Are you smarter than an 800 year-old? Our ancestors were more skeptical than you think


David Mountain
David Mountain is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh. He is fascinated by history, science and all things sceptical. He is the author of Past Mistakes: How We Misinterpret History and Why It Matters (Icon, 2020).

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For over a century now, historians and archaeologists have been steadily deconstructing the myth of the Dark Ages: the belief that medieval Europe was a time devoid of learning and intellectual inquiry. In truth, the period between the classical and early modern eras – roughly 500 to 1500 CE – saw advancements in mathematics and literacy, ingenious inventions like the windmill and the mechanical clock, and bold experiments in artistic expression.

Despite this, it’s still commonly assumed that people in medieval Europe were deeply superstitious and irrational, especially when compared to their descendants in the 21st century. It’s an understandable assumption: today we can easily cure diseases that were death sentences 800 years ago, when our ancestors were trying to ward off miasmas with herbs and spices. We can instantaneously communicate across distances that would have taken a medieval messenger months – years, even – to cross. Today there are entire fields of knowledge that simply did not exist in the Middle Ages.

But does this really mean we’re smarter or more skeptical than our ancestors?

Don’t worry: I’m not about to dive down the relativist rabbit hole and question whether science and technology have advanced since the Middle Ages. They have, of course, and our lives are much better for it. Rather, I want to ask whether these advancements have left us with a more inquisitive and critical outlook on life.

Take that perennial favourite of medieval mythmaking: the flat Earth. Contrary to popular belief, people didn’t need to wait until 1492 for Christopher Columbus to prove the Earth was round. For one thing, Columbus believed our planet was pear-shaped. For another, every educated European already knew the Earth was ‘but a little round ball,’ as a 15th-century compendium put it, and had done so since the days of St Augustine in the late 4th century. (St Augustine, in turn, was merely citing ancient Greek philosophers, who already knew the Earth was round.) The historian Jeffrey Russell was able to find just two obscure medieval scholars who, on the basis of some very literal interpretations of the Bible, argued that the Earth was flat. And far from being promoted by the Church, both authors were condemned by the clergy for their unorthodox views.

Contrast that state of affairs with today: tens of thousands of people belong to flat Earth communities online, and their various outreach efforts – YouTube videos being a particular favourite – reach millions more. In 2019, surveys in Brazil and the USA suggested that somewhere between seven and a dizzying sixteen percent of adults doubted the sphericity of our planet. Medieval scholars would be shaking their heads in shame and bewilderment.

Astrology provides further surprises. The pseudoscience of star signs is big business in the 21st century, making around $2.2 billion each year. Fuelling this boom is the increasing popularity of astrology among young people. According to The Independent, almost two thirds of 18-24 year-old Americans now believe that star signs and moon phases have an influence on their fate.

A medieval scholar making measurements

Surely this fascination with the zodiac is simply a continuation of long-held beliefs? Yes and no. Astrology is certainly ancient, and many people looked to the night sky for answers throughout the Middle Ages. But it was never as lucrative a belief as it is now. Indeed, it wasn’t even until the 12th century that the form familiar to us today – based on accurate plotting of the movements of the planets – became popular. The historian Peter Dendle suggests that, until this point, astrology had been less commonly practiced in the West than it is today.

This isn’t to say that medieval Europe was populated solely by rational skeptics. Superstitions abounded: many people believed in monsters like sprites and werewolves as well as supernatural beings like ghosts and devils, and protective amulets and charms were commonly worn or hung around the house to protect against these malevolent beings. Ravens and donkeys were omens of bad luck; crossroads were hotspots for demonic activity; eating goose on the last Monday in April could be fatal. It’s easy to laugh.

Before we start feeling too smug, however, we need to remember that a much smaller proportion of people in the Middle Ages received an academic education compared with today. Eight centuries ago, someone living in England could expect to spend a grand total of 0.03 years (that’s eleven days) in school; today that figure is closer to ten years. Despite this 300-fold increase in education, many superstitions and irrational practices remain as popular today as they were in the medieval era, if not more so. A 2019 survey found that a sobering 45 percent of Americans believe in ghosts and demons. Most depressingly, a far greater proportion of educated people today believe that the Earth is flat and that the planets foretell their future than ever did during the Middle Ages.

Once again the medieval literati would be disappointed with their descendants. How can we be sure? Because the educated minority in the Middle Ages was often extremely critical of unsubstantiated beliefs and irrational thinking. Indeed, the fact that we still know about so many old superstitions is thanks to the medieval scholars who recorded them merely to condemn them. An anecdote from the Middle Ages tells of a priest who grew tired of people making the sign of the cross whenever they saw him or his fellow clergymen – a superstition believed to prevent bad luck. One day he was walking down a country road when a woman coming the other way crossed herself. The priest proceeded to push her into a muddy ditch to disprove the efficacy of her practice (and, you might suspect, to vent some spleen). Whether this event actually took place is not known – for the poor woman’s sake I hope not – but it accurately conveys the distaste for superstition among medieval intellectuals.

So are you smarter than an 800 year-old? Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. The point of this piece isn’t that our medieval ancestors were cleverer than us – neurologically, humans haven’t changed much since the days of Cro-Magnon, 40,000 years ago – but that rationality and skepticism can’t be taken for granted, no matter how impressive our species’ learning and technology becomes. Critical thinking isn’t destined to increase in line with scientific advancement, and what is gained in one generation may be lost in the next.

This is why the continued depiction of the medieval world as the Dark Ages is not only inaccurate but dangerous. By dismissing our ancestors as gormless fools we’re implicitly insisting that we, in the 21st century, are inherently smarter and more skeptical. It’s a complacent attitude that encourages us to overlook the many instances of irrational thinking and dubious practices that continue to flourish today. Skepticism, unfortunately, can never be assumed. It must be constantly fought for and defended, regardless of what century we happen to find ourselves in.

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