There’s something about the word “medieval” which makes some people behave very strangely. As Professor David Paton recently noted on the Catholic Herald website, GCSE textbooks are still repeating depressingly common misconceptions about the Middle Ages, painting it as a time of darkness, ignorance and superstition.
The BBC Bitesize website, for instance, informs students that in the medieval period “most peasants were extremely superstitious”, and that the medieval Church was responsible for “stagnation” in medical knowledge, mostly because of “its encouragement of prayer and superstition”. Supposedly the Church “discouraged progress” in science, “encouraging people to rely on prayers to the saints and superstition”, and telling people that “disease was a punishment from God”, a belief which “led to fatalism and prevented investigation into cures”.
This is a slanted and inaccurate picture of medieval learning, and the Bitesize website is not as exceptional as one might hope. An AQA-approved history textbook groups “superstition and religion” as a single phenomenon. A popular website, revisegcsehistory.co.uk, claims: “Doctors had superstitious beliefs, saying magical words when treating patients and consulting stars.”
These sources treat the word “superstition” as if it were the key to understanding medieval history, without even attempting to define it. It’s a term commonly associated with the Middle Ages in popular culture, though many people who use it in that context seem to have only the vaguest sense of what they mean by it; often it’s just used as a synonym for “religion”. Like the use of the word “medieval” to mean “barbaric” or “primitive”, it is deeply unfair to the 1,000-year period we call the Middle Ages, in all its variety, creativity and diversity.
This snobbery about the medieval period goes back a long way, to the Renaissance thinkers who invented the very idea of the Middle Ages – a time they chose to see as a gulf of ignorance dividing their modern world from the classical past. But the language of “superstition” to describe medieval religion is especially reminiscent of a certain type of 19th-century British historian who saw Catholicism as a suspicious foreign religion, fit only for ignorant, childish peasants. This prejudice meant they were prepared to believe almost any myth about the medieval Church.
Though the serious study of the Middle Ages moved on from these views decades ago, in recent years the old clichés have fallen into the hands of aggressive internet atheists, who regurgitate stereotypes originally born of anti-Catholic bigotry. The prejudiced Victorian historian and the Twitter troll find common cause here. It’s ironic that it’s often the people who are most ready to label the Middle Ages credulous who eagerly swallow long-debunked myths about medieval history.
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