Film and TV

Were the Middle Ages Really “The Good Place”?

Eleanor (Kristen Bell) has a revelation in NBC's "The Good Place".

Content notice: Here be sex and spoilers! This article includes spoilers for Season 3 Episode 8 of The Good Place, and a frank discussion of medieval people’s ideas about sex. If you’re not into either of those, maybe give this article a miss.

NBC’s The Good Place is one of the best and most innovative comedies on television right now, not least because of how it mixes being profoundly silly with its consideration of some of the biggest questions in human existence. At its core (without offering too much in the way of spoilers), the show follows four self-admittedly terrible human beings as they adventure through the afterlife. Their collective goals lurch from episode to episode, but at the core lies a consistent question: how to be a good person? 

We are told in the show that the afterlife consists of a boiled-down off-brand secular(ish) version of Dante’s Inferno cosmology; the afterlife is split into a Good Place and a Bad Place, and where a human soul goes after they die is dependent upon their actions on earth. The way this is done is much like ancient-Egyptian mythology, where the heart of the dead is weighed against a feather. But The Good Place adds a truly diabolical twist: Excel spreadsheets. The ineffable Accounting Department decides, with exacting numerical precision, how many points a soul gains or loses for each and every action they take while on Earth. The Good Place shows us a strictly utilitarian cosmos. A person’s worthiness is directly related to how their actions benefit or harm other people. Do a good thing, get points. Do a bad thing, lose points. Come out positive: go up. Come out negative: go down. Simple as that. 

All of this seems a little fishy for the protagonists, who spend Season 3 cracking open the egg of The Points System. And in episode 8, they discover its great flaw. No-one, they discover, has actually made it to the Good Place for 521 years. This is because, as reformed-demon Michael reveals:

Life now is so complicated it’s impossible for anyone to be good enough for the good place.

There are simply too many unintended consequences for anyone to live an above-average life. Every decision is loaded with moral dilemmas. Modern life is a no-win situation.

But as a medievalist, that date got my spidey-sense a-tinglin’. 521 years ago is 1497 CE (Jeremy Bearimy time notwithstanding). It’s smack at the tail end of the Middle Ages. That means that when the Middle Ages came to a close, the heavenly gates slammed shut. Forever.

So that raises a question: were the Middle Ages really such a Good Place?

The Good Ages

It doesn’t take great prophetic powers for me to know that when I ultimately publish this article, the comment thread will be full of people saying “No! The Middle Ages were not a good place—it was full of plague, war, Crusades, and oppression!” These folks likely won’t have read the article at all. If you saw them on your way in, feel free to say “hi.”

Because of that assumption, The Good Place’s way of looking at the Middle Ages is refreshing, in a way. The idea that the Middle Ages were “the Dark Ages” (in full or in part) is an idea that has deserved the dumpster for decades. We here at The Public Medievalist have been doing our part to get rid of it, but I am not at all confident that I will outlive this term. 

A brief recap of the problems with it: just about every bad thing you find in the Middle Ages, you can find just as much (if not more!) in the supposedly “Enlightened” periods before and since. War, plague, poverty, religious violence, torture, discrimination, anti-scientific superstition; all of them are features of the modern world. If you think about the world today, you can see they are still with us, often in forms much worse than would have been possible during the Middle Ages. Mechanization and technology has given us horrors beyond anything a medieval person could conceive: the transatlantic slave trade, the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear Armageddon,  and season 8 of Game of Thrones

That’s not to say that the Middle Ages were a paradise, either. There were plenty of ways to die in the Middle Ages. People found plenty of ways to be cruel to one another. Their WiFi coverage was dreadful. But I appreciate The Good Place offering a counterbalance to the idea of the infinite “March of Progress”—in balance, it is important not to think of the Middle Ages overall as either “The Dark Ages” or “The Good Place.” The Middle Ages, like all eras—including our own—was more complex than that.

The Medieval Points System

Where I differ from The Good Place’s concept of history is in their assertion that modern life is more complex, with more profound unintended consequences, than medieval life. In the show, the example that they give involves commerce. Michael offers two examples, drawn from the “Book of Dougs”:

In 1534, Douglass Wynegarr of Hawkhurst, England, gave his grandmother roses for her birthday. He picked them himself, walked them over to her, she was happy—boom, 135 points.

