What does medieval mean? Why the Middle Ages was actually an age of transformation
Those who write off the Middle Ages as an unchanging backwater are overlooking the seismic advances – in everything from scientific knowledge to self-awareness – that redefined what it meant to be human. Ian Mortimer explores how our understanding on what it means to be "medieval" does not tell the whole story
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What does the word “medieval” summon up in your mind?
Whether the first thing you imagine is a castle or a monastery, the chances are that the word will come with connotations of violence, ignorance, lawlessness and superstition. You only need to think of Marsellus Wallace’s line in the film Pulp Fiction to know what I mean: “I’m gonna git medieval on your ass.”
Even if you’re not a Quentin Tarantino fan, you will have come across the word “medieval” frequently applied by journalists and politicians to the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Russian troops occupying Ukrainian towns. In short, many people today use “medieval” as a synonym for “uncivilised”.
Historians have generally been unable to shift these perceptions in the public mind of the Middle Ages, and a few have sought to exploit this prejudice rather than deny it. Twentieth-century popular books, like William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire (1992) and Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978), emphasised the brutality of the medieval period, seemingly drawing their evocative power from these aspects. This is despite the fact that warfare has grown progressively more deadly since the Middle Ages, as the Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin showed in the 1940s.
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Although other historians of that generation tried to draw attention to the real technological innovations of the period – for example, Jean Gimpel’s Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (1977) – their work generally only underlined the primitive character of medieval technology in comparison with that of the modern world. The mechanical clock and the cannon were never going to compete with a computer or a spacecraft for pride of place in the public imagination, no matter how hard the historian in question tried.
Recently, there have been a few attempts to set the record straight, the most striking perhaps being Seb Falk’s The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science (2020). However, for the most part, the bestselling popular history books are still keen to focus on the technological backwardness of the Middle Ages, as if that somehow adds to our understanding.
For example, chapter 14 of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) begins by telling us: “Were, say, a Spanish peasant to have fallen asleep in 1000 AD and woken up 500 years later, to the din of Columbus’s sailors boarding the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria, the world would have seemed to him quite familiar. Despite many changes in technology, manners and political boundaries, this medieval Rip van Winkle would have felt at home. But had one of Columbus’s sailors fallen into a similar slumber and woken up to the ringtone of a 21st-century iPhone, he would have found himself in a world strange beyond comprehension. ‘Is this heaven?’ he might well have asked himself. ‘Or perhaps – hell?’”
The message is that nothing much happened over the first 500 years of the last millennium. The “many changes in technology, manners and political boundaries” Harari mentions were inconsequential compared with what happened later, culminating in that most beloved of modern icons, the smartphone.
It is not hard to understand why people happily accept this judgement. The technological creations of the modern world amaze us, so it stands to reason that they would have left medieval people utterly bewildered. However, if you judge social change purely according to technological sophistication, it’s inevitable that you’ll overlook such things as the fact that Harari’s peasant from AD 1000 would have been a Muslim if he had lived in the area from which Christopher Columbus set sail (Palos de la Frontera). He certainly would not have “felt at home” if he had woken up in 1492 – for many reasons. One was that the crusading government was determined to kill him on account of his religion.
The developing world
10 great leaps forward in the medieval era
1. War lost its allure
The 15th century especially saw a decline in the desirability of warfare. Whereas the military elite had still enthusiastically endorsed military activity in the late 14th century, by 1500 the scale and destruction of warfare had become a deterrent in itself. Prominent thinkers openly mocked war leaders. “Not even human, except in appearance,” said Erasmus.
2. The world shrank
A comparison of an Anglo-Saxon map of the world with one from the 16th century demonstrates clearly how much our geographical awareness of the wider world is due to medieval exploration.
3. Slaves tasted freedom
In 11th-century England, most ordinary people were unfree, either being slaves or serfs. Yet slavery in England was a thing of the past by the 13th century and serfdom scarce by the 16th.
4. The market economy emerged
There were probably only about 100 markets in England in 1000. Parts of the country still practised subsistence farming and barter. More than 2,000 more markets and fairs were granted permission over the next three centuries and, although not all succeeded, enough did that everywhere became a market economy.
