Let’s Rename the Middle Ages

You all are aware of the problems with the term “dark ages.” Scholars prefer the term “Middle Ages,” but is that really much better? It seems to imply that the medieval period is an insignificant one between others of importance. If we were to come up with another name for the Middle Ages, what name would we use?

The Catholic Period

This one comes to mind first for several reasons. For many studies, a people’s conversion to Christianity marks the beginning of the Middle Ages; the Protestant Reformation, likewise, marks the end. During the Middle Ages, the vast majority of Western Europe was Catholic. When studies refer to cultures which are not Catholic, they often use a term relevant to that culture’s time reckoning rather than “medieval.” Whenever we give an age a name, we tend to give it something suited to the largest groups or ideas.

The problems: The exceptions to the above. I’m not learned enough to know whether or not the exceptions are few enough to justify this term, nor do I want to show disrespect for any group that would not be appropriately defined by this term.

The Age of the Cathedrals

This term comes from Régine Pernoud’s works. This could be a good term because the Middle Ages were the heyday of cathedral-building, and cathedrals are among the most recognizable architecture of the Middle Ages. This could be an appropriate term despite the fact that cathedrals were still built after the Middle Ages. After all, we have no problems when speaking of “the Romans” or a “Roman period” despite the fact that the city of Rome has never stopped existing.

The problems: Same as for The Catholic Period.

The Feudal Age

Perhaps a form of legal custom or societal structure would be a good way to define the Middle Ages. Feudalism dominated; absolute monarchy did not exist until after the Middle Ages. This term would give us a clear starting point—the fall of Rome with its government—and an ending point that is flexible for various circumstances.

The problems: I’m really only familiar with England and France, so I don’t know how much of Europe this definition applies to. The word “feud” also makes this seem like a particularly violent age, which is part of the image that we’re still battling. I gather from various sources that feudalism was the norm through all of Western Europe, but scholars are still debating as to whether or not feudalism is an appropriate way to look at the Middle Ages.

It will be impossible to find a term that is equally applicable to all of Europe. Few definitions of any age are. Of all the above terms, my favorite is “The Age of the Cathedrals” since it brings with it a sense of dignity and knowledge that has been squashed by popular imagination. Even if we found a perfectly suited name, I doubt it would ever catch on save among scholarly circles. The term “Middle Ages” has been with us for too long. Then again, if we were able to move from BC/AD to BCE/CE, I suppose other changes of terminology are possible.

Shirt Preview: I Am Overeducated

I Am Overeducated

I Am Overeducated

This idea is not new to T-shirt culture. There’s the famous “Si hoc legere potes, nimium eruditionis habes.” This translates more literally as “If you can read this, you have too much knowledge.”

I wanted something shorter and with a slightly different meaning. “Supereducata sum” translates more literally as “I am overlearned,” or perhaps “I am beyond educated.” My translation focuses on the being instead of the having, which seemed more appropriate since I’m going for humorous egotism. “Ego supereducata sum” would have been even more egotistical, but then it loses the alliteration.

To the Latin-speakers: would you suggest any alterations to the translation? I suspect I should be using ablative case with “super” (supereducatō and supereducatā) but I’m not certain if this is best since it’s not a construction requiring geographical location. Or is the whole thing just awkwardly literal? Are there enough people in the world both capable of and interested in reading this shirt to make us care?

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English Weapons and Warfare: 449–1660, by A.V.B. Norman and Don Pottinger

I love this book. A dear friend loaned it to me when I first began researching Arthurian literature. Three years later, when I asked him “Can I borrow your awesome book on English armor? I think it’s brown. Or maybe blue,” he knew exactly which book I was talking about. The title of English Weapons and Warfare: 449–1660 makes the content self-explanatory. Norman and Pottinger fit a surprising amount of detail in this book, considering that they have 220 pages to cover 1200 years of weapons, armor, and tactics.

Perhaps the organization is what makes this book so efficient. English Weapons is divided chronologically. Each section is further divided into organization, arms/armor, tactics/strategy, and castles/cannons. The table of contents is arranged so that the reader can pick a section by period or by subject.

Drawings in English Weapons are sparse, but they are efficiently used. I focused on armor and weapons when I read this book. Norman and Pottinger’s descriptions were most useful to learn what weapons and armor looked like, how they were used, and how they changed, responding to changes in warfare methods and cultural climate. English Weapons gave me a solid foundation for understanding the many arming and fight scenes of Arthurian literature as well as countering some basic stereotypes. The writing style is efficient and effective.

