Sunday, January 2, 2022

Not Really "Dark," and Only Relatively Middle

There should be no shame in reading graphically interpreted versions of history (or other topics) that interest you. I think it's a legitimate way for scholars to make their subject more accessible to the general public.

One example is The Middle Ages: A Graphic History by Eleanor Janega, with art by Neil Max Emmanuel. Janega is a medievalist at the London School of Economics who (as it says on her LSE page) "specialises in sexuality, propaganda, apocalypticism, urbanity, and empire, in the late medieval and early modern periods, with a particular emphasis on Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire."

The book covers all of Europe, making it clear that the idea of being in the middle between two other eras (let alone in a "Dark Age") was only a European thing, since other parts of the world were not between. England gets pretty short shrift in the 176 pages, since it was a backwater between the 6th and 15th centuries. My old favorite Venerable Bede, therefore, is not mentioned. Alas.

But it's very good for an overview of how the Catholic Church, and the Pope particularly, came to assert its dominance over Europe, to see the interactions of Islam and Christianity, and for glimpses of major discussions among historians.

Things I learned (or maybe relearned, I'm not sure!):

  • Scholars think of the Middle Ages in three segments, Early (6th–10 century), High (10th–13th century), and Late (13th–15th century).
  • The term "Dark Ages" was first used by Petrarch (who lived in the 14th century, part of the late Middle Ages: irony) to describe the earlier two periods. He used the term as a negative descriptor because most of Europe was no longer Roman. Then in the 16th century, a Church historian used the term in the sense of occluded, because there weren't enough sources from the 10th and 11th centuries particularly. So "Dark" was applied as either Roman chauvinism or a scholarly bemoaning. Many of us carry it forward in usage without thinking about what it was supposed to mean, but it's not unreasonable to think we assumed the meaning of bad or at least dreary.
  • My 6th grade social studies teacher taught me lies about Muslim invaders forcing Christians to convert or die. According to Janega, Islamic law doesn't allow Muslims to levy taxes against each other, so "Muslim rulers often wanted big populations of unbelievers so they could levy taxes." The evidence of 8th and 9th century Moorish Spain supports this, with Christian and Jewish residents living in the Golden Age of al-Andalus (centered in Córdoba).
  • Gothic architecture took "cues from Islamic architecture [that] people saw during the Crusades..." Flying buttresses "allow more room for windows because the walls don't have to hold the roof up any more." The term "gothic" was originated by a 16th century Italian artist and writer as an insult. ("Barbaric! And worst of all German!")
  • The Pope allowed the Franciscan order of monks to form as "a PR coup": at a time when the Church was being questioned about its interest in worldly power and goods, the order's existence and commitment to apostolic poverty showed that the Church "was sensitive to calls for reform, while at the same time the great majority of the clergy could continue to enjoy the cushy lifestyles they had become accustomed to."
  • Courtly love was sicker than I even thought. Its rules (set out by a chaplain for Eleanor of Aquitaine) contained things like "He who is not jealous cannot love," so you know it's not a basis for healthy relationships (though its ideas still holds sway today). What I didn't know is that the rules were different for different kinds of people. The chaplain "thought that only rich people could truly love; peasants and the poor didn't understand it and simply 'copulated like beasts.' He even advocated that if rich men thought peasant women were hot they could rape them."
  • The Black Plague came to Europe because the Mongol Empire was so successful. Kublai Khan repaired roads and built a Grand Canal, improving travel and trade. The plague spread in China first, but when it reached the end of the Silk Road in the Crimea, Genoese traders carried it away on their ships. Janega gives the European death estimates in the first wave of the plague as about 50% in Europe overall and 75–80% in Mediterranean Europe. One upside of this mass death (for those who survived) was that labor became scarce, leading to peasant unrest and social change. This is where Wat Tyler comes in. 
  • Scholars disagree on when the Middle Ages ended, and it's reasonable to think they ended at different times in different parts of Europe. Janega lays out four endings. For Eastern Europe, it's when the Holy Roman Empire gave up on overcoming the Hussites (1436). For mid-Europe (and what I was taught), it's the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans (1453). For far western Europe, it's the Reconquista in Spain (1491). (Speaking of the Reconquista: wow. I knew it was bad, but wow.)
  • The beginning of the colonial era ("The Age of Discovery," ugh) is one final marker of the end of the Middle Ages. Portugal was the "innovator" in enslaving people through trade, not just as a byproduct of conquest. "Moors" (Muslims) were fair game as slaves in the eyes of the Church, but when the slavers raided farther south along Africa's west coast, the people they found didn't seem to be Muslims so it could no longer be seen as a holy war. Well guess what, Pope Nicholas V said sure! As long as the enslaved people were converted to Catholicism, it was fine to steal them from their homes and sell them into slavery. "Bolstered, the Portugese performed baptisms in Africa, and returned home with ships of fellow Christians for sale."

And that's how we start the modern era. 

There's a non-graphic history of the period that also recently came out for general audiences called The Bright Ages, cowritten by one of my favorite Twitter writers, David Perry (@lollardfish). I may add it to my to-be-read pile.

1 comment:

Bill Lindeke said...

I'll have to check this out!