5. Hunger retreated
Judging by entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one year in every four was a famine year in the 11th century. By the 16th century, famines were much less regular. Thanks to the Old Poor Law, the famine of 1594–97 was the last time large numbers of English people died from starvation.
6. Literacy surged...
Given how few people could write in the early 11th century and the small range of documents created, the total literary output in England was probably no more than 2 million words per year. As a result of printing – and male and female literacy rates reaching 25 and 10 per cent respectively – output in late 16th-century England easily exceeded 10 billion words a year.
7. ... and schools multiplied
There were no formal schools in the 11th century (whatever the successors of a handful of monastic establishments claim). Nor were there any universities. It is to the Middle Ages we owe the idea that there should be a school in every town.
8. Medics made their mark
You would have struggled to find a doctor in the 11th century. Medicine was a matter of local remedies, superstition and folklore. By 1300, there were medical faculties at several universities; by 1600, the ratio of physicians, surgeons and apothecaries to patients in the southeast of England was one for every 80 families.
9. Kings ceded (some) power
In AD 1000, political power lay exclusively with the king. Over the following centuries, it came to be shared with lords, bishops and elected representatives of boroughs and landowners in parliament. By 1400, parliament was powerful enough to depose a king and appoint his successor.
10. Land ownership was overhauled
At the time of the Domesday Book, all of England was held from the king by a total of about 3,000 lords and churches, which, including their families, made up less than 2 per cent of the population. Gradually this percentage grew, so that by the late 17th century (using the estimates of the statistician Gregory King), about 15 per cent of families owned some freehold land and about another 10 per cent owned land on a leasehold basis. Apart from the rise of corporate landownership and home ownership in the 20th century, patterns of land ownership have not hugely changed since then.
Shakespeare speaks for us
If we want to understand the Middle Ages, it is necessary to take off our technology-tinted spectacles and look at the world with fresh eyes. After all, we often say that “Shakespeare speaks for us” on account of the fact his works demonstrate a deep understanding of the human condition. Yet he knew nothing of all the technological advances since the Industrial Revolution. In other words, the human condition has not changed as a result of technology. It is rather a product of the Middle Ages.
No writer from four centuries before William Shakespeare’s time was praised by Elizabethan people as speaking for them. Everything we have in common with Shakespeare – from our language to our understanding of the ways people expect each other to treat them – is the culmination of centuries of social, cultural and psychological development that took place prior to 1600.
The simplest way to envisage this is to think in terms of cultural horizons. Let’s begin with the world’s landmasses. An 11th-century map in the British Library shows a barely recognisable Europe with India as a remote island at the east edge of its square shape. But between 1519 and 1522, Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano led the first of at least half a dozen 16th-century expeditions that sailed around the world. Two later circumnavigations were led by Englishmen: Francis Drake in 1577–80 and Thomas Cavendish in 1586–88. By 1600, mapmakers knew the outline of Africa, India, China, North and South America and most of the rest of the world. Our cultural horizons had expanded to embrace the globe.
This idea of examining our expanding horizons is a much better way of appreciating the Middle Ages than studying their violence or comparing our technological sophistication with their lack of it. Europeans’ awareness of the wider world changed enormously – almost to the maximum – between the 11th century and the 16th. Regardless of whether you think that was a good or bad thing, our cultural horizons as English, British and European people shifted from the tribal level to a national one, then an international one and finally a global one.
That shift is rarely appreciated, due to all the negative connotations of the word “medieval”. But it is just one of the many ways in which the metaphorical horizon can be used to see the Middle Ages in a brighter light. The same method can be applied to almost any other aspect of medieval culture. The cultural horizon is like a tool – a microscope – that, once you know how to use it, reveals many things that people don’t normally notice.
Consider engineering. Very few masons in the year 1000 could build a structure 100ft in height. In the 12th century, imperial German masons broke the 200ft barrier for Speyer Cathedral. By 1220, the 344ft-high south spire of Chartres had been completed. In England, the spire of Old St Paul’s Cathedral demonstrated masons and carpenters could build as high as 489ft by 1300. The 500ft-level was surpassed with the completion of Lincoln Cathedral spire in 1311.
It is a salutary thought to realise that, between 1000 and 1300, the height of the tallest building in London probably increased by a factor of six or seven, whereas the tallest building now – the Shard, at 1,016ft – is only a little over twice the height of its medieval precursor. Soaring buildings are a medieval phenomenon as much as they are a modern one.