It’s difficult to tell if this book is intended for a popular or scholarly audience, but I’ll suppose popular since it covers such a broad topic in a small space. Someone brand-new to medieval history may have a hard time grounding some of the mentioned events in their historical context, but someone brand-new to medieval history would also be unlikely to pick up this book without a desire to connect it to other sources. For scholars, this book is useful for a basic overview of medieval warfare as well as a quick reference for specific periods or weapons.

My only complaint about English Weapons is that I want more. I would have liked more detailed information on how weapons were used, the quality of surviving artifacts, and their dominance during the Middle Ages. Obviously, this is an unrealistic complaint because they authors have not failed to address these topics and would have added more detail if this had been a longer book. English Weapons is worth buying, but if you can’t have your own copy, make sure to get it through inter-library loan.

Table of Contents

(I am not reproducing the ToC by subject since it’s so long.)

  • Preface
  • The Invaders
  • Chivalry
  • The Twelfth Century
  • The Thirteenth Century
  • The Fourteenth Century
  • The Fifteenth Century
  • The First Half of the Sixteenth Century
  • The Second Half of the Sixteenth Century
  • The Seventeenth Century up to 1660
  • Appendix: The Making of an Armour
  • Index

Surprised Medievalist Cat on the Importance of Macrons


Except macrons are always optional. In the 6th edition of Wheelock’s Latin, says on page 226, “Years ago some pundit wrote (demonstrating the importance of macrons), mālō malō malō mālō, I’d rather be in an apple tree than a bad man in adversity….” I looked like this when I first read that sentence, and months later I can’t say I’ve completely understood the structure, but I’ll comment on what I think is going on here, numbering the four words:

  1. mālum, -ī, meaning “apple tree” with the ablative of place that doesn’t necessarily require a preposition
  2. malus, -a, -um, an adjective meaning “bad, wicked, evil,” this appears to be an ablative of place, with “malus” serving as a substantive (“bad place,” with “place” implied, loosely translated as “in adversity”).
  3. Also from malus, -a, -um, this appears to be a masculine singular substantive of ablative case in which the “man” of “bad man” is implied. This second element in the comparison would take the ablative and allow the comparative “quam” to be removed. The structure works in Latin, though order needs to be rearranged for the English translation.
  4. mālō, mālle, māluī, compound of magis + volō, an irregular verb meaning “to want something more/instead,” here conjugated in the present tense

Personality in the Middle Ages

Disclaimer: This is not one of my most authoritative posts. The initial idea came from my early grad school notes, which is why the big ideas are marked as coming from my professors and not from books. I may not be of great use in answering questions, but if you have some, send them in and I’ll do my best.

One of the most interesting ideas I learned from my first graduate medieval lit class is that psychology and personality were never driving forces for literary characters in the Middle Ages. The concepts of “psychology” and “personality” did not exist in the Middle Ages and really did not exist until the 18th C. Nothing was thought of in political [1] or psychological terms—everything was identified in terms of what’s best for the community and what’s moral, right or wrong, good or evil. The term “personality” as we use it today does not enter the English language until the 18th C, which my professors emphasized was an idea of an industrial society in which humans find themselves isolated despite being in large groups.

The OED lists “personality” as meaning “The quality or collection of qualities which makes a person a distinctive individual,” first appearing in 1710. As a psychological term, it first appears in 1930. The word “personality” does appear in the English language as early as 1425, but this definition refers to qualities that make a human distinct from an animal, thing, or idea. [2]

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The Historical Accuracy of Permastubble in the Middle Ages

unnecessary visual aid

Permastubble seems to be the standard male fashion for much media set in the Middle Ages. It’s certainly the standard in the BBC Robin Hood and Merlin, two more recent medieval adaptations, and TV Tropes says it’s standard for an action hero. I’ve spent years complaining about it, but I’ve recently found evidence to indicate that permastubble may have actually been the standard in the Middle Ages.

