The surprisingly modern Middle Ages
From devastating climate change to deadly pandemics, the challenges that kept our medieval ancestors awake at night weren’t so different from those preoccupying us today, says Dan Jones...
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In the middle of the 16th century, the historian John Foxe looked back at the great sweep of time since the birth of Christ, and decided that it could be sliced into three chunks. History, he suggested, began with the “primitive time”, when Christians were persecuted and had to hide in catacombs from wicked Romans. More recently came the “latter days”, Foxe’s own times – the age of the Reformation. Sandwiched between these two was an era of about 1,000 years, which were neither fish nor fowl. Foxe called these centuries “the middle age”. Today we call them the Middle Ages, or the medieval period.
That vast slab of history stretched from the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century AD to the European voyages to the New World in the 16th. It has a bit of an odd reputation: the Middle Ages are often the butt of a big historical joke.
In the popular imagination, that era is a time when the classical world had vanished, but the modern world had yet to get going; when people (supposedly) believed that the world was flat and that water was poisonous; when God was in charge of everything; and when everyone was either a knight, a priest or a peasant.
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Politicians and newspaper journalists often use the word 'medieval' to characterise something that is bad, backward, stupid, cruel, violent or hopelessly outdated. This can get historians quite worked up; some have even tried to jettison the term 'Middle Ages', instead preferring to refer to the 'Middle Millennium'. Needless to say, this hasn’t caught on – yet.
But if we look a little more closely at the medieval world, there is plenty to see that we may recognise in our own times. Because although there are profound differences between life today and life in the Middle Ages, there is also much that connects us. Our modern world is built on medieval foundations, and many of the anxieties and issues that concern us today were shared, in only slightly altered form, by medieval people. As the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes says: “There is nothing new under the sun”, as these five examples demonstrate...
From the late summer of 1314, a hard rain began to fall across north-west Europe. It pelted down. Temperatures plummeted. Rivers burst their banks and fields flooded. For months, the weather was abysmal – not only through the winter, but into the next spring, summer and beyond. In the following years, harvest after harvest failed.
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People starved in their hundreds of thousands. Animals died of hunger and widespread disease. “A great famine appeared,” wrote one chronicler. “Such a scarcity has not been seen in our time... nor heard of for a hundred years.”
Hard times were not unknown in the medieval world, where life for most people was precarious and tied to the skies, but the start of the 14th century was different. This was not just an unlucky streak of bad weather, but the start of a major shift in the climate, since dubbed the Little Ice Age, which lasted several hundred years, radically affecting everyday life. A sharp fall in temperatures, felt acutely across western Europe and beyond, brought much harsher winters and tougher farming conditions.
- Read more | Frozen: Britain’s Little Ice Age
Extending from the 14th to the 19th century, the Little Ice Age witnessed population collapse, economic stagnation, widespread political instability and some of the worst human and animal plagues in recorded history. Not all of these were directly caused by the change in Europe’s climate – but neither were they entirely coincidental.
Nor was this unique. The Middle Ages were bookended by climate change. The era began with cooling at the end of the so-called Roman Warm Period (when several centuries of consistently warm, wet weather had allowed the Roman empire to flourish). Once these conditions worsened, Rome’s emperors found it harder to cope with rebellions and invasions. Rome’s collapse ushered in the Middle Ages.
By contrast, the greatest period of medieval innovation occurred during a climate phase known as the Medieval Warm Period, which began about AD 950 and ended around 1250. During this spell, the power, wealth and regional influence of European kingdoms grew, fuelled by a surge in farming yields, population growth and exploration.
It was probably no coincidence that it was around this time that Vikings struck out far and wide from Scandinavia, navigating northern seas – temporarily much less icy than they had been – to reach Iceland, Greenland and even North America.
It is often said that the most pressing global concern in the 21st century is climate change. Some scientists argue that we are living through an epoch – the Anthropocene – in which human-induced climate change is altering the very fabric of the Earth. Just as shifting global temperatures constitute (in the words of the UN) “an existential threat” and a “crisis multiplier” for us today, so they did for our ancestors in the Middle Ages.
Fear among some of foreigners
A group of English craftspeople delivered a petition to King Edward IV in c1463, complaining about foreigners taking their jobs. There were too many “aliens” in the country, moaned the petitioners, and their presence meant that “the king’s subjects [are] greatly impoverished and not at work”.
