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Monday, November 07, 2005

The Twilight Zone

Last week's Spiegel had the most shocking article about 'The World of the Middle Ages.' It doesn't seem to be available online, unless anyone can work out how to get from here or here to the full text without paying. But if you get hold of a copy of number 44/2005, you will too be taken on a roller-coaster ride of distress, anger, bewilderment and hilarity at the tripe with which a supposedly decent-quality mag has filled twelve pages. Mr Matthias Schulz, whoever he may be, may have read a few books and archaeological reports, but he shows a remarkable lack of genuine interest in the 'dark millenium', as the middle ages are unpromisingly designated on the contents page.

Firstly, despite writing with some gusto, Schulz uses his material in a manner one would find unacceptable in an undergraduate essay. The attitude to chronology and geography is cavalier at best. Angela of Foligno and Margaret Mary Alacoque are mentioned in the same paragraph as examples of What Nuns Were Like; never mind that one was a fourteenth-century Franciscan tertiary and one a seventeenth-century nun - clearly The Dark Millenium extends beyond 1600, and anything within that period is all much the same... "Frauen gebaren in Schnitt 4,2 Kinder" [Women bore on average 4.2 children"]- which women? where? when? based on what sort of evidence? Bare statistics cited thus are remarkably unhelpful. And the height of this strange slap-dash approach is found in a bizarre murky accusation:
Die Grabungen auf mittelalterlichen Friedhöfen zeigen, dass die männlichen
Skeletter deutlich überwiegen. Ihr Anteil liegt bei etwa 60 Prozent. Wurden die
weiblichen Babys getötet und verscharrt, um die Mitgift [ie of female
sinfulness] zu sparen? Niemand weiß die Antwort.
[Excavations in medieval graveyards show that male skeletons are significantly preponderant. Their proportion is at around 60 per cent. Were the female babies killed and buried [in shallow graves] to avoid the poisonous infection? No one knows the answer.]
If you can find a piece of evidence to suggest selective murder of female infants, go ahead and cite it. Otherwise, making up horror stories would seem (at best) quite superfluous.

The writer also has a strange fondness for irrelevant 'authorities.' What is the point of quoting Luther on how smelly Bernhard of Clairvaux was? Apparently Bernard smelt awful, but I doubt that a sixteenth-century canon is the best witness to this. Likewise, is it worth noting what Nietzsche said about St Paul or about fourteenth-century beer consumption? It may tell us something about Nietzsche; I cannot imagine it tells us anything about the Middle Ages.

The most pervasive and infuriating quality of this piece, however, is that it is an undeclaredly Freudian reading of the period, where everything is motivated by sex, or rather, controlled by crazed celibates:
Doch in Wahrheit stöhnte das Mittelalter im Würgegriff schwarzberockter Spaßbremsen, die dem großen Mitraträger im Vatikan gehorchten. Und er konnte Sex nicht leiden.
Ah yes, the Vatican, that entirely unitary and non-peripatetic institution. Would folk please grasp that, if they must use a term for papal government, the Curia is considerably less likely to be foolishly anachronistic?
Monasticism is depicted entirely in terms of die grosse Anti-Lust-Kampagne, with never a mention of why Benedict &c left the world. Love of God? Doesn't get a look-in. The mortifications of Francis, Dominic and Bernard are mentioned, with the perceptive and helpful obeservation that 'Kein Zweifel, all dies mutet heute laecherlich an.' Good to see that Schulz is ready to engage with the people of another era on their own terms, then.
Both pubs and crusades turn out to be the fruit of sexual repression:
Ersatz für entgangene Fleischesfreuden lieferten unterdessen die Braureien. Forscher nannten das 14. Jahrhundert das “Säkulum des Biers.” [Do they? I haven’t met any of them. Mind you, my fourteenth-century-Europe paper was my worst in Finals. If only I’d written more about beer…] Schenken und Kneipen hatten Hochkonjunktur. “Mittelalter” meinte schon Nietzsche, “das heißt die Alkoholvergiftung Europas.” [The relevance of Nietzsche’s opinion being…?]
Wo auch diese Form, sezuelle Begierge ze betäuben, nicht fruchtete, bot der Papst ein anderes Ventil, über das sich die angestauten Emotionen austoben konnten – in Form von Gewalt.
In Namen des Kreuzes schob der Kontinent mit militärischer Kraft seine Grenzen vor…
One can almost admire the placing of this last paragraph at this point, to imply, without actually making its (unmakable) case, that the northern crusades were the result of frustrated sexual urges unquieted by sufficient drink. It's a novel take on matters, I suppose.

Of course, the crusades were at the same time primarily economically motivated:
Dass hinter all diesen von Schandtaten unterfütterten Heilszügen wirtschaftliche Interessen standen, versteht sich von selbst. Bein vierten Kreuzzug 1204 stellten der Doge von Venedig und die Kaufleute aus Genua und Pisa die Schiffe.
End of paragraph. Never mind that the Fourth Crusade turned into such a disaster in part because said ships were insufficiently filled and said merchants weren't getting paid...

That the author's misconceptions are quite tragic, however, is revealed by his narrative of the popes' dastardly plan to control the laity's enjoyment of the marital act. A rather curtailed and muddled account of the rise of the theology of marriage as a sacrament is given, which in Schulz's eyes means that "Der Partnerpast war zum Gefaengnis geworden, aus dem es kein Entrinnen mehr gab." And:
Sodann schränkten die Popen den Geschlechtsverkehr auch innerhald der Ehe ein. Während der Menstruation, zur Adventszet, in der Fastenzet, in der Pfingstwoche, an Sonn- und Freitage, an Mittwochen sowie vor und nach der Kommunion war die Liebe verboten.
Die Liebe? Poor man. Are his concepts as desperately confused as that?

Given which, I should probably end on a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger note; but it's difficult, given the sheer drivel which has been published here. Berenike suggests sending him a copy of Southern's Scholastic Humanism. What do you think, lectores dilecti: Southern fuer Schulz along the lines of Katechismus fuer Kaessman? Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages has been translated into German...