Monday, November 24, 2008

Inside the Medieval Television Show

When I heard that Professor Robert Bartlett was presenting a series of shows on Inside the Medieval Mind for BBC4, I was quite exciting. Bartlett, of St Andrew’s University, is our leading historian of the Middle Ages and his books are both well-written and carefully argued. This made the series a bitter disappointment because, despite including some titbits that would have interested a viewer who was unfamiliar with them, it dumbed down the subject matter and did little to dispel the commonplace illusions about the Middle Ages.

When I heard that Professor Robert Bartlett’s lectures on The Natural and Supernatural in the Middle Ages were to be published by Cambridge University Press, I was quite exciting. The result did not disappoint. The four essays, originally delivered at as Wiles Lectures at the Queen’s University, Belfast are fascinating, witty and informative. They brim with careful analysis and fascinating anecdotes that dispose of many common myths about the Middle Ages.

So how did Professor Bartlett manage to fail on TV and succeed in print? I’ve no idea. The plot becomes even more convoluted when you compare how the same events are discussed in both the shows and the lectures. Let me give a couple of examples.

In the show, we hear that people reacted to an eclipse of the moon by leaping around and shouting to help the moon because it was being consumed by monsters. Oh, how foolish these medieval folk were! But in the lectures, we find Bartlett has omitted from his TV presentation the all-important point that the Church condemned such superstition. In fact, the early-medieval sermon by Hrabanus Maurus from which we glean the story of the eclipse goes on to accurately explain the physical cause of the phenomenon and explain that it is nothing to be concerned about. Given Bartlett spent the relevant scene of the TV show creeping around a churchyard, the implication was clearly that the Church was somehow involved in the foolish panic.

Later, Barlett mentioned the alleged imprisonment of Roger Bacon. In the lectures he suggests that this might have been due to Bacon’s liberal views on magic. As it happens, the lectures also make a rather better case that Bacon’s troubles (if they happened at all) were linked to his apocalyptic views about the end of the world. But in the TV show, if I recall, the implication was that Bacon’s imprisonment was for his materialist views on Aristotle’s On the Soul. That is one I’d never heard before and does not feature in the lectures (where, presumably, it would have had to have been documented).

I suppose the moral of the story is that academics should avoid the television no matter how distinguished they are. But I can’t see many of them would be able to resist the lure of the goggle box. I certainly wouldn’t.

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Humphrey said...

Was the story about the dogheads true by the way?. In the show he said that priests had speculated they could be converted to Christianity if they had agriculture as this would demonstrate the necessary intelligence.

James said...

Yes, a mid ninth century missionary asked a monk at Corbie for advice on whether dogheads were human or animal. He replied thay agriculture was evidence of humanity.

laBiscuitnapper said...

I know this is a very late comment, but, although I didn't watch everything in the series, I actually found what I did watch more enlightening than not, as did many of my other non-medievalist friends.

Mind you, we might have been biased by the amazing trailer for the series!