The medieval longing for the good old days

Hannah Skoda explores how late medieval Europe saw an upsurge in misty-eyed yearning for the 'good old days'...

Illustration by Femke De Jong

This article was first published in the Christmas 2016 edition of BBC History Magazine

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“When Adam dug and Eve span, Who was then a gentleman?” So spoke John Ball, one of the leaders of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, and a fiery, rousing preacher. As reported in the chronicle of Thomas Walsingham, Ball evoked a lost world, in which men were equal, free and dignified. Protesters should, declared Ball, like “a good husbandman… uprooting the tares [weeds] that are accustomed to destroy the grain”, rise up to restore this age of liberty.

Ball drew on a nostalgic image of a rural idyll – where all worked hard, and were justly rewarded – to provide a vision of hope for the future. A letter from one rebel, Jack Trewman, argued that “falseness and deceit have reigned too long, and truth has been set under lock and key, and falseness now reigns everywhere”. The rhetoric was powerful with its vivid alliterations, rhymes and appeal to a nostalgia for a past golden age.

But nostalgia was not the exclusive preserve of the rebels. If the peasants claimed that they wanted a return to “the good old laws” of yesteryear, Walsingham conversely accused them of trying to “wipe out… the memory of ancient customs”.

His language appealed to a conservative nostalgia for a rigid social order when peasants knew their place. This rhetoric was mirrored in sermons that lamented the passing of a better age when social hierarchies were apparently stable and people just got on with their work. “The world is transposed upside-down,” cried one 14th-century preacher.

That’s the genius of nostalgia – it can be used to bolster two utterly conflicting arguments. This yearning for an idealised past can rouse radicalism, but it can also sustain reactionary fears.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes nostalgia as a “sentimental longing for or regretful memory of a period of the past”. Or, as a medieval proverb, put it: “It’s in the evening that we look back on the day with pleasure.” In short, it’s something we can all identify with.

Compulsive weeping

The term ‘nostalgia’ was invented by Johannes Höfer, a Swiss doctor, in 1688. He was alarmed by the levels of homesickness that seemed to be affecting many patients, particularly Swiss mercenary soldiers operating in the lowlands of Italy and France, in the 17th century. Höfer identified physical symptoms that included compulsive weeping, anorexia and palpitations. More recently psychologists have offered a more nuanced interpretation of nostalgia – and have concluded that sometimes it can cheer us up. Importantly, whereas the term was invented to describe longing for home, it has now come to mean longing for a past time.

Today it’s widely assumed that nostalgia is a modern phenomenon. Discombobulated by the rapid pace of change in the industrialised world, modern people, so the theory goes, express unprecedented levels of yearning for a time when life was more predictable and slower-paced. The truth, however, is rather different.

The term may not have been coined until the 17th century, but there’s nothing new about nostalgia. Medieval literature is peppered with it – and the 14th century, it seems, saw a particular spike. It was during this century that the French knight Geoffroi de la Tour Landry wrote: “Things aren’t what they used to be/How I long for the old times again!” And Geoffroi was far from alone in donning rose-tinted spectacles and using the past to critique the present. In fact, it seems that he was in many ways reflecting the mood of his times.

But why? Is it because nostalgia is a human trait that stretches beyond modern preoccupations? Or was the 14th century ripe for this kind of reflection on the past because some of those same features of modernity – such as rapid change and commercialisation – were already emerging?

Shock of the new

The 14th century was indeed a time of cataclysmic change throughout Europe. There was horrific famine in the first half of the century, up to 50 per cent of the population was wiped out by recurrent epidemic plague, and warfare ravaged much of the countryside. It was also a time of rapid commercialisation: business and banking practices grew ever-more sophisticated, lending at interest intensified, prices fluctuated as never before.

The rise of merchants – who now routinely travelled across Europe – coupled with the job opportunities provided by mass mortality and rapid urbanisation across the continent, seemed to stimulate unprecedented social mobility. As the poet Dante Alighieri put it in his early 14th-century Purgatorio: “The former age rebukes the new.”

These changes provoked both individual and collective nostalgia. On the one hand, we find a figure like the successful Prato merchant, Francesco Datini, writing to his wife Marguerita about how much he misses the sights and smells of home when he is away on business. On the other hand, and more visible to the historian, nostalgia was a source of widespread social unease. The late 14th-century English romance poem Sir Tryamour expresses it pithily: “The goodness of our forefathers has now entirely gone.”

These writers were not entirely innovating. The poet John Gower evoked the sense of transience in modern times by referencing Boethius (AD 480–524), and wrote: “The fortune of the present day has forsaken the blessed life of the past.”

In the face of rapid urbanisation, writers in the 14th century harked back to an imagined pastoral idyll. In doing so, they were drawing on earlier medieval troubadour poetry (itself perhaps inspired by Arabic poetry) and on classical ideas of a bucolic utopia dating back to Virgil and Horace. But in the 14th century, these idylls were used to criticise the evils of city life.

