The Strange Allure of the Middle Ages

Article excerpt

THE Middle Ages are back. With their stained-glass windows, haloed saints, hooded pilgrims, illuminated manuscripts and polished Excaliburs, they have never looked so chic. After the books and films comes Strange Landscape, a five-part series which began last night on BBC2 and goes out at peak viewing (that is, National Lottery) time. Presented by the excellent Christopher Frayling, it is both an expression and diagnosis of a dodgy cult: neo-medievalism.

Of course, the Middle Ages never really went away. In every century since the Renaissance they've been dug up, raked over, remade. One hundred years ago the Middle Ages - all blessed damozels and frizz-haired Guineveres - were in the keeping of the pre-Raphaelites. The seeds of the present cult were planted half a century ago by CS Lewis and JR Tolkien. Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou (1978) continued the growth. But the flowering was Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose. Now rock bands, teen comics and computer games have found that the surest way to attract a young audience is by giving themselves dungeon-and-dragons type names. The novels of Ellis Peters show there's no limit to what's hidden under a monk's habit. Even the Monty Python bunch have done their bit, Terry Gilliam with films like Jabberwocky, Time Bandit and The Fisher King, Terry Jones with a history of the Crusades.

What is this all about? Eco gave the wittiest answer when he said that "I know the present time only through the television screen, whereas of the Middle Ages I have a direct knowledge." We have a palpable awareness of the Middle Ages, he suggests, because we are living in or with its buildings (cathedrals, town squares) institutions (banks, universities, governments) and technological inventions (forks, furs, windmills, rudders, horse-shoes, compasses, keyboards, maths). The monuments of ancient Rome or Egypt we keep a respectful distance from, but the Middle Ages are all around.

The thesis shows how much has changed. Once, the Middle Agesused to be lumped in with the Dark Ages, but as the 20th century began to exploit the extensive medieval documentation that exists (10 times more than we have of the ancient world), so bright spires could be glimpsed poking from the shadow. Gradually distinctions were made not only between the Dark (400-1000) and Middle periods (1000-1450), but between the early medieval and the late, with the suggestion that the Renaissance was not a break from the Middle Ages but its fruition. The French historian Jacques le Goff proposed that the Middle Ages "endured from the 3rd century till the middle of the 19th", when the Industrial Revolution and mass democracy finally destroyed it. Now Eco has capped even this, arguing that the Middle Ages are the new world.

As the Middle Ages have become fashionable, so have medievalists. For much of this century they were considered the nerds of the history faculty. They were made to feel that whereas the Renaissance or Victorian periods were exciting, theirs was a backwater, the refuge of hapless characters like Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, whose specialist subject is "The Economic Influence of the Development of Shipbuilding Technique, 1450-1485".

Eco and Ladurie have changed all that. Enrolment in medieval studies programmes in the United States rose dramatically in the 1980s. Now even the humblest specialist will flamboyantly argue the connection between leprosy and Aids, or St Francis and the 1960s counterculture, or the erotic adventures of Peter Abelard and those of Henry Miller. In The Medieval Machine (1988), a book typical of the new tendency to present the Middle Ages as a dynamic period which introduced industry and technology into Europe "on a scale no civilisation had previously known", Jean Gimpel carries this to cranky limits with a list of 48 parallels between medieval France and 20th-century America, comparing Beauvais cathedral with the Empire State Building and the Cistercians with Henry Ford. …