Positively Medieval

We should resist using ‘medieval’ as another word for backward. The 15th century, in particular, was a time of remarkable progress and enlightenment.

The tomb of the poet John Gower (d.1408) in Southwark Cathedral. AKG Images/Bildarchive Monheim
The tomb of the poet John Gower (d.1408) in Southwark Cathedral. AKG Images/Bildarchive Monheim

The word ‘medieval’ has negative connotations. It is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning ‘of the Middle Ages’ but also as ‘old fashioned’. According to the Urban Dictionary, ‘Get medieval’, as used in Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction, means ‘to physically torture or injure someone by means of archaic methods’. Get Medieval is also the name of a video attack and defence game, set in a dungeon.

Yet it cannot be right to treat a thousand years as if they were all bad, or even all the same, as we regularly do in everyday speech. We should be more positive, certainly about the 15th century, which in the public mind is the period of the Wars of the Roses, ‘bastard feudalism’ and Richard III.

In the groves of academe the 15th century has been rehabilitated, largely as a result of the work of the late K.B. McFarlane, his pupils and their pupils. McFarlane was Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford between 1927 and 1966. He published little, but his teaching and lectures inspired many and shifted the focus of debate from the English Constitution to society as a whole.

There was a time when the monarchy of Henry VII was seen as a ‘New Monarchy’; it is now widely accepted that Henry made few institutional changes. It was simply that he was a much more effective king than Henry VI. Likewise, Geoffrey Elton’s idea that there was a ‘revolution in government’, presided over by Thomas Cromwell, was exploded by McFarlane and Gerald Harriss. All that happened in the 1530s was that Parliament sat more often and for longer.

McFarlane also showed that ‘bastard feudalism’, the invention of censorious Victorians, was little more than a clever phrase. What happened was that the relationship between lords and retainers was gradually transformed by the growth of a money economy. There was nothing ‘illegitimate’ about this. The Wars of the Roses were not a sign of decay and dissolution, but a reaction to the insanity, and inanity, of Henry VI. 

When it comes to religion, the Reformation of the 16th century has always been regarded as a major watershed and will rightly continue to be so. Nevertheless, it is possible now to take a much more positive view of the last ‘medieval’ century than was at one time taken by all but staunchly Catholic historians.

The work of the late Dom David Knowles showed that monasticism was far from corrupt and decadent, although the heroism and austerity of the High Middle Ages may have been lost. Eamon Duffy has demonstrated that religion was thriving at parish level. In The Practice of Kingship Jeremy Catto argues that most 15th-century bishops were graduates, learned men who were both efficient administrators and conscientious diocesans. As for the origins of Protestantism, McFarlane was sceptical that these were to be found in the Lollard heresy. He showed that this had been rooted out of Oxford and respectable society by the time of the Lollard rebellion known as Oldcastle’s Revolt (1414). It survived, though tenaciously, among country ‘bumpkins’ only. By implication the origins of the Reformation lay not in the decline of the medieval Church but in the difficult family life of Henry VIII.

We can see for ourselves, in the glories of Perpendicular architecture in the parish churches, cathedrals,  the abbeys, chantry chapels and collegiate churches and in the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, that the Church was by no means in decline in the 15th century. On the contrary, there was a flowering of piety, especially lay piety. Men were building and re-building to the glory of God and for the benefit of their souls, right down to the Reformation. What changed, when that came, was doctrine and fashion. The abbeys and the chantries were torn down because men had ceased to believe in the notion of Purgatory, at least officially, though their late medieval ancestors (apart from the Lollards) had taken this so seriously.

