Why the Middle Ages Are So Bad (And Their Fault)

Medieval City on the River by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1815).

“People have the right to live as they want, we are no longer in middle Ages. These statements, made by a European prime minister not long ago, show that The Middle Ages is often used as a synonym for ignorance, barbarism and backwardness.

This despised view of the Middle Ages can be seen in many other areas. For example, for years Movies and series set in this era reflect a violent, unjust and superstitious society. This vision is reinforced by A darker aesthetic – apparently the sun didn’t shine much in the Middle Ages –.

We will all agree on that Putting a thousand years of history in the same bag seems so ridiculous. Can you imagine that the time between 1500 and 2500 in the future is confined to an era, and that the same adjective applies to all those centuries?

also, It is enough to enter a Gothic cathedral to check that the Middle Ages had a bit of barbarism and darkness.. Perhaps for this reason, many followers of the Middle Ages made an effort to show that this derogatory view of the Middle Ages is hard to defend. however, Little is known about the origin of this concept. Why did the Middle Ages have a bad reputation?

The first thing to ask is why we put a thousand years of history in the same era, and why we define it as the Middle Ages. He was from the Swiss Christopher Cellarius who published at the end of the eighteenth century a book dedicated to Dividing history into three eras: the ancient, the middle, and the modern, to which the modern era was added later.

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Far from being neutral adjectives, these cults actually indicate a true view of history. The period between the fifth and fifteenth centuries has been defined as the Middle Ages The time has diminished in importance to being between – hence the name – of two other more important eras.

In the collective imagination, the Middle Ages was an eternal valley of tears.  Here, the crucifixion, part of the central altar panel in the Franciscan church in Munich, by Jean Pollack, 1492.
In the collective imagination, the Middle Ages was an eternal valley of tears. Here, the crucifixion, part of the central altar panel in the Franciscan church in Munich, by Jean Pollack, 1492.

This view of history can be represented graphically as a landscape dominated by two majestic mountains: the Archaic and the Modern, separated from each other by a medieval valley. Now, when did this disparaging view of the medieval millennium begin? Can a particular moment, or even a particular person, be identified as responsible for this historical perception?

The historical context in which the idea of ​​the Dark Middle Ages was born is none other than the Renaissance The Italian, specifically the fourteenth century, and the first author who seized it in his writings was the famous Francesco Petrarca. The circumstances of this historical invention are rich and complex.

Industrially, we can say that Francesco Petrarch’s contempt for the Middle Ages stems from his longing for ancient Rome. As a great connoisseur of the Latin classics, Petrarch could not avoid comparing the dilapidated state of Italy in his day with that of the glorious Roman era. Such was the indignation felt by the Tuscan poet of his time, in his letter For the next generationspointed out: “If my love had not stopped me, I always wanted to be born at any other time, and forget this.”

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For Petrarch, with the collapse of the Roman Empire An era of darkness and corruption has begun on all levels: political, religious and cultural above all. According to this view, during the Middle Ages, the Church was corrupt and the Arts and Letters entered a dark age that, for Petrarch, still exists.

Petrarch, who spread the main ideas about what the Middle Ages looked like, missed the splendor of ancient Rome: the Colosseum was one of its symbols.  EFE / Tony Conde
Petrarch, who spread the main ideas about what the Middle Ages looked like, missed the splendor of ancient Rome: the Colosseum was one of its symbols. EFE / Tony Conde

in their own metric epistolaeThe great Tuscan poet summed it up as follows: “There was a more fortunate age and there is likely to be another; in the middle, in our time you see the confluence of misfortunes and shame.”. This phrase perfectly combines the historiographical concept that survives to this day: an ancient golden age, a dark middle age, a modern age that would lead to the restoration of culture, that is, its rebirth.

We return to the importance of words: nothing can be reborn if it has not been dead before. The very term Renaissance, coined, like the Middle Ages, a little later, implies the assertion that culture died out during the Middle Ages.

It is clear from Petrarch’s quotes that he saw himself in the Middle Ages. Like the new muse, the Tuscan poet foretold the coming of the Promised Land in the Renaissance, but it was his successors in Italian humanism who heralded the advent of a new golden age.

The first to speak of a revival in the field of literature and the arts was the great humanists of the fourteenth century. Among them stand out the famous Giovanni BoccaccioPetrarch’s favorite student. Later, during the Quattrocento and Cinquecento, many authors from the field of arts and literature proclaimed The rebirth of culture, which rose from the ashes of the Middle Ages to form a new golden age.


This historical-historical vision quickly spread throughout Europe. First it was the Lutheran Reformation that welcomed this idea, particularly due to criticisms of the medieval church which said the vision was contained.and spread it virally thanks to the printing press.

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Subsequently, the French Enlightenment adopted this historical concept. For authors like VoltaireAnd the The Middle Ages represented all the secular errors that we professed, and those that claimed to save humanity, such as religious obscurantism and the domination of faith over reason.

Medieval mathematical illustration of the time.
Medieval mathematical illustration of the time.

Since then, the only stage in which the medieval era has been attested has been Romanticism, albeit in a poetic way. Representatives of this movement recreated a time full of mystery, wonder and folklore. photo Caspar David Friedrich or novels Sir Walter Scott It well represents those medieval times of castles, exploits, and duels between knights for the love of a lady.

It is clear that neither of the two visions, the Renaissance and the Romanticism, do justice to the so-called medieval. The Middle Ages, like all historical periods – like ours – was a time full of lights and shadows. In short, time, if we approach it without prejudice, we will have many lessons to offer us.

This article was originally published by The Conversation.

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Freddie Dawson

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