The “Middle Ages” aren’t a very good idea. They designate a thousand-year stretch in European history, from the fifth century until the 15th—but no one across this millennium thought they were living in the “Middle Ages”. Even with hindsight, it’s hard to think of anything people in this period have in common with each other not also shared with earlier or later periods: bad teeth or no penicillin are hardly distinctive. Cultural entrepreneurs of the 15th century invented the “Middle Ages” (medium aevum in Latin, hence our “medieval”) in the same breath as they promoted themselves as the “Renaissance”. Their claim to be reviving the culture of Antiquity after an intervening era of oblivion was preposterous and alluring in equal measure. These “Middle Ages” are still with us: “medieval” continues to carry a negative charge. The notorious line in Pulp Fiction—“I’ma get medieval”—provoked wry amusement in the scholarly community at the time, but it is less easy to humour the now routine use of “medieval” to describe Islamist acts of violence. This is lazy, ignorant, and—in that it takes us away from proper analysis—highly irresponsible use of language.
“Modern times” is how Cassiodorus, a sixth-century Italian courtier-scholar, saw his era. Johannes Fried’s book, appearing first in German in 2008, and now in a lively English translation by Peter Lewis, is a paean to the modernity of the Middle Ages. Fried is one of the lions of German medieval scholarship of the past generation. His Middle Ages ripple with cultural energy and power. They father the culture of European reason—only to be vilified by Kant and the sons of the Enlightenment.
The account begins in the sixth century, with the efforts of Cassiodorus and his contemporary Boethius to preserve and transmit the cultural heritage of the ancient world. Boethius was hanged by the Gothic king Theodoric, but Fried resists the temptation to see here the shape of the Dark Ages. Theodoric was no less committed than was Boethius to the maintenance of Roman identity. His ruthlessness could in fact be seen in this light: the king was hardly the first ancient ruler to do away with a philosopher.
Fried’s story kicks into life with the Empire of Charlemagne, the largest polity in the Latin West after the fall of Rome. The political revival of the imperial project was short-lived, but its cultural initiative was to endure. Seven thousand Latin manuscripts survive from the ninth century, over three times as many as from all previous centuries. This is a vital patrimony. If there is one thing which gives meaning to the “Middle Ages” as a historical period, it is the parchment codex. As a form of information technology, the medieval book stands precisely “in the middle”, between the papyrus scrolls of Antiquity and the printed volumes of the post-Gutenberg era. Renaissance humanists knew how much they owed to ninth-century scribes, even as they launched their own shameless self-mythologisation.
The manuscript book aside, from every other angle what strikes one is the difference between the early and the high Middle Ages—between the world of Theodoric and Charlemagne on the one hand, and on the other, that of Paris and Bologna from the 12th century onwards. In Fried’s extreme characterisation, the earlier epoch is all but incapable of abstract thought, forever in the thrall of a magical approach to the universe. In the new world born after the year 1000, he proposes, we find the release of secular thinking based on the exercise of free will, and the capacity for love in defiance of all convention. If Boethius is the hero of the former age, then Peter Abelard, logician, heretic and castrated lover of Heloise is the icon of the second.
There are problems with such an account, as Fried is not unaware. It is dangerous to render the early Middle Ages in terms of exotic primitivism, and conversely unwise to recognise too much of our modern selves in Peter Abelard. His account of his life in his so-called Story of my Calamities appears disarmingly frank, but we must remember that Abelard and his peers were trained rhetoricians. His is a highly wrought text, a public confessional performance as mannered as Kabuki theatre. No one in the Middle Ages wears their heart on their sleeve.
From here we must ask, to what extent is medieval Latin Christendom recognisable as “the modern West”? Fried’s account is ambivalent. While acknowledging the contribution to Latin intellectual culture of Byzantium and Islam, he wants to argue that the East lacked the dynamism of the West. At the same time, however, his pen portraits of figures such as Maimonides, the brilliant Jewish thinker and Saladin’s court physician, or Pletho, the Greek scholar and latterday Plato who trained under the Ottomans before coming to Medici Florence, suggest otherwise. Once we stand back, we may take the view that, in cultural terms, “the West” remained the Third World in the Middle Ages. Greater cultural and political power lay in Baghdad or Cairo until the end of the period, if not beyond.
Finally—and this Fried does intimate—there is the moral price of high culture to consider. In “pre-conceptual” Europe before 1000, the peasantry were relatively unconstrained, higher education was as open to women as to men, and the era saw no large-scale religious persecution. All of this was to change. The urban and urbane society of high medieval Europe was built on the systematic exploitation of peasant labour; the universities at the centre of this world were exclusively male clerical institutions; and the scholastic culture which fostered the development of “rational inquiry” also enabled the development of the Inquisition. In southern France in particular, this ecclesiastical machinery enabled the systematic search for and destruction of heretics. And then there were the pogroms. From the end of the 11th century onwards, across the cities of the Latin West, Jews were robbed, assaulted, and murdered with impunity.
Was the persecution of heretics and Jews a phenomenon of mob violence which the clerical hierarchy sought to contain—or was it actually organised by the priests? Medievalists have been wrestling with the question for some time now. On one thing we agree. The debate has shifted since the 18th century. The charge against the Middle Ages is no longer that they are an era of “barbarism and superstition”, as Gibbon put it. The issue is rather that they conjoin, as can we, barbarism and civilisation.