Roman Britons after 410
Bear pit to zoo
Editor Simon Denison
Of all the periods in the past, the Middle Ages have come off worst. Centuries of British history have been reduced to a rubble of burning cakes, jousts, castles, monks, Robin Hood, Richard III declaiming, etc etc.
The thing has a life of its own - as anyone who has been to a Mediaeval Roast and tried to slip away to the loo has found. Never experienced it? Basically what happens is Ye Court Jester hauls you back and you have to go up to the top table and apply to Ye Master of Ceremonies for permission. Having tangled already with the serving wenches with demands for a vegetarian roast this meant in my case a spell in the stocks. Laugh? Ye plague would have been better.
The reason the period has become a joke must have something to do with those rather unfortunate clothes - jester's cap and bells, lace gowns, armour, monk's habits. Then there's Chaucer with his set of comic characters and Shakespeare with his cavalcade of unhinged kings.
Even when there is a good strong message - like that early anarcho-syndicalism in Sherwood Forest - it all turns silly with chubby churchmen, delectable maids and crazed sheriffs. Another problem is that a lot of people in the Middle Ages were really quite nice, but succeeding ages have much preferred the Borgias to the Bedes.
Rubbishing the medieval period started pretty well the minute it was over. For instance, the word 'trivial' started to be bandied about in the later 16th century knocking the trivium course, the three core planks of medieval philosophy - rhetoric, logic and grammar. But what archaeology has been doing in recent years for the period is far from trivial.
Industry for example is not normally associated with the Middle Ages. Yet excavations have shown that industrial activity then was interesting because of two things - one, medieval industry didn't follow a central blueprint as, for instance, Roman industry had done; and two, industry wasn't carried out on an inhuman scale, as it would be later.
Looking back from our present technological nightmare - which requires more inventions to solve the problems raised by the last lot - we can see that the Middle Ages possessed an industrial base where the energy that kept it going was being naturally replaced. This human-scale sustainable technology is seen by some today as an unachievable chimera, but it existed in Britain for far longer than the short period from the Industrial Revolution to today.
Out in the fields, there were cooperative systems where production was driven by the common good not the profit motive. Archaeology is showing that in many settlements, common fields overlay earlier ones. In other words existing ways of life were disrupted, presumably with the agreement of all, in order to serve better the purposes of rural society as a whole. Part of the plan was to impose new methods of passing on land use to posterity, so that the system would not be at risk. Amazing to think of a society where the good of future as well as present generations was considered.
Cooperative agriculture, longed for by Tolstoy and Gandhi and mocked as impossible by defra and the nfu, has already had an unrecognised half millennium run. It survived the Black Death and was only brought to its knees and destroyed by that bulwark of freedom, the British Parliament, through forced enclosures - a cruel education in the importance of ownership rather than stewardship.
On top of the land stood the superstructure of medieval society, with all its cathedrals and castles. Here too a far more dynamic picture is emerging. Archaeologists interpret medieval buildings so successfully because buildings of this period reflected their users - unlike in our society where buildings reflect their architects. This means it is possible not just to work out how buildings changed but also to guess why. So instead of a static, stage-set Middle Ages, a surprisingly creative environment is emerging.
But changing perceptions of Ye Mediaeval World is going to be a long job. Doubtless it will take time to narrow the light years of progress that are assumed today to separate the backwardness of the illuminated manuscript from the up2dateness of the txt mssage.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005