THOSE TERRIBLE MIDDLE AGES
by Règine Pernoud
(Ignatius Press, 2000, 180pp, $32.70 plus $4.40 postage.
Available from Ignatius Press, PO Box 180, Sumner Park Qld 4074, (07) 3376 0105)
Ask a sixth-form pupil studying history, or a university student, to write a paragraph about the Middle Ages. Or write one yourself. Then count the pejorative terms that the paragraph includes: chances are there will be quite a number. In current parlance, particularly in ecclesiastical circles, to assert that a position "belongs to the Middle Ages" is to damn it conclusively.
Règine Pernoud, a French medieval scholar, reacted to such groundless assumptions by writing this book in 1977. Its recent translation into English makes her popular defence of this fascinating period available.
Pernoud's analysis makes much of the essence of the period historians call the Renaissance of the 16th century onward which was, of course, a period that sought to bring about the re-birth of classical antiquity.
Yet, Pernoud argues, the Middle Ages were thoroughly civilised. Custom, not individualism, legalistic casuistry, or even the absolute will of any sovereign power, was at the heart of this civilisation. Pernoud defines custom as: "That collection of usages born of concrete acts and drawing their power from the times that hallowed them; its dynamic was that of tradition: a given, but a living given, not fixed, ever susceptible to change without ever being submitted to a particular will."
One does not need to know terribly much history to recognise that the abandoning of custom (theologically, of living tradition) by potentates formed the basis of campaigns of so-called reform from the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, through the Enlightenment philosophers, various class revolutions and nationalistic and religious wars, to the individualistic 20th century dictators and the slightly more acceptable democrats, let alone the theologians and liturgical reformers who dismiss tradition as irrelevant.
In all these, the "particular will" of a key person or persons overrides living tradition. The strife-ridden results of such abhorrent chapters of history make the Middle Ages look like the Garden of Eden.
Not that Pernoud argues it was. She simply asserts that it had a more wholesome grasp of the relationship of man to man, man to the world, and of man and God, than does our individualistic era. She goes to some length to demonstrate that the "play of interdependences that made an extremely dense fabric of mediaeval society" included the assurance of the personal dignity and rights of the serf, the placing of duties towards those under him on the local lord, and the exaltation of women to the extent that they were certainly not second-class citizens excluded from influencing their times.
The Crusades and the Inquisitions are often held up as transparent proofs of the barbarity of the Middle Ages. Pernoud devotes a chapter to such accusations, which she confronts with an historian's perspective. Her discussion concludes with a question that puts the argument into context: "For the historian of the year 3000, where will fanaticism lie? Where, the oppression of man by man? In the 13th century or the 20th?"
This is an important polemical book. It was written well before such scholarly works as Eamon Duffy's Stripping of the Altars successfully attacked the revisionist view of medieval England as a dank papist fiefdom, and thus does not take account of this and other recent works of medieval scholarship. Yet it is a valuable primer which will serve to bring more balance to a much-maligned period of history.
Christopher Quinn is a European-based journalist.