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.
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 (as well as antebellum) America, nineteenth-century Britain, nineteenth-century Russianote and the 1950s have long been favorite targets, and increasingly the 1970s and '80s have been getting this too (when it comes to more contemporary issues such as homophobia).
Compare: Humans Are Morons. Also compare The Dung Ages, when the Middle Ages is filthy. The two tropes usually go hand in hand, but sometimes you can have one without the other (and Real Life did; The Dung Ages is far more Truth in Television, as the contemporary sanitation was more often than not inadequate, to say the least). When writers forget one particular aspect that is accurate you get Medieval Universal Literacy.
- 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.
- Strongly subverted in The Secret of Kells, showing how highly intelligent monks preserved everything carefully and artistically.
- 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...
- The Pythons were aware this wasn't really the case-Terry Jones is a medieval historian in fact, and hosted a series later about it, which specifically pointed out that it's a more sophisticated, complex period than is thought by many.
- 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 two protagonists of Les Visiteurs, Jacquouille in particular. It's not helped by the fact that they have travelled time from their era, the 12th century, to the 20th century. The medieval way they interact with 20th century life constantly gets them in trouble. For instance, they utterly destroy a postal van, thinking it to be a devil-powered cart driven by a Saracen (he's a black postman actually).
- Pretty much every peasant and the inquisitor in the sequel. The inquisitor gets scared by a moo box, thinking it's an artifact of the devil, and condemns Jacquard to be burnt at the stake for carrying it.
- In the remake, Just Visiting, they destroy a VW Beetle, thinking it's a dragon. 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.
- 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.
- Averted in the novel.
- Timeline: Discussed when the group is trying to escape and Chris claims their modern knowledge is enough that they can surely outthink medieval people. It's quickly subverted however, since those people are no dumber than them and (being from the era) have a lot of advantages regarding knowledge. They only barely manage to escape.
- 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". On the other hand there are some pretty disgusting things, such as the tannery, that were Truth in Television.
- Older Than Radio: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's 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.
- Also inverted. The medieval English are able to repeatedly outsmart and deceive super-advanced aliens. It's not too ridiculous as the Wersgor are implied to have fallen into an intellectual rut since they became a galactic superpower, whereas Sir Roger, the leader of the English, has had to become a Magnificent Bastard from an early age just to have a hope of surviving the perils of European courtly politics.
- 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, all of which he speaks fluently. Some of those books are even in English. Uptimer doctor James Nichols, who is fluent in English and... English, is completely dumbfounded. 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 family's lands were small and poor, 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 some unsavory things.
- 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 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 in 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.
- Mostly avoided in the TV series Legend of the Seeker, based on the books.
- 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.
- Averted in The Name of the Rose. Some of the characters are outright brilliant, and even those whose beliefs seem backwards by modern standards generally have the learning and rhetorical skill to defend them. Granted, almost all of them are monks, so it follows that they are educated. The handful of peasants and outlaws we see are not nearly as impressive.
- Played straight in Frederic Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth's "Mute Inglorious Tam" where a medieval peasant has a lot of brilliant ideas and speculations, but he doesn't have the vocabulary to describe what he means, and such talk could get him a stern talking-to from the priest, maybe even accused of witchcraft.
- Averted in the short story Death in Vesunna by Harry Turtledove, where two time travelers in the late Roman Empire murder someone with a gun to steal a lost book worth millions which they can then sell to future collectors. They're confident none of the locals will be able to figure out how he died before they can go back. However, the local Roman equivalent of the police chief, along with his physician friend, successfully deduce what happened and catch them.
- Subverted in the Doctor Who episode "The Awakening," with a 17th century farmboy named Will Chandler, who, while illiterate and only just aware of what year it is, proves to be quite bright.
- This trope is present in Blackadder, but makes it clear that people in all time periods are equally moronic. Baldrick's initial characterisation in the first series is a notable subversion, as he's a grubby medieval peasant who happens to be the Only Sane Man.
- Similarly present in Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, where Marian and the Sheriff are the only characters with two brain cells to rub together.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The episode "Selfless" shows how Anya, once a Swedish peasant girl in circa 880AD, became a vengeance demon after she turned her unfaithful husband Olaf into a troll, who is immediately attacked by the fearful villagers.
Olaf: Stop! I am Olaf!Villager: The troll is doing an Olaf impersonation!
- Kaamelott is based almost entirely on this, with King Arthur as the Only Sane Man due to his Roman upbringing. His knights are forever bickering about finding the Grail instead of actually looking for it, his father-in-law builds a catapult in the main courtyard and wants to knock down the gate so it can be taken outside, and then you have Guethenoc and Roparzh, two peasants with a mutual case of Sitcom Arch-Nemesis who don't mind setting fire to half the land or poisoning most of the livestock to get back at each other despite it meaning starvation for them and the rest of the country. Lancelot's betrayal isn't even due to kidnapping the queen she leaves of her own accord, to Arthur's delight, it's because the knights are as bad as the peasants so he sets up his own army. The fact that his soldiers are just as inept as Kaamelott's never seems to occur to him.
- Miracle Workers: Alexandra learns a mere three "facts" at the university (the Earth is flat, the Devil is real, the sun is crazy) before graduating.
