The "Middle Ages" are the time, in popular imagination, when the Church dominated European life. Part of the bad rap on "the Church" stems directly from the Reformation, more directly from the Reformed movement than from the Lutheran side of the Reformation. But a great deal of the image of the "Dark Ages" comes from the Enlightenment, and yet stems from the same root as the disparagement of the Roman church by the reformers. Both disparagements continue to this day, but that's the way history works, isn't it?
I've told the story before, about the lawyer who came to the car wreck I was a party to, and told me I couldn't have the tow truck driver move my car until the police arrived. She (the lawyer) was much younger than me, so I'm confident in saying I left the practice of law before she entered law school (or probably high school, for that matter). I was also old enough to remember when car insurance went from adjudging liability to "no fault," and when police officers went from detailed analysis and records of an accident as if it were a CSI crime scene, to simply getting names and proof of insurance and giving everyone an accident report number to give to their respective insurance agents. I knew the police wanted the cars out of the traffic. They weren't going to be drawing diagrams of the collision, much less dusting the scene for air bag powder residue. She, however, working in an area of law far outside her skill set (who keeps a personal injury lawyer on speed dial?), knew not what she'd learned in law school, but what "everybody knows." She knew history, but not very well.
That is an example of how we all "know" history; especially when we don't. Let's apply that to medieval torture devices, which we are all sure are both historically accurate, and reflective of an absolutely historical indifference to human suffering once upon a time (yes, I'm looking at you, Stephen Pinker!):
And what strikes us most in considering the mediaeval tortures, is not so much their diabolical barbarity, which it is indeed impossible to exaggerate, as the extraordinary variety, and what may have be termed the artistic skill, they displayed. They represent a condition of thought in which men had pondered long and carefully on all the forms of suffering, had compared and combined different kinds of torture, till they had become the most consummate masters of their art, had expended on the subject all the resources of the utmost ingenuity, and had pursued it with the ardour of a passion.Only one problem with that assessment, and it's a doozy:
However, when one takes a close look at books like these, it soon becomes obvious that very little of the tortures they describe took place in the Middle Ages. Instead, they recount various events from the 17th to 19th centuries, with perhaps a few anecdotes from previous eras (and in some recent books, noting the use of modern tactics like waterboarding). The authors will mention various torture devices, and usually add in some statement that while we first hear about it in the 17th century, it was ‘undoubtedly’ or ‘would have been’ also seen in medieval times.
The "Pear of Anguish, for example, doesn't appear until the 17th century, and seems actually to have been an early form of a speculum. It was too weak in design or construction to inflict unendurable pain, but instead designed as a medical aid. The infamous "Iron Maiden" doesn't appear in Europe until the 18th century, where the mention of it is what we could reliably call today "fake news." It was invented out of whole cloth, in other words, during the "Enlightenment," with pretty much the purpose of proving how superior to "them" "we" are today. Or they were, since we are a different set of people 3 centuries later; or maybe not so different, after all. As Eric Weiskott sensibly puts it:
Take it from a professor of medieval literature: calling things you don’t like ‘medieval’ is inaccurate and unhelpful. It’s inaccurate, because we don’t live in the Middle Ages. The things that most anger, disgust, or offend us are relatively new in the grand scheme of history. And it’s unhelpful, because the ‘medieval’ label reinforces our overconfidence in ourselves and our modernity. That attitude goes all the way back to the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Not coincidentally, the Enlightenment is the movement that cemented the idea of the Middle Ages as a distinctive—and distinctly regrettable—period of European history, spanning roughly the 5th to the 15th centuries.I'm not trying to denigrate the Enlightenment (pace, Pinker!) to say it dabbled in mythology as great as any urged against medieval Europe, but to point out humans are humans, and one of our strongest and most misguided efforts is to denigrate some group, in history or ethnicity, in order to make ourselves feel better, if not superior. And this presents me with a thesis for another day, but one I've been mulling over for some time, just looking for the right context to present it in. That context could be this:
If things seem especially precarious lately in Europe and the Anglosphere, it’s because our high opinion of ourselves, which we inherit from the Enlightenment, has been bumping up against reality, in ever more painfully obvious ways. No wonder. Perfect confidence in the legacy of Enlightenment achievements is impossible to reconcile with their worst consequences: colonialism, racism, economic domination, climate catastrophe. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a return to the Middle Ages. But an ideology of inevitable progress is always going to make enemies for itself wherever ‘progress’ is experienced, instead, as violence.
Or where "progress" doesn't seem to be solving all our problems for us. The modern spiritual dilemma seems to be the "problem of suffering," a "problem" itself that comes from 18th century Europe (and suffuses 19th century Europe, in Romantic anguish that moves to post-modern angst). It was Leibniz, after all, who gave us the concept of "theodicy," the question of God's justice, the issue upon which Voltaire broke after the earthquake in Lisbon (but oddly enough, humanity's predilections to be violent and, well, overall "human," did not cause Swift to renounce his priestly vocation. Gulliver's Travels, by the end, makes Candide look like a children's fable. Interesting, that.) Today we despair because God will not save us from ourselves, and nothing else, not politics or ideology or elected officials or Academy Awards, will either. (Spike Lee is entitled to his opinions and reactions to an industry he works in, but honestly the brouhaha over the awards for the last several years, culminating in the show last night and who won and who lost, is downright comical. First world problems, indeed.) I'm intrigued by this modern idea that avoiding suffering is the raison d'etre of human existence and the summa of the "good life." It's always "my" suffering that is most important, for one thing; and then how we define suffering (chronic pain; childhood trauma; inconvenience?), that are not subject to much examination. The suffering is the thing! And we will not have it! O, why must we suffer so?
For the same reason MPAAS voters won't vote the way we want them to?
I'm making light of a serious topic now, and at some point I'll reflect more seriously on this question of suffering. But for now, I'd wish that we looked a little more plainly at ourselves, and consider that the mirror we need to be looking into, is the one that reflects us back at ourselves:
In the end, it is both more accurate and more rhetorically effective to admit that the bad things around us belong to the same history as the good things. Mass incarceration, the scientific method, terrorism, the automobile, fascism: these are irreducibly modern responses to modern conditions. No person, event, or movement can take us back to the Middle Ages, because history only points in one direction. We can learn much from the violence of the past, but not by wishing away the violence of the present.We have met the enemy, and he is us. No wonder we want to run away.