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July 02, 2005


Christopher Fotos

I would love to know what Sandra Miesel thinks of it.


Interesting, I'll have to read it. It has long been the opinion of moderns that this era is superior to every other and that the more an era differs from this one, why, the more awful it must have been!

It doesn't quite ever dawn on the same people what a century of butchery the 20th century was.

Donald R. McClarey

A very good book. I would disagree with some of the individual contentions, but certainly the High Middle Ages of, say, 1050 to 1300, was a period of rapid technological progress and the foundation of modern representational government throughout Europe. Antiquity was an intellectual dead end; the Middle Ages, through the Church and other factors, saw humanity, for good and ill, broaden their intellectual horizons and laid the foundations for the scientific and industrial revolutions. The Glory that was Greece and the Grandeur that was Rome are as nothing beside the contribution of the Middle Ages in making the West.


Hi all:
I have the originla French book it,s called Sacré moyen âge by Martin Blais. I enjoyed the book and did a great job of debunking the terrible Middle ages. This myth comes from the French Englighment guys who had to discredit the medieval period so as to advance their new ideological world order.
The Middle ages was never a lost golden age but it wasn't the purges of 1937 either



The original title of Pernoud's book is actually Pour en finir ave le Moyen Age.

Jack Bennett

The late Regine Pernoud was perhaps the most distinquished Joan of Arc scholar in the world (I have all her St.Joan books)and although she always denied any political biases, tended to look at history from a rightist Gaullist and Catholic POV. She thought that post-Revolutionary (French one) historians and writers deliberately set out to demonize the Middle Ages and the pre-Reformation in order to bolster the claims of the Enlightenment and the Revolution. Of course I agree with her but others have different points of views.


The debunking (which was one among many of that generation -- there are many works of the first rank from the postwar period that really flew in that flock) has been both confirmed and extended in part, and corrected and narrowed in part, in the past generation.

That being said, the Whig school of history common in the Anglosphere still has a powerful hold on our historical imaginations, however discredited it has become among scholars.

For example, the popularity of The Da Vinci Code in no part relies on the residual power of the Whig school of history.

Aside from early modern British-Irish history, my other area of focus was late antiquity through the high middle ages (as those terms have been conventionally used). Even a quarter century ago, it was quite conventional to view what we call "The Renaissance" as one in a much longer series of renascences: that of late antiquity before the so-called fall of the western empire, the Carolingian renaissance, the Ottonian/Saxon renaissance, the renaissance of the 12th century, the revival of classical art (the schools of Pisa and Rome, from which Giotto, Duccio and Cimabue drew) and Roman law in the 13th century, et cet. Plus the regional efflorenscences: the conviviencas in both pre- and POST-Reconquista Iberia (too many folks completely ignore the latter), Norman Sicily, and the Polish commonwealth.

American understanding of post-classical European history has long been largely limited to the geography of Charlemagne's empire plus the British Isles. Americans that know some history tend to know a lot more about medieval France than, let's say, the Kievan Rus (even though Kiev in its prime was larger and more civilized than contemporary Paris).

Charlotte Allen

While we're waiting for Sandra Miesel, I'm going to offer a few observations as another medievalist. I haven't read "Those Terrible Middle Ages," but I have read Pernoud's "Women in the Age of the Cathedrals," in which she debunks the notion of the Middle Ages as a systematically misogynous era. That book focuses on the 12th and early 13th centuries, during which learned religious women such as Hildegard and Heloise flourished, thanks to the convents in which women routinely learned to read and write Latin as well as vernacular languages. Gradually, however, the universities supplanted the monasteries and convents as centers of learning. Because the universities were open only to clerics, and thus only to men, women's education began to decline, to be revived systematically only in the 19th century. Furthermore, Pernoud argues, the Aristolelian philosophy taught in the universities held that women were biologically inferior to men, fostering a stream of misogynistic literature during the later Middle Ages.

Pernoud's argument that the Middle Ages weren't the Dark Ages isn't original. The American medievalist Charles Homer Haskins dispelled that myth decades ago with his famous book "The Renaissance of the 12th Century." What Pernoud was really fighting was a popular misconception, fostered by rabidly anti-Christian intellectuals--the same people who wrote God and Christianity out of the EU constitution. The misconception lives on. A professor-friend of mine said he'd heard a newscaster describe the regime of Saddam Hussein as "worse than medieval." And a new generation of Marxist postmodernist scholars has revived the misconception in academia. These folks describe medieval civilization as a vast right-wing conspiracy between the Church and the aristocracy to keep the masses downtrodden.

I do think Pernoud might be wrong about Roman law (if the descriptions of her book are correct). Roman law was revived, not during the Renaissance but during the 12th century, when copies of the Code of Justinian were discovered in a monastery. The Code was taught in every medieval law school and became the foundation of European civil law and the Anglo-American common-law system. Roman law was more generous to slaves than our own pre-Civil War system. The offspring of a slave and a free parent were deemed to be free, and since Roman law recognized just two classes of people, slave and free, freedmen suffered no legal disabilities.

alias clio

I agree with (Liam?) that the Whig interpretation of history - i.e. the approach that looks for a common thread of liberalism, in its original meaning, from its supposed rise in democratic Greece through Roman republicanism to extinction in the Middle Ages, to an awakening in Renaissance, going on to the Reformation - is responsible for many of the faulty assumptions about history endemic to the "anglosphere".

It is inevitable that the Whig interpretation of history should hold sway in the US, considering that it is in a way fundamental to the historiography of the United States, which sees itself as the culmination of the Whig tradition, an assumption common to both your left- and right-wing historians, although their understanding of liberalism differs.

