Friday, June 27, 2008

The not-so-good-old days

Medievalists are are constantly being put in the position of responding to the modern connotations of the word "medieval." For many modern people the Middle Ages acts as a dumping ground for every nightmare that can be attributed to humanity. The great witchhunt of European history took place after the Middle Ages; the purges and holocausts of the 20th century put most medieval slaughters, ruthless and cruel as they may have been, in the shade. We often find ourselves pointing out such things to people who carelessly use "medieval" to mean "bad." (Indeed, my dictation software heard that last usage of medieval as "and evil" so we are seemingly in the position of fighting the machines, too.)

But we must face the fact that most of history, including the Middle Ages, were not exactly the good old days. Some scholarly blogging posts of the last week or so underline this.

Jonathan Jarrett, I believe, started the ball rolling with a post on Sex slaves in the early Middle Ages: what’s the evidence? over at his blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. his point was that he didn't know what the evidence for sex slavery might be and he hoped someone would enlighten him. Soon after, he found himself shocked by reflecting on well-known evidence about the prominent monastery of Cluny in eastern France. As he put it, "slaves are all through the material from Cluny [in the tenth century]." that reflection, and chance meeting with another medievalist blogger, Magistra et Mater, went into this post on trading "ancillae [slave women]."

At the same time Magistra et Mater has been writing about some subjects that might excite prurient interest, but deserve serious thought, too. For instance, how exactly were disobedient monks flogged in the time of the Carolingian kings? And somewhat less grim, were families about the same time somewhat reluctant to write off their daughters as ruined if they indulged in a little premarital sexual activity? Maybe for good practical reasons the Carolingian Franks were a little less likely to condemn such girls than some other cultures. These are all isolated points perhaps, but important for visualizing how things actually worked for individual people, like a monk about to be flogged, or the teenager worried about how dad is going to react to her little adventure.

Finally, the subject of slavery (mostly later than medieval) is discussed by Phil Paine in this post, inspired by a book on 18th century Moroccan slavery (item 16305). Conclusion: there is no "nice slavery," ancient, medieval, early modern, or current

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