If they managed to survive plague and pestilence, medieval humans may have enjoyed healthier lifestyles than their descendants today, it has been claimed.
Survive the plague? Hardly. the plague was a death sentence – over 99% of people infected died from it. You didn’t catch the plague and lived through it.
Their low-fat, vegetable-rich diet – washed down by weak ale – was far better for the heart than today’s starchy, processed foods, one GP says.
And while they consumed more they burnt off calories in a workout of 12 hours’ labour, Dr Roger Henderson concludes.
But the Shropshire GP accepts that life for even prosperous peasants was tough.
Here’s life in the anarco-syndicalist commune:
How tough was it?
“If you got to 30 in those days you were doing well, past 40 and you were distinctly long in the tooth,” he concedes.
I had the distinct pleasure of talking to Dr. Fleming this afternoon.
A couple of years ago I started auditing Dr. Fleming’s class on Chaucer and found out that Dr Fleming is the premier American scholar on Chaucer, for good reason. Unfortunately I had to drop out of the class for reasons outside my control, but the next Fall I enrolled again in his class, which was the last semester that he taught that class.
You can listen to the podcast
After the introduction, here’s the interview:
F: Today’s theme will be, what do we learn from the Middle Ages? The reason I thought of this theme is not only because of talking to you, but also because the first blockbuster movie of the year, The 300, is about the battle of Thermopylae among the Spartans and the Persians and that was one battle that was remembered very much throughtout the literature of the Middle Ages, was it?
JF: Well yes, and no. The Western Middle Ages which I studied, that is, the Latin speaking Middle Ages lost sight of Greek during the fairly early period, so they did not have direct access for many centuries to those classical historians, Thucidides and others, that modern scholars do study; But there was a large cultural memory and a general idea that Christendom was surrounded either by bleakness or by positive enemies, and of course with the rise of Islam that became a very real thing, so to that extent people were aware that there had been great victories by our forefathers that we had to somehow live up to.
F: On the Earlier Middle Ages, I’ve heard a lot about the Dark Ages and now the theme has changed to the Earlier Middle Ages, and I found out from reading in your class and other places that many of the things we think of as modern, were created during that period, such as cloth manufacturing, banking, mail delivery. So what makes the Dark Ages dark? Was it the cycle of invasions they had all the time?
JF: Well, what made the Dark Ages dark was Edward Gibbon in the 18th Century, that is, the particular view that you get in his famous book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, [which] glorifies the ancient empire and thinks that there’s a kind of hiatus between the arrival of Christianity and the Rennaissance in the 14-15th century.
Of course, when we use the term “the Middle Ages” it’s notoriously elastic, it runs for a thousand years, from say, the time of St Augustine on the cusp on the 4-5th centuries down to the time of Erasmus at the end of the 15th century. So that thousand-year period covers a vast geographical area – just talking about the Western Middle Ages we’re talking about the whole of Europe… but among other things that developed was the concept of the modern state. Our own great historian, Joseph Strayer has among his most widely read books a book about The Medieval Origins of the Modern State.
Another institution uniquely developed during this period is the University. There really is there nothing else in the world, in other cultures, exactly like the Western university, and it was developed during the period of the 12th and 13th centuries.
F: And the University is what saved the Ancient world for us?
JF: Absolutely. At least in this sense, the precursor of the University was the monastic school.
Christianity, as you of course know, is a text-based religion. It has to study and preserve the Bible and its commentaries, and for many long centuries the chief occupation of monastic life… was reading the Bible, commenting on the Bible, explaining the Bible, and in order to do this, they felt that they had to have access to the whole body of Classical Latin literature.
One of St Augustine’s very famous books, De Doctrina Christiana, On Christian Doctrine, tries to explain that if you’re going to study the Bible you’ve got to know, for example, what the words in the Bible mean. This is actually not very bad advice for some modern Christians. You have to understand how they exist within a historical context, you have to know what were the animals of the ancient Near East, and things like that. So it is that kind of scholarly motive that led them to read the Classics. And there’s not a single major Latin text, not Ovid, not Virgil, that had not been saved for us by these monastic scribes. That’s the point of that popular book, How the Irish Saved Civilization.
