Why we love the Middle Ages — and still have things to learn from them

Meanz Chan/Little Village

An enormous forest extends for thousands of miles in every direction, with rivers that the traveler — whether pilgrim or trader — must cross on foot, leading a tired horse. The tracks of bears and wolves are often seen. Elk swim in the cold lakes. There is an eerie absence of people.

Following the sound of someone chopping wood, the traveler might come to a monastery, with monks busy at manual labor or praying in the chapel. In the scriptorium a small, precious library is preserved, which allows for a limited, but crucial, learned culture, based on the Bible and an odd assortment of ancient writers such as Ovid, Cicero or Boethius, all in Latin.

Or the traveler might happen on a small settlement in an isolated clearing. Here, a local lord rules over the village of peasants and slaves, while they labor each day to obtain a meager harvest from wheat, hogs and cattle. The community faces a constant risk of famine. Serfs work without pay, and without personal freedom, to feed the lord’s family and keep the fields, roads and bridges of his estate in good condition.

In the early Middle Ages, circa 500 to 1100, Europe was also dotted here and there with cities left by the Romans—but ruined stone buildings were covered in vines and trees. The new population built wooden huts among the ancient stone columns. Nevertheless, in such a place our traveler can purchase goods in the market, obtain a fresh horse and pray in the cathedral.

What are the Middle Ages in the middle of? This is the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance: roughly speaking, the years between 500 and 1450. Historians divide the period further into an “early” and a “late” Middle Ages. This is the medieval period: medi (middle) aeval (from aevum, age or period).

How to explain the fascination of the Middle Ages? It is frequently said to be “a thousand years without a bath.” Point taken. But many Italian towns had public baths, and the Emperor Charlemagne spent every winter next to his beloved hot springs. Nevertheless, millions of avid viewers stream shows about the Vikings or followed the Wagnerian drama Game of Thrones. Themes of violent conflict, devious plots and tribal hostilities are not far off the mark, although medieval communities were surprisingly good at negotiating an end to conflict. Even the Vikings could be reasoned with, if rarely trusted.

Television costumes and stage sets depend on certain visual clues that speak of medieval times: village squalor, smudged faces and, for some reason, people wearing shaggy vests. Then there is the well-informed silliness of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Accounts of King Arthur and his knights have been popular ever since the Middle Ages, with unforgettable stories of bravery, self-sacrifice, sex and betrayal. The tales of Robin Hood, with a puckish sense of humor, demonstrate the foolishness and greed of the powerful, and pay tribute to the survival of the little guy in the face of an oppressive society.

In my childhood, King Arthur and Robin Hood were first presented to me in books written “for boys.” Soon I graduated to Bullfinch’s Age of Chivalry (still one of my favorite books). The modern saga of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, informed by Tolkien’s experiences in World War I and II, filled my youth with a medievalizing world view, presenting complex ethical themes such as the tragic nature of evil, the vital importance of friendship, wariness in the presence of the powerful and the journey of self-discovery. None of those things were being taught in school! Tolkien’s epic filled my heart with the idea of hiking and adventure in the wilderness, and so I became an avid backpacker.

Perhaps a time will come when Europe’s later Middle Ages (1100-1450) will find its own popular audience. This is when the great universities were born (dear to the heart of any professor), Vikings were gone and the cities of Europe staged a renewal of urban life, mercantile activity and banking, road-building, long-distance trade and greater connection among communities.

In the late Middle Ages, the good and evil of society stood in glaring contrast: the Jews were plundered, killed and often expelled. European society was stunned by the twin disasters of the Black Death and the Hundred Year’s War. Superstition and rumors spread easily. So-called heretics were treated with unbelievable cruelty.

On the other hand, this was a society that offered greater ease and prosperity for some. It was an age of good literature. Popular works were written by wonderful authors such as Chaucer and Boccaccio. These entertaining books were composed in the vernacular languages of Europe, as literacy became more common in late medieval cities.

The roles offered to women were expanded to some degree, under the patronage of the increasingly popular Virgin Mary. The tidy enclaves of the Beguines provided a refuge for the literate piety, and flower-gardening, of women in northern cities. The fascinating, independent-minded Christine de Pizan became a bestselling author.

The early Middle Ages seem primitive and made up of simple components: lord and peasant, church and castle, and conflicts that are exciting and easy to stage in the imagery of cinema, novels and legends, while the later Middle Ages appear to be a period of greater complexity and civilization, and of large-scale violence. The later Middle Ages are closer to our own time, but they reward the student with literature and works of art that still captivate.

Take my advice, dear reader, and visit your public library in pursuit of the Middle Ages!

The (real) labyrinth

Chartres Cathedral — Olvr/Wikimedia Commons

The Cathedral of Chartres is instantly recognizable, with its two towers of differing heights, each having a unique shape, framing the rose window perfectly placed in the center of the façade. The cathedral was built between 1194-1260 as one of the first examples of gothic architecture, with its soaring central nave, pointed arches and vaulted ceiling, and more than a hundred stained-glass windows depicting a bewildering array of Bible stories.

From the moment of its creation by the master masons of northern France, Chartres remained the paragon of gothic cathedrals. “Every subsequent cathedral was affected by her, though none was ever so complete as she,” historian Vincent Scully remarked in his book Architecture: the Natural and the Manmade.

Illustration by Emma McClatchey, based on a medieval Arabic artist’s depiction of Pedanius Dioscorides, ca. 1229, Topkapi Palace Museum

Visitors to the cathedral are still amazed at the great labyrinth built into the floor of the church, made of light-colored stone and worn smooth by the feet of pilgrims who have visited this place over the past 800 years. What was the purpose of the labyrinth? And what possible connection did it have to the Christian nature of the building? To understand the Labyrinth of Chartres, we first have to consider the intellectual life of the cathedral.

Chartres Cathedral once harbored a famous library and school, which became one of the most advanced centers of learning in all of Europe. The illustrious teachers of this school, such as Bernard of Chartres and John of Salisbury, revived the philosophy of Plato and taught a complete curriculum of the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. The Cathedral was a place of architectural and intellectual brilliance.

At a time when the sword seemed mightier than the pen, and forces of disorder threatened the creative potency of civilization, the clergy and scholars of Chartres were justly proud of their scholarly legacy. They trumpeted their achievement by adorning the front of their cathedral with statues portraying the liberal arts – Pythagoras represented mathematics, Ptolemy astronomy and Aristotle philosophy.

Labyrinth in the Chartes Cathedral — Larry Koester

The labyrinth inside the church is ultimately connected to the scholarly and religious nature of Chartres. While there were labyrinths in other churches of France, this was the largest and the most renowned. There are several ways in which we can understand it. The labyrinth was large enough that a person could meditatively walk along its paths, following the cream-colored stones, moving around the semi-circular track, going back and forth until reaching the center. With the accompanying picture you can follow the path of the Labyrinth of Chartres with your eyes. Notice that the path takes you close to the center, then defeats you and sends you back to the outside again. It is like so many situations we meet in life.

To follow the labyrinth was like going on a small-scale pilgrimage, undertaken inside the church rather than over the dusty roads and mountains of Europe. The center of the labyrinth represented the Divine, or personal salvation, reached after all the winding adventures and misadventures of our lives. But today the labyrinth may suggest additional values: the desire to find our purpose in life, the search for wisdom and scholarly knowledge, and the attempt to arrive at our higher self.

Michael Edward Moore is Associate Professor of Medieval and European History at the University of Iowa. He has traveled and studied widely in Europe. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking and canoeing in the wilderness. This article was originally published in Little Village’s May 2022 issue.