What comes to mind when the ‘Dark Ages’ is mentioned? Religious conflict? Anti-science sentiment among the illiterate and uneducated? Noble knights conquering on horseback amid plagues and unsanitary cities? In contrast, the Middle Ages were marked by the preservation of knowledge following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the pursuit of further innovation that birthed the Renaissance. Casey Titus explains four infamous myths about the Medieval Era.
Myth 1#: Medieval Woman had no rights
As opposed to the image of an oppressed, powerless peasant woman in the Middle Ages, women wielded considerable power outside of domestic duties. In the church, women could hold high positions as abbesses of convents or the female head of a community of nuns. This position possessed great responsibility and superior authority over the monks. Women also exercised political power, most prominently as queens and substitutes for the male monarchs during their periods of absence, illness, or due to their youth. Some queens were remarked in history as powerful and influential. In one historical example, Isabella of France or the “She-Wolf of France,” joined forces with her lover, exiled Marcher Lord, Roger Mortimer, to end the reign of her husband, Edward II, and took the English throne for herself. While an overwhelming majority of women did not hold such positions of power, taking up the role of wives and nuns instead, those that were widowed had legal independence. It is worth noting that both young aristocratic men and women had little say in their choice of spouse. By all historical accounts, women in the Medieval Era were resilient, skillful, and practical people.
Myth #2: Medieval people had terrible hygiene and a low life expectancy
The disastrous effects of the Black Death (1346-1353) prompted people during the Dark Ages to explore the link between health, hygiene, and disease. It was during this time the crusaders brought soap from the Far East to Europe along the Silk Road. People generally bathed in cold water with the exception of the wealthy who bathed in hot water. Before entering the Great Hall in Medieval Castles, guests and nobility alike were expected to wash their hands. Teeth were brushed with the use of a cloth or mixtures of herbs and even ashes of burnt rosemary. Bad teeth could be pulled out – the only remedy – without the use of anesthetic or painkillers.
In 1388, the English Parliament issued the following statement in an effort to improve hygiene in Medieval London: “Item, that so much dung and filth of the garbage and entrails be case and put into ditches, rivers, and other waters… so that the air there is grown greatly corrupt and infected, and many maladies and other intolerable diseases do daily happen… it is accorded and assented, that the proclamation be made as well in the city of London, as in other cities, boroughs, and towns through the realm of England, where it shall be needful that all they who do cast and lay all such annoyances, dung, garbages, entrails, and other ordure, in dithes, rivers, waters, and other places aforesaid, shall cause them utterly to be removed, avoided, and carried away, every one upon pain to lose and forfeit to our Lord the King the sum of 20 pounds…”
Myth #3: People believed the earth was flat
The full common myth follows: Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the new world disproved the Church’s teachings of a flat earth. This was a belief defended vigorously by people living in the Medieval Era on punishment of imprisonment or worse – similar to Galileo’s case while championing heliocentrism (that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun) in the 1610s, over a century after the end of the Dark Ages. In reality, that popular myth was coined in 1828 by author Washington Irving who wrote a biography of Columbus, depicting him as a “radical thinker” who turned his back on a backwards Old World in favor of the rationalism promised to the New World without historical and factual backing, in favor of popularity and publicity. During some kings’ coronations, a golden sphere was held in the king’s left hand to symbolize the earth (see the above image of King Richard II of England). In a collection of German sermons dated to the thirteenth century, its peasant audience was told that the earth was “round like an apple.”
Myth #4: The “Dark Ages” had no technological and scientific breakthroughs which is why progress was stalled for centuries
With the Western Roman Empire’s collapse in 476AD, funding for engineering and large-scale infrastructure depleted. Many of the skills necessary to create monumental buildings and complex technology withered away to history. Then over time, the decline of long-distance trade between Europe and Asia resulted in self-sufficient production to solely meet local needs. This method was used in communities so efficiently that it led to its continental spread across Europe and the invention of the horse-collar, mouldboard plough, water mills, and power mills. The blast furnace and development of cast iron were two innovations that advanced metal technology in Medieval times that even exceeded that of the Romans!
Moreover, innovations in wind and water-power during the Second half of the Middle Ages (1000 – 1500 AD) revolutionized agrarian Europe, turning the continent into a rich, populous, and expanding Christian power. In the thirteenth century, the first mechanical clocks were installed across Europe. This clock was the most complex form of mechanism at the time, taking eight years to complete its full cycle of calculations. Universities were on the rise in Medieval Europe, providing a large market for books, while experiments with block printing led to the best known Medieval invention: the printing press.
A closer look into Medieval Europe debunks our perceived image of the infamous “Dark Ages”. In between two revolutionary eras of breakthroughs, innovation, and artistic expression lies a thousand-year period of struggles, self-sufficiency, and a bridge into future human progress.
What do you think of progress during the Dark Ages? Let us know below…
Frater, Jamie. "Top 10 Myths About The Middle Ages." Listverse.com. N.p., 7 Jan. 2009. Web. 6 June 2017.
Gabriele, Matthew. "Five Myths about the Middle Ages." The Washington Post. N.p., 23 Sept. 2016. Web. 6 June 2017.
O'Neill, Tim. "How the Middle Ages Really Were." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 08 Sept. 2014. Web. 06 June 2017.