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Volume 42, Number 4 (Winter 2003)

Stubborn Myths

Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths,
by Régine Pernoud, translated by Anne Englund Nash.
Ignatius Press (San Francisco, California) 179 pp., $12.95 paper, 2001.

Glenn W. Olsen

We have all more or less been formed by the grand narrative of the Enlightenment. In this, history is a moral tale, a struggle between the forces of enlightenment and progress on the one side, and, on the other, those of obscurantism and tradition. The hoped for goal of human history is the victory of science, reason, democracy, equality, the individual—and either no religion at all or Protestantism, that is, an enlightened form of religion. The great threats to human realization come from hierarchy, authoritarianism, devotion to tradition, and, likely, religion, particularly the Roman Catholic religion. According to this narrative, the Greeks, blessedly free from priests, first let human possibility stand forth. The Romans, if not particularly imaginative, at least had the good sense to preserve Greek achievement and to develop their own particular genius centering on law and government. But then came those terrible Middle Ages, the victory of barbarism, papacy, darkness, and cruelty, the signs of which were crusade, Inquisition, and hostility to science. Only with the Renaissance, the rebirth or recovery of ancient culture, was a millennium of darkness overcome and then an alliance forged with a reborn Christianity, restored to its primitive or pristine form and thus freed from Roman captivity. The grand narrative of the Enlightenment does not simply center on “the Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century, but continues in the victory of freedom, science, technology, and the individual, (and therefore in the United States), to the present. Another name for this narrative, or something similar to it, is the Whig view of history.

Régine Pernoud will have little of this. Involved all her very long life (she was born in 1909 and is still alive) in historical work of various kinds as an archivist, conservator, and museum director, her particular interest is the defense of the Middle Ages, defense in many senses, but above all defense of its place in the curriculum and defense of it against unending misrepresentation. This book addresses itself to a certain gap that exists in the minds of most educated people. On the one hand, such people know of, and admire, the marvels of Romanesque or Gothic architecture. On the other hand, they have often imbibed such a prejudicial view of the Middle Ages that they find it hard to believe that this period produced anything great. Standing in the shadow of Notre Dame, they wonder whether any important thought ever originated in that period. Pernoud wants to force clear thinking on such matters. Her book is French in many senses, but it is also an example of a genre of polemical literature that is found in every country where protest is raised against the triumph of “progress.”

France is, of course, a special case because, as the great sociologist David Martin has shown in A General Theory of Secularization, it is there especially that we find two “countries”—one Roman Catholic, traditionalist, and of the Right, the other rationalist, progressive, and of the Left. Because the Roman Catholic party so long occupied the seats of power, Enlightenment and revolution, when they came, were particularly ferocious, and have resulted in “two Frances” to the present. The lay party has done everything it can to secularize public life, and to ensconce the Grand Narrative at its center.

Pernoud’s Catholicism, compared to that of a Belloc or a Chesterton, is usually discreetly in the background rather than “in your face.” Often, her outrage is grounded in her profession and in protest against the denseness of the questions put to her about the Middle Ages by the general public. She is not a mindless defender of all things medieval, but strives rather for understanding of the Middle Ages. No believer in the adage that there is no such thing as a dumb question, Pernoud regales the reader with the stupid questions that have been posed to her over the years. She can be hectoring, petulant, combative, and, occasionally, amusing. Though she often proceeds by association of ideas and in a scattershot manner, in the end she almost always brings some part of the grand narrative to the mat.

Human beings can be somewhat nasty creatures, and there is a tendency for each generation to make its way at the expense of the last. The theme is as old as Hesiod and Sophocles—that is, as Cronos’s lopping off his father’s genitals or Oedipus’s parricide. The son makes his way by displacing the father. Anyone who has spent much time in the academic world has seen each new school of thought develop by revealing the inadequacies of the last, only in turn to have its own inadequacies revealed by the next movement. The periodic swings of modern history seem to reveal something analogous. There was, of course, much that was wrong in the late-medieval Church; but Eamon Duffy, in The Stripping of the Altars, appears to have shown that, in England, Catholicism was alive and vital at the time of the Reformation, and was only displaced by force. The success of the Reformation was something like the success of Cronus, a violence incommensurate with received ills, and much fueled by worldly ambition. One can always discover real flaws in the father and make them the basis of his demise. Hence the Enlightenment itself, and, in turn, Romanticism’s attack on “enlightenment.” The Grand Narrative is here revealed as the accumulated grudges of the new against the old, and those who accept it uncritically as naÔve enough to receive as history an accumulated series of propaganda campaigns on behalf of ambition, as well as of legitimate grievance. Anyone with a decent knowledge of the Reformation, for instance, knows that, in spite of how it is presented in Protestant countries and Western Civilization courses to the present, the Reformation was as antagonistic to central aspects of the Renaissance, and as anxious to “re-medievalize” the world, as it was in harmony with any Renaissance attempt to liberate the individual from a Gothic past. Pernoud is a shrewd observer of all this, and has many helpful comments to make about the propaganda campaigns that brought to birth the idea of the Middle Ages itself.

