Medieval is a rather abused word, often being used to cover everything from the fall of the Roman Empire to…well, gosh only knows. People commonly mash it at least with the Renaissance, which comes with it a healthy sense of irony as Renaissance thinkers very actively separated themselves from medieval culture. The Renaissance was the rebirth of Greek and Roman culture after the long Dark Age (their term) or what we now call the Middle Ages, a.k.a. the Medieval period.
Read more: Defining the Middle Ages
Why Do I Care?
Once you get past high school, history is no longer simple memorization. History is cause and effect, and in order to understand that, you need to know when and where things were taking place. There is a habit of negative things being considered medieval and positive things being considered Renaissance (or later), which just emphasizes the fallacy of the “Dark Ages,” which weren’t really quite a dark as people think.
But…you can’t expect us to understand all this. We’re not all historians. Very true, you’re not historians. But I commonly see this stuff in, for example, fiction. If you’re going to write historical fiction, research the history. Understand your setting. Giving a medieval woman a ball gown is like giving Harry Potter a ray gun.
I’m not quibbling over a handful of years. Confusing the 13th and 15th centuries is like thinking we bombed Hiroshima in the American Revolutionary War. No one would call that “close enough.”
And, no, I don’t expect the average person to know the difference between the 13th and 15th centuries. I do, however, expect people who talk about them to know it.
Do I applaud them for outing their own historical absurdity? Does that make it better or worse? I’m so confused.
So what didn’t happen in the Middle Ages?
Corsets are Renaissance fashion. They aren’t even terribly early Renaissance fashion. Medieval gowns were much more simple and far less restricting.
Moreover, Renaissance corsets were a thing of the nobility. The local bar wench was not wearing a corset. Corsets are restrictive. They aren’t just about making you look skinny. They’re about how your lifestyle allows you to wear increasingly restrictive clothing. The idea of everyone wearing them didn’t come about until the 19th century, and a working-class corset bore little resemblance to that worn by the wealthy.
Chastity Belts are largely a thing of fiction. What few examples we have come from later times, and even then they’re rare.
Thanks to TV and movies, few royal families are as well-known as the Tudors, which most notably produced Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. They are not medieval. By no one’s count are they medieval. Henry’s reign is very arguably the beginning of the Renaissance in England (although Italy’s been going at it for 200 years), but we’re 50 years in by the time Elizabeth comes to the throne and, yet, I regularly see the Elizabethan Age described as medieval. Nowhere close.
Life Being Nasty, Brutish and Short
The phrase describing life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” comes from Thomas Hobbes, who wrote in the 17th century. He wasn’t describing medieval society, but instead how he expected the life of humanity to be without the order of civilization. And, yet, again and again people use it to describe history in general and frequently the Middle Ages in particular.
The Middle Ages can span from as far as 500 to 1500CE. Different places at different times certainly faced great hardship, but that is also certainly not the case for the entire period, at least in comparison to any other time period.
It is true that life expectancy was about 35 years, but that’s the same for pretty much everywhere at all times until sanitation improvements in the 19th century. Moreover, life expectancy is not a prediction of when you’re likely to drop over dead. It’s an average of ages at death. Until the 19th century, half of children died before reaching adulthood, and a great many died in the first few years of life. Every age of 0 allows someone to live to 70 and average a 35. Plenty of people lived until their 50s and 60s, and lots and lots of children died.
The Middle Ages is full of superstition and lack of education, so something as ludicrous as the murder of 30,000 people thought to be cursing the countryside must be medieval, right?
Wrong. The vast majority of witch trials occurred between the late 15th century and the mid-17th century. That’s Renaissance. The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 are practically in the Age of Enlightenment.
The Spanish Inquisition
In 1492, Spain demanded all Jews and Muslims convert to Christianity or leave. They were perfectly welcome to leave. The Spanish Inquisition investigated those who might not have been sincere in their conversions and were still secretly practicing their traditional faith.
Nowadays, everyone just thinks of the Spanish Inquisition as something no one expects. Thanks, Monty Python.
Avoidance of Bathing
There’s a long-running misconception that medieval people were inherently dirty and refused to wash. It is true that the Church tried limiting things like bathhouses, particularly non-gender-segregated bathhouses, but you don’t have to limit things if no one is wanting to do them. And that doesn’t limit taking baths.
Most of the tales of unhygienic behavior actually come from…wait for it….the Renaissance or later. It came to be thought that bathing opened up the pores which allowed in disease, particularly plague. As such, many people limited at least full bathing. For more, you might check out Bathing: A History. (offsite)
How common is this fallacy of the dirty Middle Ages? When looking for more information on the topic, Why Bathing Was Uncommon in Medieval Europe was the first page I found. Here you find such gems as:
According to one medical treaty of the 16th century, “Water baths warm the body, but weaken the organism and widen pores. That’s why they can be dangerous and cause different diseases, even death.”
Very true, but the 16th century is not medieval. Also:
As one Russian ambassador to France noted “His Majesty [Louis XIV] stunk like a wild animal.” Russians were not so finicky about bathing and tended to bathe fairly regularly, relatively speaking, generally at least once a month. Because of this, they were considered perverts by many Europeans. King Louis XIV stench came from the fact that his physicians advised him to bathe as infrequently as possible to maintain good health.
Louis XIV is 18th century. Come on, you’re not even trying.
The Black Death, which is western Europe’s first encounter with plague, kills about 1/3 of the population, or about 25 million people, between 1347 and 1350. That date is a murky one: Italy has embraced Renaissance ideas by then, but most of Europe has not. It’s a time period sometimes call the Late Middle Ages. But the plague continued to strike for four centuries, which is all the way through the Renaissance and encroaching into the Age of Enlightenment.