Were Medievals “Just Like Us?”

29 Sep

The above is a question I’ve steered away from for a bunch of reasons. Probably the main one is I don’t know how to properly approach it, not really. I’m not that smart. But I’ve decided to finally give it a shot even though I’m not very well qualified to talk about it. I’m not going to offer any sort of detailed evidence, just a description of my thoughts as they are now, and I make no promise that these won’t change at some point in the future.

The reason I’ve finally decided to address this (I’ve had a draft on this sitting around since the Spring of 2010, a few months after I started this blog) is because I’ve recently received quite a few hits from a site and, as is usual when this happens, I decided to see why/how I was mentioned. In some cases, particularly if it comes from another blog, I like to thank the person who provided the link. In this case the site is a discussion board talking about whether a historical Jesus really existed. In the middle of it one of the participants offered this as part of a comment:

Well, I tend to think people are not so different now as they were back then …

I’ve encountered this plenty of times. For myself, 15 (this is getting perilously close to 20) years or so ago when I first started reading on this, I’d often get into a discussion where I’d use what I thought was very logical reasoning for why some one or group may have behaved in a certain way only to be shot down (usually nicely) when someone pointed out that I was making a lot of assumptions that people back then thought and behaved the same as they do now.

So this is the question; Were Medievals pretty much like us? My answer is yes, and no.

First, there do appear to be some truths about Human behavior which largely transcend time and space. Human beings are social creatures, tending toward living in groups. The size of these groups obviously varies but we tend to want to be around others. These social groups almost always have some sort of hierarchical arrangement where certain members, classes or groups are dominant over other members, classes or groups. Related to this, Humans have a propensity to divide people into “us” and “them.” We tend to establish certain criteria by which we can judge the “us-ness” and “them-ness” of people. Now some groups are far more accepting of “thems” than others. But this still seems to be characteristic.

Family is important. This is almost as much as I want to say on the matter however this seems to be indicated for every group which I’ve read about. Keep in mind though that “family” can mean very different things in different cultures. Romans placed great value on adoption into the family. Some families indicate household members, not biological relations but there seems to be some value placed on family/kinship. This reaches the point of calling members of groups which do not involve kinship “brother” or “sister” in order to emphasize the importance of membership.

The range of Human emotions we have today seems to have existed at least as far back as there are written records. Literature of all times speaks of love, fear, anger, etc. And it’s not exactly an emotion but at least among literate Humans, questions about our origin, our place in the world and whether there is an afterlife and what form it may take seem to be pretty common.

So with all that, I can say yes; Medievals were like us. They were Human beings with some of the same characteristics as folks living today. Like us, they were products of their environments.

And Medievals were very different from us. Their personal characteristics, skills, belief systems, relationships and moralities were formed by their interactions with their own unique environments. These environments were profoundly different from those of modern western civilization. I think we can all see that the worlds in which a 6th century Merovingian, an 8th century Syrian Arab, a 9th century Anglo-Saxon, a 12th century Christian (or Muslim) Iberian or a 14th century Icelander lived in were very, very different from ours. These environments formed the basis for their development as individuals and as societal members. What was or was not important to them, how they thought, made decisions, etc., is based on this personal development. With such a difference in environments, is it reasonable to think that the end products of that environment, people, would be the same as we find today? I don’t think so.

A fairly obvious example of this is slavery. To me and the vast majority of others brought up as I was, the concept that one person can own another is reprehensible. For most of the medieval period, this was not the case, and this is even more explicit when we look at classical Rome. To many Romans, slaves were animals with the ability to talk. Any use a master chose to make of his or her slave (except for sexually if you were a married woman) was permitted. Some of these uses were frowned upon and not spoken of, but they were legal. If I hear of something like this going on (and unfortunately reports occasionally surface) today I become angry and repulsed. Most Romans would not have. This is a fairly obvious example and one that’s been mentioned quite often in literature but there are many others that appear in sources and I’m reasonably sure there are a lot of attitudes which can only be inferred. 1

The same concept of development related to the difference in environment holds true today. When I talk to someone from what we would label Western Civilization, my level of understanding of them is fairly high. It’s certainly far from perfect but I can carry on a conversation with someone from France or Germany where we each seem able to make certain assumptions about one another. We have a fairly closely shared heritage.

