Why the Middle Ages Matter: Ian Mortimer Interview

Ian Mortimer

Ian Mortimer is one of our foremost Medieval historians, and has written biographies Edward III, Roger Mortimer and Henry IV.
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Mortimer’s Time-Traveller Guides covering Medieval, Elizabethan and Restoration England have sold in their droves, and he takes a unique approach to history. He recently met with our editor, and they chatted when the Middle Ages begin and end, Edward III and why the Middle Ages matter.

Ian, having just finished Medieval Horizons: Why the Middle Ages Matter, I was a bit of a sceptic about the Middle Ages before I started this book, but you’ve turned me. There are two or three authors that you take issue with in what they’ve said about the Middle Ages, and there are assumptions that you’re challenging throughout, which are best summed up in the words of Marsellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction, where he states he’s going to get “medieval on his ass.”

Thank you very much for asking me to chat but I’m even happier to hear that I might have turned you. The book is about, to my mind as a historian who’s dealt with Middle Ages for such a long time, blindingly obvious things, and yet I seem to be alone in thinking they’re blindingly obvious.

“I’m going to get medieval on your ass” is now in the Oxford English Dictionary. Who would have thought it? It’s come to stand for backwardness and for brutality. When I was writing about Elizabethan England 15 years ago, I discovered that nobody had done as much for torture as the Elizabethans in England. Traditionally, we do not torture people for political purposes, but the Elizabethans looked past that and of course introduced torture. So, what Marsellus Wallace should really have said is, I’m going to get Elizabeth on your ass. But doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

The idea that it’s brutal and backward; and the number of times we hear the Taliban described as medieval, it did wear away at me. You mentioned two or three authors who I do take issue with. All three are established professors of history and that is why I chose those three. And I could have chosen dozens, if not hundreds of other writers who’ve expressed very much the same view that essentially our ideas of change are technological and technology based, as opposed to anything else causing social change. I think if we just look back over the last 1000 years, so much of our change has got nothing to do with technology. It seems to me an obvious and necessary step to alert people to how much our change is not technological, and rooted in different triggers in society and demography and the weather.

When do the Middle Ages start and end?

The idea of a ‘middle age’ really comes from Petrarch. I don’t know of anybody before Petrarch who was writing in the late 14th century, but he referred to the times between the fall of Rome and his own time as a ‘dark age’, and that idea grew. I can’t say it convinced everybody, because you don’t find anybody else referring to this ‘dark age’ until later in the 15th century. The term ‘The Middle Ages’ or the ‘Medieval’ period between the fall of Rome and our ‘own time’ you find from the 1570s, 1580s. The term ‘middle age’, or Middle Ages to describe between the fall of Rome and Elizabethan England. Initially, they just refer to the Middle Age. Now, from a modern perspective, we look at so many areas of change in that 16th century period that it’s very difficult to have an absolute correct date for the end of the Middle Ages. My wife and I always joke the Middle Ages ended about 3:30 in the afternoon on the 22nd August 1485, when Richard III lost his head and his horse at Bosworth.

Isn’t that very Anglo-centric to concentrate on the Battle of Bosworth? Those in Italy wouldn’t have cared about that, would they?

Absolutely – likewise for the start of the Middle Ages. There’s a difference there because if you’re in Italy describing the beginning of the Middle Ages, you’d say, “well, the fall of Roman 476AD,” whereas from an English or British point of view, you’d say the withdrawal of the Roman legions and the collapse of Roman authority in around 410/420AD. The thing is, why have a label? You only need the label if you’re using it to a certain end. What are you trying to get across by using these terms? I have always found it very useful to use Shakespeare as a historical benchmark, and because Shakespeare knew nothing of the technological impulses that have led to us having a technological mindset in the modern world. I thought what I would do was contrast early 11th century with Shakespeare’s time, so the 11th century with the 16th century. Now, most of that is medieval. Very few people think the years the 1590s are medieval, but for the purposes I wanted to get across, I went up to 1600 and I had Shakespeare in my mind.

I had the invention of the telescope and the microscope in my mind, which are both around 1590/1600, because those advance our horizons enormously and until those lenses really had done that, nothing was, on a technological basis, expanding our horizons. Ships obviously had developed and allowed us to go around the world but that metaphorical horizon the geographers allowed us to see is really true throughout this medieval period. And then when we get to that technological change, the beginning of the age of science and the scientific revolution in the 17th century, then I thought that was a point at which to compare and contrast. What I really want people to do is concentrate on everything before 1600, so hence my Middle Ages in this book goes all the way up to 1600. Normally you’ll find me saying the Middle Ages in this country end with the dissolution of the monasteries and the first break from Rome.

And so we start with 1000, not the Norman Invasion?

No, because I do want to defocus or lose this. I’m an English historian, so therefore virtually every source I’m really familiar with is English and origin or English related. But I did want to broaden people’s eyes to it’s not just about England. the book is going to be published in Greece and none of my books have been published in Greece before. I was thinking, “oh, God. I didn’t really think about Greece in terms of the Middle Ages.” There’s a real failure of my imagination to look to the other parts of southern Europe besides Spain and the Reconquista and Italy, but I’ve wanted to expand ideas and therefore I took the thing back to the early 11th century also, because even in this country, that Norman invasion did really make quite a lot of profound changes. William the Conqueror came here with the idea he’s going to get rid of slavery, that slavery was a bad thing. Saxons thought slavery was a good thing, so that in itself, the 11th century changes are ones I wanted to bring into the mix.

The Black Death was rather an important development. I use that word advisedly.

