Past the Medieval Horizon — with Ian Mortimer

Past the Medieval Horizon — with Ian Mortimer
A 1450 CE altar frontal by Antonio Sadurni of Barcelona, Spain, depicting the legend of St. George. (Photo by: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Ian Mortimer is frustrated. The historian and author of “Medieval Horizons: Why the Middle Ages Matter” says the problem is that most people seem to think they don’t. 

“You realize how little people know about the world around them,” Mortimer tells New Lines magazine’s Lydia Wilson. “They tend to make judgments based on the world as it is today.”

But that tells you only half the story. “If you’ve got the perspective of a thousand years or more, you realize that actually we don’t get a very good picture of humanity by just looking at ourselves as we are today. You get a much fuller picture by looking at the past.”

That would be a lot easier if we didn’t tend to think that we know that picture already. 

“We already have set preconceptions on the Middle Ages,” he says. “Okay, let’s scrub everything we know.”

In other words, forget everything that comes to mind when you hear the word medieval. Forget the associations with ignorance, violence and superstition. You could even, Mortimer suggests, forget the word itself. 

“The labels we put on these things don’t matter. These are all modern constructs,” he points out. “The more we overlay the past with these constructs, we’re actually putting barriers to our understanding — and looking at the Middle Ages shows you how we could live in very different circumstances and yet thrive and survive.”

“We don’t get a very good picture of humanity by just looking at ourselves as we are today. You get a much fuller picture by looking at the past.”

Looking at it that way recontextualizes the usual stereotype of medieval people as violent and warlike. Our imaginary version of the period is dominated by glorified warrior figures like knights, vikings and conquering queens. Mortimer points out that this glorification was not unreasonable in a time without a strong central authority or democratic institutions to manage conflict. “They can’t avoid war. It’s a feature of everyday life. War is normal, and therefore to be good at war is a good thing, and by implication, great warriors are great people.”

It was over the course of the Middle Ages that that began to change. But, Mortimer warns, it would be a mistake to view this as a matter of straightforward progress. The long view of history shows that the basic coercive logic of the Medieval world is quite alive in our own societies.

“If you only count enacted violence, yes, we’ve got much more peaceful,” he says. “But what we’ve done is taken the real violence and created these threats, which are so powerful that we use them less and less — the ultimate being, of course, nuclear weapons.”

“So I think in the big scheme of things, since the Middle Ages, we have created a lot more potential violence and just locked it up for future generations to unleash.”

Produced by Joshua Martin

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