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This room will destroy your prejudices about the medieval world

The spectacular Room 50a at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

Just recently I visited, not for the first time, what must be one of the finest interiors in this country, namely the vast medieval gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum – or, to give it its more prosaic designation, Room 50A.

I imagine many readers will be familiar with this gallery, which contains the sanctuary of the church of the Poor Clares from Florence, as well as several wonderful della Robbia ceramics, amid numerous other treasures from the Middle Ages. I am sure no one could disagree with me when I say that this room is packed with spectacular treasures.

What a pity it is, then, that the word “medieval” has such negative connotations in modern British usage. To call something “medieval”, or describe it as “like something out of the Middle Ages”, is the equivalent of saying that it is backward, unenlightened, ugly, out of date, and to be rejected.

There seems to be a conflation in the popular mind between the medieval period and what was sometimes called “the Dark Ages”. In fact, modern historians tend not to us the term “the Dark Ages” of the period between the fall of Rome and the dawn of the Renaissance. No true historian could seriously consign someone like the father of English History, Bede the Venerable (died 735), to the age of darkness, or St Francis (died 1226) to a period before the dawn of enlightenment.

The Middle Ages were, in fact, something of a golden age in architecture, art, literature and political development. They were too a golden age (one of many) in theology, being the time of Peter Abelard (1079-1142), Peter Lombard (1100-1160) and St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), to name but three. These men were serious scholars, tremendously well read, and fluent in ancient languages. Funnily enough, it was their works that Martin Luther took pleasure in burning, and their great hero of whom Luther declared: “What has Aristotle to do with Christ?”

Those who speak badly of the Middle Ages will also speak badly of Catholicism, for the medieval period was a time in which the Catholic Church had few serious rivals in the religious sphere in Western Europe. The Middle Ages were the Catholic Ages.

The idea that progress and enlighten came with the Reformation is surely untenable. Far more convincing is the idea that the Reformation was a reaction to the achievements of the Middle Ages: hence its rejection of Aristotle and Greek philosophy, and its rejection and destruction of works of art. Yet the achievements of the Middle Ages are something that we should all feel proud of, despite this negative counter-narrative.

Consider for a moment those countries that did not share in the intellectual and artistic life of the medieval period and the Renaissance. They missed out on the Reformation, true, but they also missed out on the Enlightenment. I am thinking of the successor states to the Russian, Chinese, Persian and Turkish Empires.

They do not share our share our medieval heritage, and, even if they are geographically in Europe, cannot claim to be truly European. Their political culture is very different from ours. Two exceptions to this are Poland and Lithuania, both of which, though dominated by Russia for part of their history, escaped the worst culturally.

One final irony. Those who disparage the medieval period ought to be given pause by the fact that the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament sits, is built in perfect Neo-Gothic style, both inside and out. That is an excellent reminder to us all that the roots of parliamentary democracy itself, among other achievements of the modern age, are rooted in the glorious Middle Ages.