Reading the History of the Middle Ages

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Despite warnings about reading today’s motives into people of the past, it’s impossible not to notice that people often, and in large numbers, still behave like them.

Reading European medieval history is rather like watching children, or some other cultural alien, at play; individuals may seem oddly familiar but their collective behaviour, beyond comprehension.

Studies of prehistory and evolution use what is known about today’s weather patterns, geology and zoology to recreate reasonable scenarios for the earth’s past, and how its animalia might have looked and behaved. The laws of nature and reality do not change in themselves, only in organisms’ adaptive phenomena. Why should this not be so in human history?

Apocalypse Now and Then

The Contender Ministries maintains that today the world is in the Biblical Apocalypse, or Doom.

They claim proof for this by the prevalence of war, famine, earthquake and ‘godlessness’, a quality that for the Ministry includes both ‘tolerance’ and ‘interfaith dialogue’. This is a moral position the most pious medieval would have recognized. Tolerance is intolerable to the fearful.

Communities of the Middle Ages saw themselves engaged in fierce and intimate struggles between good and evil, the rules and divisions of which were laid down by God and interpreted by the clergy. A Christian’s afterlife would be much longer than their life, and so was understandably the focus of much anticipation and anxiety.

They saw signs of the Doom all about them in their own particular wars, famines, plagues and ‘godlessness’. An individual could end up in Hell not only for committing their own sins but also for tolerating the sins of their neighbours. Their only weapons were scripture and the law, and they applied them somewhat indiscriminately to any possible evil.

Today the Wisconsin Society for Paranormal Investigation and Research suggests prayer, praise, personal testimony, the Word of God and the Blood of Jesus as weapons to fight the battles of this present apocalypse.

Animal Court Cases of the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages nobody was killed humanely. Men were disembowelled and left to die watching their own intestines wither in the dust before their failing eyes. Women and children were burnt alive for failing to attend their trials. Courts were concerned with applying a particular law and not with an individual’s understanding of that law.

Wild animals were not killed but Biblically cursed in ecclesiastical animal courts for their crimes against humanity. Cursing is a punishment arguably both pointless (are animals Christian?) and affectless (the animals showed no sign of actual blight). The curse was only meaningful to human beings. This notion occurred to some at the time, as did other modern objections like animals not understanding the idea of crime or punishment.

In addition, the period called the Dark Ages, through which early Christianity is supposed to have intellectually shrouded Europe, was not the period in which the domestic animal trials and executions flourished. They were most vigilantly pursued through the 1200s and into the 1800s, right through the beautiful Renaissance and into the rational Enlightenment, suggesting other cultural motives for such behaviour other then archaism.

Revenge Killing

Some medieval lawyers suggested revenge to be one of the reasons driving animal trials and executions. Throughout human history humans have taken revenge on each other, the already dead, the not yet born, glaciers, miasmas, statues, weather, the sea, wild swarms, mountains, pets, stock and books. Contemporaneously, although legal revenge-killing is not quite as accessible, we still try to avenge wrongs perpetrated upon us by inanimate objects (beating television sets, shouting at the internet) and animals —not to mention each other.

The ‘net abounds in images of animals hanged for various ‘crimes’. This article includes one ‘softened’ image. Human history repeats, the only difference in people’s behaviour being its frequency and its offshoot, social acceptance.

While people might desire a moral and intellectual progress in human history, in reality it seems to cycle through an inevitable set of moral positions and survival strategies. Some cycles are like spirals and do appear to move forward from the original position as with the pursuit of medicine and the sciences, both of which have had obvious effects for the communal good (among others not so good). Other cycles just seem to go round and round and the use of religious justifications for the perpetuation of what is merely a human habit of domination and oppression is one of these non-progressive cycles.