNED who investigates queens and religious minorities, points out: “The right of women from the 11th to the 15th / 16th centuries allows property management that is unparalleled throughout Europe. Women of that time were more likely to manage property than those of the early twentieth century. “
And so, in addition to language, time, gastronomy, feminism, algebra, the classics, what have the medievals done for us? Remedios Morán Martín, professor at the UNED expert in the history of law, adds: the laws. “During the Full and Low Middle Ages, the spaces of the different kingdoms and counties were already much more consolidated and it was possible to act more effectively from the point of view of creating new institutions that allowed the royal power to act. Among these institutions I highlight the birth of the Cortes, the first were convened in León in 1188, and were pioneers in the world. The creation of the Councils, also as advisory bodies, from which the Administration of the monarchy was managed, would become the current ministries, as well as the name of the secretaries. We are in the eighth centenary of the birth of Alfonso X the wise (Toledo, November 23, 1221-Seville, April 4, 1284), which has gone very unnoticed, and we cannot forget the legal and cultural work that he made of attempts of modernization of the monarchy ”.
“It is forgotten that the Middle Ages impregnate our daily lives: the fork, the paper money, the glasses, the mechanical watch, the book and the printing press or rose water come from that time,” the manifesto collects. “But, beyond inventions, the medieval centuries were great creators of social, territorial, political and educational structures that invite us to reflect on the path traveled from then until today.” The wise French singer-songwriter Georges Brassens summed up all this in one of his most famous lyrics: “Forgive me, prince, if I’m fucking medieval.”