Your average peasant had the IQ of an extremely rotten tree stump and the common sense of a very small lump of mud....
—Top Ten Horror Stories
Medieval people are morons.
Whenever you see medieval people in fiction, particularly peasants, they will always be depicted as stupid
, small-minded, xenophobic, savage but cowardly
, superstitious, gullible
, and primitive. And of course, all men treat all women like crap all the time
- the Old World equivalent of stereotypical American rednecks.
Thus, time travelers
are advised to avoid The Middle Agesnote
at all costs, lest they be burned as witches
This trope was popularized by the Enlightenment due to the "Medieval Stasis
" trope, their perception on the world after Rome as a post-apocalyptic, war-ridden, anti-intellectual dystopia
, and how they saw themselves as paragons of progress recovering the glory of the classical world. Of course, reality is more complex than that.
Not only did Enlightenment thinkers harbor their own misconceptions and prejudices (some of them far worse than anything previously believed)
, but medieval people were just as intelligent on average as any other representative person living in any other period of history; they simply did not have the accumulated experience and knowledge that people take for granted when their world includes things like universal education and literacy, plus extensive trade and travel infrastructure connecting them to most other parts of the known world. Basically, unless you were very special or belonged to an organisation with some of these features, you had to spend most of your time surviving in a way that didn't require these things.
Occasionally people living in another widely disliked time
will get this depiction. Nineteenth-century frontier America and the 1950s
have long been favorite targets, and increasingly the 1970s
have been getting this too (when it comes to more contemporary issues such as homophobia).
Compare: Humans Are Morons
Anime and Manga
- Largely averted in Jin. The title character's medical skills are frequently not trusted as much as they really ought to be, but that's because he's doing things so far and above the pre-Meiji period that the only way they can believe it is to see it. Doctors get a fair amount of respect, Jin is eventually able to get Cattle Punk versions of 2000-era medical tools made, etc. Neither are the denizens of Tokugawa Japan portrayed as ignoramuses.
- Pax Romana, which involves a paramilitary group sent into the time of Constantine the Great averts this. The Romans are shocked and amazed by the technological power displayed, but they're by no means idiots. Neither do they blindly follow the newcomers or their advice, though they nonetheless accept them eventually.
- Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. No matter where they went in history, no matter which historical figure they abducted, nobody really seemed to care that they'd fallen out of the sky in a phone booth and absconded with Beethoven. That is of course until they ended up in medieval England, where they were put on the chopping block to the sound of a man screaming that they came from the sky, and just barely escaped with their skins. Also subverted in the fact that neither Bill nor Ted are the sharpest knives in the drawer...
King: Put them in the iron maiden.
King: Execute them!
Bill and Ted: Bogus.
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail both showcased this ("We've found a witch; may we burn her?") and averted this:
Dennis (peasant): We're an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week, but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more major...
- Army of Darkness saw the zombie-fighting hero Ash thrown back in time with a chainsaw in one hand (or, as one hand) and a shotgun in the other. The peasants were not amused, though they were rather impressed with his "boomstick".
"Don't touch that! Your primitive intellect wouldn't understand alloys, and compositions, and... things with... molecular structures..."
- The peasants from the movie Just Visiting. Upon seeing the displaced villain from the present time, they gaze at him with stupid wonder while wielding crosses. They flee in terror when the cellphone they took from him starts ringing.
- In the original, the temporally shifted heroes utterly destroy a van, thinking it to be a devil-powered cart driven by a Saracen.
- They do that to a VW Beetle in the remake, thinking it's a dragon.
- Subverted in The Navigator. While the time-displaced villagers are understandably disoriented and frightened by much of what they encounter-and when it's a construction site full of mechanical earthmovers, who could blame them?-they make quite a few reasonable deductions and plans, within the limits of their knowledge and faith.
- Played straight with In The Name Of The Rose, the film version. Everyone but the narrator and the hero William of Baskerville is a moron or a fanatic or both.
- Or one of the victims, like Brother Severino, the herbalist.
- Played with in El Conquistador. When Quetza discovers the Spanish port of Huelva, he first notices the bad smell, then the idiocy of the people that are willing to believe anything he says as a representative of "Cipango" (Japan). The only one that sees through his lie is an actual Japanese maiden, who became a prostitute due to her kidnapping by a pirate ship.
- Averted in Michael Crichton's Timeline. In this book, the time travelers are often outwitted and outmatched by the natives. A consistent theme is that while the time travelers possess modern knowledge, they do not have the skills or resources to survive in the more primitive environment.
- Of particular note is that Crichton specifically details the natives' sanitation practices. Lack of awareness of bacteria did not prevent them from attending to hygiene, averting the stereotype of "living in filth".
