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Medieval history: Ancestral life audio discussion

Updated Tuesday 8th April 2008

Robert Bartlett and Rachel Gibbons discuss the surprising ways in which our ancestors' lives were not that different from ours - and the ways in which they were


A 15th Century building in Titchfield Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Mrloz | Dreamstime.com A 15th century building in Titchfield Copyright The Open University


Rachel Gibbons: Hello, I’m Rachel Gibbons. I’m a historian at the Open University and I’ve been working as the academic consultant on the BBC television series 'Inside the medieval mind ' and with me is Professor Robert Bartlett, Professor of Medieval History at the University of St Andrews and the presenter on 'Inside the medieval mind' and we’re going to talk a little bit about the programme, the making of it and some of the ideas behind it.

The medieval mind series is in four episodes, structured around themes of medieval mentalities and first of all Robert, I’d like to ask you a bit about behind the premise of the series and why you think it’s important to get inside the medieval mind in order to understand medieval society?

Robert Bartlett: Yes, the series is called 'Inside the medieval mind ' to give viewers the idea that the approach to the Middle Ages is not a strict narrative history. It doesn’t deal, in fact, with some of the big events in medieval history. It’s an attempt to get to the mentality, the outlook, the ideas of people who lived in the Middle Ages, and that’s why it has that title. And the themes are grouped because they are all big areas under the general heading of mentality and outlook.

The first one is belief, very, very important for the medieval period and something that the modern world perhaps doesn’t pay as much attention to. The next one is, well it was originally going to be love, but it was then re-titled sex, and of course the relationship between love and sex is a tricky one, even today. The third one is power, but not a political narrative, but more the assumptions that people made about the distribution of power in society. And the last one is knowledge, medieval knowledge.

But I think the idea of calling it 'Inside the medieval mind' is just to give the viewers the idea of what it’s about. Because I think if you said was there a medieval mind?, I think I’d answer no because I think one of the things the series tries to do is to show the diversity of belief and the diversity of outlook that you have in the medieval period. So, in a way, the medieval mind, singular, perhaps gives slightly the wrong impression.

For example, in the series and the episode on sex, we have a lot about the body hating, misogynistic, anti-woman rhetoric that the medieval church built up, and that’s a very important part of the medieval world view. We also have a great deal about courtly love in which women were idealised, romanticised, put on a pedestal. Both are true, both those two very contradictory outlooks are part of, if you like, the medieval mind.

Rachel Gibbons: Each of those four themes you’ve described seem like really big ideas, so how did you come about picking the four themes for these four episodes?

Robert Bartlett: Whereas the title 'Inside the medieval mind' was ready made when I came to the series, the themes are ones that I really thought about myself, and they seem to me to cover some of the big areas of life when one’s looking at mentality, and belief and knowledge I think are perhaps self-evident in that what people believed, we have a lot about, for example, views of the living and the dead, what happened to you after you died, the cult of the saints, how you pray to saints, the role of monasticism, that’s all in the first episode, that’s a belief very central to the medieval period, and I think anyone would say that that’s an aspect of medieval society that you have to get across to people for them to have even the basic understanding of that world.

And likewise, with knowledge, knowledge is rather different because, of course, many people think of the Middle Ages as a period of ignorance, and we were 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, that’s certainly the case as soon as you look at what they believed, but also how dynamic and creative medieval thinkers were.

The one that was originally labelled love and then later relabelled sex, it has been said that contrary to appearances, most sex takes place in the head, and it is, in fact, outlook on relations between the sexes and what sexuality is that we were looking at. So it had a place in a programme about mentalities. And then the last one, power, that’s the closest we get to anything resembling a traditional narrative history, because of course if you’re talking about power, you don’t really talk about it in the abstract, you talk about it with stories and illustrations, and that means we actually do have real kings and real rebellions in that one in a way that we don’t in the other episodes.

But, again, they’re there as illustrations of general points. For example, the radical inequality of medieval society was a point we wanted to come across, or the role of dynasty, the fact that kings conceived of the status their family property. So we have it in there, but still with the emphasis towards what people’s views and outlook was, rather than necessarily a history of events, which we weren’t going for.

