Paul Freedman (The truth about the ‘Middle Ages’)

  • Why are the ‘Middle Ages’ often called the ‘Dark Ages’?
  • What were the biggest improvements in the ‘Middle Ages’ compared to the Roman Empire.
  • Were the contemporaries of the Middle Ages drunk all the time?
  • What are the most popular misconceptions about the ‘Middle Ages’?
  • How did the taste for popular foods change so much over the centuries?
  • Why the debate about healthy food is much older than you think.
  • The story about Lampreys that you never knew.
  • Why monasticism is such an important part of the ‘Middle Ages’.
  • Why did the ‘Scientific Revolution’ not happen in the ‘Middle Ages’?
  • Did slavery delay the invention of the ‘steam engine’?
  • What was life like as an entrepreneur in the ‘Middle Ages’?
  • Did the debt cycles of modern day have parallels in the ‘Middle Ages’?
  • Are there parallels between the late Roman Empire and the US in the current day?
  • Why was Islam so popular when it started out?
  • and much more!

Professor Paul Freedman has been teaching at Vanderbilt University and at Yale since 1997. He specializes in medieval social history, the history of Catalonia, comparative studies of the peasantry, trade in luxury products, and the history of cuisine.  His lecture series about the ‘Middle Ages’ has been viewed more than 700,000 times on Youtube.

Paul is also a prolific author about history and food including:


Torsten Jacobi: I meet today with Professor Paul Friedman, and Paul has been teaching at Wanderbilt University and at Yale since 1997. Paul specializes in medieval history, medieval social history, and comparative studies of peasantry, actually, luxury products, and the history of cuisine. Paul is a prolific author, besides being a professor, he’s published a number of books, including the images of the medieval peasant, food, the history of taste, and American cuisine, and how it got that way. They’re all available on Amazon. Welcome to the podcast. Paul, thanks for doing this. I really appreciate that. It’s a pleasure to be with you, Torsten. I found you through YouTube. You have one of your lectures, the one about the Middle Ages, the introduction to the Middle Ages. That’s how I found you initially. And what led you or what came out of Yale to put your lectures on YouTube, and how does it feel to be a YouTube star? You must get a lot of comments.

Paul Freedman: Well, Yale in 2011 and 2012 was experimenting with open access courses. I think they wanted to see what kind of audience there was for liberal arts courses. And they asked me to do a course on the early Middle Ages. And so that’s the one that you saw. It’s open access, meaning that it’s for free. I said at the time, oh, wouldn’t you prefer to have my course on the history of food that is, you know, perhaps has a bigger audience, or maybe the central Middle Ages? And they said, no, basically, this was when they wanted to do it. And so, yes, to my surprise, a lot of people have seen it. I get a lot of messages from people, email messages, sometimes saying they enjoyed it so much that they don’t know how they’re going to do their exercises. They very often, you know, are doing something else while listening to or watching these lectures. So, yes, it’s been surprising and gratifying. And now it’s almost 10 years since I actually gave those classes. But, yeah, I still hear from people quite a lot.

Torsten Jacobi: Yeah, I can imagine. I found the lecture series fascinating. It opened up a piece of history that I and I assume most people are like that. I knew pretty much nothing about. I knew about the Romans and I knew about a little bit about the Greeks. And obviously, I learned a lot about the Renaissance. I grew up in Europe. So the Renaissance was a big deal where we studied that for a long time. And that’s, for me, a long time ago as well. The first thing that everybody thinks of the Middle Ages is you aren’t the dark ages. Nothing really happened. We were steeped in literally darkness. What do you say to that? That seems to be the first gut reaction for most people.

Paul Freedman: Yeah. I mean, medieval historians have been trying to convince people that that’s not true for about 100 years with no success. So in a way, we’ve sort of embraced the notion. If you want to call it the dark ages, as long as it’s interesting, what we really react against is the notion that nothing happened. The Middle Ages is the origin of so many things that the Roman Empire did not have from debt financing to universities, to Gothic architecture, not necessarily things that are great. Anti Jewish persecution, the Crusades, the beginnings of European colonization. But I don’t think its importance is in any doubt. I also think that the dark ages implies and was really a label of the Renaissance to imply that the art of the Middle Ages, the style of the Middle Ages, was primitive and unpleasant. And if you consider how much just to take Gothic architecture alone has influenced churches, universities, and even secular buildings, houses of parliament in London, for example. There’s no doubt that the Middle Ages is influential. I am happy with people finding the Middle Ages somewhat horrifying, because personally I find all of history somewhat horrifying, and modernity is no easy, smooth ride either. Things like Game of Thrones have popularized the Middle Ages, or the so called dark ages, and I’m happy with that.

Torsten Jacobi: I could feel this through your lesson. The way you explain most of these things is that from the summary kind of in my mind, if I have to put it in one sentence, it’s literally the digestion of Christianity in Europe through the centuries, and the importance of the Holy Roman Empire, the holiness within that, and that it wasn’t a lovely place to be. There was a lot of fighting going on, and there wasn’t a lot of civil society. You just mentioned that earlier, there’s still a lot of debate going on what actually happened in the Middle Ages because of sources change or the interpretation change. What is for you the most, I say from the last 10 years, because it’s been about 10 years since you recorded those lectures that I saw, what are the most surprising findings?

Paul Freedman: Well, the most surprising findings are related to the problem that you mentioned first, and that is the impact of Christianity and the transition between the Roman Empire, which, while not the same as modern states, kind of looks like a modern state. It has a bureaucracy, it has a dense population, it’s an urban society that’s ruled by a fairly substantial, literate class, it has a lot of trade, a lot of public works. Whereas the 7th or 8th centuries AD is rural, much less population, very few literate people except the clergy, and a very decentralized, you know, the governments such as they are are either weak or indistinguishable from kind of plundering operations. The emphasis in the last really even more than 10 years has been that this is not an abrupt, you know, fall collapse of civilization replaced by barbarism. It’s a transformation, Christianization, ruralization. There are winners and losers. If you were a peasant, and after all 90% of the population at any time before the Industrial Revolution would have been peasants, it was not, you weren’t worse off in the 8th century than you would have been in the 4th century. In fact, you might be better off because the taxation structure, infrastructure wasn’t there, the bureaucratic administrative system that was required. So there’s in a way more violence, but less state violence, more disorder, but also more self sufficiency. Fewer rules, fewer repressions on the ability of ordinary people to do things like hunting or keeping their own produce or making arrangements among their own communities. So the shift has been to regard more favorably the period that comes after the Roman Empire and a little less favorably the Roman Empire, merely because it created a lot of big public works and had a complicated legal system.

