Since the time of the Enlightenment, if not already long before, we have been victims of a form of self-illusion of a steadily growing humanity which has freed itself from the shackles of the past and approaches a glorious future where rationality, logic, and tolerance dominate. Not surprisingly, certain objects, such as the chastity belt, or ideas, such as courtly love, serve supremely well as icons of a past world as we imagine it, either in idealistic terms, or highly pejoratively, whereas the present does no longer accept those or has changed them thoroughly out of utter disrespect and ridicule. The danger, of course, rests in our tendency to replace one myth with another, and the more we deride and criticize institutions, people, and ideas from the past, the more we submit to a mythical ideology determined by a teleological presentism (giving absolute priority to the own present world) which enjoys radical priority over pastism (giving priority to a historical thinking about the past as an entire alternity). As Kathleen Biddick defines the former: “Presentism looks into the mirror of the Middle Ages and asks it to reflect back histories of modernist or postmodernist identities”.
For instance, freedom, tolerance, and democracy are commonly claimed as the highest ideals of the modern Western world, in radical contrast to the Middle Ages which were determined, without chronological or any other order, by the Inquisition, the phenomenon of the witch-craze, pogroms against Jews, and the Crusades, that is by highly irrational, intolerant, dogmatic, and authoritarian methods and principles. This binary opposition is as wrong as could be, since neither side squarely fits into these black-and-white categories, but mythical thinking prefers such contrasts since they facilitate the explanation of human history, whether correctly or not. This history, or the cultural development, has always been much more complex and diversified than is commonly assumed. We can easily identify outstanding representatives of medieval tolerance, and, by the same token, representative of modern tyranny, and vice versa. The crimes of the present ought not to be weighed differently than the crimes of the past. Correspondingly, outstanding intellectual, literary, or artistic accomplishments by medieval people ought not to be treated as irrelevant or outdated in comparison with works produced in the modern time. Undoubtedly, we live in a much improved, perhaps more civilized, world characterized by enormous advances on the political, technological, scientific level. But this does not justify the perpetuation of wrong ideas and subjective value judgments concerning the past with regard to its standards of ethics, morality, philosophy, aesthetics, and even technology and sciences.
Albrecht Classen, The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process (2007)