Rachel Gibbons: You use a real array of primary sources in each of the programmes, documents and other evidence from the medieval period, and we know the sorts of evidence you use because it’s actually right there on the screen, the viewers can see you using it, which to me seemed a very different way of approaching medieval history in television terms?

Robert Bartlett: First of all, I think that reading primary sources from the medieval period is usually much more interesting than reading history books written by historians now. So the more you can have of that primary source material, the more you’re hearing people from that time actually speaking. And then someone at some point made what, to my mind, was a very intelligent suggestion that when we’re actually having this stuff read out – it’s normally read out by actors and voice-overs and so on, that there should appear on the screen the source, so that people know where it’s from.

And it goes to show, of course, this isn’t a God-like narrative drawn out of space. The other thing is that these are real people, expressing their views, their outlook, whether we like it or don’t like it, whether we understand it or don’t understand it, that’s what we’re going back to, that source material.

Rachel Gibbons: Perhaps you could talk us through one of the examples that you found most interesting when putting the programmes together?

Robert Bartlett: One of the more interesting ones, because it contains a woman’s voice, which is rarer than men’s voices from medieval sources, would be the letters of Abelard and Héloise, from the 12th century, an exchange between two lovers, which describes their passionate emotion and their erotic feelings for each other, including letters from Héloise when she is now an Abbess recounting her sexual feelings. We obviously wanted to use that. We have, likewise, a very interesting first-hand account of a woman called Christina, who wanted to become a devoted religious woman and not marry, and her family had very powerful opinions in the opposite direction wanting her to make a good marriage locally.

And we have a page by page, almost day by day account of the conflict between those two ideals, because they are ideals. One is an ideal of virginity, which was a very important medieval ideal, and the other is an ideal that most people can understand, a decent marriage, property, a nice family, grandchildren, all the things that her parents wanted. And we actually have the account of the sometimes violent exchanges between them and the underhand tricks that they used to try and win her over, such as letting her fiancé into her bedroom at night, whereupon she sits him on the bed and tells him religious stories for several hours. So we’ve got some really quite lively first-hand accounts of people’s feelings and passions and ideals, and the conflict of different ideals and passions.

Rachel Gibbons: Both of those sources are interesting as well, aren’t they, because they are telling historians and the viewers of the programmes evidence that the people writing them didn’t necessarily think they were going to be passing on when they wrote them.

Robert Bartlett: Sure, exactly. What people tell you things they don’t know they’re telling you - yes, I mean this is it. I mean, and of course, compared with the modern period, you haven’t got so many personal letters, you haven’t got the diaries, and of course you haven’t got anything like the material you have for the 20th and 21st centuries, electronic media and so on. So you go to what you have got, and every so often you turn up a treasure trove like that, which really shows people’s individuality and their feelings.

I mean in the end it’s going to be four hours of television, but four hours of television, although it seems like a lot, to cover one thousand years of Western history is not actually very much, and so you have to be radically selective, and what you’ve selected, of course, tells your story.

And that’s why, when we were doing that one, the programme on love or sex, we went for some of the more direct and revealing material that we could get hold of. Or, in the case of the programme on power, for example, we wanted to bring home a very basic but very fundamental point about medieval society, that not only was it very unequal, unequal to a degree that modern Western society can’t even imagine really, but that inequality wasn’t seen as a bad thing. It was seen as a good thing. Inequality was an ideal. There was a hierarchy, at least among certain thinkers, and that hierarchy, inequality, people being better than others, that was taken for granted by certain people and deemed as a way that society should be organised.

Rachel Gibbons: As you made very clear in the series, Christendom, as an entity, there’s no sort of separation between church and status which recognise it now for much of the medieval period, so the idea that religion is such a fundamental part of our identity almost of who people are. And also, again, some of the examples that came out in the Belief programme, the nature of belief and also the nature of vocation as well.

Robert Bartlett: Yes. Well, I think the idea that the Church defines society is right. In modern Western societies, religion is meant to be an individual matter, it’s not meant to be connected with the state. Of course, if you look at the history of the last thirty or forty years, it’s probably easier now to imagine societies in which religion and the state are wedded together because we see examples of them.

