Book Review: Those Terrible Middle Ages

The Middle Ages is privileged material: one can say what one wants about it with the quasi-certitude of never being contradicted.

–Régine Pernoud

Book Review: Those Terrible Middle AgesNow the center of my studies on Catholic liturgical tradition, under my magnifying glass to determine what the phrase “Christian Culture” really means, the Age of Faith (a.k.a. Middle Ages) has become my obsession and object of envy. During the last few months I have read several books that have convinced me that everything I knew about them (which sadly wasn’t much) had been skewed and misrepresented. Of all the works I have lately read on this topic, the feisty prose of Régine Pernoud in Those Terrible Middle Ages!: Debunking the Myths is my absolute favorite.

This book really made me mad, as books that point out the errors of our modern thinking always make me mad at the culture I have been formed in.  Yes, folks, we have been lied to. The “Middle Ages” were a time of incredible art, rich cultural expression and solid tradition, and unparalleled freedom—especially for women!    Nine chapters in this book combat the errors of modern faux-scholarship on the great thousand years from the end of the Roman Empire to the oppressive return of Roman thought, Roman law, and Roman aesthetics in the 15th and 16th Centuries,  a revival that squashed the freedoms that Europeans had enjoyed for a millennium. (I can tell you, I am not a naïve, reflexive fan of the so-called “Renaissance” anymore!)

Here are some of the things I learned about the not-so-terrible Middle Ages:

  • Feudalism was a very good thing for everyone
  • Christianity eradicated slavery in Europe
  • Incredible works of art blossomed all over Europe because of the culture’s Faith
  • Women were influential, enjoyed property rights, etc., and were often highly educated
  • Scholarship and education were highly prized
  • The Church was “a source of social mobility”
  • And much, much more!

As a good historian, she closes her book with a call to reform the teaching of history. It’s tragic that we have been led into error on so many topics relating to the Middle Ages. Bias has produced some of this error, and Miss Pernoud stresses that lack of true, disciplined, diligent scholarship has produced the rest. The lack of quality in the teaching of history matters greatly to each successive generation: on the second to the last page she sums up her philosophy, “There is no true knowledge without recourse to history.”

Did you learn the truth about the Middle Ages? It’s never too late to patch the holes in your own education! Use this book for yourself or with your children to mend the errors of the popular narrative of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. You will enjoy learning the truth about the fascinating twists and turns of that great age of human history as related by a passionate historian, while she leads you through Those Terrible Middle Ages.


12 thoughts on “Book Review: Those Terrible Middle Ages

  1. Ive been dying to read this book. I love that your review is glowing. Wish more people could read stuff like this. Another great source for debunking these kinds of myths about the “dark ages” would be Sociologist Rodney Stark. Check out his book “For the Glory of God” and “The Triumph of Christianity”. Amazing stuff.

    • I bet you’ll love Miss Pernoud’s style. She is an opinionated, feisty writer! Her passion for her subject (and her passion for her academic discipline of history) is evident on every page. Whether or not you’re a historian, I know you’ll be inspired by her writing!

  2. What is “modern faux-scholarship” regarding this period of European history? As I recall, there is quite a lot of superb scholarship and has been for decades, on everything from public health (impact of nutrition, diseases, small pox, the plague) to the life and times of ordinary people by the Annalists from France. Montaillou is perhaps one of the best of that detailed, scholarly, and thoughtful pieces of scholarly work regarding the Church’s investigation of “hereticism” in a small village. And it’s worth reading.

    • Perhaps I should have used the phrase “quasi-scholarship” instead, to describe the tendency that the author saw of historians to select bits of data that can be used to support a desired popular prejudice, while at the same time ignoring the entire context of the place/times/circumstances which may actually give the lie to what the scholars attempt to “prove.” (N.B. This book was first published in 1977 in France; the forward of the English translation of the book published in 2000 by Ignatius Press acknowledges that progress has been made in scholarship since then.) Two of the things that Miss Pernoud suggested that scholars had ignored up to her time were most of the documents/primary sources relating to St. Louis the IX of France, and the vast majority of the writings of Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury who helped draft the Magna Carta. Not sufficiently taking works like these into account may present a different picture of the lives, times and customs of these people than is historically accurate.
      Near the end of Those Terrible Middle Ages the author writes, “There is a primary and decisive progress that needs to be made in what concerns the Middle Ages, which would be to admit that ‘those people’ were people like us; a humanity like our own, neither better nor worse, but before whom it is not enough to shrug one’s shoulders or smile condescendingly; one can study them as serenely as any other people.” For myself, I can say that I cannot think of any textbook, class, or popular history book that I have read that “studies the Middle Ages serenely.” Seemingly everyone has some sort of ax to grind–particularly reserving their vitriol to defame and denounce the Church–which is why reading this book was such a relief to me. I recommend it to all who are in the same position as I was–wanting to hear a voice that does not continually accuse this thousand years in European history as utterly backward, dark, unenlightened, and repressive.

  3. Pingback: The Truth This Time: On the Age of Faith | St. Catherine Catholic Culture Center

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