Stuck in the Middle Ages With You

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (May 2011)


You often hear critics of Islam decry it for being a “mediaeval” cult. I disagree, not with the criticism but with the definition “mediaeval”.

Yesterday I heard someone on television describe the Royal Wedding in excited and approving terms as the same. Mediaeval.  I know what she meant. The beautiful Gothic Abbey, 900 years old and seeped in history, much of it royal. The pageantry, much of it mediaeval in foundation. The Bishop of London even quoted two mediaeval writers in his sermon, St Catherine of Siena and Geoffrey Chaucer.

The handsome prince and his beautiful bride in the flowing gown, her fine gauzy veil secured by a circlet. That the reality was a 20th century Cartier diamond tiara lent by the Queen only added to the fantasy. All the legend of Robin Hood and Maid Marion, Prince Edward and Queen Phillippa, everything Eleanor of Aquitaine’s troubadours sang about at the time and Sir Walter Scott wrote about 300 years later. The fanfares may have been played by the band of the modern Royal Air Force and the nuns wore Reebok trainers under their habits but the principles had their foundation in that period we call the Middle Ages.

The period generally called the Middle Ages means different things to different people, and doesn’t cover the same period in every European nation. In English schools at a junior level it will cover the period between the Norman conquest of 1066 and the Tudor dynasty taking the throne in 1485, these being convenient political dates on which to hang a concept.

I believe most English historians treat it as the period that comes after the so called “Dark Ages” which is the period after the Romans left the British Isles (or on the continent after Rome fell to barbarian invasions) when conditions were chaotic and written records were not so comprehensive, until the Anglo Saxon kingdoms start to form as clear political institutions. Others treat it as from the fall of the Roman Empire and call the “Dark Ages” early mediaeval. The Middle Ages ended, if you can be so arbitrary, with the Renaissance, which is considered the Modern period. While Italy was enjoying this revival of classical civilisation, art and learning during the 14th century England was not. 40 years ago my history teacher, possibly quoting an academic source, said that England was mediaeval in 1400 and modern in 1600. The Renaissance therefore occurred sometime over that 200 year period.

I am told that we are now Post-modern. Despite having lived through the transition I don’t feel any different and don’t really understand what happened. I can tell that things are not what they were but beyond that all I know is that care must be taken in trying to define a period absolutely.

I enjoy studying the Middle Ages. I am a particular fan of English mediaeval churches. I can see sufficient institutions founded in that period, say 800 to 1500, that are such an improvement on Islam that to call Islam “mediaeval” is an insult to the Plantagenets, Geoffrey Chaucer, Simon De Montfort and John Wycliffe.

I understand why people call Islam mediaeval. It has not moved from a brutal period of ancient history in a brutal place and culture. It is old fashioned, primitive, unreasoning. The very opposite of modern and progressive. But the opposite of modern is not the Middle Ages.

Islam accepts no law other than the law of Allah, i.e. Sharia law. Man-made law and modern democratic principles are shirk, apostasy, blasphemy.  Christians and Jews have organised themselves with religion and state separate since the earliest times and on the highest authority. I have read, but do not know if it is correct, that the very symbol of Judaism, the Magen David, shield or Star of David, was brought out of Egypt and is a sign of that separation. The pyramid rising from the earth towards heaven is the power of Pharaoh, and was reproduced in stone that remains to this day. The pyramid coming from heaven to earth is God’s power. They link and sometimes overlap to form a nation but are separate.

What I do know is correct is the incident described in the Gospel of Mark at 22.21 when Christ told the Pharisees who were trying to trip him up “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

But lacking the principle of the separation of church and state they would have thought the same in 1224 (the date Frederick II expelled the Arabs from Malta) about the Shire moot, the Sheriff’s Tourn or Common pleas. Those institutions of the Mediaeval English legal system would be man-made law just as elections and the fines levied by Belmarsh magistrate’s court are today. 

The seven Muslims who refused to recognise the authority of the Court and stand at the entrance of District Judge Mellanby (who represents the Queen) because “it is a sin to show anyone other than Allah respect by standing” would have said the same about King Henry III and the court of King’s Bench which is identifiable as a court separate from Common Pleas in, by coincidence 1224.

It was the Middle Ages when the idea of trial by a jury of one’s peers (social equals), the 12 good men and true, was developed. Even the methods used prior to 1215, trial by combat or trial by ordeal, sound barbaric, but if contemplated according to the faith of the time, were a better way of decision making according to God’s law than the Muslim way. “Ordeal was an appeal to God for a sign visible on the body of the person put to proof” says Potters Historical Introduction to English Law and its Institutions.

