Over half a millennium after the close of the Middle Ages, the period continues to exercise a unique emotive power over Western culture. Our attitude is ambivalent but never detached. A governmental system we dislike is termed “medieval, ” yet we continue to be drawn to tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood. We consider the Middle Ages a barbaric time, yet they furnish some of our most enduring icons: the knight in shining armor, the idealized noble lady, the king upon his throne. The Middle Ages somehow remain with us in a way that other historical periods do not.
Our interest in things medieval is not an idle fancy. In many respects, the Middle Ages represent the point of origin of modern Western culture. They began with the confluence of three distinct cultural strands: the classical civilization of imperial Rome, the barbarian culture of the Germanic tribes in the north, and the near-eastern traditions imported into Europe with the advent of Christianity. Further back, we find the elements of modern Western culture only in fragmentary form, but in the Middle Ages all the main pieces come into place. The medieval world is at times alien and remote, yet it always resonates within us.
Of course, fascination and understanding are two quite different things. The sorts of images of the medieval world that abound in popular culture prove that our perception of the Middle Ages is mythic rather than historical. The transition from popular stereotypes of the Middle Ages to a real understanding of the period is not easy to make, and the difficulty is aggravated by a shortage of introductory information. There