The Discovery of the Middle Ages
History of an illusion
Until the late eighteenth century the Middle Ages were regarded as a dark, barbaric era between Classical Antiquity and the Enlightenment. Then the period began to be seen as exemplifying authentic humanity, mutual solidarity and reciprocal responsibility, embedded in close-knit national communities. Historian Peter Raedts connects this radical change of attitude with the industrialization of a previously agrarian society and the rise of the modern nation state.
At the end of the eighteenth century conflict broke out between an expanding, globalizing world in which people were increasingly interdependent, symbolized by the Napoleonic Empire, and a nationalist countermovement which insisted that people needed to form local communities in which they could cultivate their own languages, habits and customs. Nineteenth-century writers, poets, philosophers and politicians identified the Middle Ages as the source of national traditions and the nationalist spirit. To the Romantic poet Novalis, it was an age of faith and community, a lost paradise that post-revolutionary Europe needed to rediscover. But even in the Age of Romanticism, abhorrence of that world was never far away, with the poet Heinrich Heine, for example, suspecting that the medieval revival was a reactionary, papist plot.
In The Discovery of the Middle Ages Raedts stresses that those who first began to admire the mediaeval period felt they had found a new world, whereas we now see them as often deluded, the victims of their own flights of fancy. Catholics, Socialists and ethnic nationalists seized upon this vague, romantic nostalgia for a lost era of faith, community and order, forging it into a political programme that, following the catastrophe of the First World War, contributed to the establishment of Communism in Russia, Fascism in Italy, and National Socialism in Germany. The exploitation by such regimes of the supposedly medieval values of community, authenticity and solidarity put an end to the cult of the Middle Ages. Raedts shows how medievalists have recently tried to salvage the era as part of our collective memory either by identifying the twelfth-century Renaissance as the true beginning of modern Europe or by picturing the Middle Ages as fascinating but utterly alien to everything modern culture stands for. In our own day it is becoming clear once again that the problem of modernity remains unresolved and that we still need to investigate the times and places from which we derive our values. A new and invigorating story of the Middle Ages may well be part of this quest for a new past.
- A groundbreaking book about the way Germany, Britain, France and Italy have constructed their own histories.
- Argues that criticism of modern, liberal, industrial society has taken the form of a nostalgic hankering after the medieval past.
- Shows that the writing of history is just as much a search for the self as a search for the truth.