If the accused was innocent God would ensure that his hand would not fester so many days after immersion in boiling water for the required period. If guilty, God indicated it on his hand. Under Islam, Allah’s law, as written in the Koran is laid down without much argument by a mullah, lawyer or Imam and God doesn’t get a look in. The Koran says a woman’s evidence is only worth half that of a man’s and that is that. Even in the Middle Ages any witness was to be heard and her evidence evaluated on her individual merit. Women and the humble took matters to court readily. The court rolls are full of claims for unpaid weaving, brewsters and ale wives defending their produce and disputed wills. And there was no concept of women only being entitled to a half of the inheritance of their brothers.

Of course the torture of peine forte et dure to compel people to enter a plea and accept jury trial wasn’t very humane by modern standards but I’m not trying to convince you that the period was paradise on earth.

As well as jury trial this was also the period which gave the world Habeas Corpus, the legal writ which is still in existence which demands that the body (in the beginning not necessarily alive) be produced of anybody imprisoned without due and proper legal reason. Add that to Magna Carta and what has Islam got to compare?

I have been consulting my student copy of Potters Historical Introduction to English Law and its Institutions. I am unable to resist quoting from an even more ancient student reference work.

Whan Cnut Cyng the Witan wold enfeoff
Of infangthief and outfangthief
Wonderlich were they enwraged
And wordwar waged
Sware Cnut great scot and lot
Swinge wold ich this illbegotten lot.

Wroth was Cnut and wrothword spake
Well wold he win at wopantake.
Fain wolde he brake frith and cracke heads
And than they shold worshippe his redes

Swinged Cnut Cyng with swung sword
Howled Witane helle but hearkened his word
Murie sang Cnut Cyng
Outfangthief is Damgudthyng

That is, of course, from Sellar and Yeatman’s influential work 1066 and All That.

Returning to the separation of church and state the church was very strong in the Middle Ages. But English history of the period is marked by the struggle between the King and his Bishops. The obvious example is that between King Henry II and his Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas a Becket. After Becket’s death the church extracted quite a lot of land and silver from Henry in penance. And it is well known that in 1536 Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and severed England from Rome. It is less well known that during the late 14th century the kings began a process of seizing that monastic property which belonged to foreign foundations. They continued to endow English foundations however. They wanted the church on their side but they were never subordinate to the church.

I mentioned the nuns at the Royal Wedding. Technically women’s position was inferior but in practice many women achieved positions of respect. The great convents were run by an Abbess who was the manager of great estates. The quality of the academic learning in English convents had declined from the glories of Saxon England by the time Dame Julian of Norwich took her place in her anchorage in Norwich in the 14th century; the riches of their estates had not.

Some people say “Didn’t the Middle Ages have horrible punishments and stuff?” Of course, as does every age. The legendary punishment for wayward nuns, of being walled up wasn’t a punishment at all. It was the service of anchorage, undertaken freely and not always for life, where a religious male or female would be anchored in his or her community, in a spacious cell where free from the distractions out an about she could concentrate on prayer and contemplation. Being anchored within the church rather than a lone hermit in a solitary place gave her a responsibility for the moral wellbeing of her community, while she depended on them humbly for her food.

A woman who had led a disreputable life could repent and make amends. The story is told in the Koran or hadith of the woman who had committed adultery and asked Mohammed's advice as to what she should do. Christ told such a woman, “Go, and sin no more”.

Mohamed told the woman to return when she had given birth to the child she was carrying. She returned with the baby and was told to wean him and return again. The third time she attended upon Mohammed he ordered his men to stone her to death for her sin.

A mediaeval adulteress, like Jane Shore, mistress of among others King Edward IV may have been ordered to do penance at the public cross wrapped in a white sheet and carrying a candle. There are a lot of romantic stories around Rosamund Clifford aka Fair Rosamund, the  mistress of Henry II. It is nonsense that Eleanor of Aquitaine had her murdered. She retired to a convent and died there in respectability. There was shame and penance. There was no stoning.

I did once read something said by a Muslim woman mystic. She ran through the streets of her town with a bucket of water and a flaming torch. When asked what she was doing she replied that she wanted to put out the fires of hell and light a fire in heaven so that mankind would worship Allah for his own sake, and not for fear of hell or desire for heaven. Years later I asked a Muslim colleague who she was.

