So, the middle ages. I'm pretty sure Stalin's historians were more truthful about the Tsar than our popular historians are about the medieval era, especially in the Anglophone world. Everything you think you know about that era is wrong.
Been reading this writer, the late Regine Pernoud, former curator of France's National Archives. She's basically your go-to gal for correct facts about the Middle Ages, especially RE: women's status.
Now, she suffers from being a specialist, in that she's very weak outside her subject. For instance, she compares the Roman Empire to French colonialism when it was more like Spanish (notice how much better Latin America did after decolonization than Africa). And she seemed to think Descartes and Aquinas were in one tradition, and Kierkegaard in another, when Descartes and Kierkegaard are in one (connected by Kant) and Aquinas in another, and Descartes is defined by his rebellion against it. She also accuses Aquinas of the Cartesian-style reducing-everything-to-a-system, which is like accusing a Marxist of not taking class into account—the quintessential trait of any Aristotelian, especially Aquinas, is that all systems are only approximations; it's a part of mitigated realism.
But, in her subject (the Middle Ages, specifically in France), she's a font of revelations. And she's oddly prone to quetsching, which I didn't think was a French thing; it's nice to know I'm not the only one who's enraged by these stupid myths.
When, for instance, someone used the phrase, "executions of almost medieval savagery", her comment?
Of course, in the century of concentration camps, cremation ovens, and the Gulag, how can we not be horrified by the savagery of a time when the portal of Reims or that of Amiens was sculpted?Or on some halfwit novelist saying "It was only in the 15th century that the Church admitted women have souls"? She fills a third of a page with an awesome rant about the Church apparently admitting to the sacraments, revering as martyrs, and having to perpetually warn of the danger of divinizing, beings who didn't have souls. French sarcasm is scary; it's much more "through clenched teeth as I force myself to let go of my gun" than "with a sneer."
Here's some other things I found out reading her:
- Medieval women voted as often as men (in things like town and village councils and trade associations), the literate minority was actually 50/50 split between men and women, and women could not only inherit and own property both jointly with their husbands, as equals, but also completely independently of them. They could also bring matters to adjudication just as men could. They didn't get some of those rights back till the 1960s, folks.
- She has an excellent re-classification of eras, with the salutary side effect of making most of the ridiculous canards about the Middle Ages semi-accurate—since the only time they're not just laughably false is when you apply them to the transitional period just before the Renaissance, the time characterized by the Hundred Years War and the re-adoption of Roman Law, with the accompanying growth of absolutism and drop in women's status.
Her new eras:
- Tribal (Pernoud says Frank, but we'll generalize to the rest of Europe), from the Fall of Rome to Charlemagne.
- Imperial, from Charlemagne to about 950.
- Feudal, from c. 950 to 1300; the High Middle Ages, the era of incredible growth in pretty much everything.
- Medieval, from 1300 to 1500; the era of transition to the Renaissance, sorta a half-assed version of the Renaissance's classicism, and therefore deserving the name "middle" because it really was a transition.
- Things invented in the period 950-1300 (partial list, also drawing on Jaki): cams, large scale mechanical grinding for grain, mechanical saws, eyeglasses, the hang-glider (Eilmer of Malmesbury, 1010), the shoulder harness (keeps horses from choking when they draw a heavy load, lets them move their head more freely). Women's suffrage, women being allowed to own property, women keeping their own surnames, war-crimes legislation, government accountability. Oh, and the concept that laborers have rights.
Things people claim originated in that period but are really Renaissance innovations or reconstructions: germ warfare, total war, the "cult of domesticity" in its modern sense, political absolutism, "divine right of kings", slavery, women as legal wards of their husbands or fathers. What, exactly, was it that got reborn? All the bad parts of the Roman Empire without its redeeming feature, political cohesion?
Me, I'm gonna have to rename that era the "Relapse". Or The Derivative Age, that has a nice ring. Pernoud relates how, in 1525-26, the Venetian Senate was voting on designs for a ship to protect their shipping from pirates. And they dismissed the design of a master shipwright in favor of an antiquarian's reconstruction of a Roman quinquereme.
That's all you gotta know about the Renaissance, right there.
- So remember how I said "medieval" cities were actually much cleaner than 19th century ones? Pernoud backs me up, actually saying that people read 16th- and 17th-century filth and squalor back into the medieval era, without checking. Apparently the people were cleaner in the feudal era, too; not only did they have carts for disposing of human waste, but they also had public bathhouses—1300 of them in Paris in the 13th century—that most people went to weekly at least.