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Myths & Distortions

Those Terrible Middle Ages!: Debunking the Myths

By Régine Pernoud. Translated from the French by Anne Englund Nash

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 173

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Inez Fitzgerald Storck

Inez Fitzgerald Storck is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mother living in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Régine Pernoud in Those Terrible Middle Ages refutes the myths about the Middle Ages that have resulted from what she terms “one of the major errors of our time: this belief that history is created in our little brains, that one can construct it ‘at will.'” Due to the widespread ignorance about medieval times, those with only a miniscule understanding of history tend to view this period as an unfortunate gap between the glories of the ancient world and the Renaissance. They do not doubt that modern times are the most enlightened of all.

There are several problems with this view. First of all, the classical epoch had its dark side. Relatively few received an education. Rome could not have achieved and maintained her empire without a steady supply of slave labor. The Roman paterfamilias had the power of life and death over his slaves and their children. Moral degeneracy characterized the lives of the elite in Greece and Rome. The Roman persecutions of Catholics, while confined to specific periods and places, resulted in the martyrdom of tens of thousands. Any assessment of the classical period, so appreciated for its art and literature, must take into account this depravity.

All these negative elements are unfortunately also present in the modern world — slavery, abortion, immorality, and religious persecution. On examining the less desirable aspects of medieval life, one would be hard-put to conclude that it was an inferior time in which to live. Pernoud looks at common criticisms of the period and corrects, explains, and contextualizes those generalizations.

One of the first misconceptions she addresses is the term “Middle Ages” itself. It is preposterous that a single term could apply to a period of 1,000 years (from the fifth to the 15th century) which began with barbarian invasions of Roman territory, saw the unification of Europe under one emperor, then the development of feudalism, followed by a period of transition to the modern monarchy. Pernoud’s detailed breakdown shows that common terminology needs to catch up with authentic scholarship.

Looking at one of these sub-periods, the feudal age (mid-10th century to the end of the 13th century in France, the locus of most of the author’s research), we learn that the relationships among lords, vassals, and peasants sprung from a deep regard for personal ties. These loyalties formed the basis for a legal system based on the usage of land as opposed to its ownership. The land on which a serf lived was his to cultivate, and was passed on to his children. While he could not leave his lord, neither could he be deprived of his share of the produce. In monastic life, serfs could attain high positions. Granted, serfdom entailed a loss of personal liberty, but by the early Middle Ages slavery had disappeared, not to resurface until the 16th century.

Moreover, feudal lords similarly lacked the freedom to abandon their lands or jeopardize the safety of their vassals and serfs. The king was a lord among lords, responsible for his personal fief and for the defense of his kingdom. He did not wield powers associated with the modern monarch, and “could neither decree general laws nor collect taxes on the whole of his kingdom nor levy an army.” Pernoud attributes the absolutizing of regal authority to the introduction of Roman law in the 15th century.

Like serfs, women in the Middle Ages fared better than many realize. (Indeed, Pernoud has authored a book on this subject, Women in the Days of Cathedrals, also available from Ignatius.) Based on laws, notarized documents, and royal inquiries, Pernoud finds a mass of evidence to indicate that medieval women were able to serve as chatelaines, ply trades, and vote in town assemblies. Abbesses often functioned as feudal lords, managing lands with villages. Many were well educated, and the convent was a center of secular, as well as theological, learning.

Pernoud gives a sensitive evaluation of medieval art. For example, she illustrates how Romanesque art was, in a sense, reinvented with every monument, so that each had its particular stamp. She contrasts this freedom with the slavish imitation of classical art during the Renaissance.

Pernoud successfully contextualizes the Inquisition (which many regard as the darkest aspect of the Middle Ages), illustrating the effect of heresy on a society in which it was difficult to distinguish between Church and state (and is it not the Christian vision that there is but a single truth, rather than two truths, one ecclesiastical and one legal?). Pernoud primarily addresses measures taken against the Cathar sect, rampant in later medieval times. Cathar doctrine resembled Manichaeism in its belief in two ultimate principles, good and evil, along with a host of associated aberrations, such as the recommendation of suicide and sexual abstinence (though, ironically, promiscuity was tolerated). This profound philosophical and theological error was disruptive to medieval Christian society. To make matters worse, the Cathars held that oaths were not valid, thus undermining the very basis of feudal society — swearing fealty to one’s lord. It is not surprising that the state, as well as the Church, saw a grave threat in this sect and other heresies.