Torsten Jacobi: Yeah, so when we take these two extremes, would you say that the Middle Ages actually, for most people involved, was a bit more democratic than say the Roman Empire, which was this huge global, semi global infrastructure of top down administration. So it actually went into people’s favor, what happened in the Middle Ages?

Paul Freedman: There’s a case to be made. Democratic, no, because the theory, I mean, not in theory, but if we interpret democratic in the sense of the kind of space that people had. I mean, I personally, I’m not, I’m not wishing that I was, you know, a peasant in the eighth century or in the fourth century AD. I’m quite happy if I have a lottery of eras to be born in and conditions to be born in. I’m happy with the ticket that I drew. But the thing the historian wants to avoid is judging periods on the basis of the most articulate and privileged classes alone, particularly if you can figure out how to get at the lived reality of ordinary people. And so what’s allowed us to get closer to how ordinary people lived in the Middle Ages has been particularly advances in archaeology or advances in technologies like DNA analysis or stable isotope analysis that, you know, we can figure out what people ate, what their migration patterns were, what their health was like. And the picture that emerges is not quite so grim as what the monastic chroniclers would have us believe, for example.

Torsten Jacobi: Yeah. There was one note that I found, and it was outside of your lecture, so that might be completely bogus. There is this ongoing theory around, maybe it’s just an internet myth, that people were basically drinking alcohol the whole day. There is this story about up to two gallons of apparently was found in a monastery. So the rationing was water wasn’t being consumed because it was potentially polluted and bacteria was in there. So the myth is you got up to two gallons of water if you’re enough water of wine and beer if you’re relatively well off. Are these things true or is it just a myth?

Paul Freedman: It’s partially true. So it depends on where in Europe they’re drinking wine, ale. Nobody’s drinking beer with hops. Nobody’s drinking lager beer, which is a modern invention. Ale, which people brew themselves, has a very low alcohol level. So if people are drinking a quarter to two of ale a day, they’re not inebriated particularly. So yeah, they’re drinking ale for breakfast in Britain, for example. But the other thing that’s not quite right is this notion that nobody drinks water because it was polluted. So yeah, if you’re living close to a tannery, you’re not going to drink stream water. But well water is all over the place. They dig wells. Well water is fine. They don’t have the kinds of problems that we do with the leaching of massive chemical agricultural pollutants into the aquifer. So monasteries, the monks drink wine. They also drink a lot of water. People who are undergoing penance drink water only. There’s plenty of water around. But it is true that they drink much more wine and much more ale than we do. But it is not true that they were slightly drunk all the time.

Torsten Jacobi: That sounded maybe too good to be true. There was this movie just a little while ago. And it was a Danish movie. And it basically had this theory, again probably not very scientific, but the theory was that our DNA had adopted to an alcohol level of 0.500.5 per mil. And that’s something that came through the Middle Ages. So people were slightly drunk. Obviously you get used to the amount of alcohol, right? It doesn’t have a big effect if you’re always a little drunk. But we at our natural level, without any alcohol, we are not at our best. Especially in creative places and in areas where we need a little more of a social outgoingness. We should be a little drunk. And then we would be at our best. And I think a lot of us feel that way, right? We all feel, obviously it’s addictive. But we all feel like, okay, but the slightly higher alcohol level might be actually good for us until we get addicted and then it gets really bad, right?

Paul Freedman: Well, or until, I mean, there’s a lot of brawling in the Middle Ages. So yeah, drinking is hard to adjust to a thermostat. In other words, people tend to go beyond the friendly level and advance to something that’s rowdy or belligerent. Men do. But the thing that gets me about the Middle Ages, and that makes me really glad that I live, say, post 1700, is the absence of caffeine. I mean, it’s one thing to have a mild buzz from wine or ale, but there’s no chocolate. There’s no coffee. There’s no tea. And there’s no tobacco either for those who regard that as a necessity. So, you know, you’re kind of faced with life without kind of the intermediary drugs, many of them, to make it bearable. Let’s not even go into the pain reliever issue.

Torsten Jacobi: I can’t believe how people even got through today. I know that coffee is much older in regions like Ethiopia, right? But it didn’t come into Europe until the 12th century, 13th?

Paul Freedman: No, no, no later even. Really, it’s first known in the 16th century. The 17th century is the first period when you have coffee houses, you know, when people go in big cities to coffee houses. Same with tea. Chocolate comes in a little earlier. Chocolate actually is a new world product. And at least in Spain, there’s a fashion for drinking chocolate by the end of the 16th century.

Torsten Jacobi: Well, I know you probably have been asked this question many times, but we just touched about a couple of those effects. What do you feel are the most surprising things people don’t know about the Middle Ages? Obviously, it is the things you just mentioned, like certain things were just not invented yet, but what is like a very popular misconception you get all the time?

Paul Freedman: Oh, there are so many. One is that they had bad table manners. A lot of movies have encouraged people to believe that they just, you know, they eat with their hands and that they kind of have this raucous, kind of tearing wild boars apart. In fact, they have all sorts of rules about dining. They have very ceremonial kind of high end dining. And, you know, peasant dining would be no more uncouth than ordinary people’s way of eating now. So things like table manners, the notion that they were always incredibly unclean, I would say to the degree that they were unclean, it was because it was either cold or they didn’t have a lot of access to hot water. They liked being clean, as most people most of the time do. So the conceptions that I get all the time in the work that I’ve done on food, so that spices were popular in medieval cuisine because it covered up the taste of spoiled meat. This can’t be true for a number of reasons, including the fact that the meat was much cheaper than the spices. So, you know, to put a lot of cloves or pepper on meat that is dubious would be like, you know, putting white truffles, which come in at over a thousand dollars a pound, slicing them on a fast food cheeseburger. It’s just, you know, the cheeseburger is one one hundredth of the value of the sliced truffles. So that Marco Polo brought pasta back from China. This is completely untrue. So I mean, I could go on for our entire period. There are a lot of misconceptions, most of them harmless.