Consider the horizon of commerce. A London custumal drawn up in the reign of Æthelraed demonstrates that, by around AD 1000, the city was being visited by traders from Normandy, northern France, Flanders and part of modern-day Belgium. Danish merchants were also probably doing business in the city. Five hundred years later, European merchants were trading in spices from the Maluku islands in the Malay Archipelago, bringing back vast quantities of silver from Latin America and making cups out of coconuts from the Indian subcontinent.
Then there is the horizon of memory. Very little was written down in the year 1000. For the whole of Saxon England we have barely 2,000 texts of charters – and many of those are later forgeries. Few chronicles and hagiographies survive, either, and the number of lost works is known to be relatively small from the relatively few references to them in extant works. Yet by the 16th century Europeans had developed a highly complex literary culture. In England, about one in four men and one in 10 women were able to read and write, and everyone’s name was recorded in a parish register. Society went from seeing a total of probably fewer than 2 million words set down every year to well over 10 billion, with enormous consequences for the spread of learning, civil administration and the application of the law.
If you put yourself in our medieval ancestors’ shoes and look at how their world changed, it becomes obvious that people travelled longer distances, built higher and better buildings, traded further afield and wrote more things down
As these examples demonstrate, concepts of change are very much a matter of selecting the right perspective. If you put yourself in our medieval ancestors’ shoes and look at how their world changed, rather than prioritising our age and its characteristics, it becomes obvious that people travelled longer distances, built higher and better buildings, traded further afield and wrote more things down. This approach can teach us other things, too.
For example, the percentage of women who could read and write in the 11th century was vanishingly small, so the fact that 10 per cent of Englishwomen could read and write by 1600 is hugely significant. Through tracing that cultural horizon we can track the demise of the male-exclusivity of intellectual life. Once you become acquainted with this approach, you soon discover more possible applications of the “tool” of the metaphorical horizon.
We can apply it to violence. Today we think that peace is normal and that war is an aberration. This was the view of 16th-century thinkers, too. In about 1515, Erasmus wrote that conflict was always to be avoided – that the worst peace was better than a just war. Shortly afterwards, Thomas More argued in his Utopia (1516) that war should always be a last resort. These two views largely reflect the spectrum of modern opinions. However, they are both relatively recent.
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In AD 1000, if a shipload of Vikings came to your village wielding axes, then you were at war. Peace was not an option. At the end of the 11th century, people flocked to join the Crusades to recapture Jerusalem. Later still, chivalric virtues were employed to inspire a martial enthusiasm for violence in men-at-arms across Europe. Many people in the early Middle Ages wanted to fight. For the nobility, it was their raison d’être.
But the defeat of the last crusades at Nicopolis (1396) and Grunwald (1410) undermined the final vestiges of crusading fervour. At the same time, guns started to blow chivalry off the battlefield. Armies became bigger, more destructive and less noble. Men became reluctant to go to war. The horizon of peace expanded. We went from a society in which war was normal to one in which peace was normal.
Life in the faster lane: travel in medieval times
Maximum travel speeds increased from the 14th century, with dramatic consequences for medieval societies
There are many ways in which we in the modern world are guilty of underestimating the rapid pace of change in the Middle Ages. One of them is in the time it took people to traverse the county. Given the lack of technological advancement, it's easy to assume that it took just as long to get from A to B at the end of the era as at the beginning.
The bare facts tell a different story. An examination of English bishops’ and royal itineraries from the 12th to 15th centuries suggests that travellers routinely covered just 20 miles day. They did not try to travel fast unless it was essential for them to do so: when pressed, those wealthy enough to pay for changes of horses could go much faster.
There are only a few instances of people covering more than 70 miles in a day before 1330. One is the news of Edward I’s death at about 3pm on 7 July 1307 at Burgh by Sands near the Scottish border, which reached his heir in London on 11 July. This entailed a journey of more than 300 miles at around 75 miles per day.
The maximum speed of news increased in the 14th century. When Edward III sent a messenger on business to Avignon in 1343, his man took 7.5 days to cover the 730-mile route, including the sea crossing: an average of 97 miles per day.