Much of the nostalgia of the century was provoked by anxiety about commercialisation, what looked like increasingly erratic prices, and monetary debasement. Sermons criticised the pride and avarice of merchants by referring back to a time when traders were not motivated by greed. A sermon now in St Albans Cathedral archive tells of “the just weights and measures” of the past, now manipulated and used for cheating. The  poet John Gower elucidated: “In olden days, people behaved properly, without deceit, and without envy. Their buying and selling was honest, without trickery.” Bishop Brinton warned that “false traders in these days infringe the rule of justice”.

Nostalgia could also have a political edge. Boniface VIII, pope and arch-enemy of Philip IV of France, contrasted the king’s conduct with “the happy actions of your forefathers” and their “sincere devotion”. Similar themes were apparent in England. A late medieval English poem lamented: “Once upon a time we had an English ship/It was noble and had high towers.”

Preachers accused current monarchs of neglecting the wellbeing of their citizens. It was a powerful rhetoric, almost guaranteed to appeal to popular emotion. In the context of the growing weakness of the English position in the Hundred Years’ War against France, one sermon claimed that in the past “all Christian kings feared us and spoke of our victory and courage”. Philippe de Mézières, a late 14th-century French knight, described the effects of the Hundred Years’ War on his own country by evoking his childhood, when “the kingdom was rich and [somewhat enigmatically] as full as an egg”.

The rot sets in

In Italy, writers painted the century as a time of degeneration, employing past glories to criticise the present. In Florence, they couldn’t quite agree about which period to be nostalgic about. Chroniclers such as Giovanni Villani looked back on the 13th century as a time of military, political and commercial prowess: “They were loyal and faithful… they did greater and more virtuous deeds than are performed in our own time.” But Dante Alighieri argued that the rot had set in earlier than that. His nostalgia was for the 12th century, the time when “Florence [was] in such tranquillity that she had nothing to cause her grief”.

Fifty years later, in his own writings on Dante, the poet Boccaccio complained that the city (and its art) “once ennobled by geniuses… is now itself corrupted by avarice”. Boccaccio was writing after famine and epidemic disease had wiped out huge swathes of the population, enabling the labourers who did survive to demand better remuneration. He would take up this theme to castigate the corruption of the manners by “new men”. He saw inappropriate clothing as a potent symbol of the pernicious effects of social mobility. In England, the preacher Rypon fumed that: “The garments… of those who were once noble are now divided as spoil… among grooms, and maid-servants and prostitutes.”

Boccaccio’s fulminations were echoed in legislation that attempted to regulate the kinds of clothing people of each social station were permitted to wear – and to evoke, through law, a former age.

Yet it wasn’t just those trying to fight their way up the social ladder who were failing to live up to their predecessors’ supposed high standards. Apparently, knights also had forgotten their calling. Chivalry had always been founded on a longing for the good old days of King Arthur, but the intensity of this nostalgia was ratcheted up a notch in the 14th century. The chronicler Jean le Bel wistfully remarked: “These days a humble page is as well and as finely armed as a noble knight. Things have changed a lot I feel.”

Chivalry’s fall from grace was partly driven by a sense that modern knights no longer knew how to fight, only to dress up. The preacher Bromyard compared the pretentious flourishes of modern knights with the “strenuous battling… of the knights of antiquity – Charlemagne, Roland and Oliver”. In the past, apparently, knights were real men. The early humanist Petrarch wrote of Italian mercenaries that they lack the “antico valore”, and now “snort and perspire not manfully, but feverishly, not as soldiers, but as women or buffoons”.

If this was about status, it was also about sex. “Once upon a time, young men were ashamed of their dishonourable hidden thoughts; nowadays, they go round showing off things that even animals would gladly conceal if they only could,” ranted one holier-than-thou preacher.

Even children no longer knew their place. “In the olden days, children that were rebellious and disobedient to their fathers and mothers were beaten,” a misty-eyed sermon lamented of times gone by.

In short, a sense of melancholic nostalgia permeated the century. It could be radical, as in the Peasants’ Revolt; it could be reactionary; and it affected the entire social spectrum. The words ‘ubi sunt?’ – ‘Where have they gone?’ – became a catchphrase for the times, embodying a sense of transience and a yearning for a happier past.

In the mid-15th century, the poet François Villon wrote wistfully: “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” Everything melts away, and people in the later Middle Ages were acutely aware that war, commercialisation, political change and disease were transforming their lives. As Chaucer wrote in his poem The Former Age: “A blissful, peaceful and sweet life/was led by people in the olden days.”

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Hannah Skoda is associate professor of medieval history at St John’s College, Oxford.