The other week my friends and I enjoyed drinking several pints outside and indulged in one of my new lockdown hobbies – creating bingo cards. (Shout out to Sara and Justin, two beloved stars who helped.) I thought I would share it with you, my loves, so that you too can play along. However to help you with that let’s go through it piece by piece, shall we?
It is common for the uninitiated to think of the medieval period as a time when people worked constantly. This is not the case. Medieval people enjoyed rather a lot of time off, because there were a lot of religious feast days and extended festivals. Yes animals had to be fed every day and seen to, and farming is hard, but on average modern workers work far more than workers in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, for example. Juliet Shor analysed this in her The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure in 2019. You can read a synopsis, here.
Great Art began in the Renaissance
Art is subjective, and it does a lot of different things. Medieval people simply had a different concept of what art is, and weren’t the fussed about realism, and that is fine. Saying medieval people are bad at art in comparison to Renaissance people is like saying that modernists don’t make good art because, Míro isn’t drawing life figures with perspective. Yes I have written a handy guide.
Low Life Expectancy
Just go ahead and admit that you don’t understand how averages work, and then explain to me one more time how you are smarter than medieval people.
Medieval as a Pejorative
Yes, easily two thirds of the things that people call “medieval” are modern, but this isn’t just a pedantry thing. Saying that something is “medieval” when you mean “bad” is a way of allowing our own society off the hook for our own problems. (It is also a little bit of a pedantry thing.)
“Nasty, brutish, and short”
The phrase “nasty, brutish, and short” comes to us from Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in his Leviathan. Hobbes was, famously, a hater, and felt that human beings were disposed to violence against each other if left in what he termed a “state of nature”. In fact, the full phrase is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and refers expressly to individuals outside of what he thought of as society. His solution to the “natural” violence of man was to put a massively powerful “sovereign” over society to reign in humans’ worst impulses. The sovereign would ensure that within society we all had to adhere to a “social contract” which would take away our freedoms in return for safety. Those who acted against the social contract would then be the subject of harsh punishment from the sovereign.
Anyway, this entire thing is just a form of philosophical propaganda arguing for a massively carceral and interventionist strong-man government. Moreover, it is also not even necessarily a critique of the medieval period it is a critique of the Bellum omnium contra omnes, or War Against All that would theoretically exist in a state of nature that Hobbes made up in his head. It is just that a bunch of basics thought they would be cute and apply it to the medieval period. So stop acting like you are so smart when you are bigging up an argument for authoritarian government and haven’t even read the book that it comes from.
Oh yeah, for sure medieval people did some torture. You know who else did? People. And in a lot of ways torture got significantly more common and much worse in the modern period. For more, see the extensive documentation of common tortures under the Habsburgs that was made in the Constitutio Criminalis Theresiana, when the Empress Maria Therese finally outlawed torture in Austro Hungary in 1769(!). Moreover, a lot of what people think of as “medieval” torture is made up Victorian wank fantasy and never existed. Iron maidens? Not real. Pear of Anguish? Not real. So yeah, medieval people did torture, but not at a rate any higher than modern people, and in a lot less of a grizzly way than a bunch of Victorian weirdos would have you believe.
Richard the Lionheart as a Very English Hero
He was Norman. He barely even visited England ever. He was not Sean Connery. He did not speak English or like it here. Move on with your life.
No one called themselves Anglo-Saxon and the term is just a bunch of racist nonsense made up by Victorians to justify colonialism. Anglo Saxons were simply not a thing. Better terms are early English, or pre-Norman. My colleague Mary Rambaran-Olm’s work on this will explain more if you don’t know already.
Drinking water was dangerous
It really wasn’t. They knew about boiling water and stuff, and usually took pains to have clear water. They drank beer all the time because it tastes good and they needed the calories because they worked really hard. It was small beer, they weren’t drunk. This is boring.
“The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor an Empire”
The most trite and stupid statement of all time comes to us courtesy of enemy of the blog Voltaire, who is both an idiot and a self-satisfied prick. This statement is just stupid on the face of it because it shows that anyone who says it has no idea what either the Roman or Holy Roman Empires were. It is holy because it is expressly linked to the Church and exists as a sort of secular arm of the Christendom. It is Roman because “Roman-ness” is not actually linked to the city of Rome, and if you think it is I am gonna need you to look up the Eastern Roman Empire, and also what the hell the Romans were doing in Ravenna for all that time before you ever speak to me about this again. It is an Empire, it spans multiple kingdoms, principalities, and linguistic groups. Voltaire is just telling you that an Empire isn’t really an Empire until you are subjugating brown people and have a bunch of foreign slaves. Cool. Wow. So Enlightened. Anyway no one who has ever parroted this line can actually back it up or knows what they are talking about, and if you have ever said it you owe me a pint.