In secular architecture it was traditionally the Tudor period that saw the transition from castle to manor house; W.G. Hoskins popularised the idea of a ‘Great Rebuilding’ of more humble dwellings between 1550 and 1640. Yet this does not mean that there was no rebuilding in the 15th century. A later building may obscure an earlier one. Take Richard Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick (1382-1439), father-in-law of that quintessential ‘medieval’ figure, Warwick the Kingmaker. He built or rebuilt castles and manor houses at Warwick, Hanley, Drayton Basset, Elmsley, Caversham and Hanslope and, when he died in 1439, he was buried in a magnificent tomb in St Mary’s Church in Warwick. This has a bronze effigy and weepers, the work of a Flemish master, just as beautiful and impressive as the much better known ‘Renaissance’ effigy of Henry VII by Torrigiano in Westminster Abbey. Yet, according to traditional chronology, Warwick is a ‘medieval’ figure, while Henry VII is ‘early modern’. In fact, there are wonderful 15th-century timber and plaster buildings everywhere one looks in England, but we have become accustomed to describe these as ‘Tudor’.

In literature, we have been taught that Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400) was a genius, but John Lydgate (c.1370-c.1451) was a dunce; and that the whole of the 15th century, at least before the advent of the printing press, was a fallow period. Yet in his own day men enjoyed Lydgate and rated him. Henry V and his brothers, Bedford and Gloucester, were all bibliophiles; and there is a good case for saying that English Humanism began in the 15th, rather than in the 16th, century (see Daniel Wakelin’s Humanism, Reading and English Literature 1450-1530). In law, we have been taught to think that ‘medieval’ means backward and ‘modern’ means advanced; but it is in the works of Sir John Fortescue (c.1394-1476) that we find the classic statement that torture is contrary to the common law of England, while in the 17th century the state used it routinely, at least so far as Catholic conspirators were concerned.

In economics we were taught that the Black Death of 1348 was catastrophic, that the population was reduced by a third and that economic growth stalled until the happy Tudors arrived on the scene. A smaller population is undeniable; but the 15th century is also the age when the ‘wool churches’ of East Anglia and the Cotswolds were beautified, restored and extended, by men who clearly had money. It is also the age of Dick Whittington (c. 1350-1423), who was Lord Mayor of London several times, even if the cat is in doubt; and of Cardinal Beaufort (c.1374-1447) and John Fastolf (1380-1459). These two were among the richest men of their age. One does not get the impression that they were held back by the after effects of the Black Death, or for that matter of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The prosperity and activities of men like these make one sceptical of any idea that capitalism had anything to do with Protestantism, as once proposed by Weber and Tawney; and the gentry were well and truly ‘rising’ in the 15th century, long before the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

It has to be recognised that the Hundred Years War may get in the way of any attempt to revise the black legend of the 15th century. The negative view of war has become so prevalent that producers of Shakespeare’s Henry V now feel obliged to present it as in some sense an anti-war play; and, in a mock trial in the United States held in 2010, Henry himself was condemned as a war criminal. Yet in the late Middle Ages war was regarded as a normal state of affairs; and all kings played the dynastic game. Few Englishmen questioned the king’s right to pursue his inherited rights and none did so in public. Most men gloried in Henry V’s successes; and Henry was regarded at the time, as he was by McFarlane later, as the ablest man who ever sat on the throne of England.

Looking at England and English culture as a whole, Gerald Harriss has described the years 1360-1461 as the period that ‘shaped the nation’; but the country was not shaped in the same mould as medieval Prussia, for all Henry V’s success on the battlefield. The late Maurice Keen (in Chivalry, The Rise of the English Gentleman and other books) and Nigel Saul (in For Honour and Fame, 2011) showed that Henry’s attempt to revive the militaristic chivalry of Edward III’s day was ultimately unsuccessful. Fifteenth-century England came to be peopled by men who cared more for nobility and gentility of character, for education and service at court, than they did for war. It became a common complaint among the old guard (like Fastolf) that the sons of the gentry wanted to become lawyers rather than soldiers; and it does seem that they were becoming much more ready to resort to law rather than war to resolve their differences at home. Society was becoming less violent. It was the 16th century that witnessed the military revolution, despite its long association with the spread of ‘Renaissance’ value.

Stephen Cooper is a lawyer and the author of a book about Agincourt to be published by Pen & Sword in 2014.