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Inside the medieval mind

To coincide with a new BBC Four season on medieval Britain, series producer Julian Birkett considers whether people of the time thought differently to us

An engraving showing the story of the Three Living and the Three Dead
Published: July 27, 2018 at 4:21 pm
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This article was first published in the April 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine


They certainly lived very different lives to us, but did medieval people think any differently to the way we do now? According to Professor Robert Bartlett, presenter of BBC Four's forthcoming series Inside the Medieval Mind, the answer isn't cut and dried. "In many ways these were people very much like us, in terms of family, ambitions for children and the world of emotions. On the other hand, they inhabited a very different world, in which it was believed the dead visited the living, and where somewhere there lived a race of people with the heads of dogs."

So how did our medieval forebears understand their world? According to the 12th-century philosopher Alan of Lille “Every creature in the world is a book or a picture or a mirror for us”. The author of the book was God, and the purpose of life was to understand the meaning of the book so that we might lead more spiritual and more moral lives.

Since the Renaissance we have looked at the world rather differently. We want to understand it so that we can control it and make it work to our advantage. The medieval world was not to be mastered as much as contemplated.

After all, it might end at any moment. Fear of imminent Armageddon runs like a dark thread through medieval consciousness. And everyone knew how it would end because numerous medieval texts, such as the 13th-century Fifteen Signs before Doomsday, told them:

"On the first day the sea will rise up above the mountains… on the fourth day all the sea creatures will gather on the surface and make sounds and groans, whose meaning only God knows…"

And so on to the 15th day, the Day of Judgment. With the next world trespassing on this one, small wonder that the medieval mind operated so differently from our own.

Did Christianity rule their lives?

Go to any medieval parish church and you will find tombs: in the chantry chapels built by the rich, and in the graveyard outside. We take this for granted. But you won't find the same in mosques, synagogues, or Buddhist and Hindu temples. Medieval Christianity made a cult of the dead, and brought them into the heart of religious experience.

The medieval dead were an insistent presence. So much so that they star in one of the most common folk tales of the era. The story of the Three Living and the Three Dead tells the tale of three young swells out walking in the forest when they meet three dead men. Lovingly portrayed in wall paintings as skeletons or rotting corpses, the dead men chide their living counterparts for their complacency:

"Such as you are so were we Such as we are so will you be"

Judging from medieval records, you might have thought twice about venturing out: corpses roam the woods from Herefordshire to Buckinghamshire, and have to be reburied with their hearts burnt to ashes. In fact, there were so many cadavers walking the land that the 12th-century chronicler William of Newburgh could barely keep track: “One would not easily believe that corpses come out of their graves were there not so many cases supported by such ample testimony”.

Corpses roam the woods and have to be buried with their hearts burnt to ashes

Medieval death marked merely the transition from this world to the next. This life was but the blink of an eye. Hence the fascination with the dead, who had made the journey that awaited us all: to live with God in Heaven, perhaps after a painful stretch in the waiting rooms of Purgatory, or to suffer eternal torment in Hell.

Yet the traffic between this world and the next didn’t travel in just one direction. Among the most intriguing genres in medieval writing is the account of the visit to the next world. Dante’s may be the best known, but he was joined by Essex peasant Thurkell, who came out of a coma with an acute grasp of the geography of the afterlife, while the Irishman Fursey returned from the flames of Hell with a singed beard.

The boundaries between the natural and the supernatural were fluid, and constantly crossed by armies of spiritual beings – nine orders of angels on one side, Satan and his cohorts on the other – all locked in a deadly struggle for the souls of the living

Who was to protect medieval man from this onslaught? Fortunately the church was on hand, with a formidable array of sacraments to protect the individual – from the exorcism that is baptism, to the last rites protecting the dying as they slip into the next world. Monasteries, built in the wilderness reminiscent of where Christ wrestled with Satan, also fought on behalf of the living. As Orderic Vitalis, a monk writing around 1100, put it “A monastery is a castle built against Satan, where the cowled champions engage in ceaseless combat against Satan”.

