Medieval or Modern – Can You Tell?

“As for the old reputation of medieval times as a dark time of parochialism, religious prejudice and mass slaughter, the record of the twentieth century must lead any thoughtful observer to conclude that we are in no way superior.” – Michael Crichton, Timeline
One of the issues I often see in my courses with medieval content is students falling back on thinking that the medieval era was “primitive” or “backward,” believing that the modern era has progressed far beyond what they see in the older texts. It is indeed part of a tendency – not just for students, for all of us in general – to see time periods and people in those time periods as “all” one way or another.
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In order to open up conversations about this topic, I recently developed an activity to try with my students that I call “Medieval or Modern.” I collected – with the help of the Facebook and Twitter ‘Verses – thirty-two quotations, some from modern sources and others from medieval sources.

The goal was to find modern quotations, particularly related to gender and ethnicity, that could sound “medieval” and medieval quotations that could sound “modern.” In addition, I included more “traditional” sounding quotations from both periods as well. I did heavily edit the quotations to disguise any obvious clues, but the meanings were all retained. Then I mixed them all up and took the citations off of them.
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Here is the activity. Test yourself on the quotations! The answer key is at the end of the post.
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Activity: During this activity, the group will consider the time period of a variety of anonymous quotations.

Purpose: This activity will provide the opportunity for us to 1) consider attitudes towards gender, ethnicity, science, religion, etc., during the Middle Ages and on the modern era; 2) reconsider whether our own approaches to the Middle Ages are accurate; and 3) think about the meanings of the words “primitive” and “progress.”

Assignment (10 points):

  • Read each quotation and discuss it briefly as a group.
  • Decide (for yourself) whether you think it is a medieval quotation or a modern quotation (i.e. whether it was said/written by a medieval writer/person or a modern one).
  • Record your decisions on your own Endeavors assignment sheet. (not part of grade)
  • Afterward completing all 32 quotations, consult the answer key. Were you correct? Were you incorrect? If incorrect, does the answer surprise you?
  • For at least two (2) of the quotations, provide a comment on your Endeavors assignment sheet discussing your surprise at whether the quotation is medieval or modern and/or your response to the content of the quotations. (part of grade)
  • Finally, respond to the final questions. (part of grade)

Quotations:

  1. So a woman who is free of wedlock, or a virgin, is concerned with the Lord’s claim, intent on holiness, bodily and spiritual; whereas the married woman is concerned with the world’s claim, asking how she is to please her husband.
  2. God has truly made women’s minds sharp enough to learn, understand, and retain any form of knowledge.
  3. I have the power during my life over his body, and not he. The Apostle said this, and told our husbands to love us well. I like this a lot.
  4. Women are much happier at home with a husband and children.
  5. We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyses: ‘I am talking with you in order to persuade you,’ No. Each person dialogues, starting with his and her own identity. The church grows by attraction, not proselytising.
  6. The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.
  7. We, the Jews, collectively rejected God and hung Him up on a cross to die, and thus we deserved the punishments that were heaped on our heads.
  8. But that miserable and afflicted wife endures far greater oppression than her husband. For when she sees the one who should be her comfort in every distress, and from whom she should expect advocacy, being savage and more hostile to her than all others, where can she turn?
  9. A woman’s behavior must be monitored and her decisions subject to approval of a male relative who understands what’s in her best interests better than she does herself.
  10. Marry for love.
  11. If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the rape down.
  12. Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love.
  13. It angers and upsets me when men claim that women want to be raped and that, even though she says no to a man, she won’t in fact mind if he does force himself on her. You can be sure that women would find no pleasure in being raped.
  14. The right approach is to accept rape — a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you.
  15. “If there came a man to kill me unless I have sex with you as I have done before, would you let him kill me or sleep with me?” “I would rather you be killed than have sex again.”
  16. Let every man give his wife what is her due, and every woman do the same by her husband.
  17. Men expect far greater constancy from women than they themselves can manage.
  18. These ideas are encouraged by Satan.
  19. One and all fell prey to women; if I am led astray, I may be excused.
  20. Islam is a religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem in their so-called holiest days.
  21. When life begins in rape, it is something that God intended to happen.
  22. When you see your wife commit an offense, do not rush at her with insults and violence: rather, first correct the wrong lovingly and pleasingly. (Cherubino of Siena, 15th-century Italian friar)
  23. The wall will go up, and our enemy will start behaving.
  24. Knowledge of the sciences should help inform moral values.
  25. Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love aggressors.
  26. Pagans are wrong, the Christian cause is right.
  27. Women immodestly dressed cause earthquakes.
  28. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.
  29. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions.
  30. He agreed to give them assurances of safety . . . He made no difficulties, and when he was advised to imprison them, replied that he would not go back on his word.
  31. Most Muslims are peaceful. But if someone’s killed for what they said or wrote, you know the religion of the murderers.
  32. Once you give a woman personal freedom, she enslaves herself to one of numerous vices and undertakes a rampage of destruction to her body and those who want to be a meaningful part of her life.
What did you learn from this exercise? Were any of your attitudes concerning the Middle Ages confirmed or changed? Do you believe that the people of the Middle Ages were primitive and that there has indeed been progress in the attitudes discussed?
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I have decided to pronounce this activity a success. Many students were “upset” with themselves that they identified no more than half of the quotations successfully. It emphasized with them that the medieval/modern so-called divide is not as clear-cut as they assumed when they came into the course. With their permission, I present some of their thoughts in their own words:
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“I learned I have no initial idea of how things  were perceived. I was mistaken in over 60% of my guesses. Sometimes, reading these quotes makes the ‘viewpoints’ and ‘misconceptions’ of modern politicians/viewpoints ludicrous. Progressiveness seems to be relative to one’s personal beliefs. I think that in a lot of ways we’ve regressed in basic human compassion.”
“I learned that the modern society we live in shouldn’t be as proud of itself, thinking that we have evolved so much from the Middle Ages. My belief has definitely changed. I don’t view them as primitive, nor do I think that our ‘progress’ is as progressive as we think.”
“I learned that there were some progressive ideas in medieval times and antiquated ideas in today’s society.”
“I learned that you definitely can’t judge something without reading into it/getting more information. It also seems that people haven’t evolved as much as I had thought.”
“I learned that my preconceptions about the people of the Middle Ages can be wrong. A lot of my ideas have been changed, as I did not think the people of the Middle Ages would consider science ideologies and equality between genders. I still believe progress has been made.”
“I am still not 100% convinced on progress because we have progressed in science and technology but not always in ideas and opinions.”
“My ideas on the Middle Ages changed because I expected them to be “women-haters” when they weren’t in most cases. Yes, I believe that the people of the Middle Ages were primitive and that progress had been made regarding women/rape. Found that in some ways, we have progressed and others we have digressed.”
“I learned that some medieval values were more acceptable than some modern values…in modern society progress has been made in technology but not the human mind.”
“I learned more about modern vs. medieval thoughts and although thought processes perceived to be completely different, they’re not. A lot of times current (modern) quotes we thought were from the medieval times were actually modern. Attitudes I had towards the Middle Ages have definitely changed.”
There is much that delights me in these statements. One, they are willing to accept that their preconceptions may be inaccurate, which is the first step in learning. Two, I sense confusion now – this, to me, is good in that it indicates consideration and thought. Three, there is not a willingness to go completely to the opposite and state that modern times have not progressed at all. I appreciate this as it means they are retaining their own thoughts on ideas such as “primitive” and “progress.” Four, several of the responses mention that perhaps we have not changed as human beings as much as we think, which I believe is a healthy attitude in which to approach study of medieval literature.
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All in all, again, I consider this activity useful, and I look forward to seeing if it has echoes in the rest of the semester. How did you do on the quotations? Thoughts for other quotations? Thoughts for similar activities?
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–Kisha

Answer Key:

  1. So a woman who is free of wedlock, or a virgin, is concerned with the Lord’s claim, intent on holiness, bodily and spiritual; whereas the married woman is concerned with the world’s claim, asking how she is to please her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:34)
  2. God has truly made women’s minds sharp enough to learn, understand, and retain any form of knowledge. (Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, c. 1405)
  3. I have the power during my life over his body, and not he. The Apostle said this, and told our husbands to love us well. I like this a lot. (“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” 14th cent.)
  4. Women are much happier at home with a husband and children. (Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice Media)
  5. We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyses: ‘I am talking with you in order to persuade you,’ No. Each person dialogues, starting with his and her own identity. The church grows by attraction, not proselytising. (Pope Francis)
  6. The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love. (Julian of Norwich, late 14th/early 15th cent.)
  7. We, the Jews, collectively rejected God and hung Him up on a cross to die, and thus we deserved the punishments that were heaped on our heads. (anonymous Jewish convert to Christianity in a student journal at Harvard College, 2013)
  8. But that miserable and afflicted wife endures far greater oppression than her husband. For when she sees the one who should be her comfort in every distress, and from whom she should expect advocacy, being savage and more hostile to her than all others, where can she turn? (John of Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, c. 349-407)
  9. A woman’s behavior must be monitored and her decisions subject to approval of a male relative who understands what’s in her best interests better than she does herself. (Roosh V“Women Must Have Their Behavior and Decisions Controlled By Men”)
  10. Marry for love. (Piers Plowman, 14th cent.)
  11. If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the rape down. (Todd Akin, American politician)
  12. Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love. (Mr. Rogers)
  13. It angers and upsets me when men claim that women want to be raped and that, even though she says no to a man, she won’t in fact mind if he does force himself on her. You can be sure that women would find no pleasure in being raped. (Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, c. 1405)
  14. The right approach is to accept rape — a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you. (Rick Santorum, American politician)
  15. “If there came a man to kill me unless I have sex with you as I have done before, would you let him kill me or sleep with me?” “I would rather you be killed than have sex again.” (Margery Kempe, late 14th/early 15th cent.)
  16. Let every man give his wife what is her due, and every woman do the same by her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:3)
  17. Men expect far greater constancy from women than they themselves can manage. (Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, c. 1405)
  18. These ideas are encouraged by Satan. (Ben Carson, American author and politician)
  19. One and all fell prey to women; if I am led astray, I may be excused. (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 14th cent.)
  20. Islam is a religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem in their so-called holiest days. (Mike Huckabee, American politician)
  21. When life begins in rape, it is something that God intended to happen. (Richard Mourdock, American politician)
  22. When you see your wife commit an offense, do not rush at her with insults and violence: rather, first correct the wrong lovingly and pleasingly. (Cherubino of Siena, 15th-century Italian friar)
  23. The wall will go up, and our enemy will start behaving.  (Donald Trump, American businessman and politician)
  24. Knowledge of the sciences should help inform moral values. (Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, c. 1405)
  25. Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love aggressors. (Qur’an, Sura 2 1065)
  26. Pagans are wrong, the Christian cause is right. (The Song of Roland, 12th cent.)
  27. Women immodestly dressed cause earthquakes. (Fazlur Rehman, Pakistani politician)
  28. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed. (Mr. Rogers)
  29. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions. (Pope John Paul II)
  30. He agreed to give them assurances of safety . . . He made no difficulties, and when he was advised to imprison them, replied that he would not go back on his word. (Ibn al-Athir, The Collection of Histories (Arab perspective on Third Crusade), 12th/13th cent.)
  31. Most Muslims are peaceful. But if someone’s killed for what they said or wrote, you know the religion of the murderers. (Richard Dawkins, biologist and New Atheist)
  32. Once you give a woman personal freedom, she enslaves herself to one of numerous vices and undertakes a rampage of destruction to her body and those who want to be a meaningful part of her life.  (Roosh V“Women Must Have Their Behavior and Decisions Controlled By Men”)

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Medieval or Modern – Can You Tell?

  1. Pingback: Either/Or [Versus?] Yes/And: Towards an Ethos of Inclusivity and Inquiry in the Twenty-First Century Classroom | Melissa Ridley Elmes

  2. Pingback: Teaching the Pre-Modern Post-Election | MASSachusetts State Universities MEDIEVAL Blog

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