Posted by: CeCe | February 3, 2012

What’s popular isn’t always true part 2

Ask most people which pivotal events shaped the Middle Ages, and you’ll receive a list that includes the Inquisition, the trials of Giordano Bruno and Galileo, the witch hunts, the Crusades, and the Black Plague.  They also may mention that the governing authorities taught (and enforced) the idea that the Earth was flat (unless they read part 1 of this post, located here).  But how much of this actually took place during the Middle Ages?  Truth be told, some of it.  But other events actually took place during the Renaissance and even during the Enlightenment period!

Let’s start with the Black Plague.  Yes, the worst outbreak of the Black Plague did occur during the Middle Ages.  It devastated Europe between 1348 and 1350, and is thought to have reduced the population by up to half.  The years in which this occurred is important.  Why?  Well, how many of you have been told that the Black Plague was caused in part by the lack of cats, due to the Inquisitions and witch hunts, which everyone knows killed millions of women accused of witchcraft, along with their cats, whom they thought were the “witches'” familiars?

Impossible.  Why?  Two reasons:

When most people refer to the Inquisition, they are referring to either the Spanish Inquisition, which began under King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile in 1480, or the Roman Inquisition, which began in the second half of the 16th century.  By most historians’ standards, the Middle Ages ended with the invention of the printing press, which was in around 1440.  What this means is that both the Spanish Inquisition and the Roman Inquisition began during the Renaissance period, not during the Middle Ages.  And no, they did not target women during the Inquisitions; they applied only to Catholics, at first, though eventually the expulsion of Muslims and Jews was included in it.  Even if they had targeted women, however, it would not have had any effect on the spread of the Black Plague, which occurred nearly a century prior to the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition, and nearly two centuries prior to the beginning of the Roman Inquisition.  The Medieval Inquisition predates the 14th century outbreak of the Black Plague, but it was founded to address the heretical teachings of groups such as the Cathars and the Waldensians, not to hunt “witches”.

In fact, it may surprise some, but it was actually considered heresy to acknowledge the existence of witches throughout the Middle Ages.  There were, perhaps, isolated incidences of people hunting “witches”, but for the most part, people did not believe in them.  This changed in 1484, when Pope Innocent II issued the  Summis desiderantes affectibus, which allowed for the organization of witch trials, which led to the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1487.  Please note the years; it was after the Middle Ages ended, and after the Renaissance began.  And the witch hunts actually went on clear until the end of the 18th century; the last recorded trial was in 1783.

The Crusades began in 1095, and were a response to aggression from the Turks.  The mission of the first Crusade was twofold: To defend the Eastern Christians from the invading Turks, and to retake Jerusalem.  There are some who believe that initially, the Crusades were defensive, rather than offensive, and were actually justified.  That isn’t to say that there weren’t some atrocities committed during the Crusades; there were.  But perhaps the truth isn’t always black and white.  This is especially true when it comes to history.  Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Muslims see the Crusades as western aggression, which of course contradicts the idea that the Crusades were defensive, rather than offensive.  I don’t think anyone knows which is true; my opinion is that the truth is probably somewhere in between.

But surely, surely Giordano Bruno and Galileo were both tried and persecuted during the Middle Ages, yes?  No.  Giordano Bruno was born in 1548, and was executed in 1600.  Galileo was born in 1564, and died (while under house arrest) in 1642.  Both were during the Renaissance.  And the trial of Galileo also was not what many people think it was, but we’ll cover that in part three.

The truth is, only some of what we are led to believe about the Middle Ages is true.  Sure, technology wasn’t as advanced then as it is now, and sure, education was not as easily accessed.  However, there is much more to the Middle Ages than what most of us were taught in school.  Universities were founded, breathtaking architectural masterpieces (such as Notre Dame cathedral and Burg Eltz found here) were built, and valuable pieces of art were created.  The Middle Ages saw such amazing composers as Hildegard von Bingen (listen here), Perotin (listen here), Guillaume Machaut (listen here), and many, many others.  Some of the best literature ever composed, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, were written during the Middle Ages.  Philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Roger Bacon, Boetius, Francis of Assisi, Maimonides, and William of Ockham (known as the originator of Occam’s Razor) all thrived during the Middle Ages.

My point is, people seem to think of the Middle Ages as having been an era full of ignorance and all forms of atrocities.  Some of the most famous quotes regarding the Middle Ages refer to them as having been a time in which religion had a chokehold on any form of thought which could have led to any semblance of progress.  But the truth is, ignorance can find a foothold anywhere, any time, even in “enlightened” periods such as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment period, and even now, while enlightenment can be found even in periods of so-called ignorance.  It is all too easy to dismiss a period as being “ignorant” and worth our derision, but we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we did, I think.



  1. […] What’s popular isn’t always true part 2 ( […]

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