Thursday, November 4, 2010

Through a Glass, Darkly: Modern Misconceptions of Medieval Reality

A friend and I share a joke together whenever we see modern depictions of the Middle Ages, in movies or Renaissance Faires, for example, and we find somebody eating potatoes and turkey legs. Of course both turkey and potatoes came to Europe from America during the Early Modern period. However, the turkey leg and potato seem to be the official foods used to conjure up images of good medieval eating by modern people. Consider The Lord of the Rings, set in medieval Europe’s doppelganger, in which Sam declares to Gollum that a brace of coneys should be eaten with potatoes, and a giant turkey floats past Merry and Pippin after the flooding of Isengard. Apparently Medieval Times, the dinner theater/tournament franchise, serves potatoes alongside its roasted chickens and spareribs. It is easy to be amused by people making this mistake because these foods clearly would not have actually existed in medieval Europe.

However, the past few weeks of class readings have demonstrated that the medieval existence of animals that we consider commonplace in most areas of Europe is not a foregone conclusion. We have looked at a debate over whether rats were in all parts of Europe. We have seen that rabbits were not introduced into England until ca. the 12th century, and it is the same for some types of fish. We now have seen multiple discussions about physical changes of dogs, horses, and other animals from then ‘til now. And we have also read an article that shows messenger pigeons were not used in medieval Europe until after the practice was re-introduced through contact with the Saracens during the Crusades.

With the exception of the fish, and the fact that rats do indeed seem to conform to our stereotypes after all, I had not really considered the fact that so many aspects of the animals in use during the Middle Ages had changed. We already have discussed the problem of our perceptions of the time being formed by depictions of the Romantic Middle Ages, filled with questing knights, damsels (in distress or otherwise), and the occasional dragon, but little historical accuracy. Another source of the inaccurate perception comes from the typical problem of people viewing the Middle Ages as a stagnant time, when nobody innovated anything, progress was unthinkable, and nearly everybody lived on a subsistence diet in a mud hut while a tiny group spent their time in big castles feasting (on turkey legs). But all of the examples we have seen of changing husbandry techniques, humans moving animals about, and breeding for specific purposes, show us just how successfully medieval people were able to use animals and, perhaps even more interesting, that people in the Middle Ages were very able to influence and change nature to their own advantage.

I think that this is important to remark upon because it highlights some of the problems that we have as modern people looking back at a time that has been distorted by both romance and disgust. Animals then are not the same animals that we have now, although they are certainly related. Perhaps the most important thing that I have taken away from the discussions about these changes is the fact that I cannot assume that just because something seems commonplace or symbolic of things medieval to me does not mean that it actually was so in the Middle Ages.


  1. This was an important point to bring up, as it often seems that the Middle Ages, more so than other periods, tends to be excessively colored by contemporary valences and outright misconceptions (turkey legs and the like). Reading your post I was reminded of Mark Twain's criticism of the antebellum South's co-opting of overblown representations of chivalry appearing in Romantic literature, particularly in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. While Twain was less concerned with getting the Middle Ages "right" than he was with confronting sociopolitical problems in his world, he did care about the dangers that can arise from romanticizing the past. It's no small coincidence then that the steamer that sinks in the Mississippi in Huckleberry Finn is called The Sir Walter Scott.


  2. Excellent point! Isn't it amazing how hard it is to convince people that history did not come to a halt in AD 476 only to be picked up again in AD 1492? I blame Washington Irving far more than Sir Walter, however. Irving is directly responsible for a number of the myths with which Americans are burdened, including the perennial "flat earth" theory. Scott, on the other hand, is responsible not only for our current versions of Robin Hood and Richard II, but also for the observation that once Anglo-Saxon animals become food, they are Frenchified.


  3. DCE: I too was thinking about Twain when I wrote this. I think his criticisms of the romanticism surrounding the Middle Ages (in the South) also helped create new myths. Of course Twain was hostile to Scott because of the influence of Ivanhoe (as he saw it) on rich Southerner's view of themselves. He thought that the Southern aristocracy was trying to create a new Middle Age without realizing that Ivanhoe was the romanticized version of it. However, Twains' own novel critical of the idealized Middle Ages, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, has become one of the main sources for new movies and other adaptations set in the Middle Ages.

    I'd also like to say that I'm not entirely hostile to the romantic view of the Middle Ages. I love fantasy fiction and I don't expect its settings to be historically accurate. In fact it sometimes benefits from additions that are not accurate at all. However, when doing history I think it is very important that we remember that historians are as susceptible to the romance as everybody else. We have to consciously separate the myth from the reality.