Torsten Jacobi: Yeah, well, I’m very curious. You cover two topics that I don’t think are even related. One is food, like the history of food, obviously, but also how food, how different trends and traditions of food and their preparation have developed. And then you cover history in an unusual timeframe, I think for at least most people, maybe not for historians, maybe that’s a very popular one. I actually don’t have enough insight. What inspired you to go there? How did that happen? And how do you choose these topics we talked about? And I introduced some of your books. They seem to be to the outside observer, like, kind of unrelated topics.

Paul Freedman: Yes, people, I have met people who said on pond first meeting me. Oh, I thought there were two people named Paul Friedman, one a medieval historian and another interested in the history of food and cuisine. I mean, the kind of simple answer is academics are always accused of being over specialized. So, you know, I’m trying to not mow the same field all the time or to find some things that are new. There is an interrelation that has to do with, well, first of all, I became interested in the Middle Ages, really, in high school. And it’s its difference from today and yet it’s sort of peculiar similarities were what attracted me. I was also fascinated by how people could fight in the name of religion. And although I’ve never done any research on that, I’ve never published anything on that. The conjoining of violence and piety was always kind of like, what is going on? How do people reconcile these two things? In a lot of the work that I did was oriented around class structure and how people conceive of class, how the wealthy regard the lower classes. Do they regard them as necessary? Do they regard them as not fully human? Do they regard them as what we would say genetically or by birth or by nature inferior? And food is important as a symbol of that. So in the Middle Ages, peasants were made fun of because they ate low foods as they were conceived of. Things like porridges or gruel or garlic and other root vegetables. Whereas the upper classes boasted of their good taste in eating food with lots of spices. Game, meat generally, fresh fish, particularly from the ocean. So I wrote this book on spices in the Middle Ages that was published in 2008. And it was about not the trade in spices but the demand for spices. And that really led me to consider if this is what prestige food is in the Middle Ages, what is prestige food in my own society in contemporary United States? And how did it get that way? Why is it that Americans, if you look at menus and people’s cookbooks and opinions, why is it that in the 19th century, organ mate or viscera, things like pig’s feet or brains or sweetbreads, were highly prized on menus everywhere? And that now Americans basically, unless they are recent arrivals from another country, generally despise or are afraid of organ mate?