However when I interact with someone from, say, the Sudan or Nigeria (even Mexico or Costa Rica), this changes. They have likely learned English. We can understand each others’ words. In discussing specific issues or trying to solve a problem we get along just fine. However the core values and basic assumptions we carry with us are different, as are the worlds in which our identities were formed. This can create some problems if I’m not careful. I have to continuously think about how we interact, communicate, and relate to each other.

In the end, I don’t know exactly how Medievals thought. But I’m just about certain they thought very differently from me. And to add another layer, it’s very possible that the 95% or more of people who are not represented in the sources – the peasants, slaves and other members of the sub-elite classes – thought differently from those for whom we have a record. Heck, I often have a hard time figuring out what a Hollywood actor or someone who comes from old money is thinking. Why would I expect Joe Peasant to think the same as a king?

This is a conversation I enjoy and one which I think is important. Medievals were just like us. However this also means that they were almost certainly very different. The same holds true for today’s global society. Our commonality creates our diversity, and that’s a wonderful thing.

NOTE: I hope this doesn’t come across as condescending or anything. I suspect these are the kinds of issues covered in an introductory history course in college (probably should be in HS), particularly when teaching how to interpret source material. Likely 90% of the people who read this blog know this better than I but I still run across it when I talk to people. And I still have to remind myself of this when I’m reading. Every now and then I have to tell myself something along the lines of, “Really Curt? Do you actually think this was the reason Gregory hated Chilperic so much?”

1 There’s a fair amount of variability here which I’ll leave alone as I may want to eventually do a post on the differences between Christian and Roman concepts of slavery.


Posted by on September 29, 2013 in Historiography


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14 responses to “Were Medievals “Just Like Us?”

  1. tsmorangles

    September 29, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    Hi, Between you and me Gregory hated Chilperic mainly for two things: one the king dabbled in theology. Secondly and more importantly, Chilperic had wanted to add letters to the Latin alphabet.
    Most people nowadays make fun at supposedly illiterate Frank brute. The brute spoke Latin, wrote poetry and for a Barbarian was quite educated.
    Then, when one realizes after some research what were the letters and again more importantly what sounds said letters were going to open to the Gallo-romano-Frank language , you understand the hate.
    If Chilperic had suceeded, French as we know of today, would have been a more Germanic language.
    Gregory hated Chilperic; because unlike Gunthramm ever so attentive to his bishops, said Chilperic was preparing a bloodless revolution where Franks would have had less neeed of the Gallo-Roman administration and bishoprics.

    • Historian on the Edge

      October 20, 2013 at 7:14 am

      I am afraid there is little or no evidence for this. Chilperic, if anything, was the most Romanising of Clovis’ grandsons and rather out of step with his times in some ways, for that. I have also argued at some length (‘Nero and Herod? The death of Chilperic and Gregory’s writing of History’, in K. Mitchell & I.N. Wood (ed.) The world of Gregory of Tours (Leiden 2002) that Gregory didn’t hate Chilperic; that it was Guntramn that he was really afraid of. Historians have taken Histories VI.46 too much at face value rather than taking Gregory’s clear advice to check it against what he had said about Chilperic earlier in the book. The diatribe was to cover himself against Guntramn for his involvement in Chilperic’s alliance with Austrasia.

  2. Allan McKinley

    October 5, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Despite having gone through formal history teaching this is actually the best discussion of this I have seen. Much historical training is actually based on reading narratives in history and either ignores the thoughts of the individual (the ever-reliable Marxist approach for example) or despairs of understanding it and so does not teach it. Indeed, proving the thoughts of any individual (and one of the best papers on contemporary history I have heard advocated treating modern political biographies as if they were medieval sources because of this) is almost impossible. So any attempt to understand people in the past tends to fail on this basis, at least at the level of proof.

    What this post manages is to encapsulate the issues behind this problem for the non-Marxist type historians, something that no-one seems to have done that I have seen. Perhaps ‘it does not need to be said’, at least in the view of trained historians, but when set out like this it is obviously an issue worth considering.