Rachel Gibbons: And hence the reason the Church appears in all four of the episodes, I guess.

Robert Bartlett: Yes, it has to be there, it has to be there. In fact, the word ‘society’ was hardly used in the Middle Ages, but if you asked them at the time what is the equivalent word, they’d say the Church. That would be it, I think. That’s the all embracing thing which everybody is part of. And then the monastic life you’re talking about, that was very interesting actually going up to Pluscarden in Scotland and spending time with a functioning monastic community. And the visual impact of it was really quite remarkable, of course, because you have these white robed figures ringing the bells, sitting in silence, eating their lunch, etc, performing the divine office and so on.

But, of course, in the modern world that’s such a tiny and, to most eyes, eccentric choice, whereas, of course, in the medieval period there’d be thousands of these communities covering the whole of Europe, extraordinarily wealthy, extraordinarily powerful, and that’s something that just has to be put back into the picture, and it requires an effort of imagination.

Rachel Gibbons: Certainly the idea of conflicting and contradictory mentalities, going on at the same time, and very often in the same head, that an idea of the supernatural, for instance, can exist very comfortably alongside a very orthodox medieval catholic faith and that people of the time wouldn’t see that as anything particularly unusual. That’s possibly one of the things that viewers might find, not so much surprising but certainly revealing I hope, and also ideas of self and identity that might not be considered in a society where we don’t know too much about very many individual people.

Robert Bartlett: I was also quite interested in the discipline of producing history for television because, if you’re writing a book or an article or whatever, it’s a very different story from producing a television programme.

Rachel Gibbons: I bet. What was the most challenging thing to you?

Robert Bartlett: Well, I think there were two things. One that was challenging to me and one that was challenging probably to the directors. The one that was challenging to the directors is there has to be something on the screen all the time. Television is television, isn’t it? And the challenge for me is that everything has to be said in about three sentences because of the nature of the medium, and that was actually really quite interesting, it wasn’t the case always of simplifying. It was also a case of choosing the right words and getting the point across.

Rachel Gibbons: And I guess, also, even though we have to have a compact space for lectures and also have a beginning and a middle and an end, telling a story the whole way through an episode is something that’s probably quite alien to many historians, and I don’t know how you find it?

Robert Bartlett: Yes. There’s a constant push towards a story, a narrative, and that of course is very difficult to do if what you’re talking about is something thematic.

Rachel Gibbons: Yes

Robert Bartlett: We did have, in each of the programmes there was a tendency to have a chronological umbrella, so they tend to end at the end of the Middle Ages. But, more than that, what happens is that within each episode there are stories embedded. So there are little stories, love stories or hate stories, war, scientists, discoverers, whatever it might be, embedded to exemplify what’s going on. And I think that’s nice, partly because I like stories very much, and I think a lot of people do, but partly, of course, because it makes it less abstract and it gives you real people.

Rachel Gibbons: Absolutely, the ideal of real people rather than this abstract space of a thousand years where it’s difficult to pin things down.

But the themes I think are important because they demonstrate how, even if the past is static, that historical study of it isn’t, and that the way the historians look at the past can change over time, and the things that are important, well the historians see it important to look at, change over time as well.

Robert Bartlett: Yes, I mean, for example, a programme like this would not have had as high a profile for women if it had been made fifty years ago. It wouldn’t have explored sexuality, in the same way, and I think it would probably have been a little bit either more wary or more reverential towards religion, and I think those would be the differences if you’re thinking about if this had been made fifty years ago, how it would be different. And that’s a change that’s partly I guess a change in television but also a change in history, what historians do or what historians look at.

Rachel Gibbons: I think it’s a change in history, definitely, because as you say the sexuality and women would normally have been studied only by historians claiming that that was all they were interested in. And also the idea about, as you say, reverential with religion, but the idea of historical truths, what’s the truth and what isn’t the truth, ideas can be questioned, discarded, resurrected in a different way.

