Ethnocentrism in the Middle Ages; Or, the World Outside the Summa

There’s a strong tendency among traditionally-minded Catholics to characterize the Middle Ages as a golden age (a golden calf, I almost wrote) when everyone was a great Catholic and the sorts of horrible, outrageous things we see today never, ever happened.

It’s a bunch of rubbish, but it colors a lot of “our” thinking. I recently read an article in which the author cited Aquinas as an example of a natural law thinker who focused on humans qua humans, not qua this or that nationality or ethnicity. The author’s goal was to score a hit against tribalism.

Well and good — to my knowledge, Aquinas doesn’t attempt any taxonomy of nationalities. But then the works of St. Thomas Aquinas aren’t really a mirror of the world in which he lived. Here are some things about the Middle Ages you won’t learn if the only thing you know about the Middle Ages is Aquinas. These facts reveal a world in which tribal/ethnic/national/dynastic identity was very strong and often helped determine the course of history:

1.) In the early 1000s, the King of England ordered a massacre of Danes in his kingdom (St. Bryce’s Day massacre). This was part of the longstanding back-and-forth over whether England would be subsumed into a pan-Scandinavian empire that ruled the North Sea. England won, only to be pulled into a Norman-French orbit.

2.) In the 1300s, English peasants rose up and massacred Flemish woolmakers because they thought that they were taking jobs from English woolmakers.

3.) Many of the nations of the Central and Eastern Europe looked to German town laws when they established a town. For example, a town might acquire “Magdeburg rights,” i.e. rights modeled on those of Magdeburg.

4.) There were powerful cities that controlled trade far and wide. In the Mediterranean, these were the Italian Maritime Republics. In the North Sea and the Baltic, these cities formed the Hanseatic League.

5.) Books at the time regularly described the lands of the far south (Africa) and the far East/North as inhabited by monstrous races, with things like faces in the middle of their abdomens.

6.) The Normans started off in Scandinavia and wound up colonizing Northern France (Normandy), from which they conquered or attempted to conquer or effectively colonized: England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Sicily, Southern Italy, parts of North Africa, Antioch, with attacks on the Byzantine Empire (Albania, Thessaly, etc.). They even occupied Rome at one point. One band of Vikings, over several generations.

7.) Their Viking cousins to the East established Kievan Rus (what is now Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) and besieged Constantinople. When the Byzantine Emperors sought bodyguards, they recruited “Varangians,” i.e. Scandinavians, along with Anglo-Saxons and residents of Kievan Rus.

8.) Large parts of Greece were ruled for centuries by the Franks (i.e. French Crusaders), or by the Aragonese, or by Italians.

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