The author richly illustrates her theses, drawing primarily from French history and culture. She uses examples from literature and art, citing, for example, the King Arthur legend as a source of information on personal ties, the respected place of women, and the ideals of knights.

Pernoud’s writing is conversational, not pedantic (in spite of her obvious command of history, art, and architecture). She captures the various sub-epochs of the Middle Ages in broad brush strokes, but frequently gives detailed illustrations. For example, she tells us that once the Koran was translated in 1141, it was required reading for all preachers of the crusades (at least in France). Many similar nuggets pepper the book.

There are two major errors in Nash’s translation. Roman is rendered “Roman” instead of “Romanesque.” The term for “early Middle Ages” is mistranslated as “High Middle Ages” (those who understand French know how easy it is to make this mistake). There are enough contextual clues to set one straight; for example, readers will realize that Charlemagne is appropriately situated in the early Middle Ages. However, in general, the translation reads well, and captures Pernoud’s liveliness and ease of style.

While Pernoud’s volume is a meditation on the Middle Ages and the inner dynamics behind historical events, Mary Gordon terms her Joan of Arc a “biographical meditation.” Pernoud sympathizes with medieval culture, though not uncritically. Gordon, on the other hand, imposes much of her own vision on Joan’s life and era. While holding true to the basic outline of events in the saint’s life, she gravely distorts numerous details. According to Gordon, Joan could hardly wait to leave home, when in fact she was most reluctant to begin her mission, and only did so at the repeated urging of the heavenly voices she heard. Once on her course of saving France from the English, she longed to be back home, though Gordon would have us believe that her family was not of much importance to her. Gordon writes that Joan “made no mention of devotion to the Virgin Mary”; however, “Jesus-Maria” was emblazoned on her standard.

Gordon’s major error is her failure to recognize the forces that impelled the lowly, unschooled maid of Lorraine to first approach the dauphin and boldly convince him of the veracity of her heavenly call, and to then lead French soldiers in stunning military victories, most notably the siege of Orléans. Gordon has Joan inventing — choosing — the saints who directed her: “Joan’s choice of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret could be described as another example of her genius for self-presentation and the creation of highly legible signs.” Gordon reaches this conclusion because Joan at first withheld the identity of her voices from her badgering and relentless judges. However, it appears from the text of the trial that Joan did not believe that she had the right to divulge information about the apparitions. Also, she must have doubted her accusers would believe her.

Incredibly, Gordon would have us believe that in wanting to have the dauphin crowned, Joan was not moved “by a religious goal,” when love of God’s will as expressed though her voices motivated her from the moment she left home till her capture by the Burgundian allies of the English and her death at the stake. Gordon does admit that Joan understood her power over Charles, the dauphin, as proceeding from God. But the biographer does not perceive that, for Joan, to fight for France was to fight for God. It was Joan’s sacred duty to save her country, and she did it not out of daring and bravado, but out of holy obedience. Gordon, in saying that Joan “could only be herself leading men into battle,” misses the point that, like all the saints, Joan could only be herself by fulfilling God’s will. The reason Joan interrupted her successful military campaign to lead Charles to Rheims to be anointed and crowned king was not due to her “consummate understanding of the power of symbols,” but rather to her voices’ insistent commands from the beginning of her days in Lorraine. Suffice it to say that Gordon sides with the devil’s advocate in Joan’s canonization process. She raises many objections to her sanctity, without presenting the counter-arguments of Joan’s promoters. She goes so far as to state that Pope Benedict XV (not St. Pius X, as Gordon mistakenly writes), in canonizing Joan, forgot his “devotion to obedience and conformity and created a saint who is full of contradictions and imperfections.” (If conformity were a requirement for canonization, we would be bereft of saints!) St. Joan certainly had imperfections, particularly her foolish leap from a high tower while in captivity, and her partial abjuration to avoid being burned at the stake — which she immediately retracted. But, significantly, she repented of these acts, and courageously gave up her life rather than deny her obedience to God in carrying out her mission. She also exhibited great charity not only to the poor, but to her enemies, the English, mourning their dead in battle. She was zealous for the Lord, insisting that her troops confess and receive Communion. Sorry, Prof. Gordon, Joan was not canonized “for the wrong reasons.” No, we don’t need her as “the patroness of the vivid life,” but as a model of fortitude, charity, and, above all, love of God.

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