In each chapter of the book, Pernoud takes some common misperception about the Middle Ages (such as that women were oppressed) and attempts to measure its truth. Sometimes, as in the case of women, this approach works well. Sometimes, as in the cases of slavery and of church-state relations, it is less successful. The chapter on women (about whom Pernoud has written elsewhere, including in a book entitled Women in the Days of the Cathedrals), is quite well informed, and will be a useful corrective to what many may have heard elsewhere. Perhaps Pernoud’s greatest scholarly achievement is her two-volume Histoire de la bourgeoisie en France, and many of the perspectives of that work inform what she has to say about both women and education in the Middle Ages. Though some of her comments are too sweeping for my taste, in the 1960s she was in the forefront of a new women’s history scholarship challenging received feminist ideas. In a nutshell, her argument is that women were relatively more liberated in all periods of the Middle Ages than they became in the early modern period. Using a rather simplistic notion of the history of the revival of Roman law in Europe, Pernoud holds that the dominance accorded to legal ideas taken from the Roman law in the early modern period led to the diminishment of the status of women in society. The father’s place in the family was increased at the expense of his wife and children.

In matters such as study and learning, Pernoud argues, women had greater freedom in the Middle Ages than in the years from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, when they were “domesticated” in ways undreamt of in the former period. This view continues to be espoused (albeit with differences in emphasis) by such contemporary scholars as Patricia Ranft (Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition), and, while clearly a minority viewpoint, it has much to commend it. Although I am uncomfortable about the generalized terms in which Pernoud speaks of such things as status, and have reservations about our ability to determine women’s status over time very meaningfully on the basis of our present historical knowledge, what Pernoud has to say on this subject is stimulating, and may even raise doubts in some who have a progressive view of history.

Cornelius Buckley’s poorly informed and imprecise preface to this book accepts at face value what Pernoud has to say about slavery; but Pernoud has clearly been left behind by research on this subject over the last twenty-five years. Perhaps it is sufficient to refer to the work of Steven Epstein, past and forthcoming. In brief, according to Pernoud slavery disappeared over the course of the Middle Ages. (Buckley speaks of it being abolished.) This used to be a common view, and there is some truth to it. Manumission was an act of piety, and many were indeed manumitted. The ancient slave gradually became the medieval serf. But slavery never disappeared. We find internal slave markets in France itself in the early Middle Ages, and slaving on the edges of Europe in every century. In recent scholarship, the English have finally received full recognition for the slaving they practiced all through the Middle Ages in Ireland (see Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe). Slaving flourished across the frontiers between Islam and Christendom, and we are beginning to understand how common late-medieval domestic slavery was, especially in the cities of the Mediterranean.

As a very French work, this book places certain demands on the reader. It centers on French history and the secondary and university curricula in France, and is addressed to a French readership. It has only now been translated (rather badly) into English, twenty-five years after it was written. Consequently, some of its “corrections” of earlier scholarship have themselves since been corrected. There is also a certain Catch-22 situation: the reader who already knows French and the Middle Ages hardly needs the book, but only someone with those qualifications can figure out what is sometimes astray in its translation. The attentive general reader who knows no French will either be misinformed or puzzled by quite a number of passages. A few examples are in order. Certain words are consistently mistranslated, making a hash for the reader not in the position to guess what the original French term must have been. In a book which concentrates heavily on the Romanesque, especially Romanesque architecture, the French roman is translated not as it should be, as Romanesque, but as the English Roman, making a number of passages which are in fact about the eleventh through thirteenth centuries seem to be about ancient Roman history. Particularly confusing is the translation of words designating historical periods. Le Haut Moyen Age becomes the High Middle Ages rather than what it should be, the early Middle Ages (haut does mean high, but it can also mean more remote from us), again misleading the reader by hundreds of years.

Though there is a useful comment in the preface, the translator also could have been more helpful in anticipating difficulties the English reader might have, as in finding Galileo placed in the “classical period.” The “classical” period of French history as used in this book has nothing to do with the ancient or classical world, beyond signifying the imitation thereof in a later period. “Classical” designates the early modern period of pre-Revolutionary French history, what the admirer of things classical might call the French Renaissance, but the admirer of the Middle Ages might call, in the words of the Cadogan Guide to the South of France, “The Age of Bad Taste” (according to the latter view, the revival of classical standards led to such things as the “updatings” which still disfigure so many Romanesque buildings). A number of passages would have been clearer if the translation had not referred to “classical times,” but to something like “the early modern centuries of classical [or classicizing] French culture.” Words for place names are sometimes left untranslated, so that we have Bologne instead of Bologna.

All this said, the book has much to recommend it. Pernoud is well informed about many subjects, though she makes such mistakes as misdating Guido d’Arezzo by three centuries. She makes many shrewd observations, as on the continuing question of the relation between so-called “high” and “low” culture in the Middle Ages, and draws attention to the many contacts that existed between popular and learned culture. Mistakes aside, for the most part the translation reads well, and is even lively in places. It will particularly please those who prefer American sensationalism to French subtlety, as in the translation of the original title, Pour en finir avec le Moyen Age, as Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths. If, at times, it becomes an exercise in tallying points for “our side,” it is written out of a justifiable exasperation over what so-called educated people know of the Middle Ages. Though sometimes practicing a certain ressentiment which, in an American context, would be considered populist and anti-intellectual (she is the French equivalent of a public historian rather than the holder of a university chair), Pernoud hits more targets than she misses. Such observations as “everyone knows that Paris will always lag behind the ‘provinces’!” are pleasant to encounter, if not completely convincing.

Glenn W. Olsen is a professor of history at the University of Utah. His work on the history of the Middle Ages has appeared in many scholarly journals and he is editor of Christian Marriage: A Historical Study (New York, 2001).

Posted: March 27, 2007

To live with a gnawing grudge against one’s own civilization is the way to a personal Hell, not to a Terrestrial Paradise.

Russell Kirk

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