5 Unexpected Facts About Life As A Minority In The Middle Ages
Certain things in the recent era can feel akin to the Middle Ages … or at least what we think of the Middle Ages. The truth is a lot of what pop-culture presents of the period doesn't match the actual history. This week at Cracked, we're doing a Middle Ages deep-dive – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Take even a cursory glance at Medieval history, and you see a lot of tribal fighting. Christians fighting Christians so much there were actually three popes at once, Muslims fighting Muslims so much there were even more caliphates than popes, Christians and Muslims finally deciding just to fight each other, and as a third-act twist, Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde come galloping in for a little bit more of, you guessed it, fighting.
But war is best reserved for video games. What's fascinating to me is the amount of cultural exchange going on from the years 500-1500 C.E. For all that fighting, people sure seemed to be trying out a lot of interesting things. Sure, there was violence and plague and instability, but viewing this era as a "Dark Ages" is incredibly Eurocentric. The landmass that was the former Roman Empire was re-stitching itself into an intricate tapestry of cultures, religions, and identities that benefitted from each other as often as they collided. Unfortunately, as is too often the case when a cosmopolitan society seems to be on its way to a good time, hardline extremists got all, "Hey, that guy doesn't look or sound like me, KILL HIM!" If only someone had written "Kumbaya" as a Gregorian chant, maybe marginalized groups in Medieval Europe wouldn't have had to put up with these indignities …
Muslims Have A Lot Going On Culturally, Europeans Just Wanna Crusade
Medieval history can't be understood without realizing how the rapid expansion of Christianity and Islam was throwing the world into turmoil. Here were two religions born from the brains of a couple of Middle Eastern dudes with Prophet complexes that suddenly every pagan in Europe, North Africa, and the Levant had to choose from or face persecution. I'm being reductive, of course, but I gotta think that the first time some stink-cheesemaker in France heard "Jesus Christ is Lord" or some goat herder in Morocco heard "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God," the reaction had to be similar to Monty Python's anarchist peasants not realizing they had a king.
Nevertheless, religious divisions calcified. Violent conquest will do that, I guess. The Islamic world ended up thriving, while Christendom huffed and puffed and took their insecurities out on Muslims like some failed comedian starting an alt-right YouTube channel.
Things started off nicely for Muslims as the Umayyad Dynasty conquered a whole bunch of land. They spread from the Arabian peninsula all the way into Spain in the east and northern India to the west—not exactly a short hiking route. Initially, they'd organized something of an informal caste system designed to keep Arab Muslims at the top, but that didn't last too long after the Islamic world became far more diverse than its Arab origins. By 750, the primarily Persian Abbasids had taken over and moved the capital city to Baghdad. They were far more open to cosmopolitanism, and it led to huge successes in technology, trade, and the arts. Works of philosophy and religion from across the region were translated into Arabic, and huge advancements in mathematics were being made, like the invention of algebra and a revolution of the world's number system (more on that in a minute). Meanwhile, the physician Ibn Sina wrote what became the standard medical textbook in the known world until the 1600s.
Christians, on the other hand, spent a lot of time coming to realizations like "If the Magi brought baby Jesus three gifts, there must've been only three Magi, right?" Seriously, think of almost anything kinda silly and non-Biblical about Catholicism—the concept of purgatory or indulgences, for instance—and it can probably be traced back to some pope or theologian making some shit up in the middle ages. Still, supreme political and spiritual power over an entire continent isn't nothing, and the Church had the ear of European kings. Eventually, the "Europe vs. the Islamic Empire" came to a head when Pope Urban II got the bickering idiot nobility of the white continent to unite in holy war and go on the first crusade. The crusades did just about nothing for European Christian in terms of controlling the Holy Land, but they did help create a "clash of civilizations" narrative that lasted … uh … all the way up to the War On Terror. Good job, Medieval Christians.
No, Seriously, Muslims Invented Numbers
You ever heard something in your head but didn't fully appreciate how silly it is until you heard it said out loud? Like trying to explain the Joker's plan in The Dark Knight makes you think how ridiculous it all is, that type of thing? That was me, watching YouTuber History Matters talk about how long it took Europe to adopt Arabic numerals:
Specifically, when they say, "It was obvious to everyone back then that XIV + XXXVI = L." Obviously, I know what Roman numerals are, but I've never thought about doing actual equations with them. And I'm not going to do the writer's cliché and tell you I'm bad at math. I mean, I am bad at math, but I can calculate a restaurant tip in two seconds, and I still know how to do long division. So, you know, on par with any 5th-grader. But having to add up a series of letters just to make another letter seems like so much work to me. Makes you wonder if Robin Hood got into thievery because he was frustrated at a checkout counter one day.