    • Curt Emanuel

      October 14, 2013 at 5:28 pm

      Thank you Allan. I had always thought this would be a topic raised fairly early in college-level history classes. It seems that when it comes to discussions of interpreting sources some caution such as, “Be careful not to assume you know what this source means; the author likely thought very differently from us.” would be included. Or perhaps it is but not in the way I’ve approached it? In any case, I appreciate the compliment.

      • Allan McKinley

        October 14, 2013 at 5:59 pm

        There is always an element of teaching students to read sources and not believe them – I have a really cute example using a nineteenth-century statue at Swanage, Dorset commemmorating the ‘naval victory’ of Alfred the Great there, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the same year (once you correct the chronology) recording a Viking fleet floundering in a storm, and a routine to make them question even the Chronicle – but this is basically taught as a historical skill (reading a text) and generally bypasses the thoughts of the individual, a process helped by the number of anonymous works and small authorial corpora from the middle ages, which do not allow for great analysis (it is telling that some of the exceptions such as Hrabanus Maurus still are not fully and well edited). Although students learn not to read the individual in a text, they are then conditioned to ignore the individual totally most of the time, to the extent that they will cumpotently analyse a text on its own term, or in its historical context, but not as the work of an individual. Perhaps that is where history meets literary studies, who do this sort of thing more.

    • Historian on the Edge

      October 20, 2013 at 7:08 am

      Well said.

      • Curt Emanuel

        October 20, 2013 at 9:05 am

        If this was for me, thank you and if for Allan, thanks for commenting. I’m always a bit nervous discussing things I consider related to methodology because, well, I’ve never been taught methodology. But when I’m talking to folks the tendency to view people who lived long ago, or those who live in very different cultures from ours today, through our own modern, western-tinted lenses is quite common. Sometimes that’s just a bit unfortunate and sometimes that’s full-on dangerous.

        • Allan McKinley

          October 20, 2013 at 10:02 am

          I think the key thing here is that you do at least read the primary sources. Just reading history without seeing what is actually said does tend to lead to projecting existing preconceptions on to the sources rather than actually understanding them. In this way you are actually doing far better than many professional historians, who often appear not to have read the sources beyond the odd passage of relevance to them… And as for some archaeologists, who pretend to ignore the history and then construct chronologies around it (I suspect Guy would be able to identify a fair number of these in the field of the barbarian migrations), it is odd that they can try to reconstruct society on anthropological models whilst ignoring the voices of those who were contempory to the events.

  3. trueandreasonable

    January 6, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Thomas Madden and perhaps a few others I have listened to, and or read have emphasized the importance the Medievals’ lack of control over death. We don’t completely control death of course but generally we live longer. Then there were lots of people dying young especially with the plagues. Among other things he thought this would focus their mind on what came after death.

    I was just wondering whether all societies from about 1AD -1700 AD were about equally brutal or whether western society stood out one way or another.

    • Curt Emanuel

      January 7, 2014 at 9:48 am

      I don’t think a fascination with concepts of the afterlife was restricted to Medievals. It was pretty much a universal concern in pre-industrial society. Greek Philosophers wrote extensively on the topic, the Romans were concerned enough with it for Emperors to have themselves declared Gods while still living. I’m not as familiar with Eastern cultures. Then again, I’m not sure this topic is substantially less discussed today. Folks back then seemed much more accepting of death. They experienced it regularly, people died at home, not in hospitals, it was the responsibility of the family, not a mortician to wash and prepare the body for whatever was done with it after death – heck, Italian cities have catacombs constructed partially so you could visit the actual bodies, not just the gravesites of the dead.

      I’m not sure what you mean by brutal. If you mean violence, I don’t see where we’re substantially more or less violent today. Certainly not when it comes to warfare. I’d say the one difference in violence in our daily lives is, in Western Civilization, the growth of a Middle Class. In the Middle Ages, our Middle Class; the way we live, travel, social circles, etc., would have been very wealthy by their standards. We have the resources to be able to hire people to protect us (rather than a small armed retinue we have police) and can live in areas not prone to violence. If we look at people from comparable socioeconomic classes, I don’t know where the violence a poor peasant might face would be more than that experienced by someone from the inner city ghetto in a major metropolitan area. Then as now, the wealthy (our middle class) were pretty well insulated from it.

