Textbooks are distorting medieval history and ignoring the era's rich Catholic culture

There’s something about the word “medieval” which makes some people behave very strangely. As Professor David Paton recently noted on the Catholic Herald website, GCSE textbooks are still repeating depressingly common misconceptions about the Middle Ages, painting it as a time of darkness, ignorance and superstition.

The BBC Bitesize website, for instance, informs students that in the medieval period “most peasants were extremely superstitious”, and that the medieval Church was responsible for “stagnation” in medical knowledge, mostly because of “its encouragement of prayer and superstition”. Supposedly the Church “discouraged progress” in science, “encouraging people to rely on prayers to the saints and superstition”, and telling people that “disease was a punishment from God”, a belief which “led to fatalism and prevented investigation into cures”.

This is a slanted and inaccurate picture of medieval learning, and the Bitesize website is not as exceptional as one might hope. An AQA-approved history textbook groups “superstition and religion” as a single phenomenon. A popular website, revisegcsehistory.co.uk, claims: “Doctors had superstitious beliefs, saying magical words when treating patients and consulting stars.”

These sources treat the word “superstition” as if it were the key to understanding medieval history, without even attempting to define it. It’s a term commonly associated with the Middle Ages in popular culture, though many people who use it in that context seem to have only the vaguest sense of what they mean by it; often it’s just used as a synonym for “religion”. Like the use of the word “medieval” to mean “barbaric” or “primitive”, it is deeply unfair to the 1,000-year period we call the Middle Ages, in all its variety, creativity and diversity.

This snobbery about the medieval period goes back a long way, to the Renaissance thinkers who invented the very idea of the Middle Ages – a time they chose to see as a gulf of ignorance dividing their modern world from the classical past. But the language of “superstition” to describe medieval religion is especially reminiscent of a certain type of 19th-century British historian who saw Catholicism as a suspicious foreign religion, fit only for ignorant, childish peasants. This prejudice meant they were prepared to believe almost any myth about the medieval Church.

Though the serious study of the Middle Ages moved on from these views decades ago, in recent years the old clichés have fallen into the hands of aggressive internet atheists, who regurgitate stereotypes originally born of anti-Catholic bigotry. The prejudiced Victorian historian and the Twitter troll find common cause here. It’s ironic that it’s often the people who are most ready to label the Middle Ages credulous who eagerly swallow long-debunked myths about medieval history.

The medieval Church, let’s be clear, had no objection to scientific progress. Throughout the Middle Ages, scientists and scholars – many of them monks and friars – explored their curiosity about the natural world, debating, reasoning, theorising and delighting in learning of all kinds. Medieval scholars studied many varieties of science, including subjects we would now call astronomy, mathematics, engineering, geography, branches of physics (such as optics) and, yes, medicine.

They didn’t define these subjects precisely as we do today, and they didn’t approach them by the same methods or draw the same conclusions. Scientific knowledge and methods change and develop over time. But to suggest that because the various medieval ways of approaching these questions were different from ours they must be an obstacle to “progress”, a sign of “stagnation”, is to impose a kind of intellectual conformity which refuses to see value in any culture but our own. That’s a worrying attitude to teach to schoolchildren.

Equally troubling is the sense of cultural superiority implicit in that term “superstition”. What value can there be, for teaching history, in using such a label unless you explain what you mean by it? The term is both inappropriately pejorative and far too broad, since people have different views of what qualifies as superstition.

What most people intend when they talk about medieval superstition is probably a vague reference to the devotional practices of medieval Catholicism – pilgrimage, a belief in miracles and saints’ relics, visits to holy wells, and so on. These practices were not confined to peasants in the Middle Ages, or to the uneducated. Social and intellectual elites engaged in them as enthusiastically as anyone, and for centuries they were an unchallenged aspect of learned as well as popular faith. To understand medieval religion, it is essential to try to explore why such practices held meaning for so many kinds of people – not just to dismiss them as superstitious.

Generally speaking (and bearing in mind the difficulties of generalising about a period of 1,000 years), the worldview which underpinned such practices was of a universe in which every created thing held the potential to be a vessel for God’s grace. There was nothing in the world so trivial that it could not be of importance to God. Everything had its purpose and place, from the planets to the tiniest herb. There were blessings to be said over the fruits of each harvest and the tools of everyday work, prayers for every hour of the day and every possible human need.

Medieval scientists calculated times and calendars, developing intricate theories about the interlocking cycles of the natural year, the movement of the stars and the Church’s calendar; and for ordinary people those cycles were woven into their daily lives, so that every day of the year belonged to a saint whose story might point one to God.

It is this worldview which lies behind the kind of miracle stories some people smile at today, where saints cure sick cattle, find lost property or alter the weather. No human concern was beneath God’s notice, or too small to be the occasion for a miracle. When faced with more serious difficulties, it was not fatalism which led people to seek God’s help in illness; it was faith, which believed God could and did intervene in the world.

Pilgrimage can provide genuine health benefits (if not quite in the way medieval Christians would have explained it), as well as being an opportunity to travel, meet new people and have profound spiritual experiences in places hallowed by centuries of devotion.

Saying that medieval peasants were “extremely superstitious” is one thing; it’s easy to sneer at abstractions. But if you read medieval records of sick people visiting holy shrines, those involved emerge not as stereotypes but as real human beings: men and women from all classes of society, seeking aid in the extremes of pain and suffering, with stories of self-sacrifice and deep personal faith. From a modern viewpoint, some of their beliefs might seem alien, but their fears and hopes are not. These people and their beliefs deserve respect, and at least an attempt at understanding. All this was a sanctification of the everyday, a vision of a world charged with power and meaning – and for medieval scholars, none of it was incompatible with science or learning.

No one would pretend that the medieval period was perfect or that the medieval Church did not have some serious flaws. What’s needed today is a more balanced view, appreciating that the Middle Ages was as complex as any other period in history, and avoiding judgmental, emotive language like “stagnation” and “superstition”. There’s no excuse for it any more.

It has never been easier to access information about the medieval past, especially when a few minutes on Google will lead you to accessible websites written by experts on medieval science and religion, not only debunking myths but also providing more accurate information.

It’s past time for educators and journalists to move beyond the lazy stereotypes about the Middle Ages. The truth is far more interesting.

Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford

This article first appeared in the September 15 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here