Paul Collins adds nuance

The Birth of the West, Paul Collins, Public Affairs


We are constantly finding (through recent scholarship) that the image we have of the medieval and pre-medieval world is not quite what we had been led to believe. Paul Collins’ new book, amongst a host of others that claim to pinpoint the creation of our modern age, deals with Europe in the tenth century, and, amongst other things, he is keen to add some nuance into our previous images of “the dark ages”.

In his preface he tells an anecdote about what he claims was a commonly-held belief in “sky sailors” who ride in sky ships, control the weather and use it to raid villager’s produce. This is an indication of the strange mix of pagan and Christian beliefs that existed in medieval Europe, but that the Church generally saw as “superstition” and was keen to root out. It is clear, from various instances, that this was more than the clergy competing for allegiance – they actually thought this kind of pagan belief was nonsense for the gullible. One can compare this to the Church’s beliefs about witches – it is commonly assumed that the Church encouraged witch burning, but in many cases the Church actually discouraged it because the belief in witches was seen as superstitious nonsense.

Well, so much for those crazy medieval villagers, but are we better informed? One day will our descendants wonder in disbelief how we accommodated such wildly incompatible notions as capitalism and Christianity?

One other thing about Paul Collins’ book, and a nice one I think, is that he begins the work by setting the medieval thought-world in the natural environment – geographically, climatically, botanically… Here too we can add some nuance. We might think that history shows a slow, steady move from forested landscape to cleared, agricultural landscape and cityscapes. But Rome went from a population of 1 million in about 100 AD to 30,000 in the tenth century. Fluctuations occur. Plague of course decimated the population and what was once farmland soon returned to forest, and deserted towns soon were subsumed into the undergrowth. To move further afield, both geographically and time-wise, and beyond Collins’ book, in New England, on America’s east coast, much of what is now forest fabled for its autumn colour was cleared by the early European settlers but because of its rocky nature was soon allowed to return to wilderness. And in Australia, areas around Sydney that were managed by the indigenous population as parkland, were let go once twentieth-century Australians felt the need to create “natural” national and state parks. Bill Gammage has a wonderful book about this (The Biggest Estate on Earth).

The assumption that medieval people thought the world was saturated with the supernatural was indeed true, and what continues to be interesting about this is how different this made the medieval mindset to ours, in attitudes to disasters, illness and the like, to foreigners, to the family and society, to the forest and the rest of the ‘natural’ world. It is, or perhaps should be a sobering thought that what we often think of as normal human attitudes to things might be simply unique to our own time and place.

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