This was a familiar lament in medieval England. Throughout the Middle Ages, there always seemed to be bands of outsiders arriving. After the departure of the Romans from Britain in the fifth century AD, waves of Germanic and Scandinavian peoples appeared: Angles, Saxons and Jutes were followed somewhat later by Vikings and then Normans.
By the 14th and 15th centuries, invasion-led immigration had given way to what we’d now call “economic migration” as foreign workers, often highly skilled, came to English cities to ply their trades. In a broad sense, migration was good for England: it boosted the economy, expanded the gene pool and enriched the culture. But it also made people uncomfortable, unsettled and sometimes violently angry. Attacks on 'foreigners' were common during times of political unease – most notoriously in 1381 when dozens of Flemish workers in London were hunted down and murdered by roving gangs of rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt.
So migration, with all its benefits and its problems, was an important historical force in the Middle Ages, just as it is in our own time. Indeed, some of the most famous episodes in medieval history can be seen as stories about migration.
The fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century, considered to mark the beginning of the Middle Ages, was sparked by a global migration crisis. It began in eastern Europe where bands of nomadic Huns, fleeing a severe drought, migrated west and displaced tribes known as the Goths. The Goths then tried to move into the Roman empire in the late fourth century, and the strains that placed on the imperial system eventually helped bring about its collapse.
In a broad sense, migration was good for England: it boosted the economy, expanded the gene pool and enriched the culture. But it also made people uncomfortable, unsettled and sometimes violently angry
Later, great early medieval kingdoms were built by migrant peoples: France and Germany by the Franks; Burgundy by the Burgundians; England by the Angles and Saxons; and so on. Viking emigrants left their Scandinavian homelands, turning up everywhere from Constantinople to the Americas. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Arabic-speaking converts to a new religion, Islam, swept out of the Middle East to settle and conquer lands stretching from central Asia in the east to the Iberian peninsula in the west. Then there were the crusades, when migrant Europeans founded settler kingdoms in Palestine and Syria.
Finally, at the end of the Middle Ages, came perhaps the most significant migrant story of them all: Europeans striking out from the Old World, colonising the Americas (including the Caribbean) and forcibly transporting enslaved Africans to their new territories. We are still coming to terms with the legacy of that episode today.
Pandemics and social unrest
A curious sight greeted London-based clerk Robert of Avesbury in September 1349: a parade of “flagellants” marching through the streets chanting prayers and whipping one another with scourges until blood flowed down their backs. It was a grisly procession, but it had a positive purpose. These adherents of a penitent sect were trying to persuade God to ease the grip of a pandemic that had seized every city in Europe – the first wave of the Black Death.
This outbreak of plague, which began in Asia and swept into Europe through the cities of northern Italy, went on to kill between 40 and 60 per cent of the continent’s population.
Today we do not recommend scourging parties as a cure for pandemic disease. (In fact, they would probably be called super-spreader events.) Most of us put our faith in science, not God, and in social distancing and vaccination rather than prayer and penance. Yet recent experience has shown that humans are still highly vulnerable to rapidly transmissible illness, just as we were in the Middle Ages.
The first pandemic in recorded history occurred at the start of the Middle Ages. The Plague of Justinian, which began in AD 541, killed millions in regions stretching from eastern Africa to Germany and Britain. “It left neither island nor cave nor mountain ridge which had human inhabitants,” wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius. In the great city of Constantinople, tens of thousands died each week, despite lockdowns during which shops were shuttered and people hid indoors. The economic and psychological effects of the pandemic lasted for years afterwards.
The same was true in the 14th century. The impact of the Black Death was not limited to the enormous death toll. As wave after wave of disease rolled in, serious popular (and populist) upheaval occurred in almost every major European country. The region was shaken to its core by the shock of the pandemic, and movements promoting social justice proliferated.
The most concentrated period of unrest came between 1378 and 1382, shortly after a third wave of the Black Death had ripped through Europe. There were protests and riots in Florence in 1378, in southern France in 1379, and in northern France in 1380. In summer 1381, the Peasants’ Revolt nearly brought down the government in England. In 1382, Paris was in uproar.
From the perspective of the 21st century, this may not seem surprising. We have seen in our own times the close links between disease, economic disruption and social protest movements. In that sense, we are not so different from our medieval predecessors.
