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Did modernity spring from the Middle Ages?

TV’s Medieval Season reminds us that, from the Middle Ages to the Daily Mail Age, the battle between Reason and Superstition never ends.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

I knew BBC4’s Inside The Medieval Mind was going to be interesting when the Daily Mail preview pronounced that the programme would ‘remind us of the danger of modern scientific arrogance’.

The Mail has long been a propagator of anti-scientific and anti-modern hysterical polemics, providing its witless readers with an endless diet of health panics and stories about how we are all going to die thanks to telephone masts, GM crops, food additives, an excess of vitamin tablets, or what-have-you. It may be referred to as the ‘Bible of Middle England’, but the Mail should more accurately be called the ‘Bible of Middle Ages England’, such is its unrelenting and hypocritical opposition to scientific progress: show me a typical Mail reader whose life has been saved by a surgeon or a doctor – those ‘arrogant’ professionals who ‘meddle with nature’ – and I’ll show you a hypocrite.

It is, of course, easy to say that you think the Daily Mail is ridiculous. To be honest, I tend to be sceptical of those who do so. Mail-bashing is so obvious and so unoriginal, and it is especially annoying when people give the impression that they are the first to have discovered the nonsense contained within its pages. Like expressing objection to ‘the Murdoch press’, cussing the Mail is a predictable ritual, even a rite of passage. It is a method of ingratiating oneself at dinner parties amongst strangers who, one assumes, will be correct-minded Guardian readers.

Mocking the Mail comes just after the obligatory, utterly hackneyed observation that George W Bush is unable to speak properly, and before the mandatory lament that Labour aren’t really left-wing anymore. Ironically, the said dinner party will also conclude with dire apocalyptic prognostications that we’re all going to die soon – only, in this case, the culprits are biofuels, ‘carbon footprints’, ‘Chelsea tractors’, ‘unsustainable lifestyles’, ‘corporate greed’, budget airlines, plastic bags, Jeremy Clarkson, the Chinese, etc, and – yes, yes, I know, it’s all his fault – George W Bush (who can’t speak properly, I am reliably informed).

Anyhow, I digress. The latest instalment of BBC4’s ‘medieval season’, Inside the Medieval Mind (Thursday), was a fine piece of television history telling (1). The opening show of the season last week, In Search of Medieval Britain, had been judicious, but rather dull (2). It neither excoriated nor romanticised the Middle Ages, but its presenter Dr Alixe Bovey had a somewhat plodding and uninterested demeanour to her. It also revealed little about the people of medieval Britain, and too much about church architecture.

In the first of a four-part series, Inside The Medieval Mind was equally non-partisan, but promised, and proved, to be a vastly superior production. Its presenter Professor Robert Bartlett is neither a celebrity nor what you would exactly call ‘eye-candy’. He is merely someone who has a passion for his subject, a passion that translates well to the screen. These are the kind of presenters BBC4 should be employing. Part of the BBC4 season earlier this week included an assessment of the myth of Robin Hood – as presented by that well-known expert on the Middle Ages, Jonathan Ross, a man who has cultivated a career by talking principally about Hollywood and masturbation.

Much of this first instalment centred on the age-old conflict between science and superstition, which, Bartlett argued, reached its tipping point in the late-Middle Ages. Previously, the medieval mind had perceived the two to be compatible: while scholars perceived eclipses of the Sun to be divine omens, many had also simultaneously concluded that they were caused by the Moon getting in the way of the Sun. ‘Physical laws and divine agency were yet to quarrel’, said Bartlett.

But, as Bartlett explained, fissure and conflict between the two were beginning to arise, and Bartlett was not as audacious as to suggest that the epoch witnessed a proto-Enlightenment in itself – merely that modernity’s germination lay here. There was a belief in beings called ‘Dog-heads’, half-men, half-canine, who were never actually seen, but were assumed to reside in China. When Europeans began venturing to the East and found none there, belief in their existence began to subside. There concomitantly arose a debate about whether ‘Dog-heads’ were beasts or men – the theological consensus arose that because Dog-heads covered up their genitalia (as represented in pictures) they were capable of exercising moral judgment, and thus had souls. Medieval Europeans were thus aroused as to the quandaries that we agonise over today: What is free will? What does it mean to be human?

The era witnessed in Europe the re-discovery of Aristotle and the rise of Scholasticism – which broadly suggested that Reason was a gift from God – which unearthed its own contradictions. St Thomas Aquinas forlornly could not resolve the contradiction between his belief in God and his faith in reason – a contradiction that the French philosophes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries approached and attacked with far more intellectual courage and honesty – and he concluded that the existence of a Creator could not be proved or disproved. This is perhaps the oldest, most fallacious argument in human history. It’s akin to arguing: ‘How can you prove there are not fairies at the end of your garden?’ It is an unverifiable, irrefutable argument. In other words, this line of thought is, quite literally, irrational.

Inside The Medieval Mind was not without its shortcomings. I was waiting for the token, customary spiel about the Arabs being very clever in the Middle Ages, and being responsible for inventing loads of things, and generally being brighter and more tolerant than Christian Europe. And duly it came. Alchemy, alcohol, and lots of other words beginning with ‘al-’: the Arabs invented, or were experts in, them all, we were reminded. And just as predictably, there was nothing about Christians and Jews being treated as second-class citizens in Arab-held territory, or how they had to pay extra taxes, or how, while the Arabs made great contributions in the fields of science and mathematics, their contribution to moral philosophy, ethics and metaphysics was bugger all.

Right on cue, there then came the dreaded and obligatory ‘what the ancients did for us’ segment, at which the BBC excels. Roger Bacon, it was argued, envisaged the motorcar, having written about a carriage that needed no horse for propulsion. I’m surprised Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t roped in here, what with his alleged invention of heavier-than-air flight. Why does having the notion that something could exist, or of drawing a picture of it, constitute actually inventing it? By the same criteria, one would contend that HG Wells invented time travel, and that Jules Verne was responsible for the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.

Still, Inside The Medieval Mind did exactly what it said on the tin. It revealed the mental conflicts that this era threw up, and it did what all good history does: it made you reflect on the present. It illustrated how reason and superstition can perversely cohabit in a state of cognitive dissonance. And, yes, Daily Mail readers, I’m talking about you.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

Episode 1 of Inside The Medieval Mind is repeated on BBC4 on Sunday at 7pm. To watch the introduction to this programme, click here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) The Medieval Season, BBC

(2) See Back to the Dark Age, by Patrick West

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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