It’s a bit of an understatement. I have described it as the most important thing that’s happened in recorded history. The only times anybody has ever corrected me on that is to add, “in Europe.” Of course, if you’re in certain parts of the world, there have been more devastating moments. If you’re in Mexico, you might say that the arrival of Cortez and his clan was a bit of a devastating moment. For Europeans, it’s the most extraordinary cataclysmic event, but there are silver linings to it. And a lot of the breakdown of serfdom is due to the economic opportunities of the Black Death. Very simply, if you got x number of assets and you halve the number of people who own them, well, even the people at the bottom of your social hierarchy are going to benefit in some small way. Likewise, the people who are exploiting those who are now dead, they are going to suffer.

We do actually see a significant lessening of inequality in this period. Inequality is one of those difficult historical questions I have tried to tackle. The Black Death is one where you can see shifts of income inequality getting better and unfortunately getting worse again in the 16th century. The Black Death, it must have been hell to live through. As we now know, over 40% of the population dying in seven months. You couldn’t really have dealt with that and it not have some psychological impact. That your view of the world and how the goodwill of God himself must really have come under strain. For those who did survive, there were economic and social benefits and more of their children survived. It must have been traumatic, really.

If you throw in war and fighting and with our understanding of mental health nowadays, I’ve got visions of 80% of the population walking around traumatised with PTSD.

Absolutely. When you also think how many kids they’re losing in childbirth or in infant mortality and the huge oppression of the hierarchy of society, even if you are lucky, if you are low down in that pecking order, you’re going to be traumatised most of the time.

Do you think there’s a person who best represents the Medieval period?

Edward III

The characters that come to mind are people who basically seized their age and shook it by the scruff of their neck. And by suggesting characters like Peter Abelard or Edward III of England, you’re looking at individuals who are so remarkable, they’re not typical. So, they don’t represent the Middle Ages in terms of they embody the Middle Ages, their careers embody, really, the changes that we now associate with the Middle Ages.

Edward III’s idea of kingship: He took a world which was basically a series of kingdoms and a king with authority over his people. And when he left this world in 1377, he’d left a new vision of kingship, whereby kings operate with their elected representatives in Parliament, whereby they are as symbolic as they are directly in control. When we think in terms of Big Ben, symbol of the United Kingdom, I suppose, these days. Well, that tower is based on the site of the Edward Bell Tower, the bell that he created in the tower at Westminster Palace. In many ways that symbol of the United Kingdom goes back to Edward III and his impact on parliament. Windsor Castle was virtually entirely rebuilt by him. The idea that a king should lead his people in battle and be merciless to his enemies and yet listen to his subjects through parliament, his ideas of dynamic kingship, and throughout his 50-year reign, he was his own prime minister. Remember, he is one of the people who really does embody the challenges of the Middle Ages. How do you take what is wrong and set it right in the 14th century?

You can look at characters like that all the way through the Middle Ages. People who grappled with really meaty problems and contributed to the development of our culture, our constitution, and I think if I were to pick people, I would use them as a vehicle to describe their impact in the Middle Ages and expose the Middle Ages through them.

You write about the way we look back on history with our own values. And you’ve mentioned Richard III, he’s certainly one who gets judged by modern standards. Do you think this is a failing of history at the moment from historians in there seems to be a real trend for current day values being applied to the past?

I think it goes both ways and I think there are very few people in the middle of this fundamental problem. There are professors of history I know who insist in an academic purism, which means that you only judge people by the standards of their own time. There’s one person who I will not name, who sticks in my mind particularly for this, who is adamant that we should judge Colston as a good man because he was good to his city. We have no right to judge him out of the spirit of his time. I find this is ivory tower sort of history, and you have to recognise that you have an audience as a historian. It is not just about you understanding the past, if you’re a historian, it’s about you being able to relate the meaning of that past to the people around you, to whom you have a responsibility. Now, the people around you have their own values and there’s no point in them understanding whether Colston was a good guy in the early 18th century.

They can presume that because they put up a statue to him in the 19th century. The relevance is, what can you learn from this? What is meaningful to us about understanding the past? I think that the alternative point of view that we judge by today’s standards and that we condemn everybody in the past because they had different standards from us is equally absurd. The fact is, we are doing a triangulated operation. When we look at history, we are taking the past and using evidence. We are exploring what happened then and it’s meaning for us now. But the triangulation is it goes through the historian. So it’s not just the past and the present, it’s the past to the historian and the historian to the present. Now, if the historian can’t engage with a debate in both directions, is he or she really doing her job properly? The fact is, you have to balance these things. I think if you try and apologise for the past, you’re on a hiding to nothing. I think if you try and make up for the indignities of past centuries, you’re on a hiding to nothing, unless it’s the other day, in which case, of course, has a different matter.

When you’re looking back centuries and trying to right the wrongs of the 16th and 17th centuries, well, why choose those centuries rather than the 11th, 12th or the ancient world. Look back at slavery and Roman times if we’re going to go there. That’s a concept of dominion, where the slave owners were able to treat their slaves in the most appalling ways possible, throwing them alive into pools of Moray Eels to be eaten alive. I just do not think that one answer to that question is sufficient. You have to look at this triangulation. The historian has to understand how people were viewed at the time and relate that in a reasonable way to modern world, but also be aware of how standards and expectations have changed. If we don’t do that with the sensitivity in both directions, what is the point of understanding the past properly? And what is the point of talking to people today if they don’t want to listen about how the past was? We don’t learn anything. We’re just going to lay our judgments on the past and say they’re all wrong.

Ian Mortimer’s latest book is Medieval Horizons: Why the Middle Ages Matter. He is the bestselling author of The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England. You can hear an extended version of this interview on the Aspects of History Podcast.