Those Terrible Middle Ages by Regine Pernoud

Regine Pernoud

As she examines the many misconceptions about the “Middle Ages”, the renown French historian, Regine Pernoud, gives the reader a refreshingly original perspective on many subjects, both historical (from the Inquisition and witchcraft trials to a comparison of Gothic and Renaissance creative inspiration) as well as eminently modern (from law and the place of women in society to the importance of history and tradition). Here are fascinating insights, based on Pernoud’s sound knowledge and extensive experience as an archivist at the French National Archives.

The book will be provocative for the general readers as well as a helpful resource for teachers.Scorned for centuries, although lauded by the Romantics, these thousand years of history have most often been concealed behind the dark clouds of ignorance: Why, didn’t godiche (clumsy, oafish) come from gothique (Gothic)? Doesn’t “feudal” refer to the most hopeless obscurantism? Isn’t “Medieval” applied to dust-covered, outmoded things?

Here the old varnish is stripped away and a thousand years of history finally emerge — the “Middle Ages” are dead, long live the Middle Ages!

Translated by Anne Englund Nash, Ignatius Press, March 1st, 2000

This book by the late French historian and archivist Regine Pernoud proved to be a real gem. It is the first translation into English of a book first published 40 years ago, entitled  Pour en finer avec la Moyen Age, and despite its age, proved to be a fascinating read.  Some of the early chapters were not quite what I expected. The one on the supposed ‘Clumsiness and Awkwardness’ was mostly about architecture, and the following on literature.

Also, as the book was originally written is a translation, some of the grammar and word syntax is a little dubious though this does improve.
The later chapters, especially those on women and the controversial issue of religious inquisitions, I found far more informative and useful. Debunking some myths, and establishing such ideas in the context of the beliefs of the times
Especially the theory that many of the practices for which the Middle Ages are condemned, such as slavery, actually developed as a response to the reintroduction of Roman Law in the early Renaissance and Early Modern period. The obsession with all things classical actually did more harm than good.

On the contrary, the growth of Christianity is argued to have resulted in the development of rules on free consent in marriage, and the outlawing of slavery in many European slaves. Serfdom, it is argued was not equivalent to slavery as slaves in the Roman Empire were not free to marry, or indeed own land whereas this was theoretically possible for medieval serfs. Indeed, it is further asserted nobles were as much ‘tied to the land’ as serfs for they could not abandon their estates and their responsibilities than could peasants.
Some of the later chapters on methodology and the theoretical aspects history were of particular interest and relevance to me.Altogether, this was a good book challenging a lot of generalizations about this period and recommended for any who wish to develop a more well-rounded view of the time, removed from Hollywood and popular myth.

Regine Pernoud’s short work has particular resonance today, when ‘Medieval’ has become a byword for all things regarded as barbarous, brutal, uncivilized and backward. Yet is this adage deserved?
Certainly there were acts of violence and questionable ideas in the Middle Ages but the author argues that it was also in which the church legislated against forced marriage “that everywhere progress in free choice of a spouse accompanied progress in the spread of Christianity“.1 In England free choice actually caused problems for a mere verbal contract between two parties could constitute a valid marriage. Pernoud argues that today, it is largely in the formerly Christian lands that freedom of marriage persists rather than others where it has only recently been granted….this right is recognized in Magna Carta, which forbids forced marriage of widows. 1

Women could run businesses and take up a variety of occupations “schoolmistress, doctor, apothecary, plasterer, dyer and so on…abbesses” and female landowners had powers that would perhaps be envied today. Although not entirely ‘tolerated’ according to the modern understanding, sexual misdemeanors were rarely punishable by death.

In spite of some of the undoubted inequalities of Medieval society, the way in which some states and groups today which might be denounced as ‘Medieval’ entirely exclude women from formal education or attempt to do so is hard to reconcile with the fact that the Medieval Period have us Europe’s first professional female author Christine de Pizan alongside other women who composed works of poetry, history or religious devotion.


  1. Regine Pernoud, Anne Englund Nash (trans.) Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths (Ignatius Press, 2000), p103.
  2.  Ibid, p104. See the sixth and seventh clauses of the Magna Carta.
  3. Ibid, p105, 111.


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