“The hearth excepted, the home of a prosperous peasant lacked these amenities [of the knight’s castle]. Lying at the end of a narrow, muddy lane, his rambling edifice of thatch, wattles, mud, and dirty brown wood was almost obscured by a towering dung heap in what, without it, would have been the front yard.” (William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire)
Sounds pretty bad! Actually, William Manchester makes life in medieval Europe sound worse than life in the tribes of New Guinea or the Philippines (with which I am acquainted). I’ve noticed that many historians do their best to make medieval men and women appear as barbarians, along with their religion, of course! And those were barbaric times but I’ve also come to appreciate the accomplishments of the medieval period. Their illustrated Gospels are beautiful! So too are their tapestries and, perhaps to a lesser extent, their paintings. And nothing compares with the Gothic cathedrals! And yet all of these great works of art and architecture were achieved anonymously. Medieval authors, artists, and builders did not usually assign their name to their work. When medieval writers do speak of themselves, it is beseeching God for favour. (J.A. Burrow, Medieval Writers and their Work) “Rhetoricians forbid a man to speak of himself, except on needful occasions…” said Dante, who introduces his epic poem with this short autobiography:
When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray. Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was, that savage forest, dense and difficult, which even in recall renews my fear: so bitter – death is hardly more severe!
Please, Dante says to a friend, sing me a song “to solace my soul somewhat; for – having journeyed here together with my body – it is weary.” Dante’s friend sings to him a song about the love of God. (Purgatorio – Canto II) And Dante’s poem is born.
One might argue that these great achievements of medieval culture were only enjoyed by the elite and that the peasants were condemned to toil in the fields like animals. I don’t know. Perhaps during some periods and in certain places. But judging by what I have seen of medieval dwellings in Germany, they didn’t live is such dire poverty. Medieval towns were full of skilled craftsmen and these skills were used not only in the service of the church to carve ornate altarpieces but also to build homes of exceptional quality. Some of these homes have been preserved at a museum near Detmold. The homes were of a simple layout. The barn was under the same roof as the living area, just as Manchester describes (disparagingly), but the quality of craftsmanship was superb. Their furniture was fitted together with mortise and tenon and dovetail. Their floors were made of heavy oak, planed smooth and polished. The large hearth at the center of the home made the place glow with warmth on a cold, dark night.
I wonder what a medieval person would think if he came to visit one of our homes? Our simple dress would make us appear like one of his house servants. The thin veneer that covers the pulp and glue core of our furniture would only serve to confirm his suspicions of our poverty. And our medieval guest, accustomed to seeing the wonders of the gospel story illuminated each Sunday morning in the slanting rays of the sun would be appalled at the arid vacuousness of our mega churches.
I know there is not a lot we can change about the circumstances we live in and, to some degree, how we build our houses and churches. But we don’t have to glory in our poverty either or rewrite history to suit a progressive agenda. In all likelihood, when the last history is written, our own soulless age will be declared the dark one. It doesn’t hurt to show a little humility.