Medieval minds

Thursday 17 April 2008

Modern man would be astounded by the silence and smell of society in the Middle Ages if catapulted back in time, according to a leading medieval historian.

Professor Robert Bartlett, of the University of St Andrews, will compare and contrast modern and medieval Britain in a new television series at the heart of BBC Four’s season on the Middle Ages.  “Inside the Medieval Mind” will delve into the intellectual landscape of the medieval world in four hour-long documentaries in an attempt to understand the mentality and the outlook of people who lived in the Middle Ages.

The series will reveal medieval man’s fascination with the supernatural, approach to sex and courtly romance, the stringent class system, and understanding of the world through four programmes entitled Knowledge, Sex, Belief and Power.

Professor Bartlett, of the University’s School of History, explained, “The period is important because it is the foundation of our world now and, because it is strange and different, it encourages us to use our imaginations.

“In many ways these were people very much like us, in terms of family, ambitions for children and the world of emotions. On the other hand, they inhabited a very different world, in which it was believed the dead visited the living, and where somewhere there lived a race of people with the heads of dogs.”

As well as highlighting the birth of scientific inquiry by taking a trip into the medieval psyche, Professor Bartlett reveals how deep intellectual curiosity and the founding of Oxford (1096), Paris (1175) and Cambridge (1209) led directly to the higher education system of today.

He said, “Many people think of the Middle Ages as a period of ignorance, and we are really trying to redress that and to point out not simply how the area of knowledge at that time was different from the area of knowledge now, but also how dynamic and creative medieval thinkers were.

“The first universities grew slowly, but once they were in existence, you could found others.  My university, St Andrews, is the oldest in Scotland, about to celebrate its 600-year anniversary.  It has got a continuous history.”

As well as demonstrating the differences between medieval society and modern society, the series flags up a lot of the similarities, particularly between people.

He continued, “I think a modern person catapulted back into the Middle Ages would first of all be assailed by the smell and secondly struck by the silence because I think modern society is very much noisier but not quite as smelly as medieval society.

“I hope viewers might get out of this a very strong sense that the Middle Ages was full of real people, in some ways like us and in some ways not like us, but they were real people and they can be encountered as best you can through their words and through their records.”

The programme “Sex” unearths remarkable evidence of the complex passions of medieval men and women.   The tragic story of the real life lovers, Abelard and Heloise is demonstrated through love letters from the 12th century which are astonishing in their frankness and willingness to break conventions.

The series will also investigate the complex private lives of medieval men and women, in a time when the Church preached hatred of the flesh and promoted the cult of virginity.  Despite such rigid doctrine, it was the medieval world that gave birth to the modern concept of romantic love. Professor Bartlett unveils some of the questions the 11th century Church recommended priests to ask their parishioners, such as, “Have you committed fornication with your step-mother, your sister-in-law, your son’s fiancée, or your mother?”

In the programme “Power”, Professor Bartlett lays bare the brutal framework of the medieval class system examining the violent knights, who were less chivalrous than their title suggests, the warrior lords and the lowly serfs.

He said, “In medieval society there were great differences between the social classes, and they were usually visible in terms of clothing and gestures of deference and things like this.”

The omniscience of death and belief in the supernatural are also explored. The medieval dead shared the world with the living: encounters with the dead and visions of the next world ensured a two-way traffic between this world and the next. Professor Bartlett uses medieval sources to create a keen sense of the after-life.  During the series he visits numerous medieval locations, from Westminster Abbey to Pluscarden Abbey near Inverness, with wide use of readings from original medieval sources.

“Within the four episodes I’d like viewers to have a strong picture of a society in which supernatural belief was much more important than it is today, in which people had sexual and emotional drives very like our own, a society that was unequal in ways that we no longer accept, but a world where people were striving to understand and acquire knowledge in ways that we can sympathise with.

“I think one of the things I was trying to do all the time was to introduce a world where many of the beliefs are unfamiliar and might strike people as strange without being patronising to the past, without ever looking down our noses and saying how clever we are and how stupid they were.  Because, with the information they had available, they made logical and rational attempts to construct a picture of the universe they lived in, and that’s all anyone can do.”

Inside the Medieval Mind begins on Thursday, April 17th at 9pm on BBC Four.


Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Fiona Armstrong, Press Officer on 01334 462530 / 462529, 07730 415015 or email [email protected]
Ref:  medieval minds 16/04/08
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