In 1245, an Italian friar called Giovanni da Pian del Carpine set out from the papal court to visit Mongolia. The Mongols were then a world superpower, and the khans’ armies were well on their way to establishing the biggest empire since Rome’s heyday. Del Carpine walked and rode for more than a year to reach the Mongols’ royal court at Karakorum, where he witnessed the installation of a new ruler, Güyük Khan.
There, Carpine delivered a message from Pope Innocent IV, inviting Güyük to accept baptism and suggesting a military alliance against Muslims in the Holy Land. Güyük was unimpressed, and sent Carpine home with a reply ordering the pope to accept Mongol overlordship or suffer unpleasant consequences. It was not exactly the outcome Carpine had hoped for, but he had established links between the far east and western Christendom that would endure for generations.
Around AD 1000, it would have been theoretically possible for goods to move between every continent in the world but Antarctica
The medieval world was always, in a sense, 'globalised'. Trade along the Silk Road moved Chinese and Indian cloth and spices west. Gold mined in sub-Saharan Africa found its way to the Mediterranean. Slaves were traded widely long before the Atlantic crossings. For a brief moment around AD 1000, when a handful of Vikings settled in North America, it would have been theoretically possible for goods to move between every continent except Antarctica.
The late Middle Ages was a period of exceptionally busy growth in global trade. First, the Mongol conquests of the 13th century allowed travellers such as del Carpine and the Venetian explorer Marco Polo to forge direct links between the thriving trade cities of China and the western mercantile hubs of northern Italy and the Black Sea.
In the 15th century, the expansion of the Islamic Ottoman empire made trade more difficult for Christians in the eastern Mediterranean – and the response was another wave of globalisation, albeit in a different direction.
Explorers including Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and John Cabot, sponsored by monarchs in the soon-to-be imperial powers of Spain, Portugal and England, headed out in search of new routes to the east. They opened up global sea networks in two directions: west toward the Americas, and south and east around the southern tip of Africa into the Indian Ocean. This age of New World exploration marked the end of the Middle Ages. It brought enormous prosperity for some, abject misery for others, and a revolution in the way that people everywhere viewed the world.
In the 11th century, a physically disabled and extremely learned German monk called Hermann the Lame worked out how to build an astrolabe – a sophisticated piece of technology, since dubbed the “medieval iPhone”, that was invaluable for timekeeping and navigation. It had been invented by the ancient Greeks, but in the first half of the Middle Ages its secrets were understood only by the Byzantines and Arabs.
From Hermann’s time, however, Europeans began to study and build astrolabes, part of a revolution in learning and information exchange culminating in what is sometimes called the “12th-century renaissance”.
This influx of new learning into Europe was driven by scholars who spent many hours translating ancient scientific and philosophical texts that had been preserved only in Arabic in the great libraries of the Islamic world. It transformed the intellectual landscape of the west.
Huge strides were made in astronomy, engineering, medicine and natural science, and major technological advances occurred as a result. Windmills harnessed 'renewable energy' to grind grain into flour. New clocks, powered by water or weights, revolutionised timekeeping. Recipes for gunpowder started to change the nature of warfare. And institutions for teaching and research – the great universities – were founded.
This was an exciting age of change, but it was only one of several medieval information revolutions. The first took place from the late eighth century under the Frankish emperor Charlemagne, who sponsored large-scale manuscript production and preservation in monasteries. The last started in the 1450s when Johannes Gutenburg invented the moveable-type printing press – an innovation that made it cheap and easy to produce books, tracts, newsletters, pamphlets and any other sort of text.
The cultural effects of printing were as dramatic as the changes brought about by the rise of the smartphone. An explosion in publishing led to a swing towards new forms of protest and 'culture wars'. The Protestant Reformation was printed into existence with the publication of the works of Martin Luther in the early 16th century, and the vicious arguments it produced on the page were soon translated into real battles between partisans of the old ways and the new.
The Reformation brought down the curtain on the Middle Ages, but it was the product of a very medieval revolution. It is easy to believe that we are living today through a comparable reformation of social and cultural norms, underpinned – as then – by communication technology.
Dan Jones is a historian, TV presenter and journalist. His new book is Powers & Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages (Apollo, 2021)
This article was first published in the October 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine