On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history

We have a lot of fun, don’t we, when we talk about how people argue that the medieval period was the Dark Ages based on the fact that the feel some type of way about it? Now, can I call people who think this ridiculously incredulous and basic? Yes. And I do. Thanks for asking. Having said that, the general ignorance of the medieval period is not from nothing.

On the one hand, you could argue that the idea that the middle ages was a bad time where people were generally stupid, unwashed, and rolling about in the muck on medieval people’s own conceptions of knowledge. As Sara has pointed out to us before, medieval people considered themselves to be attempting to access a perfect knowledge which had been deteriorating since the fall of man. As a result, they attempted to emulate the knowledge of the people who came before them – i.e. Roman and Hellenic thinkers. They thought that past systems of knowledge were inherently better than their own, and, well, it’s hard not to take people at their word, you know?

But let’s be real, that is absolutely not the main reason people think the medieval period was a stupid time. That idea comes squarely from the way we tend to uphold the (frankly, misapplied) idea of the Renaissance, and also the fact that people simply aren’t taught about the medieval period other than as a contrast to said Renaissance.

Now here is the thing, there are a lot of reasons why this has happened. Part of it is down to the fact that the medieval period is hard to teach because everywhere is so different. Part of it is because if people aren’t taught about something, then odds are they can’t teach about it later. And part of it is that if you are taught over and over again that the medieval period was Very Bad and that the Renaissance saved us all from its darkness, then you believe that.

Today we are talking about why it is that this particular narrative is the one taught in classes all across the white world, and I regret to inform you that the answer is colonial imperialism. Yay.

Now given the capitalist hellscape that we live in, I am sure that comes as no surprise. Colonial imperialism has completely shaped the society we live in and there is pretty much nothing in our society that it doesn’t influence. History is no exception. So then, why is this particularly the case when we’re talking about medieval history?

Well first, the thing about European medieval history is that the super important places – the ones that were looked to as the leaders of Christendom and the taste makers – didn’t get as involved in the whole colonialism game as other places. The Holy Roman Empire as a body, for example, is very arguably one of the most important places in medieval Europe but simply didn’t make the jump into subjugating other continents.  Partially that is because it didn’t really exist anymore by the time that large-scale colonialism took place. Protestantism hit it pretty hard, as did the thirty years war, and by the time everyone involved looked up, a lot of the globe was already spoken for. Brandenburg-Prussia managed to pick up some African territories, as did its later incarnation the German Empire in the nineteenth century, of course. But when you think about nineteenth-century colonial powers, I am pretty sure that the Germans don’t immediately spring to mind.

Many of the places that had been under Holy Roman Imperial jurisdiction, like my friends the Czechs, for example, or the Austrians just stayed home and got really great at brewing beer. That’s a fine and moral thing, but it also means that they didn’t get to end up getting all that sweet sweet blood money and the ability to force their world view on other people that comes with it.

Beowulf
Beowulf – the only book that existed in the medieval period. (British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV)

Contrast the fate of the Holy Roman Empire then, with England. Now, if people are taught anything at all about medieval history it often is English medieval history. People with absolutely no other frame of reference can often tell you when the Norman Conquest of England took place, or the date of the signing of Magna Carta even if they don’t know exactly why these things are important. (TBH Magna Carta isn’t important unless you were a very rich dude at the time, sooooo.) If you ask people to name a medieval book they’ll probably say Beowulf even if they’ve never read it.

Here’s the thing though – England was a total backwater in terms of the way medieval people thought and was not particularly important at the time. How much of a backwater? Well, when Anne of Bohemia, daughter of my man Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (RIP, mate. Mourn ya til I join ya.) married King Richard II of England in the fourteenth century there was uproar in Prague. How could a Bohemian imperial princess be sent to London? How would she survive in the hinterlands? The answer was she was sent along with an entire cadre of Bohemian ladies in waiting to give her people with whom she could have a sophisticated conversation.

Anne 2
Anne of Bohemia’s funeral procession after she died of plague. (British Library Royal 18 E II  f. 227v )

This ended up completely changing fashion in England. Anne is the girl who introduced those sweet horned headdresses you think of when you think of medieval ladies, riding side-saddle, and the word “coach” to England, (from the Hungairan Kocs, where the cart she arrived at court the first time came from). Sweetening her transition to English life was the fact that she didn’t have to pay a dowry to get married. Instead, the English were allowed to trade freely with Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire and allowed to be around a Czech lady. That was reward enough as far as the Empire was concerned. That’s how much England was not a thing. (The English took this insult very badly, and hated Anne at first, but since she was a G they got over it.[1] Don’t worry.)

If England was unimportant why do we know about English medieval history and nothing else? Same reason you’re reading this blog in English right now, homes. I’m not sure if you know this, but in the modern period, the English got super super good at going around the world an enslaving anyone they met. When you’re busy not thinking about German imperial atrocities in the nineteenth century it’s because you’re busy thinking about British imperial atrocities, you feel me? So we all speak English now and if we harken back to historical things it gives us a grandiose idea of English history.

Say, then, you are trying to establish a curriculum for schools that bigs up English history, as is our want. Ask yourself – are you gonna want to dwell on an era where England was so unimportant that Czechs were flexing on it? Answer: no. You gonna gloss right over that and skip to the early modern era and the Tudors who I am absolutely sure you know all the fuck about.

The second colonial-imperialist reason for not learning about medieval history is that medieval history doesn’t exactly aggrandise the colonial-imperialist system. Yes, there are empires in medieval Europe. In addition to the Holy Roman Empire there’s the Eastern Roman Empire, aka the Byzantine Empire, whose downfall is often pointed to as one of several possible bookends to the medieval period. You also have opportunists like the Venetians who set up colonies around the Adriatic and Mediterranean, or the Normans who defo jump in boats and take over, well, anything they could get their hands on. Notably, when these dudes got where they were going, they didn’t end up enslaving a bunch of people, committing genocide, and then funnelling all resources back to a theoretical homeland. The Normans settled down where they were eventually creating distinctive court cultures, and the Venetian colonies enjoyed a seriously high level of trade and quality of life without major disruption to local customs. Force was certainly used to take over at the outset, but it wasn’t something that resulted in the complete subjugation and deaths of millions halfway around the world from where the aggressors started.

byzantine empire
The Byzantine Empire – a thing.

No, the European middle ages are a lot more about local areas muddling along with smaller systems of rule. That’s why you have distinctive areas like say, Burgundy or Sicily calling their own shots and developing their own styles and fashions. Hell, even within imperial systems like the Holy Roman Empire Bavarians or Bohemians saw themselves as very much distinct peoples within an imperial system, not necessarily imperial subjects first and foremost.

You know where you would go to find some history that justifies huge imperial systems that require constant conquest and an army of slaves to keep them afloat? Ancient Rome.

Remember how you got taught how great Rome was? How it was a democracy? How they had wonderful technology and underfloor heating, and oh isn’t that temple beautiful? Yeah, that’s because you were being inculcated to think that the ends of imperial violence justifies mass enslavement and disenfranchisement.

In reality, Rome wasn’t some sort of grand free democracy. Only a tiny percentage of Romans could actually vote. Women of any station certainly could not, and even men who were lucky enough to be free weren’t necessarily Roman citizens. Freedom here is particularly important because by the 1 century BCE 35 – 40% of the population of the Italian peninsula were slaves. Woo yeah democracy. I love it. And that’s not even taking into account all those times when an Emperor would suspend voting altogether.

slaves
Wow yeah, so enlightened.

Those slaves were busy building all the grand buildings your high school history teacher was dry jacking it about, stuffing the dormice that the rich people were reclining to eat, and basically keeping the joint running. Those slaves also necessitated the ridiculously huge army that Rome kept going because you had to get slaves from somewhere after all, so warfare had to be continuous. How uplifting.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that this Roman nonsense is pretty much exactly what was going on during the modern colonial imperial age. You can say whatever the fuck you want about how free and revolutionary America was, for example. That doesn’t change the fact that only a handful of white property owning men could vote, and that the entire project required the mass enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans. That’s why you’ve been taught Rome is great. It helps you sleep well at night on stolen land because, really, haven’t all great societies done this? I mean without a forever war against anyone you can find, how will you keep a society going?

Our imperialist ideas about history lead to some weird historical takes. People love to tell you that no one bathed in the medieval period when medieval people had pretty much exactly the same sort of bathing culture as Romans. People laugh at medieval people believing in medical humoral theory despite the fact that Romans believed exactly the same thing and get a total pass on that front. The Roman ban on dissection is often taught as a medieval ban, shifting Roman superstition onto the shoulders of medieval people. On-going Roman warfare is reported in glowing terms with emphasis on the “brilliance” of Roman military technique, while inter-kingdom warfare in the medieval period is portrayed as barbaric and ignorant. The Roman people who were encouraged to worship emperors as literal gods are used as an example of theoretical religion-free logical thinking, while medieval Christians are cast as ignorant for believing in God even when they are studiously working on the same philosophical queries as their predecessors. None of this makes any fucking sense.

augustus
Just a statue of Caeser Augustus as Jove in a normal way.

But here’s the thing – it doesn’t need to. In a colonial imperialist society we have positioned Rome as a guiding light no matter what it’s actual practices and that’s not a mistake. It’s a design that helps to justify our own society. Further, this mindset requires us to castigate the medieval period when rule was more localised and systems of slavery had taken a precipitous dive. If only there had been more slavery, you know? Things might have been so much better.

Historical narratives and who controls them are always in flux. That old adage “history is written by the winners” comes to mind here, but that’s not exactly true. What the winners do is decide which histories are promoted, taught, and broadcasted. You can write all the history you want and if no one reads it, then it doesn’t really matter. That’s the gap that medieval history has fallen into. Colonial imperialism hasn’t figured out how to weaponise it yet, so it’s ignored.

You could write this off as a “so what”, of course. Sure, maybe teaching the Roman Empire as a goal is a negative, but is ignoring medieval history really that bad a thing? You will be unsurprised to learn that I definitely think it is a bad thing, yes.

Ignorance about the medieval period is one of the things that is allowing the current swelling ranks of fascists to claim medieval Europe as some sort of “pure” white ideal. Spoiler: it was not. However, if you don’t know anything about medieval society how are you gonna argue with some chinless douche with a fake viking rune tattoo?

History is always political. We use it to understand our world, but more than that we also use it to justify our world. Ignoring it helps us prop up our worst impulses, so let’s not.

[1] Westminster Chronicle 1381–1394, ed. by L.C. Hector and B.F. Harvey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 25.


For more on myths and ignorance about the medieval period, see:

That’s not what chivalry is, but OK
“I wasn’t taught medieval history so it is not important” is not a real argument, but ok
On the concept of the Renaissance and Outkast’s Hey Ya
There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
On why the misuse of the word ‘medieval’ is a bad thing – part of an on-going series

For more on politics and history, see:

History is a discipline, not a virtue
On the American election, teaching history, and why it matters

 

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kendrick Lamar enthusiast.

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