The classic British comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail illustrates the perception that most modern people have toward the Middle Ages. In the film, King Arthur, driven by a false sense of chivalric machismo and misguided religious fanaticism, goes on a search for the Holy Grail. Along the way, he encounters a witch-burning, a learned knight who tells him that the earth is “banana-shaped,” and a self-governing commune whose inhabitants confound the backward king when they discuss individual rights and popular sovereignty.
As a cinephile, I like The Holy Grail. It is whimsical and funny and something I find myself returning to repeatedly. As a medievalist, however, the inaccuracies and anachronisms are as breathtaking as they are humorous. For one thing, medieval people had a very complex notion of basic human rights; Europeans, especially Britons, had a well-developed sense of limited government, often defending those rights in armed rebellions, most notably the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Furthermore, no educated Medieval person ever thought that the earth was “banana-shaped,” or even flat for that matter, and some would have even been able to calculate the earth’s circumference. Perhaps most embarrassingly of all, the Medieval Period did not see a particularly high number of witch burnings. Despite the fact that the terms “witch hunt” and “Middle Ages” are almost synonymous, kings, councils, and popes passed numerous injunctions against “witch hunts” based on the (at that time ubiquitous) Christian belief that witches did not exist.
I do not want to lay the blame for these errors on Monty Python. They are comedians, not historians. The movie is funny, not because it’s true, but because it plays on the conceptions that modern people already have of the Middle Ages. The average modern person believes that the Middle Ages were a uniquely backward, dirty, ignorant, superstitious, hypocritical, moralistic, theocratic period whose offenses were unprecedented at the time and have not been equaled since.
Yet this is a caricature of the period and a rather bad one at that. To see the actual achievements of the Middle Ages, one need only peek into a medieval cathedral. Among the tall stone pillars, stained glass windows, and vaulted ceilings—placed there by generations of nameless workers—one would find a world that defies belief. At the lectern, a priest (who spent years training in one of the planet’s first institutes of higher learning) would read from a hand-written Bible or Psalter that some highly-literate monk spent a year of his life writing and illuminating. At the Quire, they would be singing complex harmonies and reading music notation that was a precursor to modern scores. When the priest delivered his homily he would speak in one of a number of Latin-based languages which, when counted together, are spoken by almost half of all people on Earth in the twenty-first century. One of the reasons we don’t have as vivid a picture of the Medieval cathedral as we do of, say, the Greek gymnasium, is because the names of the artists, and singers, and cathedral builders rarely survive to the present day. Medieval man preferred this, wishing to give the glory of his greatest works to God rather than himself.
This can be contrasted with the period which was to come. Many of our misperceptions about the “Dark Ages” can be attributed to one man, Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch was an Italian poet who pioneered a way of looking at the world that he called “Humanism.” Emphasizing the importance of the individual over institutions like the Catholic Church, Petrarch encouraged artists, scholars, and politicians to work for the glory of humanity rather than purely for the glory of God. Because his way of viewing the world represented a distinct philosophical change in the West, Petrarch needed to demonize the epoch that he found himself in. He wrote, “my fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. [However, this] sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.” The “born-in-the-wrong-time” cliche was around before Petrarch and survives to the present day. We should not blame Petrarch for this, but we should blame ourselves for defining the Middle Ages according to the angst of a fourteenth-century humanist poet. Calling the Medieval Period the “Dark Ages” uses the vernacular of a historical crusader, not a chronologist. It would be the equivalent of asking Thomas Jefferson to write a biography of King George III or asking Martin Luther to recount the history of the Papacy!
One of the reasons that Petrarch’s light-dark dichotomy lives so large in modern times is because of its blissful simplicity. Partially because of our difficulty with the all-important art of chronology, the historical imagination of the broader public seems to have divided all of history into periods of enlightenment and of darkness. Into the period of enlightenment go the ideas of Voltaire and Montesquieu, but not the Reign of Terror they inspired; the brilliance of Martin Luther but not the antisemitism endemic to his work. Into the period of darkness goes the prudish Victorian Period but not the revolutionary writings of Dickens and Hardy; the fanaticism of Oliver Cromwell but not his patronage of Milton. This darkness “bin” seems to have received the haphazard title of “medieval,” even though the superstition, inequality, and moralism that define it are not unique to that period.
The Middle Ages were not perfect, yet to judge them by modern standards would be anachronistic and unfair. We excuse our modern faults because they are the oxygen we breathe. We treat ancient people like infants, telling them how smart they were to have invented the wheel and the plow. Yet, because of their unique position between “Ancient” and “Modern” times, Medieval societies are almost expected to achieve modern results with ancient tools; to be measured against the standards of modernity without experiencing the grace shown to the past. The churches, songs, manuscripts, and languages of Medieval Europe survive to the present day, even if they lie in ruins like the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Scotland. Those who care enough to look may find that our modern perception of the Middle Ages is—as Monty Python so brilliantly pointed out—simply laughable.