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Liberal Society Hidden in the Dark Ages

• Jonathan Goodwin via

I have previously written about the political and legal framework of the Middle Ages, for me an eye-opening view into a decentralized society, where law was based on custom and agreements bound by oath; where the king was not superior to the law, but servant to it – with standing no higher than the lords; where each lord had veto power.

In this post, I will look at various aspects of social life in the Middle Ages. These include arts and letters, serfdom, women in society, religious tolerance, and finally, some additional aspects of the role of the king. For this, I will use excerpts from a wonderful book by Régine Pernoud, entitled Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths. The book was originally written in French, published in 1977.

Régine Pernoud (17 June 1909 in Château-Chinon, Nièvre – 22 April 1998 in Paris) was a historian and medievalist. She received an award from the Académie française. She is known for writing extensively about Joan of Arc.

The book is an easy read; Pernoud does not exhaust the reader with significant details and footnotes. This is not to suggest that there is no depth – her target audience is not the academic community. She writes here with a view toward busting the prevailing myths about the Middle Ages – myths that circulate in both professional and lay circles. I find in this work a good amount that confirms my earlier reading in this time period, as well as new insights that are presented credibly.

Pernoud has written this book in a tongue-in-cheek manner – the each chapter title is in the form of a myth regarding the Middle Ages, for example: "Clumsy and Awkward," "Crude and Ignorant," and "Women without Souls." In the course of each chapter, she describes and then debunks each of these myths.

Through my earlier work on the subject of the Middle Ages, I gained an appreciation of the development of a decentralized society, with decentralized law and political power. Pernoud, in this book, adds color to my view: the result of decentralization, as one should expect, was a flowering of liberal attitudes towards many subjects – in most ways more liberal than the Rome that preceded it, and the Renaissance that followed it.

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