Anyone cared about England
England was a backwater in the medieval period and did not wield any sort of noticeable power which is why it was constantly getting taken over by people. We only pay attention to it now because of imperialism. You cannot make me care about it.
Dark Ages is both pejorative and the entire medieval period
Religious Ecstasy cannot be sexual
A lot of trads have to go a very long way to explain why religious people are defo not talking about sexual ecstasy, and that is just embarrassing for them when we can all see what Hildegard von Bingen was doing. Sorry that sex is holy for some people, I guess.
X is like the Crusades
It isn’t. Also, which one? All of them? Cuz I feel like the Albigensian Crusade is different to the First Crusade, which is different to the Fourth, which is different to the anti-Hussite Crusades, so which ones are you talking about? Actually, don’t answer that I am not interested. Please just stop.
White Supremacist Wank Fantasy
Trad Gender Norms OR Warrior Women
One of the annoying things about the way we think about women in the past is that we use them as a proxy for our own ideas about gender. Reactionary conservative people like to pretend that medieval women were submissive and happy little wives who obeyed their husbands and did nothing outside of the home and liked it that way. They like to pretend this so they can do a kind of “world gone mad” take every time a lady talks on the internet or whatever. In contrast to this, people also love the idea that medieval women were all dashing out into battle wearing armour and essentially being like Xena or something. Now I love Xena, probably more than the next person, but that is also a construct that people like to invent so that they can Yas Queen Girl Boss. Medieval women were, in fact, a lot of different things. Yes, we can find women at home, but they are working a lot while they are there, and pretty fucking exhausted. Similarly there are women on the battlefield, or working as town guards. Joan of Arc and the Hussite women existed. However, the urge to focus on women doing violence as “proof” that women are worthy of respect frames the discussion about gender as one where masculine norms and violence are what makes someone a worthwhile person. In other words, if you behave like a man you deserve respect. That is just basic. Medieval women were all sorts of complicated things, just like women are now. They didn’t need to behave like men for us to be interested in them.
Medieval Times (the Restaurant) OR People being weirdly snobby about Medieval Times (the Restaurant)
No, I have never been to Medieval Times. No, I don’t know much about jousting, other than if you died in a tournament you went to Hell. This is a kinda weird thing to ask a medievalist. However, I don’t think they are trying to be authentic, and actually eating a bunch of fried chicken and getting sozzled while watching some people joust sounds pretty boss. Not gonna lie to you. I would.
No Gay Shit
I assure you there was rather a lot of gay stuff, they just didn’t use the same terms. Sure, not all sodomy was gay, but you have to go out of your way to pretend that what we would call gay or trans people didn’t exist. They did and you are being weird.
“The burning of the library of Alexandria!”
It really wasn’t that big a deal in terms of theoretical “knowledge” lost. All the really good important stuff was mostly already copied out and pretty widely circulated already. A lot of the stuff that was lost forever just wasn’t that important. Like, if one library with all the Dan Brown novels burnt down now I assure you we would be fine. Same same. The hand wringing about the library is largely a made up thing used to propagate the myth of the Dark Ages. It’s just silly. I am not out here to say I condone the burning of libraries. I am just saying it doesn’t actually change that much.
Prima Nocta and/or Chastity Belts
Neither are real. Again, Victorians were just mad horny.
The Church suppressed Science!!
“People didn’t love their children because they died.”
This myth is kinda connected to the historian Philippe Aries, who wrote a now completely discredited book called Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. In it he argued that there was no conception of childhood in the medieval period. He was wrong about that one, just so you know. Anyway that, combined with the whole myth of people dying early combined into people’s heads to create this myth. Part of the argument seems to stem from the fact that people often named their children the same name that their dead children had previously had. However, this isn’t down to callousness, it is about naming conventions. Children were routinely named after their godparents. So if you had your mate Thomas be your son’s godfather, you named your son Thomas. If you son died and you subsequently had another son and asked your mate Thomas to step up once again, then that would mean your new son was also named Thomas. This has nothing to do with whether or not people loved their children. It is just a different naming convention. TL/DR of course they loved their kids, and Philippe Aries is a weirdo and also wrong.
The idea of the self began in the Renaissance
Sorry, but that is the early modern period. Thanks for playing.
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For more myths about the medieval period, see:
Plague Police roundup, or, I am tired, and you people give me no peace
How to win friends and influence people in medieval Europe on History Hit
If you are going to talk about the Dark Ages, you had better be right
JFC, calm down about the medieval Church
On Medical Milestones, Being Racist, and Textbooks, Part I
On Medical Milestones, The Myth of Progress and Being Racist, Part II
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
I assure you, medieval people bathed.
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
“I wasn’t taught medieval history so it is not important” is not a real argument, but ok
There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK
On the Concept of the Renaissance and Outkast’s Hey Ya
FUCK YEAH Genghis Khan – an emergency pubcast
On why the misuse of the word ‘medieval’ is a bad thing