Dark, dirty, demonic – the European Middle Ages are considered by many to be a dark era. The economy and society were much more colorful and creative than long assumed. Seven of the latest and most important findings.

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What surprises many: The Middle Ages is not the age of witch hunts

In the first semester, Klaus Oschema asks his students about the images that the term Middle Ages evokes in them: power of the church, knights, castles and witches. And this is exactly how prejudices against the Middle Ages can be deconstructed, says Oschema.

Because the actual high phase of witch hunts and thus also of witch burnings is not the time that we call the Middle Ages, but rather witches were primarily persecuted in the time that we call the early modern period, in the 16th and 17th centuries.

So no witches. What then shaped the Middle Ages?

New research on the Middle Ages

Historical research and archeology have recently revealed some surprising findings. This is how it is done by the sharing communities reported in the Middle Ages, about forest cooperatives and other sustainable concepts, about building material recycling and social housing. In short: about an extremely diverse and exciting period of time that lasted around a thousand years between 500 and 1500 – and which is worth a new look.

Here are seven of the most important findings:

1. In the Middle Ages there was much less work than previously assumed

Excerpt from a page from the “Tacuinum Sanitatis”, a medieval manual on health, food, drink and clothing, dated before 1400

Annette Kehnel, professor of medieval history at the University of Mannheim, has studied, among other things, the workload of people in the Middle Ages. This is also a false idea that people worked day in and day out from morning to night.

It’s really funny how this is somehow embedded in our heads as unspoken knowledge, or tacit knowledge, in a very concrete way: for example, the five-day week was the norm in the Middle Ages.

It was only during the Reformation that the five-day week was abolished and people worked more. Until then, Blue Monday was quite common, as was a happy day, i.e. a working day for the Lord – or rather: just half a working day. So there was free time and during this time there must have been room for beautiful, interesting and happy things.

What was the “Middle Ages” called in the Middle Ages?

2. Pandemic measures were already known in the Middle Ages

Figure of plague doctor in the Middle Ages, historical medical clinic, Volterra, Tuscany Italy

But some stereotypes are not completely wrong. The plague, for example, was actually a terrible threat to people in the Middle Ages. Especially when the disease was barely known and people had no idea how to deal with it. Since its outbreak in the mid-14th century, the plague has killed between 20 and 35 percent of the population.

But over the following decades, people learned to deal with the plague and developed pandemic measures that we also know today. They avoided places where the plague was rampant and postponed major events, festivals and markets. An example of how capable and creative people of the Middle Ages were.

3. The European university was invented in the Middle Ages

The University of Oxford’s New College was founded in 1379 and still has a medieval dining hall

Many inventions that we still benefit from today also came from this time. The glasses, for example. And a highly complex institution like the university emerged in the Middle Ages, around 1200.

“Before there were no universities, there were places of education, there were high schools, but the special constitution as a community of teachers and learners that had its own legal status emerged in the early 13th century, first in Paris, Bologna and Oxford , these are the three classic germ cells.”

4. Women could finally do whatever they wanted in the monastery

Self-portrait of Herrade von Landsberg and other nuns from her monastery – depicted in the Hortus Deliciarum, the first encyclopedia proven to have been written by a woman from 1180

Contrary to all clichés, monastic life offered a space of special freedom for many women in the Middle Ages. It started with the fact that they were able to find refuge here after the death of their husband, for example.

“Not all women wanted to remarry, but of course often, if they were rich widows or if they were nobles, then the pressure on these women to remarry was obviously great. And they were able to avoid this pressure by founding a monastery, by joining into a monastery and then do whatever they wanted. There were always cases where they said: We need this protection and we want to escape this coercion.”

Eva Schlotheuber, together with Henrike Lähnemann, who teaches German literature of the Middle Ages at the University of Oxford, published the book in spring 2023: “Unheard of Women – The Networks of Nuns in the Middle Ages”. Janina Ramirez also portrays scientists, patrons, outlaws and leaders of the Middle Ages in her book “Femina – A new history of the Middle Ages from the perspective of women”.

These research results show how broad these women’s horizons must have been, because some of them traveled a lot and exchanged ideas with many others.

5. The Middle Ages were diverse

Map of London (1572)

The Middle Ages was also not a time in which only white people lived in Europe; a city like London was already very diverse and probably much more diverse than had long been assumed. 100 years ago this would have been the story of the great white men dominating political events. Now one asks: What is society composed of, how mixed and diverse were societies?

“I would also say that when it comes to ways of life, modernity is accompanied by a loss of diversity. We have increasingly focused on family and, since the 20th century, these blood ties, genetically related families. Genetics didn’t play such a big role before Darwin Role. Which children were genetically my own and which were not was meaningless in a time when there were no paternity tests.”

6. The Middle Ages were social and sustainable

Illustration of a 15th century blacksmith from “A Short History of the English People” by John Richard Green 1893

Of the over 1,500 different professions in medieval Frankfurt, a large proportion were in the field of repair. Today there are only a total of 326 training occupations left in Germany.

Annette Kehnel, professor of medieval history at the University of Mannheim, has also taken a closer look at medieval economics. “We could do things differently – a short history of sustainability,” is the name of her book. She describes how resource-saving, sustainable and charitable thinking worked in the Middle Ages.

Practically everything down to the last shirt was recycled in the Middle Ages. The word “waste” only appeared in dictionaries in the early 20th century, writes Kehnel. But she also presents projects with a community spirit:

“There are, for example, these microcredit banks for the poor that the cities in northern Italy founded in times of absolute economic boom in order to give the poor access to capital. (…) The city councilors themselves said: OK, whoever gets rich and always Producing more poverty is simply not possible.”

7. The Middle Ages can inspire our future

The many clichés of the Middle Ages have been questioned since the 1970s. But probably never before as intensely as today. Can the Middle Ages even give us ideas about how we want to live, do business and care for one another today?

“If we know what alternatives can and have existed where and what was important and worked in what way and was also worthy for the various members of society, then we can be a little more critical of our present time and say: on that Maybe we can develop something and have inspiration for something new.”

Book tips

Annette Kehnel:

We could also do it differently. A Brief History of Sustainability”

Blessing Verlag 2021

Henrike Lähnemann, Eva Schlotheuber:

Unheard of women. The Networks of Nuns in the Middle Ages”

Propyläen Verlag 2023

Janina Ramirez:

Femina. A new history of the Middle Ages from the perspective of women”

Establishment of the publishing house in 2023

Manuscript for the broadcast

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