- Older Than Radio: A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthurs Court. Of course, the trope was new when Mark Twain used it, and he was trying to portray the evils of aristocracy. Still, it's exaggerated and unhistorical, with most of the characters just generally acting Too Dumb to Live. He was also satirizing the excessively poetic and romantic portrayals of Arthurian legend that were popular at the time—by pointing out that, had Arthur and his knights actually behaved as they were typically portrayed, they would have had to have been absolutely childlike morons.
- Subverted in the Poul Anderson novel The High Crusade. A high-tech alien empire is brought to its knees by a 14th century English army. The Medieval characters naturally view things through a Medieval lens (the aliens are initially mistaken for demons), but are very capable and clever. In fact not only do the Crusaders end up conquering the aliens, they convert them to both feudalism and Christianity by the end. Unfortunately, the movie played this trope nearly completely straight.
- Poul Anderson further subverted this trope in his short story "The Man Who Came Early", in which the eponymous man Trapped in the Past fails to impress medieval Icelanders. They aren't even particularly fazed by his handgun.
- Subverted in the book 1632, in which the doctor of a time-displaced modern American town has to consult with his "downtime" counterpart. It becomes clear that the "local" doctor not only doesn't use leeches and ground bat's wing, but has a medical library in nearly a dozen languages (a few of them English) (all of which he speaks fluently, against the US doctor's... just English). The local high school history teacher, Melissa Mailey, breaks down laughing and says "you didn't actually think you were smarter than him, did you?"
- In addition, although they have their initial fears, the early modern characters are extremely quick to recognize and appreciate American technology instead of writing it off as witchcraft and even logically deduce why it cannot be magic.
- Averted in George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. We don't see that many peasants, but those we do are just people. Some are smart, some are stupid, most are fairly level-headed. Most of them are simply denied education and stay illiterate for most of their lives because the glass ceiling only allows such privileges for the nobility. In The Sworn Sword, Dunk even tells Egg (who is royalty) to be respectful to them. They might not be able to read or argue about the politics of the realm, but they know when to plant their crops and how to deliver a calf.
- And then there are the members of the aristocracy like Littlefinger or Tyrion who could possibly be smarter than anyone ever. Littlefinger may count as even more of an aversion; he is aristocratic only by title, his upbringing having been not much different than most peasants, and he is apparently mostly self-educated beyond a basic level (which would have been provided when he was fostered at Riverrun), but he's one of the smartest cookies in the series. Varys' background is even poorer and he's at least as smart, but his rise to power involves doing some unsavory methods.
- Taking place as it does in a quasi-medieval mishmash of an era, Discworld plays around with this trope quite a bit. That said, even towards the more peasantry, circa 1400 mindset parts, people tend to just be people.
- Averted in Dragon Bones: Everyone the protagonists meet is pretty smart. The farmers know how to farm, the stable master knows how to treat horses (his lord doesn't, but that's more due to his being a sadistic monster), everyone who rides knows how to take care of horses, the woman in charge of the guards is a good fighter, strategist, and teacher, who is not prone to stupid heroic acts. Sadly, the fact that everyone is so smart is also the reason that no one has murdered the Complete Monster of a high king yet; everyone figures they'd better use a long-term plan than be executed for regicide.
- In The Sword of Truth one of the morals is "People are stupid" and boy does it show. From the first book, there's a crowd of people being moved to tears by Michael's impassioned speech about the evils of fire. The Mud People, despite living for generations in a place where it rains all the time, have somehow never figured out how to make roofs that don't leak. And there's the group of peasants sent by Darken Rahl to attack Zedd on the belief he's a witch. First he tells them the term is warlock. Then he talks the angry mob into having a brainstorming session about all the terrible things warlocks can do until they get scared and give up.
- In the Time Scout series, this is how downtimers are initially portrayed, but the portrayal becomes more nuanced and positive as the story progresses.
- Averted in Beatrice Small's The Innocent, where the serfs and servants are perfectly capable of out-maneuvering the nasty wife/widow of their lord, and protecting the lord's sister and heir from falling prey to the machinations of the ex-lady and her lover.
- Played straight and subverted in the original The Time Traders series. One male lead tells the other that the 'primitives' they meet with in pre-history may be able to deduce scientific or mechanical principles from a rifle or other item, and therefore everything the Time Traders take with them to the past must fit the era, even to the point of disguising antibiotics in the form of local medicines. But most of the past folk we actually see do not come across as very intelligent, even the two characters, one a priestess and the other a chief's wife, who are interested in learning about the world beyond their doorstep.
- Discussed at one point in Safehold, when Merlin quotes Arthur C. Clarke for Cayleb and tells him not to feel like an ignorant savage because within the framework they have, the people of Safehold are every bit as clever and creative as the people of the high-tech society Merlin came from. It also helps that the people from Merlin's time that founded Safehold's civilization helped them be able to be better than the time they're trying to emulate (Age of Sail-esque where they have muskets and use galleys and galleons). For instance, the sanitation problems of that time period are essentially nonexistent due to one of the holy books of the setting's religion talking about how in this case cleanliness is literally next to godliness.