- Warhammer 40,000: The average inhabitant of the Imperium is this IN SPACE. They consider the Emperor to be a god and the government to be his priesthood, and mutation is the new "witchcraft", with mutant persecution widespread. What's more, the existence of the Mechanicus ensures that, while lasguns and starships are everywhere, nobody is actually qualified to build or repair them, and most believe that praying to them is what makes them work. This does vary a lot by depiction and planet, with the above description fitting the most flanderised versions or less advanced planets. The prayers and rites circulated by the Mechanicus are mostly actual, if ritualised instructions to maintain the equipment, and only the more prestigious tech is monopolized by the Priesthood of Mars. In a slightly lighter depiction, your typical Civilized World resident has an education on par with a modern first world country.
- Warhammer Fantasy: Peasants in the Empire and Bretonnia are seen as this by the nobles. Some of them are indeed this (whether through inbreeding, aristocratic oppression or superstitions that lead to burning the state-approved wizard because they can't read his papers and don't want to bother finding someone who can). It doesn't help that in some areas, the smarter peasants know that getting the nobs involved in matters of justice only leads to more trouble for everyone involved, so they Obfuscate Stupidity, perpetuating the stereotype among aristocracy that peasants are clumsy oafs capable of accidentally stabbing themselves in the back with a scythe seventeen times.
- 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.
- Defied in Godslave as Edith tries to explain mirrors and make-up to Anpu, who angrily retorts that yes, they did have those in Ancient Egypt. He does hide behind her when he sees water running from the tap, though.
- Cracked has If Disney Cartoons Were Historically Accurate - Disney Musical Parody - With Rachel Bloom. It shows a horrific medieval life rife with disease and backwards attitude.
- 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'?!"
- 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 is the equivalent of being a high-school drop-out in the 31st century, 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, while the effects of both lead and alcohol poisoning were somewhat known at the time, the dangers of fresh water and the benefits of using lead were thought to outweigh them. All this could possibly have led to substantially lowered IQ and developmental disabilities.
- 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 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. Although in some areas, as academic requirements in certain fields become more and more expensive to achieve, the ones able to attain said qualifications are likely to already belong to the upper classes. On the flip side of the coin, in a world where occupation is determined by parentage, many people were likely to be overqualified for their jobs. Peasants and nobles would have had about an equal share of stupid people and geniuses.
- 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 Rome, with more scholarly monks often encouraged to devote their lives to the study and practice of philosophy, mathematics, engineering and physics, or medicine. How The Irish Saved Civilization is a good intro to this.
- 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 Alexandria,note and advanced science and engineering to surprising levelsnote before political decay and the encroachment of neighboring empires led 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 latter half. Some of the more noteworthy are mechanical clocks, the hourglass, three-crop rotation, vertical windmills, full plate 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.
- For centuries, Renaissance era writings on the medieval era were considered gospel, enough so that most historians considered them greater authority than actual medieval era manuscripts. This is where this trope and Dung Ages largely comes from. However, today it's accepted that most Renaissance era writers held a rather extreme biased against what's now known as the middle ages. For example, the idea of a "dark ages" was put forth where nothing of value was written, and Renaissance era scholars dismissed any writing from this time as forgeries. In reality, a lot the negative tropes associated with the Middle Ages were far more prevalent in the Renaissance or even early Enlightenment. For example, people bathed far less in the Renaissance while corruption among the Church and nobility skyrocketed. Renaissance era scholars just assumed that these things must have been far worse in the Middle Ages.
- The Flat World myth is a Dead Unicorn Trope. No, medieval Europeans (at least the scholars) 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. In reality, it was Columbus who made a huge error over the size of the Earth, claiming one could sail directly from Spain to India. His detractors (including clergy members) rightly said it was far larger and this couldn't be done. His fleet almost ran out of food and the sailors had gotten to the edge of mutiny when they ran into the Americas.
- Read an old Bestiary and you'll quickly see that they knew absolutely nothing about animals. Mythical creatures such as dragons and unicorns are listed, and real animals have a colorful list of fanciful facts that were fabricated and taken at face value by everyone else. Examples of things claimed by Bestiaries: lion cubs are born dead and stay this way for three days, until a lion breathes on them and they come to life. If a wolf sees you first you lose your voice. Female elephants must give birth in water or a dragon will come and eat her baby. Hyenas can mate with lionesses to produce leucrotas, which among other weird attributes have horse heads and deer hind quarters. Peacocks never fly because they are ashamed of their ugly feet. It goes on and on.
- This isn't unique to the Middle Ages either. Pliny the Elder's Natural History from the late Roman Empire has some very similar claims, including bizarre ones like saying no woman is left-handed.
- There is some debate on how seriously bestiaries were intended to be taken (at least by the time the medieval period rolled around. Other scientific manuscripts detailing far more correct observations about animals and plants have been found, but are not labeled as bestiaries. Bestiaries known were often owned by churches or the aristocracy, and were often used to illustrate morality tales. It's entirely possible that the majority of the Bestiaries were intended to be works of fantasy at the time they were written.
- The origin of this trope comes from the now-discredited idea that the evil aristocrats took advantage of the chaos caused by the fall of Rome to subject more than 90% of the population to a cruel tyranny, and create a Scam Religion to prevent rebellions. So in the Enlightenment when this trope took hold, the medieval morons were interpreted as the victims of a totalitarian society built on a lie that deserved to be replaced.
- Tropes like Values Dissonance and Society Marches On show that many medieval people did not know in the slightest how to treat others with respect, love, and dignity, or if they did, they just didn't care enough to do so. To be fair, some people today are the same way, despite having even less of a excuse.