Notes: Nostalgia for the Dark Ages

The number of college courses on medieval subjects is rising, and clubs devoted to medieval pursuits are proliferating across the land

ST. MARY’S COUNTY, Maryland, is a triangular piece of turf defined by the confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. Settled by high-born English papists in 1634, it is the oldest jurisdiction in the state. On a recent visit to St. Mary’s, I noticed a banner slung above Route 5, scored here and there by half-moon incisions to accommodate gusts of wind. It advertised a jousting tournament to be held at Horse Range Farm, in the town of Mechanicsville.

Jousting is not unusual in Maryland. Thanks to the efforts of Henry Fowler, the master of Horse Range Farm, who for many years represented his county in the House of Delegates, the joust has since 1962 been Maryland’s official state sport, although combatants eager to be “well seene at armes” now spear dangling rings rather than “tourney one against one, or two against two,” as William Caxton would have had them do in the fifteenth century. Even so, hundreds of Marylanders have gamely taken up the lance.

They are not alone, at least not in spirit, for the rehabilitation of the medieval has been under way in the United States for some time. Long derided as “Dark,” and consigned by Peter Mark Roget in his thesaurus to a forlorn suborder of the category “Ignorance,” the Middle Ages today are downright fashionable. Symbolic of this change in fortune is the success of Umberto Eco’s medieval thriller, The Name of the Rose. Replete with untranslated Latin apothegms and daunting disquisitions on scholastic philosophy, the novel has nevertheless sold 300,000 hardback copies (at $15.95 apiece) and has graced The New York Times’s best-seller list for almost a year.

In academe, the number of courses on medieval subjects has been on the rise for several years, as has the number of students taking them. According to a survey by the medievalists Christopher Kleinhenz and Frank Gentry, during the decade ending in 1980 thirty-seven new scholarly journals specializing in the Middle Ages commenced publication. Since 1970, attendance at the annual conference of the Medieval Institute, at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, has swelled from 800 to almost 2,000, making it the largest medieval congressus in the world.

Meanwhile, clubs and confraternities dedicated to medieval pursuits have proliferated across the continent: the Harlotry Players (Ann Arbor), the Society for Creative Anachronism (Berkeley), the Poculi Ludique Societas (Toronto), the International Early Dance and Music Institute (Amherst), and scores of others. Groups like these, some of them more serious than others, sponsor tournaments and revels, masques and mystery plays, seminars and summer schools—all in an attempt, as the Society for Creative Anachronism would have it, “to create a total medieval environment.”

This sort of thing has of late been creeping out of the university towns and into affluent suburbs. On the verdant fringes of the nation’s 323 Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas, hardly a weekend now passes without jugglers, buffoons, mummers, and minstrels strutting about in some public park. As enthusiasts in period costume dance a saltarello to the strains of cithara and bombulum, onlookers may sample black pudding and turnip jam and fend off the chill with noggins of hippocras and perry.


ARE THE MIDDLE AGES worth the fuss? In Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim, the protagonist, a lecturer in medieval history, delivered one opinion, and at first glance his argument seems compelling: “Those who [profess] themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up . . . by a short study of the Middle Ages, The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kai-shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages. Had people ever been as nasty, as self-indulgent, as dull, as miserable, as cocksure, as bad at art, as dismally ludicrous, or as wrong” as they had been during the Middle Ages? Possibly not, a fair-minded person is bound to admit.

Indeed, in certain respects, the medieval period seems to have been a calamity, the ill effects of which have persisted to this day. Writing in the newsletter Humanities in 1982, the historian Norman Cantor argued that sizable chunks of our medieval legacy will have to be jettisoned “if the world is to become peaceful and secure or even to endure.” He cited as examples “the dead hand of bureaucratic oppression,” a rigid social hierarchy, “violence against peaceful minorities,” and “imperialist greed” spurred by religious intolerance. But Cantor discerned gold amid the dross. He noted that the jury system, common law, parliamentary institutions, the hospital, the university, and the “high market value for the skills of artists and scholars” are all medieval hand-me-downs. To this list one might add scores of other worthwhile innovations that have not survived: among them the ducking stool, the king’s touch for scrofula, the droit du seigneur, and the practice of fining college professors who lecture past the bell, skip portions of the syllabus, or fail to attract at least five students to each class.

My own view is that, in his haste to leave the Middle Ages behind, Western man discarded much that was of value, junking countless customs, institutions, and serviceable quirks of sentiment that might easily have been adapted (with happy results) to the altered conditions of subsequent centuries. Fortunately, it is not too late to set things aright. Given the current popular esteem for the Middle Ages, the time may be ripe for a revival of useful practices sadly fallen into desuetude—a bit of backpedaling, as it were, in the interest of progress.

For example, there has been much talk in recent years about requiring the young to perform some sort of “national service.” Surely we might consider instead dusting off the old corvée, which entitled a lord of the manor to an unspecified number of days of what we now would call “community service” from every tenant in his seigneury. With nary a day’s warning, Bodo could be called on by his master to plant a hedge or plow a new assart, and Bodo’s wife might be summoned to the “big house” to help with the cooking and sewing. An updated, democratized corvée, run by local governments or perhaps by the Salvation Army, has its possibilities. The conscripts might even receive modest compensation. As the historian Marc Bloch noted in his book French Rural History, “Although compulsory, work done as a corvée was not necessarily unrewarded; the lord was sometimes obliged to provide refreshments.”

In the realm of jurisprudence, trial by ordeal would certainly help clear the dockets. “Tell me, pray,” demanded Saint Bernard in his De Consideration, “what is the good of litigating from morning till evening, or of listening to litigants?” Eight centuries later, we still have no acceptable answer. While trial by ordeal is plainly unsuitable in criminal proceedings (where right, often as not, has already succumbed to might), it could prompt speedier resolution of corporate lawsuits and deter nuisance libel actions. Imagine the time, money, and aggravation that could be saved if General William Westmoreland and Mike Wallace, or Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, instead of hunkering down to protracted litigation, were each required to grasp a bar of red-hot iron, with the judge ruling in favor of the party whose hand was not burned.

As for foreign relations, we would all breathe easier for a new Truce of God. The Truce of God initially forbade warfare only on Sundays, but the prohibition was later broadened by the Church to include the six weeks of Lent as well as every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (the theory being that good Christians needed three full days to prepare for Sunday worship). Applying this rule to the Jewish Saturday and the Moslem Friday, and throwing in Ramadān and all of the festivals and High Holy Days, along with the various Hindu utsavas and the many Buddhist anniversaries and uposatha celebrations, we would be left with only an occasional Monday on which to come to blows.

Regarding the conduct of our daily affairs, the monastic Regula Sancti Benedicti, composed by Saint Benedict during the sixth century A.D., still has much sound advice to offer. “If you have a dispute with someone, make peace with him before the sun goes down.”“Do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter. ” “As often as boys and the young . . . are guilty of misdeeds, they should be subjected to severe fasts or checked with sharp strokes.”

Which of us, moreover, has never been thwarted, frustrated, or misled by the curt receptionist, the vapid ticket clerk, the officious lobby guard, the obstinate bureaucrat, and other inhabitants of post-industrial America’s waxing Cerberus sector? Here again we would do well to heed the sage Saint Benedict. He advised his brethren, “At the door of the monastery, place a sensible old man who knows how to take a message and deliver a reply. . . . As soon as anyone knocks, or a poor man calls out, he replies ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘Your blessing, please’; then, with all the gentleness that comes from the fear of God, he provides a prompt answer with the warmth of love.”

—Cullen Murphy