F And if I remember correctly, St. Augustine emphasized reason as a means of getting closer to God.
JF: Absolutely. We’re used to the idea that there’s some great divide or conflict between faith and reason. This idea, in a sense, grew in the Late Middle Agesn when Thomas Aquinas and other great theologians of that period had to deal with the rediscovery in the Latin West of Aristotle and a system of moral theology that seemed to be totally independent of the Christian revelation.
But, say, for Augustine, and for most of the early fathers of the Church, there was no conflict between faith and reason because faith seemed, on the basis of their empirical experience, a reasonable proposition. So, although Augustine would never do what Thomas Aquinas did, which is to sit down and in academic fashion try to prove the existence of God, you find in the Confessions and elsewhere lines of argument that basically are doing the same thing: argument by design. Some of this is highly relevant to theological controversy even today.
The interview continues,
F It seems to me that one of the bigger differences between the Ancient world, and the Middle Ages and the contemporary world, is that the Ancient world placed a huge emphasis on duty. Duty and loyalty were basically everything. Right now I’m reading the Aeneid and duty was the underlining [sic, should be underlying] theme of that work, and Virgil created it in support of the Roman Empire.
F: Now, the value of duty carried into the Middle Ages, but, what would be the underlying value of the Middle Ages? Would it be deeds tempered by faith? Would it be duty and loyalty?
JF: That is a fascinating question, and you really are getting to one of the points of difference between what I call the “Old World”. By the Old World I start at a fairly late date.
I think that one of the great changes in Western mental structure came at about the end of the 18th Century, with the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and then the Industrial Revolution, and of course, in a very very broad generalization, but it is true that earlier stages of European civilization, very much like other societies that you find in most parts of the world today were, to a large extent, tribal or collectivist in the sense that one’s chief identity was not personal, “I am so-and-so” but, “I am a member of this family”, or “I am a member of the Church”, or “I owe my feudal duty to such-and-such a lord”.
You probably remember from the Chaucer course how this shows up even in comic situations. The Canterbury Tales, after you get through The Knight’s Tale, begins with those two scurrilous, very funny, Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale. Well, the Reeve is a carpenter by trade. The Miller tells a tale about a dumb carpenter, and the Reeve, who is a carpenter, immediately assumes, “Oh, he’s talking about me!”. That is to say, the group identity is so great. So the way he attacks this miller is to tell a story about another miller.
However, there is one caveat in all this:
Christianity, basic Christian doctrine, and the sense of Christian identity, did have a very radical sense of individuality in this sense: If there was going to be a moral judgement, that is, if there was a way of adjudicating what is right and what is wrong, there had to be the independence of the individual human will. Things had to be done by volition. So that in this sense, you do have the germ, in Medieval Christianity, of the kind of radical and sometimes chaotic individualism of modern life.
One of the big problems in history is this relationship of the individual and society. We have an awful lot of societies still in the world who want to reduce the role of the individual into just kind of a cog in a larger society.
In Arthur Koestler’s great book, Darkness at Noon – which is one of the first books to really have a huge impact on Western public opinion against the pretensions of Soviet communism – is about the purge trials and Rubichef, the chief character, is sort of an imaginary or fictional amalgam of a few of the Bolshevik leaders who were [among the] first murdered by Stalin, and the interrogator talking to him refers to the first person nominative pronoun, I, yo, as “the grammatical fiction”. That is to say, “I”, has no existence except in grammar because what matters is the masses, or the crowd.
Now, that was a tension in Medieval society, but it was resolved at the intellectual level, at least, by the end of the radical freedom of the will that came with Baptism.
F The rise of individualism during the Middle Ages is the start of the Modern Age, as I understand it.
JF: Well, that’s right, and of course we all look in the mirror of history in the sort of way that Narcissus looked in the pool, that is to say, we can always see ourselves, so there is a great tendency to try to impose upon the past those categories with which we’re comfortable, and one of the features of this is that individuality, or as the scholars now prefer to call it, subjectivity, the idea of an I who has a deep personal sense of individuality; one of the current features of scholarship is to keep pushing this back.