By the 13th century, though, Leonardo de Pisa—aka Fibonacci, aka The Sequence Writer, aka Leonardo Second-Most Frustrated To Be Associated With Dan Brown—had written a textbook arguing Arabic numerals were the way better. The book proved persuasive … until skittish Christian leaders started being all "Ewwww, Muslims made these, plus change is haaaaaard." The combination of complacency and bigotry was enough to stall full-scale adoption for another two centuries.
In the same way that our 21st-century fate is going to be decided by Mark Zuckerberg decreeing the internet is whatever he wants it to be, Europe adopted Arabic numerals because of the absurdly rich and powerful Medici family. That's right, the Succession-but-it's-the-Renaissance-and-we're-all-saying-a yyyyy bankers that sponsored Michelangelo decided Arabic numerals were more efficient. Since they had all the money in the known world, everyone went along with them. And you know what? For once, the bankers were right. Imagine reading George Orwell's masterpiece, MCMLXXXIV, with its famous quote "II + II = V." Utter nonsense.
Spain Was Almost A Model For Multicultural Utopia
I promise not all of my sources for this article are Monty Python sketches, but I say this in all seriousness: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Sure, Spain had recently been subjected to Reconquista, a series of wars with the explicit purpose of wresting control of the Iberian peninsula from Muslims and back into to Christian control. But such a violent, religion-based persecution like the Inquisition would have been unthinkable just a short time prior. Let's zoom back and talk about what author Maria Rosa Menocal dubbed "The Ornament of The World:" Spain, back when it was controlled by Muslims and known as Al-Andalus.
The culture of tolerance, scholarly interchange, and architectural developments in Al-Andalus can be compared favorably to Renaissance Italy or ancient Greece. With its center at Cordoba, Al-Andalus was a model for how Jews, Christians, and Muslims could live and thrive together. Even when the Normans started getting all conquer-y in the 11th century, they still tried to cultivate a vibrant, diverse culture. People were working together in ways you usually don't hear about in Medieval history … for a while, anyway. The Muslim Almoravids (and later Almohads) got pretty radically anti-Christian, which Christians responded to by getting pretty radically anti-Muslim.
Ultimately, Catholic Mass in Arabic and literature in Persian was too much for Europe to handle. Reconquista happened, the Inquisition happened, Spanish colonization of the Americas happened, and eventually, fascism and Franco happened. That's a pithy, condensed timeline of Spanish history, but goddamn if it isn't a bummer that all those events happened after such a functional-if-maybe-a-little-tense unified society had been achieved. The supposed "Dark Ages" in Spain were actually pretty utopian, and all the empire-building after was nightmarish. Huh.
Guess the world just wasn't ready for the three Abrahamic faiths peacefully coexisting together. Thankfully, today we have such model societies as … uh … *checks notes* … uh, there's gotta be something here where the three Abrahamic faiths peacefully coexist, I'm sure of it … you know what? Standby while we move on to the next entry. We'll circle back sometime before the apocalypse.
No One Knew How To React To The Romani
Speaking of racially and religiously ambiguous groups that made Medieval Europeans queasy, let's talk about the Romani for a minute. A nomadic people likely originating in the Punjab region of India, Romani arrived in Europe around the 1300s and were immediately met with a mix of fascination and "Whoa, hey, those people creep me out." Christians specifically thought Romani's nomadic customs made them part of "the race of Cain." In a time where Christian and Muslim worlds were solidifying identities and cultural divisions, a group of people freely roaming wherever they wanted and not having any attachment to a particular homeland was pretty confusing.
Some ended up in the Ottoman Empire, where people were ethnically "eh, close enough" that they let Romani wander around more or less as they pleased. Especially if they said, they had converted to Islam. Some ended up in Europe, where everyone seemed to think they were weird but interesting, and if you know anything about European history, it was only a matter of time before "weird" turned into "evil" and "interesting" turned into "against God."
