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Author Topic: Lost Cities and Civilizations  (Read 25406 times)

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Re: Lost Cities and Civilizations
« Reply #45 on: December 30, 2015, 07:47:13 pm »

The middle ages: was it really as gruesome as it's commonly portrayed to be?

Daniel Baker, M.A. in European History, George Mason University

3.5k Views •  Daniel has 150+ answers in History.

Daniel is a Most Viewed Writer in Middle Ages.

The shortest answer I can give to this question, is "No, in most respects."  :o There are some ways in which the Middle Ages were as bad as they were commonly portrayed, but mostly they weren't.  I'll use a down-and-dirty definition of the Middle Ages as running from 476-1521 (fall of the last Western Roman Emperor to Luther not getting burned at the Diet of Worms), and blithely ignore all the subtleties and nuances.

No, not as bad as commonly portrayed:  

1.  Witchcraft.  It used to be popularly believed that the Middle Ages were the height of the witchcraft craze.  Not true; for most of the Middle Ages, it was actually heretical to believe in witches, as St. Augustine had said God wouldn't allow witches to exist.  There were a handful of witch executions in the late Middle Ages, but witch hunts didn't really take off until the papacy approved Heinrich Kramer's book Malleus Maleficarum in 1486. The witch hunts were at their worst in the late 16th to early 17th centuries, long after the end of the Middle Ages.

2. Prima nottae/jus primae noctis/droit de seigneur.  I love Braveheart as a movie, but as history it is inaccurate, and in no way is it more inaccurate than in relaunching this old canard. There is not the slightest evidence that medieval aristocrats ever had the legal right to deflower their peasants' brides on their wedding nights. Certainly a baron or his sons might rap e or sexually coerce women on the fief, and there wouldn't be much the victims could do about it in courts controlled by those very same barons, but the lords couldn't have done it openly without getting into trouble with the church and the royal courts.

3.  Bad teeth.  Sure, dental care was primitive in the Middle Ages, but there was a compensating advantage: a very low-sugar diet, which kept tooth decay under control.  People's teeth got much worse after the end of the Middle Ages, when sugar started to flow in from the Caribbean colonies.

4.  Absolute kingship. The popular image of the medieval king as an absolute ruler is a fiction; absolute monarchy is a post-medieval concept of the 16th and 17th centuries.  Medieval monarchs were constantly struggling for control with the church (a struggle they ultimately lost when the church won the right to name bishops and abbots), and with their own nobles (which turned out rather more successfully for the kings). 

5.  Technology.  It was once conventional wisdom that the Middle Ages were a time of technological retrogression.  In fact, most Roman technology was preserved, and lots of new technology was invented or imported: the compass, the moldboard plow, the horse collar, the stirrup, the waterwheel mill and trip-hammer, Arabic numerals, stained glass (brought to a height of perfection that we can't duplicate today), plate armor, and  the longbow.

Yes, as bad as portrayed, but no worse than earlier or later times:

1.  Disease. Yes, the medieval world suffered horribly from bubonic plague, not only in the famous outbreak of 1346, but also the more obscure but equally devastating Plague of Justinian in 541.  And there was the "sweating sickness," still not certainly diagnosed by modern physicians, and many other pestilences.  Against this, all medieval Europe had was Galen and the bogus theory of the humors.  The Muslim world was somewhat better off, since the Muslims had invented hospitals and understood the importance of cleanliness, but without the germ theory of disease even the Muslims were largely helpless against the power of epidemics.  Still, other eras suffered as badly or worse from disease as the Middle Ages; plague may have cost Athens the Peloponnesian Wars, and Roman medicine was no better than the medieval.  Plague continued into the early modern era, and smallpox got worse. And the virgin soil epidemics caused by the European discovery of the Americas dwarfed anything in the Middle Ages. Tetanus, diphtheria, small pox, syphilis, measles, mumps, cholera, typhoid were never ending dangers for which there was no treatment or cure. Slight scratches could easily become septic, and develop into blood poisoning to kill you.

2.  Famine.  When the crops failed, medieval European peasants died in droves - just like Roman peasants, Greek peasants, or early modern European peasants.

3.  Cruel punishments.   Hanging by slow strangulation was a medieval invention, but Roman death penalties were just as bad: crucifixion, impalement, mauling by beasts, and fustuarium (beating to death by cudgels).  Likewise, penalties like piercing the tongue with hot iron, breaking on the wheel, and hanging continued long past the end of the Middle Ages.

As bad or worse than portrayed: 

1.  Outside raids and invasions. It wasn't just the Vikings, who have a stranglehold on popular imagination: it was also the Alans, the Avars, the Bulgars, the Arabs, the Magyars, the Turks, and the Mongols.  The Romans had been pretty successful in keeping their borders secure, and while early modern Europe was rent with internal war, it had little to fear from outside invasion.

2.  Illiteracy.  The Middle Ages were the least literate period in European history since the Greek Dark Age  Yes, the German tribes had always been illiterate, but with the Middle Ages they helped make illiteracy the normal state of the ruling class in Christian Spain,  France, Britain, Italy, and the Balkans.  The ordinary Roman was illiterate too, but the upper crust was expected to read and write; that ceased to be true by the 800s.  Writing from the early Middle Ages is even more fragmentary than records from Rome, even though the Roman records are older.  Coming to Islamic Toledo, Gerard of Cremona himself remarked on the "poverty of the Latins" in books as compared to the Muslims.  The printing press, in turn, made the early modern period much more literate than medieval times.

3.  No road building.  The medievals seem to have relied mainly on Roman roads for land transport throughout the era. This was not because the technology had been lost, but because access to huge amounts of slave labor had been lost.   

4.  Crazy judicial methods. There may not have been much to choose from between Roman punishments and medieval ones, but at least the Romans had fairly sane methods of trial, without any oath-helpers, trials by ordeal of iron or water, or trials by combat.  While the frequency of these medieval judicial methods is somewhat exaggerated in the popular press (I read a pipe roll from King John of England's reign that had only one trial by combat and no ordeals out of several dozen judgments), the very fact that they were significant at all made the Middle Ages worse than the Roman or early modern periods.

Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart. Ps. 97:11


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