People always ask authors where they get their ideas. Usually it’s impossible to say. I, however, get mine from the people and events of the past.

The Middle Ages

One of the talks I’ve given as I wandered about is called “Five things about the Middle Ages ‘everybody knows’ that aren’t true”. We have all been given a lot of information about the centuries we call medieval and most of it was made up in later periods to justify various social and religious changes. Here (in part) is that talk in written form.

Six things that “everyone knows” about the Middle Ages that aren’t true.

1.   In the Middle Ages everyone believed the earth was flat.

The shape of the earth has been known since antiquity and the knowledge wasn’t lost in the Middle Ages. It was a scholarly exercise to prove mathematically that the earth was round. However, in Western Europe it was believed that, as one approached the equator, it became too hot for people to survive. Therefore there was much speculation on what, if anything, existed in the antipodes.

2.  The Middle Ages were “a thousand years without a bath.”

Soap was invented in the so-called Dark Ages. And it was used. Every town of any size had a bath house and people washed hands and face before and after meals. The bath houses weren’t closed until the plague years through fear of contagion, although some places closed them earlier because they were such popular sites for assignations. But people still bathed. Foregoing washing was one of the penances people took on to atone for sins.

3.  In the Middle Ages the lord of the manor had the right of the ‘first night’ with any bride from the estate.

Dream on!  Braveheart notwithstanding, the jus primae noctis never existed. Certainly there was rape and pillage; there still is. But it was never legally sanctioned. Any lord who tried to pull something like that would die mysteriously soon after. I suspect this was invented by some eighteenth-century nerd, longing for the good old days.

4.  The Middle Ages were dark and superstitious. No one thought rationally and every bad thing was blamed on witches, who were burnt.

People in the Middle Ages were no more superstitious than today. Some people believed in astrology, some thought it was rot. Medicine was often given with prayers and other rituals. It isn’t now? The majority of witch burnings, or in the case of America, hangings, were done in the 17th and 18 centuries, the time known as the Enlightenment.

5.  Women in the Middle Ages had no rights and no voice.

Would you like to tell that to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Chritine de Pisan, Hildegard of Bingen, Marie de France? There were many things that women weren’t allowed to do until late in this century but, in the early and high Middle Ages women had control of much of their own property and, especially in the towns, worked alongside their fathers and husbands and even took over for them in all trades. They also defended their castles. One of the virtues of the trebuchet was that it didn’t need upper body strength to set off and women could use it effectively. Starting in the thirteenth century women’s rights were slowly eroded. The main things women couldn’t do were be priests and government officials. (This is really a ten-week course. I’m happy to lecture to anyone who’ll listen.)

6.  The “Church” controlled the minds and lives of everyone in the Middle Ages.

Atheism was uncommon in the Middle Ages. Almost everyone in western Europe would define themselves as being Christian, Moslem or Jewish. But within each of these there were hundreds of permutations of personal belief. The popes, though they tried, had little success in telling people what to think about anything. There were certainly trials for heresy and someone seemed to be constantly excommunicating someone else. But the fact that people lived quite comfortably for years under interdict shows that it wasn’t the terrible punishment the bishops would have liked it to be.

James Franklin in the School of Mathematics at the University of New South Wales has also created a Web Page Entitled Myths About the Middle Ages which also contains links to other related sites.

The point of this exercise is that this period wasn’t the monolithic static society that many of us were taught about. The Middle Ages are an invention of a later time. Despite what Hollywood may have told you, I can say with absolute certainty that no one ever roused the troops by shouting, “Men of the Middle Ages!” The period of history was as complex and diverse as any other and I hope that my books reflect all the variety of the time.

If you’re looking for more sources of information check out the Additional Reading page.