Professor Bartlett explores the way medieval man
understood the world as a place of mystery, even
enchantment - a book written by God.
The medieval world was full of marvels as revealed
through medieval sources. He unearths records of strange
sightings of fish men caught off the coast of Suffolk,
or green men in Essex. Travelling to Hereford Cathedral
he decodes the Mappa Mundi, with its three continents
(Europe, Africa and Asia) and its strange beasts thought
to exist on the periphery of the earth: hermaphrodites,
unicorns, men with the heads of dogs.
Medieval science was not nonsense: it was known that the
world was round, for example. But for medieval man it
was possible to attribute both a natural and a divine
cause to a single event – an eclipse could be caused by
the movement of the planets and be a sign from God.
In a medieval chained library Robert explains how for
hundreds of years learning remained (almost literally)
in the hands of monks and how the monopoly was
challenged with the discovery of the classical learning
of Aristotle, and of Arabic science, in the great
libraries of Spain, seized by Christian soldiers in the
11th and 12th centuries. Though theologians like Thomas
Aquinas worked hard to reconcile classical learning with
Christian teaching, scientists such as Roger Bacon
pushed back the frontiers of knowledge in favour of a
more evidence-based analysis of the world. Marco Polo
and other travellers returned with amazing tales of the
East, signalling the beginning of the end for the
established medieval world view. They found not
dog-heads but great civilisations. When Columbus sailed
off to find a new route to the East he was helped by all
the new technology of the time – better sailing ships,
gunpowder, compasses. As the Middle Ages grew to a
close, the world had become a place not to be
contemplated, but mastered, even exploited.
we unearth remarkable evidence of the complex passions
of medieval men and women.
On the one hand, there was a down-to-earth approach you
might expect in a peasant society; on the other was an
obsessive abhorrence of desire grounded in religious
fervour. Professor Robert Bartlett explores the subject
using medieval sources, and quotes some of the questions
the 11th century Church recommended priests to ask their
parishioners: "Have you committed fornication with your
step-mother, your sister-in-law, your son’s fiancée,
Medieval knowledge about sexual difference was
rudimentary and governed by a misogyny rooted in the
Bible. Eve was the cause of original sin for tempting
Adam in the Garden of Eden. An early church father had
this to say to women: "The curse God pronounced on your
sex weighs still upon the world. You are guilty – you
must bear its hardships. You are the Devil’s gateway".
The Church preached hatred of the flesh and promoted the
cult of virginity. Robert tells of the compelling story
of Christina of Markyate who defied her parents and her
husband to maintain her chastity. And yet it was the
medieval world that gave birth to the modern concept of
romantic love. 12th century troubadours began to sing
songs of love to women who were to be adored. For the
upper classes at least, the rules of love were
reinvented in lengthy treatises, the heroes and heroines
of love celebrated in poems: Lancelot and Guinevere,
Tristan and Iseult. Robert tells the tragic story of the
real life lovers Abelard and Héloise – Abelard the great
scholar, Héloise the niece of a canon at the Cathedral
of Notre Dame. Their love letters from the 12th century
are astonishing in their frankness, passion and
willingness to break conventions.
Robert Bartlett explores belief in the supernatural. The
medieval dead shared the world with the living:
encounters with the dead and visions of the next world
ensured a two-way traffic between this world and the
next. Robert uses medieval sources to create a keen
sense of the after-life.
The cult of the saints was part of the medieval
preoccupation with death. The holy dead were active in
their intercession for the living, and their relics were
prized. Robert explores this preoccupation through one
of the few medieval relics in Britain, the skull of St
Simon Stock at Aylesford Priory.
The Church governed the lives of the faithful through
its teachings and in the sacraments, which Robert
explores in a visit to Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland,
where the prayers of medieval monks held the devil at
The programme explores how from the 11th Century, the
church became increasingly hostile towards outsiders,
exemplified in the First Crusade and the so-called
A legacy Robert explores in the Temple Church of the
crusading Knights Templar in London. Closer to home, the
Jewish community comes under scrutiny, culminating in
the massacre at York in 1190, while a growing number of
reformers such as John Wycliff and the Lollards face
persecution as a threat to the established belief of the
Professor Robert Bartlett lays bare the brutal framework
of the medieval class system. Inequality was as part of
the natural order, the life of serfs little better than
those of animals, the knight’s code of chivalry more one
of caste solidarity than morality. The class you were
born into determined who you were.
There were three classes, or estates: those who pray
(the clergy), those who fight (the aristocratic warrior
class of knights) and those who work (everybody else –
in practice, usually serfs on a knight’s estate).
Robert looks at the penalties to be paid by serfs who
ran away, and describes the harsh laws which protected
the hunting rights of the king in the vast forests of
Medieval lords were not so much landlords as warriors.
Their land was given to them by the king precisely
because they were warriors and supported him in military
campaigns. Fighting was in their blue blood.
These knights followed the international codes of
chivalry – a word today synonymous with gallantry and
noble behaviour. Knights could behave nobly, but it was
generally towards their own class. To hold such a
violent society together was no easy task. It would need
divine help. As Robert explains in Westminster Abbey,
that is just what medieval kings had – at the ceremony
of the Coronation the new monarch was anointed with holy
oil, signifying his divinely sanctioned right to rule.
But this rigid order was fatally undermined by the Black
Death, creating a labour shortage which resulted in the
serf achieving higher wages and geographical mobility.
At Blackheath and at the Tower of London learn how the
drama of the Peasants’ Revolt unfolded, when the
despised third estate – those who work – began to taste
a new freedom.