Robert Bartlett: In a way, the complication now is getting the political history back in, because, there’s a famous old definition of social history, what is social history? history with the politics left out, and then as social history has become more dominant, in fact the politics has got rather more difficult to reintegrate, and that’s why, in this series, for example, we have a programme called Power which looks at politics but thematically in terms of what the bases of power and what the assumptions were, and that’s how the politics can come back in.

Rachel Gibbons: One thing this programme does, as well, as demonstrate the differences between medieval society and modern society, is also I think flag up a lot of the similarities, and particularly similarities between people. Someone actually asked me the other day who would feel more comfortable, a medieval person parachuted into the 21st century or a modern person transported back into the Middle Ages. I wonder what your answer to that would have been before I tell you mine?

Robert Bartlett: Great question. I think a modern person catapulted back into the Middle Ages would first of all be assailed by the smell and secondly be struck by the silence because I think modern society is very much noisier but not quite as smelly as medieval society. But the other thing they’d have to be very careful about, of course, is that they want to make sure they were alive because mortality was just so different then. The expectation of life was so different. So that would be something. That’s not something that we can look at particularly in the life of an individual, but in the life of the society, as a whole, death was so common.

Rachel Gibbons: And so omnipresent as well, with a lot of the ideas that came out in the Belief programme particularly reflect that.

Robert Bartlett: Yes, death all around, and a common experience much more so. It’s obviously one of the things that’s been sanitised and compartmentalised in modern life to an extraordinary degree. The number of people who’ve seen a dead body or seen death, it’s just so much less than it used to be. A medieval person coming into modern society would of course be staggered by the increase in productive power and the role of machinery, which would be spectacularly different, and I think probably by the way that social rank is not so visible. Because, of course, 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.

Rachel Gibons: When I was asked this question, the busy-ness of modern society would probably frighten the medieval person far more than most things they could do to us would do, and also the built environment around us would seem completely alien in a society where I say we’ve got 90% in towns and they had 90% in a rural society, but so much of our environment reflects, in many senses, the medieval world. You’ve looked at some fantastic buildings, for instance, in these areas that are all around us and form such a common part of our environment, we barely notice them half the time.

Robert Bartlett: Sure. I mean obviously there’s some things that still survive from the medieval period, the dramatic buildings as you say are one, and then of course we could look at something more abstract, the institutions.

Rachel Gibbons: Certainly, yes.

Robert Bartlett: And if you look at something like the US Congress or the British Parliament, that’s a political institution that came into existence. You can trace it directly to roots in the 13th century. Universities, which of course are of interest to us.

Rachel Gibbons: Absolutely.

Robert Bartlett: Are exactly the same, are a creation of the 12th and 13th centuries, many of them with absolutely continuous histories to this day. My own university, St Andrews, founded in 1411, still there with medieval buildings. It’s got a continuous history.

Rachel Gibbons: And abstract ideas like even the law and things like that, which are there right in the 12th century.

Robert Bartlett: Sure. So I think we can see some surviving material. We can delve into the minds as far as we can from the written records, and then of course we’ve got this inheritance.

Rachel Gibbons: So having put yourself out there on the screen and given us your vision of the Middle Ages, is there say one or two things that you particularly hope the audience viewing these programmes will take away from them?

Robert Bartlett: And if I had a dream about what viewers might get out of this is a very strong sense that the Middle Ages was full of real people, and they were 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.

If I had to do one or two things I’d probably structure them around the four episodes and I’d say I’d like them 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.

Rachel Gibbons: I think if I was answering that question for myself, I’d want people to be surprised by the programmes, but in a good way, that people in the Middle Ages are, in many senses, so similar to us, that they have the same drives, the same desires and needs and aspirations in a lot of cases, just to get through life, to find a happy family, to progress in whatever it is that they’re doing with themselves in terms of career or employment ….

And surprised in the sense that I think these programmes may well prick the bubble of some of the big popular misconceptions about the Middle Ages that you mention in episode four, the idea that people didn’t think the world was flat. For instance, that people in the Middle Ages are knowledgeable and logical in the way they approach their world, even if the conclusions they come to are slightly different to ours.

Professor Robert Bartlett: Yes, 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.

Rachel Gibbons: And that sounds like an extremely good conclusion to our discussion. Professor Bartlett, thank you very much for joining us.

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