      I guess another way of looking at brutal is as life being just plain difficult. Again, I’d point to class as a big component of this but there’s also; the lack of access to modern medicine, particularly pharmaceuticals; small, localized food systems which were vulnerable to any crop failure which might result in famine as opposed to today’s globalization where we can ship food anywhere in the world in a few days and; a bunch of other aspects of modern society they didn’t have.

      A lot of this is sociology, not history.

  4. trueandreasonable

    January 8, 2014 at 10:08 am

    Yes I agree that fascination/concern with the afterlife wasn’t restricted to Medievals but I think it was greater than it is today. But on that point I knew roman emperors would often claim some form of divinity but I did not know they actually thought this declaration would help them after death. Also, although I read Aristotle and Plato, I just don’t know what everyday people thought regarding the possibility of an afterlife. My understanding is that in Medieval times it is a very big concern although there were still plenty of people who seemed not to care much.

    With respect to it being more brutal I was mainly wondering about how western society would compare to other cultures of the same time.

    But your comment made me think about whether it was really more brutal than today. I think it seems more brutal at the institutional level as opposed to more brutal crimes. This would include things like Slavery, Specifically I remember reading about how people would be taken to be rowers on the galley ships. In some cases this was piracy where people like red beard would just take families from their homes at night (and therefore maybe best seen as crime) but it seems everyone used slaves to row the boats. Reading some of the war action seemed pretty brutal as well. What they would do with corpses of the dead etc. Then of course there was the way they dealt with crimes especially heresy. But again how they dealt with Heresy tied in with the frequent deaths and concern for the afterlife.

    I’m not sure we can separate history from society. I agree the middle class is a huge change and makes a huge difference in our attitudes. But the that is to some extent due to the passage of time and the development of things like the printing press. I haven’t independently investigated what impact the printing press had on all aspects of our culture but I have heard it was huge and it makes sense that it would be huge. Of course, now we have kindles so we don’t need printing presses ;)

    Bottom line is I really have more questions than answers but I agree it is important to try to understand the times in which we read.

    I think in many of the books and lectures I hear the author does indeed try to some extent inform the reader on some of the background of the time. Since I tend not to delve into the original manuscripts I am left taking their word for it.

  5. Curt Emanuel

    January 8, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    I’m having a hard time figuring out how to answer as you didn’t offer specifics, at least from either the Medieval or Ancient period. Instead I’ll pose you one question: How is slavery more brutal than long-term imprisonment?

    I don’t know for sure but I suspect if you suggested to someone from the Roman Empire that rather than enslaving defeated enemies or criminals (both were considered just punishments for losing a war/committing crimes) you should imprison them, he would have been horrified. In a society which already has trouble feeding its population, how can you lock them up, gain no benefit from them, and draw even more resources away from law-abiding members of society to care for these criminals? Why not instead make them serve the society they’ve wronged?

    I don’t know enough about Eastern societies to compare them. Islam certainly had large numbers of slaves but my understanding is that slavery in ancient China, while it existed, didn’t approach its extent in the Roman Empire.

    When it comes to war, I haven’t read many accounts of where it was considered pleasant, though I don’t know what you mean by what they did with the bodies. The Vikings had the Blood Eagle though there’s a lot of historians who doubt this took place anywhere but in stories. I don’t believe any remains have ever been found showing evidence of this. For the most part the winners left the bodies of the losers where they lay.

  6. Jon

    September 27, 2014 at 12:52 am

    There’s far too many, otherwise perfectly intelligent people, that can’t seem to grasp that people are much different in their beliefs, habits and culture acceptance of risk vs reward even as recently as thirty or forty years ago, let alone a millenia.

    These are the same people that try to argue Hitler’s religious beliefs, or can’t understand why NASA could go to the moon in the 1960s but can’t now. Or how Abbot & Costello could have been hilarious to their grandparents.

    Most sane people living in 2014 would not want to meet your average medieval noble or peasant. It would be in many ways, a terrifying experience.


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