The attraction of the Middle Ages

Coen Maas shows how politicians use the Middle Ages as a rhetorical argument. It happens today, and it happened in the early modern period (1500-1800).  Maas examined how people at that time thought about the Middle Ages. He used old manuscripts as a new source. PhD defence 15 May 2012.


In politics today Wilders positions the Muslims as a backward movement, and has repeatedly referred to Islam as a Medieval religion. In his version of Islam, Wilders reflects ideas about the Middle Ages that have existed for centuries, in spite of strong attempts by historians to influence these deeply rooted convictions.

From Dirk I to William of Orange

‘It was just the same in the 16th century,’ Maas explains, ‘for example. during the Revolt against the Spanish invaders.' Historians saw a parallel with the story of Dirk I, Count of Holland. Dirk I was successful in expelling the heathen Vikings in the 9th century. By drawing a direct line from Dirk I to William of Orange, William, following in Dirk's footsteps, drove out the invaders from Catholic Spain. Seen in this light, the Revolt against the Spanish was a legitimate uprising.

Using Medieval language today

Maas also discovered that politicians at that time used the same language as historicans. Take Janus Dousa (1545-1604), for example, one of the founders of Leiden University and leader of the armed resistance during the Spanish seige. He talks of the Norsemen and their rapaciousness, with their murders, tyranny, untrustworthiness, savagery and godlessness. His words remind us of the Dutch Declaration of Independence of 1581 and how the regime of Spanish King Philip II was portrayed.

Sense of history

For his study of 16th-century history writing, Maas consulted ancient manuscripts that had never previously been used for research. Maas: ‘These 16th-century documents not only gave a sense of history, they were also very informative about the reactions of the readers of the day. They had left all kinds of notes in the margins of the manuscript.'

Page from the chapter about Dirk I, from Reynier Snoy's Historia Hollandie (completed circa 1517). A reader commented in the margin: 'Love of freedom'

Page from the chapter about Dirk I, from Reynier Snoy's Historia Hollandie (completed circa 1517). A reader commented in the margin: 'Love of freedom'

Interaction between historians and politicians

Maas is a classicist by origin and landed in the early modern period via Neo-Latin. The crux of his dissertation lies in his analysis of rhetorical strategies. He finds the interaction between history writing and politics particularly interesting. He claims that historical arguments influence the political debate and, vice versa, the political context influences historians. Another time, another historian and another type of historiography. Maas refers to their synergy and mutually positive influences. 

Proposition from the dissertation
‘Political interests are rather a catalyst for, than a brake on the development of history writing.'

PhD defence Coen Maas

'The Lure of the Dark Ages: Writing the Middle Ages and Political Rhetoric in Humanist Historiography from the Low Countries'
Date: Tuesday 15 May2012
Time: 16.15 hrs
Faculty: Humanities
Supervisor: Prof. K.A.E. Enenkel


(11 May 2012)

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Last Modified: 19-08-2013