You’re probably familiar with René Girard and his theory of the memetic desire. So we want what other people want and then it leads to this culmination of the scapegoat. We find that scapegoat, blame everything on him when that scapegoat becomes the martyr. It’s a very Christian idea but he wrote books about everything so he applies it to pretty much everything out there. I feel this is also going on and you probably tell me that’s maybe the answer or maybe not of food. So there is a lot of copying from upper class. You want to be seen as an upper class or you want to be seen as someone cool. So there’s a lot of copying going on. One thing that I noticed that might not be true but there is this tale with the early settlers around New York City and they actually ate a lot of lobster because it was so abundant and it was seen as a very lower class food and now it’s complete opposite. Lobster is kind of one of the best things you can get if you go to a good French restaurant or high end dining. It will be a lobster meal. What’s your answer? How do these things develop and would you predict the future that it’s changing quite a bit again? Or do you think we’re going to continue on this trajectory? Well, I think the lobster story is indicative of something that has to do with prestige and that is scarcity. If something is really, I mean, this isn’t always true. So like oysters in the 19th century were abundant and both upper and lower classes loved oysters. And this is just an American thing. They ate oysters all the time. But generally speaking, something that is a little bit rare or a little hard to get is often more highly prized. And so one reason why lobster increased in prestige might simply be that it becomes not as common. It becomes over depleted and things can become so depleted that they’re forgotten. So for example, in the 19th century, one of the most prestigious foods in the United States was terrapin. These are small turtles that come from shorelines and estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay region. It was supposed to produce the best terrapin. And by 1900 or so, they’re rare. They’re not rare, but they’re certainly not common. And they’re now illegal to catch in most states. And so not only can people not get it usually, but it’s forgotten. People don’t even realize that the mascot of the University of Maryland, the terrapins, are named for what was well known as an edible product. They just assume somehow that’s just their name. So yeah, the changes that are happening now are also due to the accelerating depletion as a result of our ecological crisis. So overfishing means that a lot of fish species are likely not to be available in the next 10, 20 years, if not sooner. There is a shift away from meat eating or what’s called vegetable forward. I’m not sure how far that’s going to get, but already that has a number of people who are either vegetarian or vegan or using meat more as a flavor than as a kind of a big piece of dinner. Those are some obvious trends at least that are going on now and likely to continue in the future. Yeah, I’m going back to the history in the Middle Ages. Do you feel that the whole idea of eating healthy, which is at least when we look at it from an intellectual level, from a conscious level, seems to play a huge role now. Not when we get fast food, but when we have plenty of options available. Was that a consideration people had in the Middle Ages or was certainly just you just wanted good food, like fast food, so to speak, if they could get the hands on it? I think it’s very similar to now. Many people fussed about the health benefits or dangers of food. So there’s a whole theory of what are called humors, and these are the four major bodily fluids as conceived of by Greek, Roman and medieval doctors. Bile, black bile, blood and phlegm. And everybody has a slight imbalance. So somebody who has more blood tends to be a vigorous, you know, red faced, what in English is called sanguine personality. Sanguines is blood in Latin. Or somebody who has more black bile, the Greek for black is melon and bile, chile or coal, melancholy. So someone with too much black bile has a melancholy. So they explain not only disease by this imbalance, but personal, you know, emotional or what we’d call psychological type. And disease, according to this theory, is caused by an imbalance of the humors. And the way to avoid such imbalance is to eat foods that counteract your tendencies. So, you know, a melancholic personality will have a different diet than a person who is phlegmatic and so forth. It becomes then as complicated as many diets are now, you know, with carbohydrates or calories or antioxidants. I am willing to say that, you know, the theories that we have today have more of a scientific basis. But notice how often they change, you know, are eggs good for you or not? Is flax seed a miracle cure or irrelevant? You get the same kinds of fattishness, medical intervention, quasi medical knowledge, money making dietetic advice in the Middle Ages that you do now. That’s fascinating. I never thought there was time for that. And, you know, when I think back, and there’s a lot of health advice, I always feel there’s this theory of going back to the caveman. You know, that must be good because our DNA is made for it. But that’s maybe a very quick jump into a bunch of couple of different conclusions. And we don’t know how much the RNA actually changed and how much we inherited. And the other hand is that I always feel when I go to Mediterranean countries and that’s pre Middle Ages, but that’s the Roman Empire, I always feel their diet seems, it makes me feel very healthy. The olive oil, the wine, the is carbs, what’s not a huge amount of it. Do you think that’s something in the Middle Ages people already thought about? Or they were like, well, we have our own relatively small minded theories. Well, I think they had the same dynamic between what is helpful and what they want to have. So, for example, one of the most prestigious and expensive items in the Middle Ages was lamprey. The lamprey is a little bit like an eel, it’s long, it’s really mean, it’s got teeth in its head. It lives by sucking out the insides of fish. It is a little hard to catch, it’s seasonal, it’s hard to prepare. I’ve had it once, it still is a specialty in the region of Bordeaux in southwestern France. It’s absolutely delicious, I have to say. And it counts as a fish in the Middle Ages, which means you could eat it on fast days. And amazingly, it tastes exactly like meat. I mean, it’s not just sort of meat like a little bit, the way eel might be, because it’s dark. If you had told me it was venison or beef like short ribs, it’s just like that. So, the problem with lamprey from the medical point of view in the Middle Ages was really, really dangerous. Because it’s cold and moist in the fourth degree. So, the cold humor, the moist humor. And one of the kings of England was alleged to have died after eating lampreys for dinner, even though his doctor told him to avoid lampreys. It was just too delicious to avoid. So, some doctors said, okay, go ahead and eat lamprey, but make sure you have a lot of black pepper sauce with it. Because pepper is hot and dry in the fourth degree, what I said before about balancing out humoral properties. So, they’ve got the same idea of eating healthy, but then saying, oh, what the hell, I want this. Or the games that people play with themselves, like, oh, well, I just had a salad, so now I’m going to have an elaborate ice cream dessert by, because I’ve got a credit that I can spend. I’m meeting sushi for lunch, because for the health reasons, I eat raw fish and lots of carbs. So, when people think of sushi, they think of it as extremely healthy and nothing can go wrong. But obviously, there’s a lot of risk involved, not most American cities, but still. Exactly. And so, it’s the image of health that’s important. Yeah, that’s really strange. Leaving food for a moment, I know that’s one of your other passions. No, this is about you, so we’re trying to make this, not just about you, but also the things you want to talk about and that you find really fascinating. One thing, and this is something I learned a lot from you, from your lectures, and that never appeared to me as the influence of monasticism, right? The decision of some people to be very Christian, and I just noticed this. So, the idea of the fasting that’s prescribed by Christians, or by Christian belief, it’s something that people still do on an everyday life basis and say, Ethiopia, but it hasn’t been done anywhere else, where people just forgot about that. I don’t actually know how that happened in the last couple of hundred