Philosophical Views of the Middle Ages

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

For the Humanists, the Middle Ages were so dismal as to not be worth studying. But what about subsequent centuries of philosophers? How did Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers see this period of history? How do their competing views influence our understanding of whether the Middle Ages was a period to be cherished—or feared?

Detail of "School of Athens" by Raphael Protestant reformers couldn’t stand the Middle Ages, but for a reason that differed from that of Italian humanists. For Protestant reformers, the Middle Ages was a period of religious corruption rather than literary and artistic corruption. It was a period in which the original doctrines and rituals of the Christian church had become corrupted. New ideas had crept in that had no biblical justification, and Protestant reformers wanted to clear the decks of Christianity and prune away these later creations.

Proof of Corruption—and Superiority

To prove that religion had become corrupt during the Middle Ages, Protestant reformers studied the time period. They went back to the documents from the Middle Ages, and searched them out in order to make their case. Catholics living during the Protestant Reformation were not going to take this latest assault lying down. They, too, turned to the study of the Middle Ages, going back to prove that, far from being a period of religious corruption, the Middle Ages were superior to the era of the Protestant Reformation, because the Middle Ages were free of the religious schisms and religious wars that were plaguing the 16th and 17th centuries. Much of the scholarship produced during the 16th and 17th centuries was highly polemical. Scholars were trying to make a specific case and were selective in their use of evidence. Nonetheless, historians today owe a great debt to historians of the 16th and 17th centuries. In many cases, they copied and preserved documents that have not survived to the present day. The only reason we know about such documents is because of historians’ labors in the archives.

The Scorn of the Enlightenment

During the 18th century, in the age of the Enlightenment, the Middle Ages were pummeled once again. Learn more about historical arguments over the meaning of “feudalism”
 Immanuel Kant
Enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant denounced the Middle Ages. Painting by Johann Gottlieb Becker (1720-1782)
Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, and philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, denounced the Middle Ages—and they found a new reason to hate the period. For them, the problem with the Middle Ages was that they were religious, period. Not religiously corrupt, but simply religious. For Enlightenment thinkers, religion was, by definition, superstition. It was opposed to reason. No less a heavy hitter than Voltaire recommended that people study medieval history only so that they could scorn the time period in a more efficient fashion and find more things to make fun of. Immanuel Kant, the German Enlightenment philosopher, in trying to explain why the Middle Ages were the way they were, hit upon the theory that the human race had lost its mind during the Middle Ages. He posited that it was a period of collective insanity that interrupted the forward march of progress and reason, which had resumed only with himself and the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

The Admiration of the Romantics

Now, the Middle Ages were down, but they weren’t quite out. There have been periods in which authors have glorified the Middle Ages. Learn more about urban life for medieval townspeople One such period was the first half of the 19th century, known as the Romantic Age. Romantic authors, reacting against the Enlightenment that had dominated the previous century, created a very idyllic image of the Middle Ages. They liked to write of the Middle Ages as a period of great social harmony, in which everyone accepted his or her place in society. They described the Middle Ages as a period that was aesthetically pleasing. The water was clean, and the brooks bubbled in verdant green fields that were very pleasant to behold. They saw it as a period in which emotion was given free play. People laughed and cried freely.
The Lady of Shalott
Romantic authors and artists created a very idyllic image of the Middle Ages, such as The Lady of Shalott, painted by John William Waterhouse.
Why would they come up with this? Because they were using the Middle Ages as a club with which to beat their contemporaries, who lived in a world haunted by the specter of class struggle. The Romantics took refuge in a vision of the Middle Ages in which struggle between classes did not exist. They were coated with grime, thanks to early industrialization, and so they took refuge in the vision of a world that was pleasant to look at, and in which it was easy to breathe.

The Threat to “Get Medieval”

The Middle Ages have had their ups and downs. Today, the two contrasting visions—Romantic and condescending—exist. Different people hold different visions, but overall, the negative vision of the Middle Ages predominates. Learn more about the innovative intellectual methods of the Scholastics In one of the most famous scenes from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a character by the name of Marcellus is violently assaulted in a Los Angeles pawnshop. Once freed, he turns on his attacker, shoots him with a shotgun in a very painful part of the human anatomy, then announces he intends to “get medieval” upon his attacker. Now, by threatening to “get medieval,” Marcellus signifies to the audience that he is going to torture his assailant—mercilessly. Given the act of violence that we have just witnessed, however (and given the rather violent standards of Quentin Tarantino movies), one must wonder: Compared to that, what sort of torture is so horrible, so bloodcurdling, that it could be referred to only obliquely, lest we be nauseated, as getting “medieval”? If the audience members had not had the connotations of sickening violence, together with the word “medieval,” the entire point of the line would have been lost.
From the lecture series The High Middle Ages, taught by Professor Philip Daileader

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Images courtesy of: by Raphael [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons by Johann Gottlieb Becker (1720-1782) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons by John William Waterhouse [Public domain] [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons