Did you know Genghis Khan was probably history’s greatest environmentalist? What about the fact that there was an anarcho-communist-style peasant republic in medieval Germany? Or that Vikings had a deliciously brutal punishment reserved for rapists? Believe it or not, the medieval world wasn’t always as terrible as it’s often made out to be. Sure, there was endless war, famine, horrific repression and wave after wave of diseases like the Bubonic Plague. However, there were also a handful of surprising enclaves of decency. In fact, even some of history’s worst villains had unexpected progressive sides. So, let’s look at a few examples of startling progressivism from one of the lousiest periods of human history.
Before we get started, I should probably explain what exactly medieval means. Pinning down the exact definition of the Middle Ages can be difficult; so for now, I’m going with one of the broadest definitions possible. For our purposes today, I’m going to consider the medieval world as existing for 1000 years from the 5th to 15th centuries, encompassing all of Europe and the near east. Also, when talking about this time period, the word “country” is a little vague and not enormously useful. We’re talking about a time long before the nation-state existed, and there’s a fairly broad variety of social orders mentioned here. For example, Dithmarschen was never really a sovereign state, while the Vikings were obviously more than one group. Anyway, for our first example, let’s travel back in time to the medieval worker utopia of Dithmarschen.
Dithmarschen: An anarcho-communist peasant commune in medieval Germany
Remember that scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail when King Author runs into a couple of peasants spouting Marxist class analysis?
Crazy as it sounds, that scene actually has a historic basis: the small imperial province of Dithmarschen. Located on the far northern border of the sprawling, loosely organised Holy Roman Empire, Dithmarschen managed to escape feudalism a little earlier than its neighbours. In 1144 the people of Dithmarschen rose up against the count imposed on them by their Saxon overlords. The province was eventually handed over to a local archbishop, but the Ditmarsians didn’t stop there. Over the years, church rule became more and more decentralised, and by the 15th Century Dithmarschen was basically just a collection of semi-autonomous parishes. Each parish was its own little peasant democracy. In 1434, the various parishes of Dithmarschen confederated into a single republic, ruled by 48 elected regents.
In other words, it was basically an anarcho-communist confederacy.
Technically speaking, Dithmarschen was never its own fully independent nation. It remained part of the Holy Roman Empire, meaning it was officially under the authority of the emperor. Moreover, throughout its history, Dithmarschen was constantly under threat from its feudal neighbours, who repeatedly tried to force a ruler on the freedom-loving Ditmarsians (as they’re apparently called). The most famous example of this was in 1500, when the Danish King John suffered a humiliating defeat at Hemmingstedt to a Ditmarsian peasant army. Dithmarschen managed to survive for a few more decades by allying with merchant republics like neighbouring Lubeck, but the hungry imperialists couldn’t be kept at bay forever. In 1559, the Danes finally got their revenge, and forced Dithmarschen to split in two and accept feudal rule. Centuries later, the region was annexed into Prussia, and is today part of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein.
Al-Andalus: Being secular before it was cool
Dithmarschen may have had democracy, but did it have universities? What about some of the world’s best medicine, not to mention a thriving cultural scene, progressive values, bustling commerce and science? No, I’m not talking about California. For these things, you need to look to Al-Andalus. A fairly loose term, Al-Andalus refers to the period of Muslim rule over much of modern day Spain and Portugal from the 8th to 15th centuries. Feared and hated by their Christian neighbours, the Muslims actually did a pretty decent job of running things. Under Muslim rule, Cordoba became Europe’s pre-eminent centre of the study of medicine, where the basis of modern surgery saw its inception. For a time, the city was arguably the wealthiest in Europe, sporting a colourful culture and a flourishing community of academics, philosophers, mathematicians and artists. Among the most enduring achievements of the era was one of the most influential world maps ever produced – that of Al-Idrisi. In fact, the universities of Al-Andalus were so good, even Christians couldn’t help but brave the big scary Muslim world to learn there. This brings us to the greatest achievement of Al-Andalus: its somewhat decent treatment of non-Muslims. Although this is a topic of much debate and controversy, it’s inarguable that for much of the history of Al-Andalus, it was easily the most religiously tolerant society anywhere in Europe. As Yale University’s late professor of humanities and medieval culture expert Maria Rosa Menocal put it, “Al-Andalus had three principal and interlocking features which are at the heart of its importance for us … ethnic pluralism, religious tolerance, and a variety of important forms of what we could call cultural secularism.”
“Few Islamic polities have done [secularism] as well as al-Andalus did, nor for as long, nor with greater long term impact and dazzling results,” she explained.
In Al-Andalus, non-Muslims were generally required to pay an annual tax for the privilege of basic religious freedom, and that was pretty much it. Religious taxes might sound lame by today’s standards, but it’s better than being burned at the stake, right?
It’s for this reason that throughout most of the Middle Ages, Al-Andalus wasn’t just a centre of Muslim learning; it was also arguably the world’s most important centre of Jewish culture, philosophy and study. Abused and repressed throughout Christendom, in Al-Andalus Jews could actually live a relatively dignified life. This all ended with the Christian conquest of Iberia, which concluded in 1492 with the obliteration of the last Muslim state on the peninsula, the Emirate of Granada. In that same year, Spain’s newly-wed twin superpowers, the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, issued an edict ordering the expulsion of Jews from Catholic lands. Most Iberian Jews fled to North Africa and other Muslim regions, thus exporting the intellectual breakthroughs of Al-Andalus to the rest of the world.
Vikings: The axe-wielding feminists of the Middle Ages
So, before you get too excited, there’s a lot of qualifiers here. First of all, by definition there were almost no female Vikings. Remember, Vikings weren’t a people, they were just a name slapped on raiders from various parts of the Nordic world (basically Scandinavia). These raiders tended to be men, and were hence the grizzled public face of the Nordic world for centuries. Nonetheless, during the Viking Age (8th to 11th centuries), Norse women had far more rights than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. Officially, Norse women were the property of their husbands, but don’t let that get you down. While still limited by today’s standards, written sources suggest Norse women had a pretty impressive degree of individual liberty, and basic rights non-existent in the regions plundered by their husbands. They had equal rights to divorce, and were treated with cultural respect rare in Europe at the time. For example, you know all that raping and pillaging Vikings were famous for? Well, they couldn’t get away with that kind of thing back home. Rape (and attempted rape) were punishable by declaring the perpetrator an outlaw. This might not sound so bad at first, but being an outlaw in medieval Nordic society meant having no rights, and anybody and everybody was free to do whatever they want to you – including killing you with total impunity.
On top of having some basic rights, Nordic women could also live extremely well. They had almost no political rights, but had some economic opportunities. Since men were busy bringing terror and death to the coastlines of Europe, women were usually given a free hand to run the family property back home, and played a major role in the Norse economy. There’s evidence some Norse women grew filthy rich. So sure, political rights are nice, but a bucket of money isn’t the worst runner up prize.
Iceland: The world’s oldest parliament
If you think the Vikings were cool, you should totally check out medieval Iceland. Tired of war and politics, Nordic settlers first arrived in force on this isolated island back in the 9th Century. Far from the mainland, these settlers were pretty much free to organise their new society however they wanted, and what they came up with was arguably the world’s oldest existing parliament. Founded in AD 930, the Alþingi brought together all the people of Iceland for two weeks each year to discuss the state of the country. Everyone was invited, though it was dominated by local chieftains, known as the goðar. However, unlike on the mainland, these chieftains didn’t rule by birthright. Instead, Icelanders themselves could pick whichever chieftain in their district they wanted to live under. In other words, it was a crude, yet functional early attempt at creating a parliament. Even more interestingly, the Alþingi still exists today, and is considered the world’s oldest existing parliament. In fact. with the exception of a four decade period in the 19th Century, the Alþingi has been running the show in Iceland for over 1000 years now.
Faroe Islands: Direct democracy in the middle of nowhere
The Icelanders weren’t the only medieval people tinkering with democracy. Across Europe there were plenty of other republics such as Venice and Genoa, though these were highly aristocratic, with power drifting between just a handful of extraordinarily rich families who were constantly vying to rule. The same couldn’t be said for the Faroe Islands, where there was no ruler at all. Instead, the highest authority on the islands was the Løgting, an early parliament somewhat similar to Iceland’s Alþingi. Unlike the Alþingi though, the Løgting had no chieftains. Instead, every free man (yeah, misogyny sucks) was on an even footing to debate in this early, direct democracy. They even had their own constitution. Things started to go downhill for Faroese autonomy after the islands fell under Norwegian control in the 13th Century, when the Løgting lost much of its power.
The Mongols: Saving the planet with mass murder
Remember how I said Viking women got the runner up prize for least shitty living conditions in the Middle Ages? They only got second place because they had nothing on their sisters in the Mongol Empire. For a people often derided as blood-thirsty barbarians, the medieval Mongols were astoundingly progressive in many ways. Like the Norse, traditionally the Mongols had a pretty clear gendered division of labour: men were in charge of stuff outside the house like hunting and fighting, while women ran domestic affairs. When in the 13th Century the Mongols exploded from a small collection of impoverished herders to the largest contiguous land empire in history, Mongol women suddenly had a much bigger house to run. By house, I mean 22 percent of the Earth’s total land area, and a population that probably surpassed 100 million people (roughly a quarter of the world’s population at the time).
