If there ever was a historical period, that was burdened with myths, it is the medieval European culture. In contrast, we have surpricingly sobre picture of the Mediterranean antiquity and their culture. This is because of the medieval monks, who painstakingly copied some of the histories and high scholarship of the ancient philosophers. Only occasionally did the monks add anything to the ancient scriptures, to mold them to more reflect their own worldviews. The monks lived in a culture that was obsessed about the truth being found from the ancient scriptures, hence they did put a great value on the ancient wisdom. That wisdom did affect even the monks and scholars of the all encompassing Catholic church. That is one of the reasons for the division within even such very authoritarian international system as the medieval church.

Most myths about the medieval times now familiar to us were infact invented during the centuries after what we now in hindsight call medieval times. Many of them were invented by the religious reformists acting against the Catholic churhc, in order to oppose any sentiments of lost golden age by those who might yearn for times when Christendom stood almost undivided and the Roman Catholic church ruled over almost all of Europe. Propaganda to remind people, that those seemingly unified times of western church were not such happy times at all. Such propaganda came from the necessity, that the new protestant movements could not blame the Catholic church for crimes that were equally manifest in the newly founded protestant societies – like for example social inequality.

The philosophers of enlightenment period and their agnostic and deist values have been blamed for launching some of those myths degrading the medieval era and especially blaming the allencompassing Catholic church value base. However, it is more like they were the victims of their predecessors in a society that knew precious little about the past other than anecdotes and was only just on the brink of the invention of actual scientific methodology, not to speak about the application of this method to investigate history and historical claims.

The problem of historical research is, that the vast amount of knowledge to even understand the research results of any one particular subject is ever surmounting and seems difficult to handle. Therefore historical research drags some of the assumptions of the past generations and those form the common understanding of history. Outdated studies with questionable methodology get referred to and act as authority. Of course, the study of history is like any other science – self correcting and ultimately we can leave myths to the place they deserve, but unavoidably the biases people have by political, or religious views affect the interpretation of results.

A new phenomenon, now that we have started to understand how much of medieval times have been misunderstood, or misrepresented, is that some people want to rehabilitate the entire period. Since we now understand that medieval people actually washed themselves and did not live in squallor (at least if they were wealthy enough to choose not to), it still does not mean that for example the crusades were a good idea nor morally justifiable by such ethically acceptable notions as self-defence.

Who would defend the crusaders? Several groups of people might be interrested in defending the justification of these holy wars. One group is the right wing political looneys, who as ever the nazies, are always ready to distort history for their own cause. Today, in Europe at least, the anti-semitists of the past day have very racistic feelings for the immigrants from the rest of the world (at least as long as we are not talking about a bought wife from South-East-Asia). They share suspicion of Islam with the extremist Christian groups who would also creamcoat the crusades as these have been a big question mark on the benevolent nature of general Christianity and of course we have some extreme Catholics, who, are indeed ever disturbed by the constant reminders of the questionable nature of their form of faith and cause.

This serves as a great wittness to the victory of secular ethics and morality over religious tribal moralism as even the religious people finally accept that the mere word of a god transmitted by some demagogue (in the case of the crusades invariably the pope) to kill people seems like an undefendable moral position. However, this was not the case for the crusader. He did not have to invent such ethical excuses like claim to self-defence to attack the heretic, infidel, or pagan, as he had every reason by the social values of his surrounding society to kill those enemies of the”mother” church and conquer the holy sites like Jerusalem.

Such disfiguration of history as to claim, that the crusaders were only defending Europe, are of course ridiculous. Some crusades were indeed launched as a response to a plea of help by the Byzantine empire, who was attacked by the Turkish tribes, but they did very little to help the schismatic Byzantines. Instead they moved straight to Palestine to conquer Jerusalem and some of the neighbouring cities. And after they had been driven out of the “Outremer” they finally backstabbed the Byzantine empire by conquering their capital Constantinople, after wich the Christian empire never really regained it’s former strength and was slowly devoured by the advancing and consolidating Turks.

One of the myths concerning medieval times is that the crusades were against the Muslims. No they were not. Most of the crusaders had no idea of what a Muslim is before they arrived to Palestine and most of the crusades were not even directed there, or elswhere against the Muslims, but against other Christians within Europe.

A crusader in the 1st Crusade of King Magnus 1348 to Russia.

A crusader in the 1st Crusade of King Magnus 1348 to Russia.

I have a couple of words in defence of the crusaders… Surpriced? I believe most of them set of to war in a distant land in good faith, that what they were doing was ultimately right and justified by the ultimate authority of a particular god. I think they were wrong, and their deeds were mostly just evil. It is terrifying how people end up doing all sorts of evil not motivated only by personal greed, but by false beliefs, that they have a good cause to do the evil. They were the victims of social and religious indoctrination and ignorance of ultimately a violent society.

What is the most absurd myth about medieval times you have run into?

Advertisements