years. But if you go to Ethiopia, it’s very strict. So, there’s fresh days, and there’s meat days, and then it changes also during the day, I believe. So, I got really confused, but it’s a big deal there. But monasticism seems to be kind of this outgrowth of Christian belief and you said that in your lectures. It created this attitude for learning, right? It gave us a lot of the books out of the, from the Greeks. It preserved a lot of knowledge. How did that actually happen, and how does it fit into the history of Middle Ages that seems to be not as much about knowledge generation, right? Well, what do you think it happened within the core part of Christianity, which seemed to be like, I want to make that statement too. I found the Old and New Testament still very fascinating. They don’t, they hadn’t at least initially encouraged people to learn as much. Well, why did it happen with monasticism? That’s right. The Old Testament, the New Testament is full of exalting the poor, the nonelite, and criticizing the educated as not understanding what God really is about. So Christianity certainly has not so much an anti intellectual bent at its beginning as an anti Greek and Roman classical learning tendency. The irony is that it is the Christians and the monks in particular who preserve the classical Latin and Greek texts, including things like denunciations of Christianity. They were preserved by people who wanted to make sure that they could refute these assertions. Monasticism didn’t start in order to preserve learning. It started in order to create a situation more like that of the New Testament. By people who were afraid that becoming a Christian or living like a Christian was once the Roman Empire was no longer persecuting them, not enough of a dramatic life decision, not enough of a literal following of Christ’s instructions to leave the world, to sell all that you have, to forget about your pension fund and to go out and convert people and lead a life with no connections to the grosser material world. The monks sought this either individually in the beginning as what we would call hermits, but the medieval monastery was a community. So it’s a community of prayer and it becomes successful for a number of reasons. One is that the two duties of monks become work as well as prayer. And this is an effective combination because work includes agricultural labor. The monasteries had a very disciplined, not only labor force but administrative sense. Being literate could keep records for their lands. And prayer, they were regarded as holy places. Those prayers of theirs had power and so nobles and other elite who felt some anxiety about their fate in the next world, and well they should since often they got to where they were by killing people and stuff, would make it up to God by giving to monks. So many of these monasteries become very wealthy. By the 7th, 8th century, the monk as copyist, as you know, preserver of texts, grows out of the notion of work. So work is not only agricultural labor but the work of reading and the work of copying. Neither of which is all that easy in a society in which few people are literate and copying, you know, when you’ve got to do it on a parchment, you know, just think of the physical difficulty of this as opposed to tapping away at your keyboard. Yeah, I find it, it’s weird that we see the Middle Ages as a place that didn’t really have this Cambrian explosion of knowledge. And it probably had this with the monks or maybe it had it with the monks that took on this role of not just copying but reading these old texts, I’m sure they spent a lot of time trying to understand them as well, and maybe reinterpreting them through the lands of Christianity. Why do you think it took all the way down to the Renaissance which probably started 13th, 14th, 15th century to create this knowledge explosion? Why didn’t it happen in the 7th century? What was missing? And a lot of people ask the same question, say why was the steam engine only invented so much later when a lot of the knowledge was around probably in the 8th, 7th century as well. Yes, so I think the first thing is that there is a Cambrian explosion of knowledge. It’s just that it’s not of scientific theory, it’s of more practical everyday things. So certainly the scientific revolutions that you get in the 17th century with figures like Galileo or Newton don’t have a parallel in the Middle Ages. But the Middle Ages, for example, developed wind and water power, which the Romans had not had. The Middle Ages developed economic techniques like debt financing, bonds, insurance, all things that the Romans either didn’t have at all or rather primitively. The printing press comes at the end of the Middle Ages, navigational aids, the compass, astronomical equipment. It’s just that you can’t point to a person like Copernicus or Boyle or Lavoisier who is like the inventor of something. So the increase in knowledge that allows the scientific revolution to take place is a kind of acceleration made possible by things like the printing press, like more rapid exchanges of knowledge, and the dethroning of Aristotelian science by a more empirical, that is to say experimental, theory. But in everyday terms, and once again we get back to what we were talking about at the beginning, where you have people who are more independent like peasants who are not slaves. Labor saving devices suddenly become important. I don’t completely buy into this, but you could say that the Romans were perfectly capable of developing watermills and windmills. After all, they have aqueducts and stuff like that. But because they had so much slave labor, it wasn’t worth it to them. Similarly, the Chinese developed gunpowder, but it was Western Europe that weaponized it in the literal sense. So sometimes it’s not the technological discovery, but the kind of society that thinks it can use things to its benefit. I’ve heard this before, and I never really understood that. The idea that if you have slavery, you can’t invent labor saving devices. For me, that never really made sense, because yes, slaves probably reduce the cost of labor, that’s for sure. But they’re still a cost to it, like slaves cost money, and you have to sustain them. You have to feed them, you have to house them. Even if it’s really, really in bad quality conditions, there is a certain investment. And I always felt like, yes, slaves maybe delay the idea of having slavery, delay the introduction of machinery, they wouldn’t delay it by thousands of years. Maybe 100 years, maybe 200, I would give it. But the time frame seems to be, we waited 800 years longer, and then it took off. It always seems a little trick out of a hat that someone pulls. It sounds good in the moment, but when you think of it, it’s just like anything else in economics. Yes, it’s probably cheaper, but so is anything that you do with a new technology that makes things cheaper, otherwise it wouldn’t take off, or any successful technology, so to speak. So the steam engine did things, but then we still invented electricity on top of it. That’s right. I mean, there reaches a point at which belief in technology and the training of people who are engineers or other experts in technology becomes such that it develops an acceleration of its own and is unstoppable, in fact. That takeoff doesn’t happen until arguably the 18th, 19th centuries. Before then, I suppose some of it is that the investment would just be too much. Just like, why does the United States have such decrepit highways, railroads, very poor transportation infrastructure? If we built it up to the level that, say, China was at, it would be a tremendous savings in all sorts of respects. But the country has not been willing to invest in that for ideological reasons, such as the belief that somehow the free market, the private enterprise is supposed to do this, to simply being too expensive. So just because the result would be good doesn’t mean that you want to spend the money even now in our age which is enchanted by technology. Yeah, no, absolutely. I always feel like this particular desire to not fix our physical infrastructure is kind of underwritten by this notion. We are already transforming ourselves into cloud beings. So we feel like going to the cloud with our identity, what we do with COVID, right? It’s cheaper to do all this in the cloud and not just fix the physical infrastructure because we don’t want to need them anymore because we’re basically going to create computer children in 20 years from now. That seems to be kind of a gut feeling that surprisingly a lot of Americans have. Yeah, but I don’t get it because what kind of life do you want? Like the matrix where you’re just a kind of embalmed brain