`Science fiction has discovered a new planet', the Dutch medievist Herman Pley
wrote in the eighties about the increasing fascination for the Middle Ages.
A quotation from his article `Long live the Middle Ages' (BZZLETIN 124, March 1985):
`The excitement concerning the alien character and the excesses of the Middle Ages, is fairly general. Most of the publications on sale in bookshops deal with phenomena that have been banished from our civilised, western societies: heretics, witches, the Black Death, torture, spectacular executions, endless wars, looting vagabonds, famines and other daily discomforts. Combined with murder, fire, floods and rape, this suggests an existence in which the average peasant or townsman is permanently threatened by overwhelming powers he cannot even begin to control. Life in the Middle Ages was, forsooth, a daunting task. Never a dull moment! ... Well. I will refrain from pointing out that townspeople, peasants, courtiers or monks usually led much duller lives than we do. Generations could pass without people being raped, burned at the stake or carried off by the Black Death on a daily basis. Abbeys, courts, villages and towns often were little universes of their own whose inhabitants were much less dependent on the outside world for their sustenance than we are today. Contact with others was limited... Such isolated worlds form perfect breeding grounds for the cultivation of fears introduced from elsewhere by way of rumour. And those universes permeated by fears, with their ritual festivities and other means to tame them, are much more real than the above-mentioned terrors.'
Full of horrors or intrinsically dull - fortunately we can skip the uneventful decades and avoid physical contact with the worst discomforts - the Middle Ages are still going strong now that we are approaching the close of the second millennium AD. They are not just a planet, though, but a vast and remote quadrant of our temporal universe. And we are busy searching for worm-holes through which we might get closer. To find out more, or to seek out more mysteries we can speculate about. One of the things that fascinate me about the period is the fragmentary character of our knowledge about it, and the room this leaves for my roaming mind. Indeed Pley also described the Middle Ages as a `passepartout-epoch' on which a great variety of modern wants and needs, ambitions and frustrations, dreams and illusions, are being projected. `The' Middle Ages do not exist, it would seem, nor have they ever existed as such - wich is why the page heading contains no article. Everybody creates their own version of the epoch, hoping to recreate it in their minds as it really was, without ever truly getting there. (And perhaps that's just as well, for `going there is to destroy the magic' as a critic once wrote about dissecting the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.)
Here are some worm-holes I personally find useful.
- The most comprehensive site for the Middle Ages is probably Medieval resources.
- Then there is ORB, the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies; academical.
- For primary sources, look into ORB or click directly here for the Medieval Source Book, which gives access to many medieval texts in different languages. With several music samples.
- The Labyrinth is an excellent site for background information and research.
- The website of mystery author Sharan Newman has a charming page dealing with some popular misconceptions about the Middle Ages, like burning witches and wallowing in dirt.
- Eine deutsche site, mit links, findet man bei der Universitšt von Erlangen.
And finally, if you're sick of the Middle Ages in your search for otherwhen,
escape to the other side of today and try Star Trek.