Sunday 17 September 2017

On medieval 'superstition'

Readers of this blog may be interested in an article I've written for this week's Catholic Herald, discussing the outdated and ill-informed stereotypes which still unfortunately prevail in media treatment of the medieval church. The article can be read online here.

This is a subject I've written about at greater length in the following posts:

About this blog

Relics, Reburials, and Richard III

In Defence of 'Monks on the Make': Glastonbury, Lies, and Legends

In the last post, in particular, you can see some examples of the kind of thing I mean: greedy monks, ignorant peasants, lying priests and all. These kinds of stereotypes are particularly common in the UK media whenever a story about medieval Christianity turns up; I'm sure they work rather differently outside Britain, so readers from elsewhere may like to bear in mind that I'm writing about the British context here.

Just to add a point I didn't have space to develop in the article: I'm uncomfortable with the language of 'superstition' not only because it is inaccurate and unjust to the Middle Ages - though it is - but also because it perpetuates rhetoric which in the UK has historically been used to target a disadvantaged religious minority, working-class Irish and immigrant Catholics. It was these groups many earlier writers on the Middle Ages had in mind when they were discussing medieval 'superstition', and it coloured their view of the past in ways which were often prejudiced and misleading. Anyone who has read Victorian scholarship on medieval hagiography, for instance, will be very well aware of this. Here's an excellent brief history of the word from the historian Francis Young:

Journalists today who talk about the 'superstitious peasants' of the Middle Ages usually believe themselves to represent the height of modern, rational, secular liberalism; but in many ways they have unthinkingly inherited the language of their Victorian forebears for whom 'superstition' was simply a synonym for 'Catholicism'. What they meant by it was that this was a religion for peasants, foreigners, and ignorant women, who were superstitious, credulous, childish, and so stupid that they believed anything their wicked priests told them. Anti-Irish, anti-immigrant, sexist bigotry - not exactly the kind of thing schools today would like to think they're encouraging, and not at all useful in trying to gain an accurate and unbiased picture of the past. Is it really acceptable for journalists and educators to use this kind of language - at least without explanation and qualification - given its history? I assume (I hope) most modern writers who perpetuate these stereotypes are not consciously aware of what they're doing; but it shouldn't be allowed to go unchallenged.