experiencing things in your imagination? I mean, people want to travel. The COVID epidemic has himmed people in. Yes? I’m with you. Yeah, no, I mean, I just don’t get it. Yeah, how people accepted COVID restrictions so quickly without any real debate and without also, you know, in California, other states are better. We have been locked down from day one and it seems to be that hasn’t helped or maybe it would have been worse without it, who knows. But there seems to be strong willingness to just go cloud based. I don’t know what it is, but there seems to be something intrinsic in people that they can’t really consciously express or feel, but it’s there. But I want to go back to the middle ages since you’re the expert on this. What about entrepreneurship? Well, how did entrepreneurs fare in the middle ages? Were they able to finance their ventures? Were you like literally was your head cut off if you went bankrupt and you eventually didn’t work out? How was people’s viewpoint on entrepreneurship in general? Oh, it’s certainly an age where risk is not merely losing your money, but, you know, the chance of much greater disasters and particularly international trade. The appetite for risk is tremendous and the willingness to undertake it. They also develop ways of trying to guard against or hedge against risk. So, for example, you have a venture to trade from Venice to Alexandria. Alexandria is, you know, Muslim territory. So, on the one hand, this is routine. There are lots and lots of Venetians in Alexandria. In fact, so many that they have their own little kind of subsidy. And they have warehouses, they have a church, they have, you know, interpreters, but it’s still a very risky venture, risky in terms of the weather, the dangers of shipwreck, the possibilities of suddenly deteriorating relations between Venice or the Christian world generally and Alexandria. So, you know, you get other people to go into your business. The earliest kinds of commercial contracts that we have are things called commenda, where basically the simplest form is one person puts up the money and the other person makes the voyage and then they split it evenly. But, you know, you start to have many different arrangements as well as more than just two partners. People have shares of boats or they buy and sell their shares of things or they speculate on products like the price of spices in, you know, a kind of commodities bidding market. So there’s a tremendous amount of merchant enterprise and it’s carried at a risk, as I said before, that would put modern people to shame except for people perhaps on the, you know, high risk criminal side of enterprises. So, for example, of the Portuguese who accompanied Dagama to India in his first and second voyages at the end of the 15th beginning of the 16th century, voyages from Portugal to India, which took like a year and only about a third of them survived. So that’s what I mean by risk. Yeah, like this is like you would literally risk your life doing that enterprise, but say you open, I don’t know, a bar or you open a place of entertainment, whatever that would be. I was about to say cinema theater, but that obviously not happened. So theater and it didn’t work out the way you wanted it. It goes bankrupt five years later and you have a good amount of debt. Would that be a problem for you personally or you would be okay? Some of you would do something else? It depends where you live and depends how much the authorities enforce contracts. I would say it’s more similar than different. In other words, you’d lose money, you’d have the humiliation, your reputation would be adversely affected. But the worst time to be a debtor is the era of dickens when people are really thrown into jail. And it’s impossible for them to pay their debt because they’re in jail. They don’t tend to do that in the Middle Ages. They have a lot of lawsuits. The archives of Europe are filled with litigation records and broken agreements or allegations of bad faith in contracts. So just like now, any business that goes wrong is going to have adverse financial as well as emotional and status consequences. But generally speaking, not fatal. So to get back to what you said before, nobody’s having their head chopped off because their bar went out of business. That’s good to hear. There is this theory, I don’t know yet if you read Ray Dalio’s book, who says there’s been these big cycles, I don’t know if you looked into this from the economics side, these big cycles of money and the devaluation of money and the debt jubilies as we have in the Old Testament. He described these cycles between 50 and 95 years and they happen pretty much everywhere. Have you taken the time to trace them through the Middle Ages? Do they happen there too or you haven’t looked into that? I haven’t looked into it. I’m not a strong economic historian. You do get towards the late to the end of the Middle Ages when you’ve got things like banks lending money to kings. They have some of the same kinds of risks and rewards that you have now lending to public entities. So the great thing about states, like the United States or like Germany, is that they’re always collecting taxes. So they’re always going to be able to pay you something. They’re always going to have money coming in unlike individuals who might suddenly die or become disabled or cease to be able to earn money from their present business. On the other hand, states then and now tend to spend more money than they’re taking in, hence the need for financing. And the kinds of expenses that get out of hand are usually war because war easily gets out of control as an expenditure. And the estimates that the public authorities make about what wars are going to cost are often way too low. So yeah, there are examples. The banks in Siena in Italy in the mid 14th century went bankrupt. I mean, they had to dissolve because the English king refused or was unable to pay his debts or to pay the interest on his debts. Banks in Genoa had to deal with the bankruptcy of the Spanish monarchy in the 16th century, even though Spain was the most powerful nation in Europe at the time. Their debts, again, due to war were such that they simply couldn’t pay back. But like now, people default on their credit card and a few months later they’re getting offers again. So other Genoese banks stepped into the breach and you make a calculation of the risk. You try to spread the risk around by attracting investors. You have safe investments that don’t pay all that much to offset the unsafe investments that have a higher interest rate. Very similar to now. Yeah, Ray makes this point. He says you either go bankrupt, you default on your obligations. Say the Argentina model, they keep doing this every 20, 30 years. That seems to be a shorter cycle and then there seems to be a longer cycle, especially if you are a reserve currency or if you’re the Roman Empire, you’re the only empire around, then you start devaluing and you’re the only currencies that people have to take it for what it’s worth until that day comes where they say, okay, we can’t do this anymore. There is literally no value left and a lot of people say this was the issue the Roman Empire fell apart, but it might be just, you know, it was one of the signs that you could see from the outside if you had that foresight at the time that you could see, okay, well, this is not making enough money anymore compared to the size of the obligations and the size of the empire. So this is probably not going to end well unless they develop a lot of technology, right? It makes them extremely efficient, but it didn’t happen. We know that now. And a lot of people draw these same parallels now with the U.S., right? This is a worldwide empire. We have bases everywhere in the world. We have the reserve currency and we’re kind of overspending, or at least we don’t have enough productivity that’s put it this way. I don’t know if we really overspend, but we don’t lend a lot. We receive a lot of money from other people who give us this money, China especially, and other developing nations, weirdly enough. And he makes that point. The only point we can either give up being a reserve currency like the Romans, or we can devalue our way out of it, which is what he says was most likely going to happen. I’m not sure I agree, because devaluation would mean inflation. So, you know, if the currency isn’t worth this much, then people are going to demand more of it to buy the same product. And that’s exactly what we haven’t seen. Interest rates are unbelievably low, even though the United States has a very large debt. So, I would say that it has more to do with, and this is true of the Roman Empire as well as the United States, internal cohesion, morale, disunity than with actual debt. So, the Romans had terrible inflation in the third century. They reformed the currency under Diocletian, which is where that class that I gave begins, 284 to 306, particularly Constantine. His successor reforms the currency, restores the gold standard, the gold coins are actually worth as much as they say they are. He finances it, by the way, to some extent by confiscating pagan temples treasure, but also by taxation and more effective taxation of the population. So, you know, you can have a good currency and still be an internationally respected currency and still be falling apart for other reasons that have to do with internal rot. Just to call it what it is. Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot going on. It’s very difficult to keep these things apart. And a lot of people default back to history and they feel history could maybe be the answer and there’s a certain rhyme to it, right? But all these empires, the Ottoman Empire had other problems and the Roman empires and they were all big for a while. Some of them came back and I learned this obviously through your lectures. The existence of the Roman Empire was, I don’t know, 900, about a thousand years longer in Constantinople than it was in Rome. And a lot of people don’t know anything about it. I went to Istanbul a lot of times and I only think of it as a Muslim city, as a city that has certainly a more relaxed, more modern approach, so to speak, to Islam. But I never thought this actually was the capital for the Roman Empire the longest time, right? Indeed, you have to think of Hagia Sophia without the minarets. Yeah. So the building is a Byzantine gigantic church, but every photograph of it, modern photograph shows it with the minarets that the Ottomans constructed around it. Yes, yes, that’s right. I think the interesting thing about comparative empires is some of them are very impressive like that of Napoleon. But they only last a very short time. Others of them, like the Roman, like the Byzantine, are incredibly durable. And so whatever their problems ultimately that dissolved them have to be understood in comparison to their cohesion, which allowed them to last for a very long time. Yeah. I want to ask you about Islam. I read the text myself. I found it really, really different than the Quran. I found it really different than I thought it would be. I found it very beautiful in its poetic style, very interesting in the way how it references the Old Testament. But it kind of doesn’t force you to read the Old Testament. It kind of just makes like open references. And I found it fascinating that, you know, 600 years after Christianity started and then many thousand years after Judaism, it makes so many references. I think it kind of reinvents the very similar thesis around the Old Testament. And it has this explosive growth kind of out of nowhere. And it was for a long time seen as kind of a bit like Christian, kind of a bit like Jewish, from what I understand. And then it still had this within, I think, 50 years built this massive empire. What do you think was the real explosive driver? And can that be repeated? Let’s put it this way. Like, could you literally just come up with a cult? And so to speak, I’m not saying that Islam is a cult. But a new branch of a monotheistic, Abraham, mystic religion, and could just make it explode so quickly again. So what were the drivers for this and how did that happen? It is, as you say, assimilates Judaism and Christianity. And it’s monotheistic and Abrahamic. So the Christian world for a while regarded Islam as a kind of like an unnatural creature, like Christianity made by a magician, a poor imitation, a pastiche. The advantage of Islam and one reason for its popularity over, you know, what’s now 13, 1400 years is that it has a firm monotheism like Judaism, but is not tribal, although it was created by the Arabs, it’s not identified with an ethnicity very quickly. You know, the largest Islamic nation today is Indonesia. And, you know, next comes, I think, Pakistan or Bangladesh. So these are non Arab Islamic nations. It is, and here I’m not, you know, I’m not taking any kind of sides, but it’s more practical than Christianity. It’s easier to live up to the precepts of Islam. It’s not telling you to go and sell all that you have and give it away to the poor. It’s not telling you to be chased. It’s actually a religion of moderation, of upright conduct, of, you know, frequent, but not constant prayer, and very much emphasizing, you know, a kind of worldly satisfaction, neither too sensuous nor too renunciatory. And I think that’s one of the reasons for its success in the modern world. The reason for its astonishing success in the seventh and eighth centuries, some of it has to do with, you know, luck, the weakness of its early opponents, the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire, which had basically beaten each other to bits in wars before the rise of Islam. Some of it comes in there that is the Arabs willingness to absorb the culture of the people that they conquered. So in addition to the monks being transmitters of classical learning, the Arabs are the transmitters of classical learning from many of them to the Middle Ages. So that the scholastic philosophers of the 13th century based their theological opinions on Aristotle and Aristotelian reasoning, and this was what dominated teaching of things like logic in the medieval universities. But they, their Latin versions of Aristotle were made from Arabic translations of the Greek until the Renaissance, the West had no access to the Greek originals. So why the Arabs are relatively tolerant as conquerors, why they’re both effective conquerors and effective rulers, why they’re able to absorb not only Greek and Roman learning, but Persian and Indian as well. There’s no sort of explanation based on their previous history. It’s their adaptation to circumstances. But that’s also an explanation for their extraordinary success. Because by 720 AD, that is, within 100 years after Muhammad’s death, they’re controlling territory from the Atlantic, from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Indus River. Yeah, it’s astonishing and it is, when you read the Quran, you find so many familiar themes and I fully agree with you there. It is certainly much more open than Judaism. It’s easier to follow. Maybe that’s more short term than long term thing. I think long term, it really goes and down into rituals and gives a lot of practical advice, but there’s a lot of rituality to it that can get really tough over the years, I feel. Maybe not. Maybe you just get used to it. Yeah, well, it’s like Ramadan. You know, if you’re not Muslim, Ramadan looks like it’s really tough. But people that I know who observe it say it’s actually sort of wonderful. It’s a kind of, it’s like being an athlete and then when you are able to eat at sundown, it’s just so wonderful and it’s so festive. And, you know, you always celebrate it with other people and, you know, that COVID has deprived a lot of people of the, you know, Ramadan is now suddenly this isolating and endless experience. So, yeah, I mean, there’s part of it is a problem of people who are not themselves raised in or loyal to some kind of traditional religion. And as we were talking about before, things like health regimes or dieting or fasting without religion are still popular. People are looking for something, whether it’s compulsive neatness or feng shui or, you know, some kind of new age cult to achieve some of these same ends. Yeah, yeah. I mean, besides the religious instinct, there seems to be something inside of us that we keep exploring these fields, right? It’s just, we don’t know where it comes from, but it’s like at everyone’s heart emotionally or conscious in a conscious way. They’re just curious. And I know this is a tough question. Do you feel you can recreate the success of spreading your religion so quickly in today’s times? Well, if you would do it, what would you do? Yeah, I don’t know. It wouldn’t be an Abrahamic religion. I think the big three and their variations have gone about as far as you’re going to go. You might have a religion that claims to be based on the Bible. But so, I mean, already there are certain kinds of forms of what is called Christianity, but I don’t buy into as, you know, so the gospel of wealth, you know, the gospel of success, various kinds of churches that basically say, forget about the poor, forget about sacrifice, live it up because that’s what God wants. So, you know, I would have said that Communism at its height was a form of religion in that it claimed to be universally applicable. It claimed to