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.