Over Easy: Catching up on the Middle Ages later in life

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 1/24/2020 6:14:05 PM
Modified: 1/24/2020 6:13:55 PM

For reasons I cannot fully fathom, I have of late developed an interest in the Middle Ages. Not middle age, which I am entirely done with, but Medieval history.

Gadzooks and zounds! I can honestly say I never saw it coming.

Especially since I paid so little mind to it when it could have been a priority, my so-called schoolboy days. My learning style was to hop from rock to rock, or quiz to quiz, never really getting my footing and exploring the vast grounds of history.

What, after all, did Charlemagne mean to me? Robes. A cathedral. An empire. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Too bad I never encountered more relatable kings, like Charles the Simple who, according to my deep dive into Wikipedia, was crowned king of West Francia around 900. His cousin was Charles the Fat, his father Louis the Stammerer, his grandfather Charles the Bald. His queen — egad! — was Eadgifu.

My scholar friends and I would have snickered our way through their realms — we were a coarse lot — but we might have been captivated because, as historians say, there was a lot going on. And Vikings! We could have developed a minor crush on Charles the Simple’s niece, Cunigunda. Such a lovely name — she surely was a hottie.

Anyway, one thing led to another and eventually you had modern France, which is the way history works.

My pilgrimage, and it is a pilgrimage of sorts, began one morning when I was strolling down Main Street in West Lebanon. I peered into the Little Free Library just outside the Kilton Library, and spied the title A World Lit Only by Fire, by William Manchester.

“NATIONAL BESTSELLER,” the cover claimed, catching my attention. (I’m always interested in an author making money.) The subtitle reeled me in: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age.

Since my retirement a couple of years ago, I have been reading more, which has opened my eyes to the Great List of Things I Really Should Know More About. Given free time, my curiosity has expanded like a supernova or, less grandly, mold in the basement. I suppose my wife would prefer more interest in home improvement projects, but compared with the Sack of Rome our house issues seem minor.

Manchester’s book, published in 1992, covers a lot of ground, from around 400 to just after 1500, when Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe, well before GPS.

In a brief section of his history Manchester describes the life of run-of-the-mill peasants. He writes, and I have no reason to dispute this, that they were short, stinky and stupid. For a time, common folk didn’t even have surnames. I would have been known as Daniel the Typist if I lived then, if they had typing.

Life in the Middle Ages certainly had its downsides, including lice, vermin, plagues, invading hordes and theological disputes that could suddenly turn fatal. The top 1 percent were always lording over you.

It was a golden age of diseases. The only miracle cures were actual miracles and people aged quickly. The AARP was hunting you down at age 30.

When Manchester wrote that average people didn’t know the time of day (no clocks), or the date (few calendars), and never went anywhere (no maps), I briefly envied their low-distraction lifestyle. But then there were the downsides, as mentioned above.

As the years flew by, about 1,000 or so, Medieval life changed for the better. Then came the Renaissance, when genius flourished for reasons that are beyond this treatise. No man of genius myself, I have reaped the rewards of the hard work of great men, and eventually women (when men smartened up).

But really and sincerely, I enjoyed the book, which I would have resented having to read as a teenager. This came as a wonderful, quirky surprise.

I have since taken up another tome, the Oxford History of Medieval Europe, which is more of a slog, since it seems to mention every king or duke there ever was, many with names like Axlerod or Overwrought. I knew that France and England were crawling with kings, but who knew Germany was as well? There was literally one after another.

Who knows where my historical examinations will lead. Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, or will we come up with real whoppers that top them?

I’m not sure, but what’s mainly on my mind these days is that we soon will choose our own leaders, an opportunity denied to my forbears in the Middle Ages. Perhaps I will think of the top Democratic contenders as Pete the Mild, Joe the Elder, Elizabeth the Planner, Bernie the Outraged, Andrew the Wise, Amy the Wisecracker. And then follow Tom the Rich and Michael the Rich II. One will rise up and challenge, for good or ill, Donald the Bigly.

Or I could bury my head in the Middle Ages, when Charles the Simple gained his name not because he was a dolt, according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, but because he was “straightforward and honest.” It did not end well for him, however, because he fumbled a crucial battle and the nobles chose a replacement king.

Maybe it’s a small consolation to know that succession has long been a messy business, even back to Charles the Simple and simpler times.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.

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