But the Whig view is now more the province of popular historiography than serious scholarship, and has been for generations. One reason for its survival outside the US is that several of the classic 18th and 19th century historians - I'm thinking of Gibbon, Macaulay and Jacob Burckhardt - in spite of their differing political views - all propagated the view that the Middle Ages were intellectually dead and politically unstable. As they are great writers, and still read, their views have an influence among educated people.

Lawrence King

From Carl Olsen's review, it sounds as if Pernoud falls into the same trap as the Humanists, who use the term "Dark Ages" as a synonym for the "Middle Ages" (roughly 500 to 1500).

Modern historians are more likely to use "Dark Ages" as a synonym for the "Early Middle Ages" (roughly 600 to 1000). This is pretty darn accurate. We're talking about one fifth of the lifespan of Christendom. How many saints from this period can you name in the West? How many scientists? How many writers?

From the death of Gregory the Great (604) until the "medieval renaissance" around the year 1000, Christianity in Western Europe simply lived off its Roman inheritance. The core of the Byzantine Empire was doing okay, but Islam had taken most of its territories. Yet in the Far East, this was the heydey of Christendom!



With respect to the so-called Dark Ages, we need to be aware of the documentary survival bias involved. The ninth and tenth centuries were the chief era of the depradations of the Vikings (and, more briefly and less widely, the Magyars), who raided monastic and other properties (including libraries) near any navigable water throughout Europe. So, part of our perception of "darkness" has to do with the paucity of sources that might balance (or confirm) the remaining sources for the period.

We tend to assume we are working with greater knowledge than those who went before us.

Such is often not the case.


Regine Pernoud was a member of the Academie Francaise, in case anyone was worried about her credentials.

An article giving a strong argument in favor of the High Middle Ages, and against the Renaissance, is by James Franklin at



Re: stuff we don't have

Don't forget that modern depredations have done a lot of damage, too. Frex, the Irish and that huge fire in Ireland's national archives (not to mention all the other fires through the ages). Frex, all the ordinary Irish with manuscripts and other handcopied documents -- both owners and books were lost to the Famine and cholera epidemic, in many cases. There were tons of mss collections which had barely begun to be documented when WWI and WWII destroyed them, or the Nazis and Soviets disappeared them.

We literally don't know what we've lost, and quite frankly, we still don't know what we've got. Witness the recent discovery of a Bach piece in a shoebox in a library that burned down two weeks later. What else was in there? We don't know, and we never will.

Sandra Miesel

Pernoud's work on Joan of Arc is excellent. I haven't read the book at hand but will respond to descriptions by the rest of you.
What she seems to be attacking is popular perception and I would assume, government-mandated school curricula in France. (It wasn't just the Enlightenment and Whig version of history that made medieval times look bad. The French Romantic historian Jules Michelet had a baleful effect and I'm sure would be a particular object of Pernoud's wrath.)Academics have been giving the Middle Ages their due for many decades. What they've come to see in the past generation is that it's difficult to make sweeping generations about past eras. The Middle Ages, counting from 500-1500, show enormous variation by region and class within shorter spans of those centuries. Feudalism, for example, wasn't a tidy hierarchy except perhaps in Normandy and England. Some areas such as Scandanavia never organized land-holding that way.
The Dark Ages were thick with saints and writers--we've heard of St. Boniface and BEOWULF, haven't we? Despite the depredations of the barbarians and loss of urban life, this was the Golden Age of Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England, of the Carolingian and Ottonian Renaissances, of massive missionary efforts. No scientists but Pope Sylvester II did introduce Arabic numerals. Countless unknown men were experimenting with technologies the ancient world never knew paving the way for an economic resurgence and population boom after 1000. Renaissance science builds on medieval technology.
90% of the Latin writings we have were saved by Charlemagne's copying program but this doesn't mean that all were universally availble or read. The Renaissance had access to Greek originals never before seen in the West and took advantage of that medieval invention, printing, to circulate them. Admiration for the Greco-Roman heritage was a driving force in Renaissance humanist culture but it nevertheless remained strongly Christian. Its rational aspects were paired with renewed interest in mystical and occult subjects.
Although Roman law didn't affect English Common Law, it did replace the customary laws of the Continent, to the detriment of many people for it proved a useful instrument of central control and absolutism. Ordinary Frenchmen would have been arguably better off legally in the 13th C than the 16th.
Despite so much recent work on the Inquisitions and the witch-craze as phenomena of the 16th and 17th C, people stubbornly identify these with the Middle Ages. Prejudices die hard.

charlotte allen

Sandra's right--we should not denigrate the period between 500 and 1000. Although Eastern Christendom was far more prosperous than the West during that period (there was genuine economic decline in the West after the fall of Rome), we should not slight the Carolingian period in the West, which fostered a flowering of theology, literature, liturgical music, and the fine arts. They were followed during the 10th century by the Ottonians, under whom there was a similar flowering of the arts and literature. Some of the most beautiful treasures of the West--the Book of Kells, for example--were produced during this period, and as Sandra points out, one of the finest poems in English, Beowulf. The Carolingian scribes gave us the basis of today's clear and readable typescripts. And those entire five centuries were the golden age of Western monasticism, in both its Celtic and Benedictine forms. Liturgical drama was born--the basis of all of today's drama. And as Sandra points, out, the Carolingian monks, and also those of the Benedictine abbeys of southern Italy, furiously copied the Latin classics; we have them to thank for our knowledge of classical literature today.

Donald R. McClarey

Sandra locuta est, causa finita est.

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