Was sex on their minds?

Cultural attitudes to sex are never uniform in any society. But in the medieval world the polarities are striking: on the one hand, a down to earth acceptance you might expect in a peasant society; on the other, an obsessive abhorrence of desire grounded in religious fervour. Take for example some of the questions the 11th-century Church recommended priests to ask their parishioners: "Have you committed fornication with your step-mother, your sister-in-law, your son's fiancée, your mother? Have you made a device in the shape of a penis and tied it..." (and so on). Fierce disapproval and earthy plain speaking coexist in this litany of charges.

Medieval misogyny is not surprising in itself. It had theological antecedents: Eve was the cause of original sin for tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden. But the virulence of it can take you aback. This is an early church story much studied in medieval times: “The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still upon the world. You are guilty – you must bear its hardships. You are the Devil’s gateway”.

The medieval world gave birth to the ideal of romantic love

And yet it was the medieval world that gave birth to the concept of romantic love. For reasons no one quite understands, 12th-century troubadours began to sing songs of love to women in which they were suddenly goddesses to be adored.

For the upper classes at least, the rules of love were reinvented in lengthy treatises and famous lovers celebrated in poems: Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult, Abelard and Heloise.

This last pair of course was not fictional but real – Abelard the great scholar, Heloise the niece of a canon at the cathedral of Notre Dame. Their love letters from the 12th century are astonishing in their frankness, passion and willingness to break conventions. Heloise initially turns down Abelard’s offer of marriage when she becomes pregnant, proclaiming that “the name of wife may seem more sacred – but sweeter to me will always be the word lover, concubine or whore”.

Against all this the Church promoted the cult of virginity. According to the 12th-century writer, Geoffrey of Burton, it was “the highest virtue, the mirror of purity, the nourishment of enduring love”. But the young women who entered medieval nunneries might find themselves emotionally in a place not that far from sexual passion – as suggested by the words of medieval mystic Angela of Foligno, “As I stood by the Cross I was filled with such fire I took off my clothes and offered him all of myself”.

What did they think about marriage?

The medieval church actively involved itself in the goings on of the marital bed. Failure to consummate a marriage was grounds for annulment. Records from the Bishop’s Court of York in 1433 describe how a wife might go about bringing such a claim:

“The… witness exposed her bared breasts and with her hands, warmed at the fire, she held and rubbed John’s penis and the testicles, embracing and frequently kissing him. And she stirred him up to demonstrate his virility and potency then and there.

“She says that the whole time the said penis was scarcely three inches long… remaining without any increase.”

What did they think about power and inequality?

Just about everyone these days thinks social equality at least worth striving for. People in the Middle Ages thought quite differently. Profound inequality was part of the natural order – and therefore not to be tampered with. The class you were born into determined who you were.

There were three classes, or as they were called, estates: those who pray (the priests and monks and clergy), those who fight (the aristocratic warrior class of knights) and those who work (everybody else – for example, serfs on a knight’s estate). Each class had its own price, known as “wergild” – literally, “man-price”. If you killed a lord you paid his family 1,200 shillings. If you killed a peasant you paid 200. So a lord’s life was worth six times more than a peasant’s.

Great inequality was part of the natural order – and not to be tampered with

Medieval lords were not so much landlords as warriors. Their land was given to them by the king precisely because they were warriors and supported him in military campaigns. Fighting was in their blue blood. "I love" says one in the 12th-century Song of Roland, "to see the gay Eastertide which brings forth leaves and flowers… but I also love to see knights and horses in battle array… and many vassals struck down and the horses of the dead and wounded roving at random".

These knights followed the international codes of chivalry – a word today synonymous with gallantry and noble behaviour. Knights could behave nobly, but it was generally towards their own class. When the Black Prince sacked the French town of Limoges in 1370 he ordered thousands of ordinary men, women and children to be slaughtered. The French knights however were taken as high class prisoners and treated with respect.