“No idea” was he replied, unimpressed. “Never heard anything of that sort. She must have been a Sufi.”

I now know that she was Rabia of Basra, an 8th century Sufi and that she was not the only female Sufi of her time to speak with wisdom. But do they compare with Julian of Norwich, St Catherine of Siena, Christina of Markyate, St Hildegard of Bingen, St Hilda of Whitby, to name just a few off the top of my head? I would submit that they do not.

Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine kept a cultured court. Other Queens like Maud the Empress and Isabella of France commanded armies in battle. The Scottish Lady Agnes Randolph, Countess of Moray, known as Black Agnes, successfully commanded Dunbar castle during the siege by the English. It is said that she dusted the battlements every morning to remove the damage done by the English catapults overnight.

Christine de Pizan was a scholar who supported her three children after her husband died by her writing and poetry. The Wife of Bath and the Prioress of Stratford atte Bow were fictional characters but I am sure they were rooted in reality not fantasy. The Middle Ages produced many capable and notable women whose intellect was in no way deficient, as the Koran insists.

While translations were made of the Koran in Persia as early as the 7th century Islamic theologians hold that a translation is not the Koran and is not sacred. It only exists in Arabic, miraculous and inimitable. The Bible had been definitively translated into Latin, the universal language of Western Europe, by St Jerome in the 4th century. John Wycliffe completed his translation of the bible into English in 1384. He suffered for his work, as did his pupil John Hus in Bohemia, but his translation heavily influenced William Tyndale in the 16th century and ultimately lead to the Bibles availability and acceptance in over 2500 languages.

It is sometimes said in response to criticism of Mohammed consummating his marriage to Aisha when he was aged 52 and she was only 9 that in the Middle Ages children were married at an equally young age. It is true that marriage negotiations began early and some children were contracted for dynastic or financial reasons very young. But these contracts were often only tentative while the children were so young. If a better offer came along the match might be re-negotiated. If the fathers of the two children found themselves at war 2 years later the match was definitely off. And these contracts made so young were always between children of roughly equal age.

The fate of the Princes in the Tower, the young King Edward V and his younger brother Prince Richard Duke of York has been a mystery for centuries. They disappeared (aged around 13 and 11 years) within the Tower of London sometime during 1485 while under the protection of their uncle who took the throne as King Richard III. Later that year Richard III was defeated by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field and historians have pondered ever since which of them murdered the two princes, when and how.

It is not generally known that the young Prince Richard was married. In 1478 when he was aged 4 he was married to the Duchess of Norfolk, Anne Mowbray who was aged 6. They don’t seem to have been brought up together and she died three years later. I remember in 1964 when I was 10 that workmen found her coffin while working on the site of the Minoresses convent in Stepney. She was reburied in Westminster Abbey.

There was a good reason that small girls were married to small boys, leaving aside those few perverted individuals who will sin in any society. Men, be they kings, nobles, rich merchant or prosperous peasant need heirs. They could not afford to wait for a girl to grow up, no matter how rich her dowry. They could afford to wait while their sons grew apace with a likely heiress but for themselves they needed a woman who could bear legitimate children immediately. And in a monogamous society they could only have one wife. Such a wife might be much younger than them, Chaucer wrote of May and December, but a woman grown she had to be.

Hugh Fitzgerald says, I paraphrase him now, that there is more art and culture to be found in one Tuscan village than any Islamic country. I don’t know Tuscany but I do know English cathedrals. Westminster Abbey (which is not a cathedral not being the seat of a bishop) is beautiful and of enormous historical interest but to my mind it is surpassed by Wells, Lincoln and York in conventional beauty. I also love Ely, but that beauty is an unusual one.  Architecture and calligraphy are the only arts allowed under Islam. I have heard Muslims claim that they invented the soaring arch we call gothic. I have also heard it said that they stole the idea from Christian architects.

No manuscript of the Koran comes close to work like the early mediaeval Book of Kells or the later Luttrell Psalter. There is no Muslim equivalent to the Wilton Diptych or the work of Giotto, or the unknown artists who worked in stone, wood, glass and thread. As a side point of interest, the Wilton Diptych is dated 1395 and one of the angels is flying the red cross on white ground of St George.

If I had to choose between the England of Chaucer (post Black Death) or that of Adela a Becket, sister of Thomas and Abbess of Barking, and living under Islam I’ll take the culture of my ancestors, and my chances with the lack of modern medicine.


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