Flat Earth? Jus primae noctis? Falsehoods against Middle Ages

Middle ages flat earthSlowly all the lies about the so-called “dark ages”, or rather the Middle Ages, are collapsing thanks to the intellectual honesty of many historians. For istance regarding the “Medieval Inquisition”, it has been proved that actually the phenomenon spread during the Renaissance and mainly in the Protestant environment; indeed historian Christopher Black has observed that the Roman Inquisition was definitely “less dark than one thinks”, rather it was more humane and with few condemnations.

In these days historian Alessandro Barbero, full professor of Medieval History at the University of Eastern Piedmont, has once more demolished the legend about the “dark ages”. He wrote on “La Stampa” and observed, by alluding to Orwell: «People are taught that in the ugly, remote past evil creatures existed who were called capitalists and who oppressed people with the most infamous demands. The method Orwell imagined, to create a sinister image of the past in order to exalt the present, has been really put in practice in Europe, from the Renaissance till the Nineteenth Century: the targeted victim, the Middle Ages. Humanists and artists of the Renaissance proud of their new culture, reformers of the XVIIIth Century fighting against feudalism, positivists of the Nineteenth Century willing to celebrate progress and fight superstition, all agreed on painting the medieval millennium with the darkest dyes. In this way some “snap-shots”, as it were, which we all can easily visualise, were born and they are inseparable by now from the popular image of the Middle Ages».

Many are these legends and professor Barbero faces and debunks them: «The terrorised crowds that fill up the churchs during last days before the year 1000, absolutely certain that the world is going to end; the erudites, actually very ignorant, who believe the Earth is flat, or in any cases who do not dare to teach the opposite because they are scared they will be punished by the Church; and obviously the Jus primae noctis Orwell recalled, the infamous law that estabilished the lord of the village has the right to all the young women’s virginity, and meanly obtains what is owed to him the very night of every wedding ceremony». None of this is true and historians know it. Actually the historian, explains Barbero, «feels like a little bit of a killjoy when, after long and accurate verifications, has to conclude that all these quaint images are false, and none of these has ever really happened. Yet it is really so: if one goes and checks, he learns, with great surprise, that during the Middle Ages no-one talked about such things and that they were all fabricated later».

About the alleged fear of the end of the world in the year One Thousand, theorised by the Church according to someone, it is necessary to stress that «on December 31, 999 A.D. Pope Sylvester II confirmed the privileges of a monastery for many years to come on condition that in the future all the abbots, once elected by the monks, be consecrated by the Pope». This can be deduced from the Apocalypse of Saint-Sever, an eleventh-Century French manuscript… it is clear that the Pope was not even thinking that the world was going to end. 

Shall we talk about the flat Earth? According to not-so-scientific Alessandro Cecchi Paone it was Galileo Galilei who demonstrated its spherical shape, so as to encounter the Church’s wrath. Yet anyone during the Middle Ages took for granted that the Earth was spherical, just like today, so much so that «each medieval emperor had himself portrayed with the symbol of his power over the world in his hand: a globe with a cross on its top», the historian has commented.

And finally, one last example: the lie of the  jus primae noctis” (right to the first night), the law according to which every feudal lord, on occasion of one of his own serves’ marriage, had the right to spend the first wedding night with the bride. Yet there are no testimonies to its diffusion in medieval Europe and the historical sources do not record any directives either on the part of secular authorities (kings, emperors) or on the part of the ecclesiastical ones. That is why, Barbero said, «we never come across it, even if we check where we would expect to find it. The Middle Ages have left us with a lot of novelle like Boccaccio’s, wherein sex is talked about very frankly»;yet «not even a single medieval author thought of profitting from such an attractive source of inspiration as the jus primae noctis, while nowadays movie scriptwriters and historical novel authors avail themselves of it». This started being talked about after the sixteenth Century, right in the Renaissance, «according to a precise strategy which is always the same: as something that happened during the old ugly times […] in the imagination of erudite credulous people, who describe a legendary past, this incredible story begins to circulate: that past was so barbaric that lords even demanded to enjoy their serves’ brides during the first wedding night».

It is hard to get rid of these legends, «it does not matter if for a century no professional historian repeats them any longer, and if great academics such as Jacques Le Goff insisted their whole life talking about the light of the Middle Ages», Barbero laconically conluded. «In our collettive imagination, too great is the pleasure to believe that there was an obscure era in the past, but that now we have grown out of it and we are better than those who lived at that time».

The Editorial Staff
translation by Salvatore Faliero.

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