In such violent times it’s sometimes hard to understand how medieval society didn’t disintegrate into feuding. To hold it all together would need divine help. And that is just what medieval kings had – at the ceremony of the coronation the new monarch was anointed with holy oil just as a new priest would be, signifying his divinely sanctioned right to rule.

It was a different sort of divine intervention that did it for the feudal system. The Black Death created such a huge shortage of labour that serfs could demand wages and move where they pleased.

The despised third estate – those who work – began to taste a new freedom.

Did they worry about what they wore?

After the labour revolution of the Black Death, strenuous attempts were made by those in power to ossify the old order by legislating what people of different classes might or might not wear. The Sumptuary Laws of 1363 were directed against “The outrageous and excessive apparel of many people, contrary to their estate and their degree”.

A peasant had to look like a peasant. But by that time it was too late. The bonds of feudalism had been loosened.

Why did they keep relics?

Relics (literally, what is left behind) of medieval saints were believed to have supernatural powers, and churches competed to acquire them. A list of the relics in Canterbury Cathedral in the year 1316 includes: 12 whole bodies of saints, three heads, 12 arms, pieces of Jesus’s cross, foreskin, cradle and tomb, as well as innumerable bits of blood, hair and bone.

Did they believe in science or magic?

In the early Middle Ages the world was an enchanted place, suffused with the supernatural and understood to be guided by a Divine Plan. By the time of Columbus's discovery of America, it had become a place to be mastered, even exploited.

In medieval books about animals, called bestiaries, the creatures of the world are carefully described and beautifully depicted. But these are not field guides: they are philosophical analyses of the purpose of each animal in the Creation. The beaver, for example, secretes valuable musk in its testicles. When chased it supposedly bites them off and displays the wound to the huntsman to let him know his chase is pointless. Just so men must rid themselves of sin and display this to the Devil to escape capture by him. Each animal has a spiritual lesson to teach us.

An eclipse could still be interpreted as a sign of divine intervention

Medieval minds were capable of believing things which today seem paradoxical: for example an event could be both natural and supernatural. It was well known that an eclipse was caused by one heavenly body passing in front of another in accordance with the laws of science. Yet it was still possible to interpret an eclipse as a sign of divine intervention. In the Chronicle of the Crusade, c1220, Oliver of Paderbon writes:

"Soon after we arrived there was an almost total eclipse of the moon. This often happens from natural causes at the time of the full moon. Nevertheless, since the Lord says 'there shall be signs in the sun and moon' we interpreted this eclipse as unfavourable to the enemy."

The Mappa Mundi, or map of the world, in Hereford Cathedral shows just such a mix of empirical knowledge and speculation. The three known continents of Europe, Asia and Africa are depicted and many towns, rivers and seas are accurately marked. On the periphery however are the fantastical creatures firmly believed to exist there: dogheads, monopods and unicorns.

When Columbus sailed off to find a new route to the East he was helped by all the new technology of the time – better sailing ships, gunpowder, compasses. But he too expected to find the fabulous creatures of the Mappa Mundi – those classic inventions of the medieval mind.

Did they really believe in men with dogs' heads?

Medieval thinkers were much exercised by the existence of dogheads – creatures with the bodies of men but the heads of dogs, who were believed to live in communities somewhere on the margins of the world, and keep farm animals. They raised an important question: were they essentially human – in which case, should one try to convert them? The 9th-century scholar Ratramnus was in no doubt: “A group of moral, rational beings living in a society bound by laws? This is humanity not mere animality”

Julian Birkett is the series producer of BBC Four's Inside the Medieval Mind, presented by the leading medieval historian Professor Robert Bartlett. Julian previously produced How We Built Britain, a history of Britain told through its buildings, presented by David Dimbleby.


BOOKS The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages by Robert Bartlett (CUP, March 2008); England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett (OUP, 2000); Inventing the Middle Ages by Norman F Cantor (Wm Morrow, 1991)


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