It used to be thought that, well, this phenomena appears only in the High Italian Rennaissance, other people said, “oh no, you have it in the 14th Century”, now we find it in Abelard and Heloise in the 12th Century, and so on. But in general terms, what you say is true.
F: One theme I found in Chaucer is a theme of redemption through good deeds: You’re not just what you say, and it’s not just what you believe, it’s what you do… so the emphasis was not just on a belief but also on what the individual character was doing.
JF: That is really interesting because it seems to me that you’re finding there is one of the defining controversies of the Protestant Reformation. If you read the Scriptures, you can come up with arguments on either side; in the Epistle of James it says that “faith without works is dead”, for example. But the very famous statement by St Paul, that Abraham was justified by faith – that is to say, he didn’t do anything except believe, or accept what God was offering him. That became a foundational idea of a very broad stream of thought in the 16th Century, and it’s part of the defining difference between what is a generally Catholic view of Christianity and what is generally a Protestant view of Christianity altogether.
That is, in Medieval Christianity there was a great deal of materiality: Beautiful buildings, beautiful sculptures, a rich liturgy, people went on physical pilgrimages, they made the sign of the Cross mechanically many times a day, and so forth, so there was a very physical dimension to it. Certainly a part of that was the belief that good works can be efficatious. This is where we get so many of our great public buildings and the monasteries, and the beautiful baptistries in the churches and so on. And people, to put it crudely, were so scared of their eternal disposition that they put a great deal of money into these things.
F: I was thinking of The Pardoner’s Tale particularly, where there was a big split between what he was selling and what he was being.
JF: You’re a brilliant student of Chaucer.
F: It’s all your fault.
JF: That’s exactly what the – I think Chaucer was trying to raise many different things with Pardoner’s, but that’s one of them.
Most people misunderstand Chaucer’s ecclesiastical satire. They think it’s like modern ecclesiastical satire and it isn’t. If he had no use for the Church or the sacraments, or was an unbelieving agnostic or something, his incredible investment in ecclesiastical satire would be more or less meaningless. He is particularly invested in the idea of penance. That is to say, in the idea that, yeah, we all screw up, we all do terrible things but there is a remedy in repentance, in turning to God, saying you’re sorry, and so on. And of course the poem is structured around a penitential action, namely the pilgrimage, and has many penitential actions including the final tale, The Parson’s Tale, which is a very long sermon on the seven deadly sins, and offers an invitation to the whole world to come up and confess and one person does it, and that’s Geoffrey Chaucer.
But to get back to the Pardoner, this is a person who understands at an intellectual level the efficacy of penance. He’s even participating in the economy of penance but of course he did not have the power of it.
part 3 continues below)
Copyright 2007 Fausta Wertz, John Fleming
I have the great pleasure to announce that the distinguished historian and medievalist Dr. John Fleming will be my next guest next week. To accommodate his schedule, Fausta’s Blog Talk Radio will be on WEDNESDAY March 14 at noon.
Here’s his bio from the Princeton University English Department website:
John V. Fleming graduated from the University of the South (Sewanee) in 1958. He then went for three years as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford (Arkansas and Jesus College), where he took a honors BA in English. He spent two years at Princeton getting a Ph.D. (1963), before becoming an Instructor in English at the University of Wisconsin (1963-65). He has taught at Princeton since 1965. He is the former chair of the English Department, the former Master of Wilson College, and the current Faculty Director of the Program in Freshman Seminars. Jointly appointed in the Department of Comparative Literature, Fleming has published very extensively in the fields of medieval English and European literature, medieval art history, and the history of Christian thought and spirituality. He is a winner of the Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities and the President’s medal for distinguished teaching. Last spring he received the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award. He serves on numerous editorial boards and national committees, and he is a past President of the Medieval Academy of America.
Dr. Fleming is a great guy who has inspired generations of students.
He also did a brief stint as a Maxim model, and is the only professor who has both a chair and a bench in his name.
Fausta’s Blog Talk Radio will be on WEDNESDAY March 14 at noon. Please join us!