Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Societal Ignorance

Moneyball: “Baseball thinking is medieval. They are asking all the wrong questions. And if I say it to anybody, I’m-I’m ostracized. I’m-I’m-I’m a leper.”
My Cousin Vinny: “The laws are medieval down here. Do you know what the minimum age for execution is in Alabama?”
Red Dawn: “ They live on rats and sawdust bread and sometimes… on each other. At night, the pyres for the dead light up the sky. It’s medieval.”
All About Eve: “Belong to you – why, that sounds medieval, something out of an old melodrama!”
Murder on the Orient Express: “No, it is medieval! The rule of law, it must be held high and if it falls you pick it up and hold it even higher!”
Highlander (TV series): A couple of medieval songwriters come up with the idea of chivalry one rainy day and you embrace it as a lifestyle. You live and die by a code of honor that was *trendy* when you were a kid.
Cracker: Sorry, James, a bit of Medieval justice. If you drown, you’re innocent. If you swim, you’re guilty.

Since I don’t know the context for all of these quotes, I have a hard time trying to figure out what stereotypes operate in these references. Most of them seem to be the assumption that people living in the Middle Ages were uneducated idiots with an underdeveloped sense of justice.

Witch Hunts

The last quote seems to be a reference to a scenario made famous by the witch trial scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. One operating stereotype is that anyone who was misunderstood during the Middle Ages was cast out of the community as a witch. Witch hunts were mostly a phenomenon of the 17th century, not the Middle Ages. The earliest record we have of a medieval witch trial comes from Tolouse in the 14th century. After that, records are sparse, but increase after the middle of the 15th century, the very end of the Middle Ages. [1] A friend of mine who has done research on the topic has informed me that witch hunts largely resulted not from religious fervor, but because the targeted “witch” was a societally vulnerable person with great wealth that the accusing party desired.


Movies and books often portray medieval rulers as tyrants. Régine Pernoud stresses that one must not confuse feudalism with absolute monarchy. [2] If you read my post on serfs and peasants, you are aware that the lower classes had rights and could appeal to a higher authority to defend them. The concept of chivalry has little to do with the concept of justice, save, perhaps, that adhering to rules of chivalry meant that upper-class men were expected to conduct themselves in certain ways that upheld good behavior.

I could briefly summarize medieval justice by saying that the Germanic tradition of trial by jury shaped continental courts. Germanic theories of rulership held ideas not found in Classical cultures—namely, “consultation between a ruler and his people.” [3] How this system worked varied by country and by century, but medieval rulers were subject to their countries’ laws, emphasized by a promise to uphold the law common in coronation oaths. [4] At all levels, lords and vassals had contracts concerning their duties to each other, so authority came from that contract, not the “prestige of the monarchy.” [5]

At no point was a single country really united the way it was today, so a king was not an absolute monarch—he was the strongest of many lords (or, in many cases, not even the strongest) and other lords took oaths of allegiance to him because the structure supported their safety for the time being. The idea did exist that the king was ordained by God [6], but it meant that if the king failed to serve his people well, he had sinned against them and must be deposed. A feudal king could not decree general laws, collect taxes on the whole of his kingdom, or levy an army on his order alone. [7] These ideas changed at the end of the Middle Ages because of the revival of Roman Law; only then do we see absolute monarchy. [8]


Movies in which a modern character is sent back to the Middle Ages portray medieval men as complete idiots. The idea that medieval man thought the world was flat persists outside of the scholarly community, but the round earth was common knowledge from the time of Ptolemy, and only 1 record has ever been found of a medieval man claiming the world is flat. [9]

A myth persists even in many academic environments that only clergy or people training to be clergy could read. However, “from the twelfth century on large numbers of laymen could read. The idea that only clerics could read is a myth about the Middle Ages that dies hard.” [10] The quality and degree of education varied greatly by location and century, but for most of the Middle Ages, education was widely available for all classes. Lower classes usually attended schools attached to cathedrals, while higher classes could do the same or hire tutors.

Charles H. Haskins reminds readers that “[u]niversities, like cathedrals and parliaments, are a product of the Middle Ages.” [11] This is a simple yet effective reminder for those who persist in insisting that learning halted during the Middle Ages. Another myth is that only priests attended universities. This misunderstanding results from the archaic use of the word “cleric” or, more properly, “clerk. Among definitions acceptable for the time are “a man ordained to the ministry or service of the Christian Church,” “a man (or woman) of book learning, one able to read and write,” and “a scholar.” [12] “Cleric” is not synonymous with priest; a cleric could encompass a wide range of duties, priestly or administrative. I have found few references to women attending universities, but men who could afford tuition would often attend merely for the education without intending to enter Church service. Surviving letters between students and parents reveal similar circumstances to today—students complain that they are overburdened by work and need more money for books while parents refuse to give it because they hear that their children are behaving frivolously rather than studying. [13] A professor once remarked to my class that the Carmina Burana was largely written by unemployed graduate students with nothing better to do than write dirty songs.

Most medieval students were not the affluent slackers portrayed in modern novels such as Brideshead Revisited—students tended to be poor since education was not fashionable until after 1500. [14] Those who took education usually intended to use it for a productive purpose, whether business or Church service. Learned men were occasionally just referred to as “clerks” or “doctors.” By definition, “doctor” at the time meant an eminently learned person, which could include doctors of medicine, but did not exclusively mean physicians. [15]

I have occasionally heard the idea that scholarly texts were written in Latin to keep knowledge out of the hands of the laity who did not speak Latin. Scholarly texts written in Latin until the 1700s because local dialects did not have the vocabulary for science or philosophy. [16] The educated laity, women included, learned Latin. Availability of books was vital to the spread of education, so the invention of the printing press greatly impacted Europe. Papermaking reached Western Europe from Islamic countries by the 12th century, and the moveable type press came just before 1450. By 1500, 9 million books and pamphlets had been printed. [17]

Medieval men and women lacked the benefit of modern technology, but they were far from ignorant. To see a sharp break between the “Dark Ages” and the Renaissance is to compartmentalize history in a way that can prevent thorough understandingю Renaissance ingenuity was only possible because of the preparation that took place during the Middle Ages.

  1. Pernoud, Régine. Those Terrible Middle Ages. Trans. Anne Englund Nash. (San Francisco, Ignatius Press: 2000), 117.
  2. Ibid., 75.
  3. Artz, Frederick B. The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey A.D. 200–1500, 3rd ed. (1953; repr., Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 1980), 278.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 279.
  6. Ibid., 278.
  7. Pernoud, Régine. Those Terrible, 77.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Classen, Albrecht. The myth of the medieval chastity belt, presented at the University of Sydney, Sydney, August 28, 2008, http://www.medievalists.net/2009/01/18/the-myth-of-the-medieval-chastity-belt/ (accessed April 9, 2012).
  10. Artz, Frederick B. The Mind, 306.
  11. Ibid., 314.
  12. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “clerk,” http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/34212  (accessed June 2, 2012).
  13. Artz, Frederick B. The Mind, 317.
  14. Ibid., 318.
  15. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “doctor,” http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/56298 (accessed June 2, 2012).
  16. Artz, Frederick B. The Mind, 321.
  17. Ibid., 252.


Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Societal Ignorance — 1 Comment

  1. As brilliant as ever! “Dark Ages” is one of my least favorite terms, it makes it sound as if the lights went off in 410, the first sack of Rome, and people lived in complete ignorance for 1,000+ years until the Italian Renaissance saved us all. This series of posts has been top quality, thanks for the research!