5 Popular Myths about the Middle Ages – It Wasn’t All Misery and Misogyny
The Middle Ages in Europe ranged from the 5th to the 15th century. They were a period of culture, science, travel and increasing social progression. They were not the Dark Ages.
In schoolbooks, the Middle Ages are that interlude between Ancient Rome and the Renaissance. They’re widely considered to be a millennium of history where nothing much important happened, people died a lot and women had no rights.
In fact, schoolbooks and Hollywood alike have contributed to a very stereotypical view of the Middle Ages. There are numerous misconceptions surrounding this era, so let’s unpack five of the most notorious myths about the Middle Ages.
Plague doctor wearing distinctive protective mask
Myth 1: “The Middle Ages and the Dark Ages are the same thing”
The term Dark Ages is widely used when referring to the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire; the early Middle Ages. This may explain why, when we think of the Middle Ages, images of raging bonfires and the black plague come to our minds. The early Middle Ages were not exactly great .
If we want to be historically accurate, the real Dark Ages took place long before the Roman civilization. What historians call the “Dark Ages” or the “Greek Dark Ages” occured around the fall of the Mycenaean civilization, between 1200 BC, and 800 BC. The Mycenaean civilization had their own writing system, as well as palaces and ramparts, but it was all lost during this period.
It’s fair to say that the plague happened quite late, in the 14th century. Yes, the plague was a thing, but it wasn’t the only historical event of note in the Middle Ages. They certainly weren’t a time of nothing but death and darkness. There were countless innovations happening as well. We will come to them in a minute!
Ovidius, Métamorphoses – Brugge, 1484
Myth 2: Medieval authors ignored classical culture completely
Contrary to popular belief, classical culture was actually valued and well-regarded during the Middle Ages. It is true that some texts by ancient authors (such as Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey) were lost during this epoch, but the medieval intelligentsia was familiar with authors like Ovid, Virgil, Seneca, and Lucan among others.
Of course, not absolutely everyone knew the same Greek and Roman texts. Before the appearance of Universities, manuscripts were kept safe in the cathedrals (remember The Name of the Rose?). Just like today, one particular library could have a larger collection of ancient authors than the others.
Hildegard of Bingen – visionary, pioneer, polymath
Myth 3: Notable medieval women? Impossible! The Middle Ages were 100% misogynist.
Now, don’t get me wrong. As a woman, I don’t think I’d enjoy living during the Middle Ages. Life was tough for women at the time, mainly because women were considered the source of all sins (especially lust. Apparently we were tempting men by simply having a body). Prejudice against women was therefore commonplace.
However, this does not imply that there were no women with power, independence and energy during the Middle Ages. In fact, there were true women pioneers living in this era and they certainly deserve our recognition. Christine de Pizan, for instance, was the first European woman to make a living as a writer. Through her writing, she challenged stereotypes attributed to women at the time. If you consider yourself a feminist and have not read The Book of the City of Ladies yet, I don’t know what you’re doing with your life!
Special mention must also be made of the 12th century German Christian seeress Hildegard of Bingen. She composed music, invented a constructed language called Lingua Ignota, penned what is arguably the world’s oldest morality play, and is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.
In addition, women worked (and held positions of power and responsibility) in more trades than one might think. For example, ale was typically often brewed and sold by women (alewifes), in contrast to contemporary gender stereotypes surrounding the brewing and enjoyment of craft ale.
13th century anatomical illustration showing veins in the human body
Myth 4: Science came later. There were no important discoveries or inventions during the Middle Ages.
This myth is certainly one of the most widespread ones. Who hasn’t heard the classic fallacy “during the Middle Ages everyone thought the Earth was flat” at least once? Along with many other myths, this misconception about the Middle Ages has been perpetuated for generations. When it comes to major scientific breakthroughs we always think of the Renaissance or the Modern Era, but people seldom highlight the importance of the Middle Ages in science and history.
Do you use glasses? If so, you have to thank Fra Allessandro della Spina who, in the middle of the 13th century, helped create the modern spectacles.
The first human dissections also took place during the medieval era, thanks to Mondino de Liuzzi who opened the path for the study of human anatomy.
Institutions such as the first-ever university were also a by-product of the Middle Ages, Bologne being the first one in 1088.
The journeys of Marco Polo
Myth 5: No-one stepped out of the house in the Middle Ages. The great travellers belong to the 16th century.
The Canterbury Tales, arguably the most important piece of medieval European literature, is an account of a procession. In fact, it demonstrates that pilgrimages were not unusual during the Middle Ages. Even the most humble folk would venture forth to walk to places such as Santiago de Compostela (Spain), Jerusalem, or to other important sanctuaries.
It is also undeniable that the Middle Ages gave birth to great travellers – Marco Polo being one of them. Medieval literature is full of vivid descriptions of quests and expeditions, which later influenced authors such as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. So who said these people never stepped out of their shacks?
Perhaps I’m on something of a quest myself, but I’d love to help raise greater awareness of the positive impacts of the Middle Ages in our culture. Perhaps we can all start having a greater appreciation for everything our medieval predecessors have done for us.