While the Mongol men were out conquering more land for their ever-expanding realm, the women were left behind to make sure the subjugated people stayed in line. They managed the day to day administration of everything from the justice system to tax collection. Some of these administrators grew incredibly powerful, with the most powerful of all being the famed Toregene, wife of Ogedei. The successor to Genghis Khan, Ogedei ruled the Mongol Empire at its height – though only in name. In reality, Ogedei’s twin hobbies of mass murder and getting shitface drunk left him little time to pay attention to his massive empire, which was mostly run by his better half, the ever-astute Toregene. When Ogedei died in what historians suspect was a drunken stupor in 1241, Toregene took over as regent. Her reign was characterised by ambitious construction projects, promotion of education and even some efforts to improve religious freedom across the empire. Speaking of which, it wasn’t just women who had it good under the Mongols: the empire was ahead of its time in more ways than one.
Along with the fact that women could hold property, divorce, remarry, move freely in public and even enlist in the army, it was the infidels who really had it good. The Mongols had (and still have) their own set of shamanistic beliefs known as Tengriism, though they made no effort to impose this on their subjugated peoples. Instead, the Mongols adopted an implicit policy often referred to as “benign neglect”; also known as “just not giving a shit”.
The Mongols didn’t care what religion you had, so long as you didn’t interrupt their daily routine of killing, drinking, killing, eating roasted meat for dinner and presumably enjoying dessert (clarification: dessert was more killing). In all seriousness though, the Mongols actually did kinda respect the idea of religious equality, and had an unusual, unexpected reverence for foreign gods.
The extent of this respect can be seen in this quote traditionally attributed to Khubilai Khan in the writings of Marco Polo,
“There are prophets who are worshipped and to whom everybody does reverence. The Christians say their god was Jesus Christ; the Saracens, Mohammed; the Jews, Moses; and the idolaters Sakamuni Borhan; and I do honour and reverence to all four, that is to him who is the greatest in heaven and more true, and him I pray to help me.”
In other words, the khan decided to be nice to all the gods, and hope the most powerful of the bunch would be nice to him in return. Even the drunk fratboy Ogedei was known for ordering the construction of mosques, Buddhist temples, churches and other places of worship. Like in all things though, Ogedei was overshadowed by his predecessor Genghis Khan, who was given the title “defender of religions” after hunting down and killing a subjugated Christian lord accused of persecuting his Muslim subjects. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, and he banned some practices he personally didn’t like, such as circumcision and halal butchering. Nonetheless, Genghis was pretty tolerant for his time, and not just in terms of religion.
The khan of khans was also well known for promoting leaders based on skill instead of birth rights (a revolutionary idea back then), establishing a judicial system that applied laws equally to everyone irrelevant of wealth, status or religion (again, pretty unheard of back in the day), rebuilding the old silk road and promoting intercontinental trade, along with popularising the idea of not murdering diplomats. All this created a surprisingly peaceful, well ordered society, abet one surrounded on all sides by endless war. Living under Mongol rule was a bit like being in the eye of a storm. Under the so-called Pax Mongolica there was a common saying that “a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm”. Indeed, Mongol trade routes were so secure, merchants could travel from China to the Middle East without worrying about bandits; facilitating the movement of everything from spices to early gunpowder, not to mention the establishment of the world’s first trans-continental postal service. According to sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod, all this trade, sunshine and rainbows led to a 13th Century economic boom across Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
But, oh boy, it does not stop there. Not by a long shot.
Contrary to their reputation, the Mongols also promoted learning across their empire. Recognising the scientific advancements of the Muslim world, the Mongols formed the Office for Muslim Medicine. This institution brought the finest medical minds of the Muslim world to China. This initiative united the best of Chinese and Islamic medicine for the first time in human history, all to figure out better ways to keep Mongol warriors from not … you know, dying so much. Even all this is just the start: the Mongols were arguably one of history’s most progressive, revolutionary civilisations. Sure, they may have killed as many as 40 million people, but even that had its upsides. A recent study found that by killing so many people, Genghis Khan may have inadvertently helped remove nearly 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere. In that sense, maybe Genghis was just a misunderstood environmentalist trying to do his part for the planet. Having said that, let’s not tell Captain Planet about this one.
Header image credit: James Ward/CC