The establishment of news relays by Edward IV and Henry VII hugely increased the speeds at which information could travel. News of the capitulation of Berwick in 1482 (during an English invasion of Scotland) was brought south by a relay of 10 riders at the speed of 170 miles per day.
In the 16th century, the establishment of the postal routes facilitated even faster speeds. So too did the breeding of fast horses and legislation ensuring the better maintenance of the highways. By the 1570s, the post from Berwick was expected to travel to London in 42 hours in summer and 60 hours in winter, implying minimum speeds of 194 and 136 miles per day respectively.
By the end of the century, ordinary citizens could pay 2d per mile to ride with the post, often travelling at 10mph – twice as fast as before 1330. As a result of such developments, news of the death of Elizabeth I in the spring of 1603 was taken by Sir Robert Carey from Richmond Palace to Edinburgh in three days, at 149 miles per day – twice the speed at which news of the death of Edward I had been brought from the Scottish border to London in the summer of 1307.
The implications of this doubling of speed were many and varied. Perhaps most importantly, faster news meant that government could respond more quickly to threats, both internal and external. It also meant that it became advantageous to have agents in foreign countries – hence Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham maintained a network of dozens of spies across Europe.
The ability to travel at ever higher speeds changed most people’s lives in one way or another. By the 16th century, the ordinary citizen, knowing what time the high tide was due at a certain port, might arrange to ride with the post in order to catch a boat. The invention of clock time thus itself spurred people on to travel faster – giving their movements a sense of urgency that had not existed in the 11th century.
Another important cultural horizon that is easily overlooked by wearers of technology-tinted spectacles is personal liberty. In 11th-century England, one-tenth of the population was legally enslaved. This not only implied a life of toil; it also meant their children automatically became the property of their owner – to be sold, forced to work or abused as their owner wished. Another three-quarters of the population was unfree in the sense that, as serfs, they could not leave their place of birth but were forced to work for their lord. They were also required to marry those from the same locality, so their children would be unfree as well.
In England, slavery declined rapidly after the Norman Conquest and was extinguished by the early 13th century. After the Black Death, serfdom came under pressure so that by the end of the 16th century there were very few unfree peasants left. The horizon of freedom, which had embraced no more than 15 per cent of the population in 1086, had expanded to include more than 99 per cent.
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Such developments as personal liberty and the normality of peace are easy to take for granted. Technologically they are unimpressive. But who seriously thinks their iPhone is more important than peace? Or their freedom? Or their children not being enslaved? As you might realise from these examples, one particularly useful aspect of the metaphorical horizon is its versatility. You can even apply it to such matters as domestic comfort.
In the early 11th century, the greatest English lords lived in smoky single-storey wooden halls that were little more than decorated barns. Five hundred years later, the splendours of glazed, multi-chamber, multi-storey houses like Burghley and Hardwick Hall were available to them, with fireplaces, kitchens and offices of convenience. At every level of society, people saw their homes improve in quality as well as size. Their living standards were also transformed by a range of metal cooking utensils that had scarcely been available in the 11th century.
Examining society using the tool of the cultural horizon leads you to ask questions that perhaps you have never thought of asking before. To what extent did people’s self-awareness grow over the Middle Ages? And their individuality? It hardly needs saying that these are not straightforward areas of research. But it is possible to identify stages in the development of these aspects of life. The doctrine of Purgatory promulgated by the Catholic church from the mid-12th century probably marks a turning point in the ways ordinary people thought of themselves.
Before that, men and women only had to consider their reputations among their kinsfolk and neighbours in life; afterwards, they needed the living to pray for them after their deaths, so they had to consider their post-mortem reputations, which forced them to consider how they appeared in other people’s eyes. Another turning point was the mirror – lost for hundreds of years but rediscovered by the nobility in the early 12th century and widely available in the 15th. Through such watersheds we can trace how self-improvement and individualism spread through society, resulting in the first diaries and autobiographies in the 16th century.
There are many ways of looking at the past; the challenge is to identify the one that sheds the greatest amount of light on what you most want to know. In the case of the Middle Ages, we learn nothing from seeing it as excessively vicious, backwards and cruel. Similarly, we learn nothing from comparing their levels of technology with ours. But the idea of the cultural horizon allows us to avoid this problem – and see the period as one of hope, vision, effort and achievement.
This article was first published in the February 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine