Regine Pernoud’s “Those Terrible Middle Ages!”

Don’t be fooled by the unfortunate, somewhat silly title.  Ms. Pernoud is sharp old French woman you don’t want to mess with.  She brings her best wit and sarcasm to the table. 

Pernoud starts by acknowledging that most everyone believes that “Middle Ages” means “darkness,” oppression, and rigidity.  Pernoud argues that this grossly misrepresents the period, which should not surprise anyone with some familiarity with actual medieval people. What makes her work interesting and entertaining is that Pernoud thinks that the epithets we apply to the Middle Ages should really be reserved for the Renaissance.

The success of her first aim was almost a given, and the book does serve as a helpful resource for those looking for a quick and positive spin on the Middle Ages.  But as much as we might admire a lone knight sallying forth to slay a dragon, does she have any chance at bringing down the massive psychological support the West has given the Renaissance over the past centuries?

The planks of her argument:

1. For the first time in western history, European civilization during the Middle Ages eliminated slavery from the social structure.  Don’t you dare call serfs “slaves,” she asserts.  Serfs had many legal protections and rights from the Church and from the nobility.  Slavery returned in the Renaissance, when scholars revived Roman concepts of ownership.

2. Medieval culture embodied genuinely popular culture–the culture of the masses, of the tradesmen.  The great artistic achievements, like cathedrals, exemplify truly ‘popular’ achievements in this respect.  By contrast again, the Renaissance introduced aristocratic culture patronized by society’s elite, with only “the artists” fit to contribute.

3. Medieval art and the Gothic style, whatever its weaknesses, brought something original to human expression.  Whatever the merits of Renaissance art, they merely cut and pasted a dead image from Greece and Rome.  We falsely give the Renaissance credit for its supposed color and pageantry; while in reality “classical fanatics” during that period smashed the multi-colored stained glass windows and put clear panes in their place.

4. If you like weak central governments and local color, then you should like the Middle Ages.  The power of the king rested on a variety of contingencies.  During the Renaissance we see the centralization of the power of “The Prince,” and the beginnings of the road to absolutism practiced by Charles I and Louis XIV a century later.  Again, this was due to the pernicious influence of Roman ideas of power.

Does she succeed in this “great reversal?”  Well, at least she come close.  If the book has a weakness, it would be that it is too “French”–too assertive and dogmatic.  But, that is part of what makes it a fun read.



2 comments on “Regine Pernoud’s “Those Terrible Middle Ages!”

  1. […] in our ability to create something new and passive acceptance to what others already did for you.  Regine Pernoud made similar points in Those Terrible Middle Ages.  But there may be more to it, a renaissance may reflect something deeply wanting in the era in […]

  2. […] ability to create something new and the passive acceptance to what others already did for you.  Regine Pernoud made similar points in Those Terrible Middle Ages.  But there may be more to it; a renaissance may reflect something deeply lacking in the era in […]

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