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Approaches to Writing Conference Papers

This topic isn’t a medieval one, but since many of my readers are students or professors, this will probably be an important topic. Anyone progressing past a bachelor’s degree will someday have to write a conference paper. After attending several conferences recently, I’ve noticed that academic conference presentations seem to fall into three different categories:

The Workshop Approach

This is the approach I see from people who are tenured faculty or in tenure-track positions. With the Workshop Approach, presenters bring research in progress, notifying the audience what the general goal for the research is in order to enlist audience help on aspects of the research that merit further development. This approach sees the academic conference as a chance to workshop ideas among colleagues.

The Dissertation Approach

This approach is used either by master’s or PhD students or by those who have recently completed such a degree without having previously presented much of the research. This approach turns individual chapters or sections of a thesis or dissertation into a shorter conference paper. Presenters ordinarily inform the audience that this is a piece of a larger work, either during the presentation or while answering questions. The purpose of the approach can either be to gain advice for developing the research in a similar way to the Workshop Approach, or simply to have something to do with that dissertation apart from sending it to the thesis committee. If the presenter plans to expand the dissertation to a full-length scholarly book, then the Dissertation Approach overlaps with the Workshop Approach.

The Freelance Approach

In this approach, the conference attendee presents a polished, fully-completed piece of research. It is not a part of a larger work, though it often is intended to complement or lead into other research and may someday become part of a larger work. The presenter does not present for the purpose of gaining ideas for improving the research, but to affirm the validity of the research in the scholarly community. The presenter expects to fluently answer any questions asked during the presentation. Though avenues for improving the research may arrive, the presenter expects to have accounted for most of them already.

I call this last approach the Freelance Approach because it is the one I have used as one who is not expected by my college to do research. My purpose is, simply, to gain a reputation. I’m a new scholar who does not have tenure or a long list of publications, so I attend conferences both to network with colleagues and to start building a presence in the scholarly community so that by the time I am able to afford to enter a PhD program, I will be someone worth having.

All three of these approaches seem like good approaches (and this isn’t an exhaustive list of purposes for writing). At my first conference, I was surprised to see people with PhDs presenting incomplete research, but presenters nearly always find the feedback that they need to finish the research. Examine your reasons for attending an academic conference, and keep these in mind when writing proposals. Which purpose is right for you? Or, for those of you who regularly attend conferences, which approach do you normally use?

Surprised Medievalist Cat

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a meme. Summer is all about slacking off, right? For those of you who are slacking off, you might as well add cats and medievalism to the lot. For those of you who are working hard over the summer, you deserve a break.

They found Richard WHERE?

Yes, this one is late in coming. It took me a while to decide whether or not I should bother with it. It also took me a while to get a picture of my cat looking surprised. As always, I’ve probably mistranslated something, so please correct my grammar.

But wait. There’s more!

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Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Bludgeoning with Swords

On multiple occasions, from European History teachers and martial arts instructors, I have heard it said that during the Middle Ages, the Asian sword was a thing of perfection while the European sword was an ugly thing that knights used to bash each other over the head. Whether or not the Asian sword was perfect is irrelevant to this post, but the statement about European swords is false.

Of course, the term “medieval sword” is a vague term since the roughly 1000 years that encompass the Middle Ages saw a wide variety of sword designs and developments. For purposes of this post, think of “medieval sword” as meaning any sword with a roughly cruciform shape, a tip suitable for thrusting, and two cutting edges, either of one-handed or two-handed design. Think of the type you see most often in movies. I will occasionally contrast this sword with a katana, which is the type of Asian sword I have most often heard referenced in these types of arguments (with ignorance to time period issues).

The myth persists that the medieval sword was nothing more than a metal club with a pointy end: “One sometimes reads that the medieval sword was a clumsy weapon, blunt and unwieldy. No one who had ever held a genuine sword in his hand could say that, since they feel so perfectly designed for their purpose as soon as one’s hand closes round the grip.” [1] Constance Brittain Bouchard says that “Modern attempts to replicate these swords have proved extremely difficult, reflecting the high level of craftsmanship of the period.” [2] The stereotype of bludgeoning with swords requires two things: knowledge of what a sword ought to do, and a perception that medieval swords failed to do it. The Middle Ages already had the mace, which was a bludgeoning weapon far more suited to the purpose than a sword, so it seems odd to insist that a sword would also be used primarily for bludgeoning.

Some confusion may come from merely looking at the design of a medieval sword. The heavy pommels look unwieldy, especially when compared to a katana, but they were intended to balance the weight of the blade and lead to a cleverly-made weapon. [3]

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