The (Surprisingly) Modern Middle Ages
BBC History Magazine|October 2021
From devastating climate change to deadly pandemics, the challenges that kept our medieval ancestors awake at night weren’t so different from those preoccupying us today, says Dan Jones
Dan Jones

In the middle of the 16th century, the historian John Foxe looked back at the great sweep of time since the birth of Christ, and decided that it could be sliced into three chunks.

History, he suggested, began with the “primitive time”, when Christians were persecuted and had to hide in catacombs from wicked Romans. More recently came the “latter days”, Foxe’s own times – the age of the Reformation. Sandwiched between these two was an era of about 1,000 years, which were neither fish nor fowl. Foxe called these centuries “the middle age”. Today we call them the Middle Ages, or the medieval period.

That vast slab of history stretched from the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century AD to the European voyages to the New World in the 16th. It has a bit of an odd reputation: the Middle Ages are often the butt of a big historical joke. In the popular imagination, that era is a time when the classical world had vanished but the modern world had yet to get going; when people (supposedly) believed that the world was flat and that water was poisonous; when God was in charge of everything; and when everyone was either a knight, a priest or a peasant.

Politicians and newspaper journalists often use the word “medieval” to characterise something that is bad, backward, stupid, cruel, violent or hopelessly outdated. This can get historians quite worked up; some have even tried to jettison the term “Middle Ages”, instead preferring to refer to the “Middle Millennium”. Needless to say, this hasn’t caught on – yet.

But if we look a little more closely at the medieval world, there is plenty to see that we may recognise in our own times. Because although there are profound differences between life today and life in the Middle Ages, there is also much that connects us.

Our modern world is built on medieval foundations, and many of the anxieties and issues that concern us today were shared, in only slightly altered form, by medieval people. As the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes says – and as the five examples explored over the page show – “There is nothing new under the sun”.

Hell and high water

Medieval climate change sparked crises ranging from plague to population collapse

From the late summer of 1314, a hard rain began to fall across north-west Europe. It pelted down. Temperatures plummeted. Rivers burst their banks and fields flooded. For months, the weather was abysmal – not only through the winter but into the next spring, summer and beyond. In the following years, harvest after harvest failed. People starved in their hundreds of thousands. Animals died of hunger and widespread disease. “A great famine appeared,” wrote one chronicler. “Such a scarcity has not been seen in our time… nor heard of for a hundred years.”

Hard times were not unknown in the medieval world, where life for most people was precarious and tied to the skies, but the start of the 14th century was different. This was not just an unlucky streak of bad weather but the start of a major shift in the climate, since dubbed the Little Ice Age, which lasted several hundred years, radically affecting everyday life. A sharp fall in temperatures, felt acutely across western Europe and beyond, brought much harsher winters and tougher farming conditions. Extending from the 14th to the 19th century, the Little Ice Age witnessed population collapse, economic stagnation, widespread political instability and some of the worst human and animal plagues in recorded history. Not all of these were directly caused by the change in Europe’s climate – but neither were they entirely coincidental.

Nor was this unique. The Middle Ages were bookended by climate change. The era began with cooling at the end of the so-called Roman Warm Period (when several centuries of consistently warm, wet weather had allowed the Roman empire to flourish). Once these conditions worsened, Rome’s emperors found it harder to cope with rebellions and invasions. Rome’s collapse ushered in the Middle Ages.

By contrast, the greatest period of medieval innovation occurred during a climate phase known as the Medieval Warm Period, which began about AD 950 and ended around 1250. During this spell, the power, wealth and regional influence of European kingdoms grew, fuelled by a surge in farming yields, population growth and exploration. It was probably no coincidence that it was around this time that Vikings struck out far and wide from Scandinavia, navigating northern seas – temporarily much less icy than they had been – to reach Iceland, Greenland and even North America.

It is often said that the most pressing global concern in the 21st century is climate change. Some scientists argue that we are living through an epoch – the Anthropocene – in which human-induced climate change is altering the very fabric of the Earth.

Just as shifting global temperatures constitute (in the words of the UN) “an existential threat” and a “crisis multiplier” for us today, so they did for our ancestors in the Middle Ages.

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