Wherever the Romani ended up, it didn't take long for enough people to start treating them like shit. They were frequently enslaved, regarded with racial suspicion, and often forcibly expelled. In the supposedly less-dark-ages era of post-1500, it wasn't uncommon for Romani to have an ear cut off simply for existing. After a while, a bunch of countries decreed any Romani found within their borders should be executed. Switzerland led the charge, with England, Denmark, and Sweden following suit shortly thereafter. Portugal, for their part, did the honorable thing and simply deported Romani to their American colonies—y'know, places famous for their white glove, VIP-level treatment of non-white people. Man, everything keeps getting worse for non-Europeans after the "Dark Ages," huh? What a weird pattern to see emerging in the era just before exploration and colonialism.
A Brief Check-In With Gay Folk During A Time Of Religious Extremism
You might think that to be LGBTQ+ in Medieval Europe was to lead a life of secrecy and fear. After all, the known world was filled with violent religious extremists and ignorant dirt farmers, right? Well, the reality, much like sexuality and gender identity, is a little more complicated. No, they weren't throwing Pride parades down the filth-ridden streets of Lord Quiverlybottom's suspiciously heirless estate, but anti-queer attitudes were not as virulent as you might expect. In fact, some recent scholarship goes so far as to suggest Medieval Europe was an odd kind of "queer utopia."
The official position of the Catholic Church was that sex for anything other than procreation was sinful, but it took a little while for them to actually codify rules about how knight-errants should and shouldn't be errant with what's under their codpieces. Not to mention governments, despite the totalitarian economic rule of the feudal system, had little ability or interest in going door-to-door, making sure Lancelot wasn't making Tim the Enchanter shoot too much fire from his stick. This lack of enforcement combined with a blanket ban on non-procreative sex meant that any human acting on human sexual desires was just kinda … being human. People were attracted to who they were attracted to and figured out how to act on desires. Let those without sin fondle the first stones, amirite?
In all seriousness, there is evidence that monasteries—by definition male-only—let in people who had been assigned female gender at birth but identified as male. One … ahem … beardless monk was isolated by the Abbot for fear that his "emerald-like beauty" would cause his brothers to "stumble." There is evidence that monks, no matter their assigned gender, got it on with one another, and the matter was more that sexual desire was to be struggled against, not necessarily homosexual desire. As for nuns, the Church was clearly aware of and afraid of lesbian sex. None other than Saint Augustine wrote that "the things which shameless women do even to other women in low jokes and games are to be avoided," which sounds like an overwrought admission that his wife always liked to "talk" with "her friend" after sex.
For the most part, men were so totally unable to imagine women having sex without a penis present that lesbianism sort of faded from theological writing for a while. It's not like every nunnery was secretly The L Word—patriarchy absolutely dominated the discourse. But these dorkass celibate monks making up rules for how women should and shouldn't pleasure themselves or each other resulted in a receding from the imagination. Invisibility isn't ideal, obviously, but Medieval lesbians made work what they could.
Ready for the bummer part? As has been something of a theme this whole article, when the quote-unquote "Dark Ages" came to an end, things got worse for queer people.
In 1533—technically after the Middle Ages—Henry VIII on England made sodomy a capital offense. So much for the Renaissance being a return to Greco-Roman glory (those dudes loved boning other dudes). Although, come to think of it, it's entirely possible Henry VIII just got off on killing people. I'm not normally one to kink-shame, but I draw the line at only getting a boner when ordering and viewing a public execution, which is a kink I'm officially going to accuse Henry VIII of. What's that dead bastard going to do about it? He's dead, and his ghost is probably hiding from his exes.
If there's any way to sum up: constant war, famine, plague, religious persecution, and a life expectancy of 30 doesn't sound like a fun time period to live in. But I think the Middle Ages get a bad rap for being nothing but endless misery. There are some examples of interfaith societies, some examples of queer tolerance (not open acceptance, but still), and plenty of non-European societies contributing to global knowledge and trade. Seems like some good societal pillars to build on. Yep, we've sure come a long way since the Dark Ages. I, for one, sure am glad to live in a time when holy war doesn't exist, the Catholic Church is totally normal about sex, society is post-racist, and we've solved the plague problem. How far we've come, as a species, since the dark ages.
Chris Corlew is a writer and musician living within walking distance of multiple churches, mosques, and synagogues. Tell him what a vile traitor to Christendom he is on Twitter.