It sounds strange to say so because we think of that time as dark, a fallow period after the brilliant bloom of classical culture, a time of illiteracy and pestilence and scarcity, a time of abject devotion to a church that was busy a. burning people who questioned them, b. sending nobles (and anyone unfortunate enough to be attached to nobles) to fight silly, poorly defined wars in distant lands, and c. selling phony saints’ bones to raise funds for cathedrals that absorbed the lives and labors of uncredited craftsmen who considered themselves lucky not to be dead by 35.
What’s not to like?
But it wasn’t all bad, and some of the social good was impressive.
In the High Middle Ages, the serfs left the manors for towns with nearly 100% employment. Many of those jobs focused on high-minded civic projects like the cathedrals. Using the tools of the time, we would be challenged to recreate their decades of painstaking craftsmanship. For them, construction was more than a job. These buildings were emblems of faith and dedication.
By the end of the middle ages, the middle class was growing thanks to guilds, early pseudo-unions that trained and protected the livelihood of tradesmen and women. The guild offered support for injured workers and their families. Guilds also assured reliable products. The ratio of quality and cost was arguably the best in history. In the capitalism of the day, the church regarded excessive profit as sinful, so they set ceilings on the prices of goods. Try to sell a shoddy loaf of bread by filling it with air or using cheap, substandard materials, and you would wear that loaf around your neck as an emblem of your perfidy.
I’ve owned a few products I’d like manufacturers to wear around their necks.
If you want antibiotics or indoor toilets, medieval times aren’t for you, and it’s is a terrible era for women. But these towns aimed to nurture productive—if modest—lives according to their values. They acknowledged interdependence, and, if they accepted miserable lives in favor of faith in the afterlife, they also recognized the dubious joy of materialism.
But students laugh when I romanticize the consumer protection and social safety nets of the middle ages. This period seems boring in its emphasis on religion and work instead of excitement and pleasure. They hate the bread example. They are already well versed in the chief arguments of capitalism and find much to criticize in the guild economy. Progress relies on an open market, they say, one that rewards efficiency and innovation. What inducement might a baker have to develop better bread or unveil a whole new line of bakery products? To prove their point, they trot out a few famous inventors and businessmen who could not exist in the middle ages…like Bill Gates. “What about individualism?” they ask, “What about incentive? What about choice?”
I want to add, “What about greed?” …but don’t.
People in the middle ages traded liberty for security. In many ways, it was a terrible trade. The art seems anemic compared to the work of the Renaissance, when artists broke out of the narrow ruts of convention and sought to depict the natural world as it really is, with color and perspective and vivid life.
I’m nostalgic for the Renaissance too.
But I’m not naive—or a Marxist. I know the middle ages was, for many people, not really a great time to be alive. For some people, neither is our own time. I wonder sometimes why believing in the contemporary age—believing it the pinnacle of civilization—has to mean vilifying the past. I don’t want all of the middle ages back again, but even in the enlightened year of 2012, couldn’t we use just a little medieval self-restraint, a little medieval capitalism, a little medieval mutual support?