Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths

I wish that I had discovered Those Terrible Middle Ages by Régine Pernoud at the beginning of my graduate school career rather than a few weeks before graduation. Since beginning my studies, I suspected that the average person had a great deal of misinformation in his head about the Middle Ages, but I always wondered if I might have been too idealistic about certain historical facts. Pernoud deals with all of those facts, misinformation, and stereotypes that inform modern ideas about history.

The original French edition of this book was published in 1977, so some of Pernoud’s complaints are not as concerning now as they were then. However, it is interesting to see how many ideas have not changed. Pernoud begins with the idea that learning stopped in the Middle Ages, starting with the founding of universities, manuscripts, art, and architecture. Next, she discusses the position of the serf with evidence of freedom that is likely to disappoint anyone who loves Monty Python’s peasants with their piles of filth.

In Chapter 6, Pernoud moves on to the position of women in the Middle Ages, both religious and laywomen. This chapter is mostly a brief summary of what can be found in Women in the Days of the Cathedrals, but is useful for review or in case a copy of that book is hard to find. Chapters 7 and 8 discuss the necessity of understanding historical events in their historical context, particularly concerning charged and misunderstood issues such as the Inquisitions. The final chapter contains basic advice on teaching history.

My favorite aspect of this book is the anecdotes, sprinkled throughout, of ridiculous questions Pernoud has been asked or ridiculous proclamations she has heard in her career. Some of them are laughable—for example, the man who asked for the city where the treaty that ended the Middle Ages was signed. Some are sad, such as the children who summarized 1000 years by saying only that peasants had the plague and were told that they knew their history well (sad not for the children, who are only repeating what they have learned, but for the teachers who taught them this terribly simplified version of a complex period). Like Women in the Days of the Cathedrals, this book is not one for scholarly in-depth research. However, it’s a perfect general introduction for students and great reading for anyone not involved in graduate-level research.

I’ve never found Those Terrible Middle Ages in a store, but Amazon has it new for $9.71 and used starting at $4.99. I don’t currently own a copy—I’ve checked it out at several libraries—but for that price, I really need to buy one.

Table of Contents

  • Foreword
  • “Middle Ages”
  • Clumsy and Awkward
  • Crude and Ignorant
  • Torpor and Barbarity
  • Of Frogs and Men
  • Women without Souls
  • The Accusing Finger
  • History, Ideas, and Fantasy
  • Simple Remarks on the Teaching of History
  • Index

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