be a kind of, trying to be science, but it was like religion in that it had heresies, it repressed heresies, it, you know, jailed or executed critics. It had a cult of personality. It had, you know, figures like Stalin or Mao who were thought to be, I mean, they didn’t use the term divinely inspired, but they might as well have. So, yeah, they’re all over the place. And there’s no reason to think that something else couldn’t come up. And of course, given modern media and social networking, it would spread even more rapidly than Communism, let alone than one of the Abrahamic religions did. Yeah, my gut feeling is that, you know, people say this about when we go through a crisis, we experience a higher religiousness. But my gut feeling is that there’s a real sense of a need for what religion is a tool for us, right? I consider it as a survival tool. I consider it as a way to look into the future, optimistic and to balance things out between the rich or poor or lots of other things that are going on in our life. And when I look around in Silicon Valley, when I look around in California, the actual religiousness, you might say, OK, well, we just changed it to a different, we gave it a different name. Maybe it’s a much more worldly religion. But I think these deep religions, if they make their way into people’s minds, give you an incredible survival edge. And I think we’ve lost this. Maybe we didn’t need it, right? Because we had a lot of survival. We didn’t have to worry about most survival issues because of technology. But the question is, are our minds suffering from this? And I feel like this reduction of old school religious experience is something that a lot of people feel they’re missing out on these days. And maybe that’s just because of the crisis. I think there’s more of a long term trend. So I think there’s a revival. And I’m obviously curious, will it be the same or will it be like a fashionable new version of Christianity, which would be my mind? I would bet my money on this. If someone comes up with this, like Elon Musk comes up with the religion he sponsors, right? He has the marketing platform for it. And it’s just give us a little bit more of this belief into the future, which would probably be a good thing, right? I mean, people being more optimistic about the future is probably a good thing in 2020 and 2021. Well, I think I agree that if the most likely source of this is going to be somebody with a personality and resources like Elon Musk, I don’t agree that it’s going to be good. I’m almost sure it’s going to be terrible if it comes up. And my personal belief, I’m not speaking now as a credentialed expert, my personal belief is that we already have it and that it’s in the form of various forms of what purports to be evangelical Christianity. But this is something that has, in fact, is a version of an Abrahamic religion that has a tremendous following and that is a form of certainty. It’s both a form of getting along in the world and of fixing your eyes on the next world. And it works for many people. But, you know, again, my personal belief is that it’s not been completely productive of sweetness and light and human understanding. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, there’s definitely a lot of contenders for this spot right in the top five. I’m watching this closely because I really feel it’s a bit of a business. Like in the 70s, there were cults around, like they came mostly out of Korea and East Asia, and they suddenly spread like wildfire. And the 70s were tough for people individually because of high inflation, low growth. The growth was slowing tremendously from the 50s and 60s, and they really filled that void for people to be home, to feel comfortable. And I think we’re in the exact same spot right now, and I think it’s a bit like a business. I always feel like religion is a bit like a business. I don’t consider this as a bad thing. I feel they have to market themselves and they have to sell something that makes people better and then they’re worth their time because you give them attention. And something new is brewing, I feel. For a second, I would love to go back to the Middle Ages and talk about the Vikings. Those seem to play a very nonreligious, strong influence on Europe, right? They come in kind of as a kind of as a tribe that nobody really had contact with, and then they kind of release this pressure for everyone else to improve themselves, right? To put up their defenses, to actually build something so they can defend against the Vikings, and they are not just the sacrifice of lamb. Yeah, the Vikings certainly are one of those groups that comes in as a big surprise. Their legacy is really what I’d say connectivity. So the Vikings, for example, are simultaneously settling Iceland, Greenland, even touching on the New World, and going east to as far down as the Black Sea, the Volga, and into Europe, taking over northwestern France, Normandy, and even making expeditions into the Mediterranean. So they are responsible, for example, for some of the founding of Russia as a state, you know, the founders of the Principality of Kiev, of making connections with the Islamic world and Scandinavia, so that, for example, more coins from the era of the Caliphate have been found in Scandinavia than anywhere else, because they were part of Viking hordes. And these coins, they got from trading. So that’s another thing that is their legacy. They’re traders as well as raiders. If they can plunder, they’ll do that. And if they can’t plunder, you know, if they find an enemy who is too well entrenched, they’ll see if they can’t make some sort of economic mutually beneficial deal with them. So their major role seems to be that of like a catalyst, a catalyst for making something in which not only does Northern Europe, big Scandinavia become part of Europe generally, but it brings together worlds that previously have been separate. Yeah. Do you feel like, and looking back, Vikings especially, but in general, through the Middle Ages, do you feel war has been, it’s a short term catastrophe for people, and a lot of people pay the ultimate price, but is it a long term, from your point of view, a long term improvement, because the better system, the better group of people, the more just people, so to speak, these are all assumptions, they usually over the long term get the upper hand? I guess I’m not confident of that. I do think war is creative in the sense that, I think it was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said, war is the mother of all things. So, you know, a lot of technology, things like radar come out of this frozen foods, you know, come out of the Second World War, say nothing of atomic energy. But I don’t think that the people who win wars are necessarily either better, ethically, or even in a Darwinian sense. I think that wars are won and lost. I think that wars are sometimes won by people who I wish had not won, or who all of us might have wished had not won. Yeah, no, of course, this is obviously only valid in the long term. And I think Eric Weinstein said that originally, that, you know, or maybe he just quoted someone that, you know, we learn best at the margins, and war is kind of, as you said, it pushes everyone through the limits, through the margin. And this is where this huge boost and learning happens. And it’s obviously an extremely dangerous undertaking, and a lot of people die from it. But it seems to push people forward. And kind of people make the same comparison now with COVID, right? They say, this is such an existential crisis that we need to change basically everything. And this is a similar kind of, you know, at the margins, energy that we need to produce. And, you know, a lot of people say we need to redesign the world, because not as COVID, but there’s been other pandemics and it was redesigned, right? The world was slightly redesigned. Right. I mean, it is true that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. But if you’re, you know, the egg, just like if you’re one of the 400,000 plus people who died, the ultimate working out of this is not a consolation. Yeah, you’re on the wrong side of entropy. That’s what I learned about entropy. Well, on this summer note, thanks for doing this, Paul. That was fantastic. Thanks for helping me out with my questions. I feel much wiser already. Well, thank you for asking such intriguing questions, Torsten, and for allowing me to arrange beyond that early medieval history course. Well, absolutely. We would love to have you back if your time allows. Thanks for taking the time. It’d be a pleasure. Thanks again, Torsten. Bye bye. Paul, talk soon. Bye bye.

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