- The Orc and Human builder units in Warcraft III are a shining example of this trope, if the lines they speak when clicked are any indication. The humans have a Cockney accent and occasionally quote the Monty Python peasants, while the orcs have a You No Take Candle speech pattern. Given the cultures involved both believe heavily in advancement by merit (and face serious manpower shortages), it's possible that the only people who get jobs as laborers are the ones too incompetent to do anything else.
- During the "Storm Breaker Saga" from Sluggy Freelance it's debatable whether this trope is in play, or if it's just another display of everyone in Sluggy Freelance being some sort of idiot.
- Averting this trope is one of the major themes in The Lay of Paul Twister. All of the main characters seem to be of above-average intelligence, and the main difficulty they have in understanding the technological concepts Paul is familiar with is unfamiliarity with the basic concepts, not an inability to comprehend them.
- Time Squad. In one particular episode, they manage to quickly convince Copernicus to stop being a farmer and write about how the Earth moves around the sun. He promptly agrees and goes to research under the basis that "That sounds important!" only to be seen in the end of the episode running back to where the Squad had just gone, screaming, "Wait! I forgot to ask! WHAT IS THIS 'SUN'?!"
- The "what is this 'sun'?" line likely was more poking fun at the area they showed him to be farming in, looking grey, bleak, and a few bits of brimstone away from Mordor. Probably closer to The Dung Ages, though the first line would still be this trope.
- Parodied in Futurama. Characters from The Future commonly refer to the 20th century as "The Stupid Ages."
- Leela even tells Fry that being a drop-out of a 20th-century college means nothing in their time, so Fry ends up enrolling in a college in order to drop-out properly.
- Nutritional deficiencies in the general population could lead to other forms of mental retardation and physical disability, especially during times of famine and hitting pregnant women (and their unborn children) in particular; for example, during the Middle Ages in Europe, there was an epidemic of cretinism in parts of the Swiss Alps due to iodine deficiency, and the effects of both lead and alcohol poisoning were unknown at the time. All this could possibly have led to substantially lowered IQ and developmental disabilities.
- Lead and alcohol poisoning risks and effects were well known. In the former, alcohol was safer than water. In the latter, lead was cheap, easy to work, and made for very effective and airtight seals on containers, and they thought it required much more lead than we know now to be the case to cause lead poisoning. They knew the risks and dangers, and did it because it was more practicable for them than alternatives. Where healthier and safer alternatives existed, especially if they were practicable ones, they were readily used.
- Leadership and occupation in medieval societies were much more dependent on random factors, like what family they were born into. In today's industrialized countries, people are generally are able to seek qualifications and apply for jobs they are talented in and that follow their interests. Therefore, in the everyday working world, the people you run into with skilled positions are more likely to be competent and skilled.
- In reality, this trope was largely averted in real life.
- Many castles are marvels of medieval engineering, the most opulent often feature complex water systems with running hot and cold water and pressurized fountains; surprisingly modern sewage disposal; heated floors; and advanced structural and military engineering techniques. Cathedrals also display feats of engineering like large stained glass windows in load-bearing walls, and vast open areas supported externally by flying buttresses.
- Monasteries carefully preserved and duplicated by hand the precious writings saved from the fall of the Rome, with more scholarly monks often encouraged to devote their lives to the study and practice of philosophy, mathematics, engineering and physics, or medicine.
- The Byzantine Empire allowed its citizens great freedom, equality, and opportunity for education and advancement thanks to its first Empress who began life as a foreign born commoner and ended life as half of a Ruling Couple. It also preserved and expanded the Musaeum of Alexandrianote , and advanced science and engineering to surprising levelsnote before political decay and the encroachment of neighboring empires lead to its own collapse.
- Even for the average European peasant, intelligence and ingenuity were valued- riddle contests were staples of the medieval fair, and windmills and waterwheels powered complex proto-factories for milling flour, forging metal, and processing timber.
- A lot of technology was developed in the Middle Ages, especially in the later half. Some of the more noteworthy are mechanical clocks, the hourglass, three-crop rotation, vertical windmills, plate mail armour, spectacles and the printing press. Also, the world's first universities and modern chess were developed as well, both of which are not really considered the pastimes of morons.
- All of this combined results in some scholars viewing the Renaissance not as the end of the medieval period, but as the result of it.
- The best expression of this trope is the flat-earth myth. No, medieval Europeans didn't think the Earth was flat. Europeans learned that the Earth was round during the time of Ancient Greece and that knowledge was never lost. The idea that belief in a flat Earth was widespread during the Middle Ages appears to have been invented during the 19th century, for the purpose of giving a Historical Hero Upgrade to Christopher Columbus and casting him as a proto-Enlightenment thinker who achieved glory by challenging medieval superstition.