By contrast, he says:

In 2009, Doug Ewing of Scaggsville, Maryland, also gave his grandmother a dozen roses, but he lost four points. Why? Because he ordered roses using a cell phone that was made in a sweatshop. The flowers were grown with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited migrant workers, delivered from thousands of miles away — which created a massive carbon footprint — and his money went to a billionaire racist CEO who sends his female employees pictures of his genitals…

In other words, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.

But who is to say that Douglass was really more ethical than Doug? Growing roses in your garden in 1534 surely incurs the opportunity costs of time and land use—surely Douglass, likely a member of the landed gentry, should be using his land for the benefit of his community rather than for something as seemingly frivolous as a rose. Late medieval Europe saw regular famines; in that very year, Italy was wracked by famine. Will no one think of the Italians? Come on, Douglass! 

And the act of growing roses also has an ethical class-based dimension. Roses, perhaps even more then than now, were symbols of luxury and conspicuous consumption at the end of the Middle Ages. Roses were grown in huge quantities, not just because they were pretty, but to meet the incredible demand among the aristocracy for rose water (used, both then and now, as perfume and to flavor food). Mia Touw, in her article for Economic Botany, “Roses in the Middle Ages,” notes that in medieval Persia, an extensive rose industry sprang up to meet the incredible demand of rich people’s noses and tongues. This was big business—rose water was exported en masse reaching as widely as Spain and China. So if roses were such an in-demand luxury, wouldn’t it be better to sell the roses and give the money to the poor? Come on, Douglass!

Also, roses weren’t just used for their flavor and smell. Rose products, like powdered roses, rose honey, rose sugar, and rose syrups were also used in medieval medicines to stop bleeding, reduce fevers, and kill pain. So while it’s all very nice that Douglass elected to give a dozen to his grandmother, wouldn’t they be better used healing the sick? Come on, Douglass!

And even discounting this, who is to say that Douglass did not exploit labor? If Doug is wealthy enough to own a pleasure garden with roses in it, it is absolutely likely that he has tenant subsistence farmers laboring on his lands.  Come on, Douglass!

All I’m saying is that Douglass, like modern Doug, is also forking piece of shirt who deserves to go to hell for giving his grandmother roses. 

Or maybe, I am saying that historical people’s lives were complex too. We imagine the Middle Ages as a time of agrarian simplicity, but there was no time on earth when growing a rose was simply growing a rose. Yes, there is no such thing as fully ethical consumption under late Capitalism. But then and now, it is important for us to do our best and remember there have always unintended consequences throughout history.

If You Can’t Do the Time…

And medieval people knew all about consequences. If anything, medieval people were even more obsessed with the consequences of their actions than we are. For those of you familiar with Catholic practice, you’re familiar with the ideas of sin, confession, and penance—that when you do (or even think) something bad, you are expected to confess your sins to a priest, who then gives you an activity to do in order to make up for the transgression. This is different than some Protestant practice, which dictates that the keys to absolution are faith and asking God for forgiveness. 

The 16th-century chantry chapel of Bishop Edmund Audley, in Salisbury Cathedral, England. Photo credit: David Nicholls, (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Medieval Christian cosmology was ordered according to a sort of points system. The sins you committed on earth earned you a temporary spot in purgatory (unless you were bad enough to go immediately to hell), where you would wait until your time was up. People praying on your behalf would earn you a shortened sentence—so, of course, rich people figured out how to game the system.

Wealthy medieval European Christians would often donate enough money to the Church to buy and decorate a small section of a church or cathedral (called a “chantry chapel“). This chapel would be used by priests hired specifically for the purpose of singing masses for the dead in an effort to allow them to jump the heavenly queue. This was one of the ways in which the medieval Catholic church was able to accumulate huge amounts of wealth.

But even if you were not wealthy enough to buy that particular heavenly Fastpass, there was another way. If you visit a medieval Cathedral in Europe, you’ll find the floor is often paved with grave markers (called Ledger Stones)—many now blank from the wear provided by centuries of feet. The placement of these stones was not just for spiritual bragging rights, though. If your grave marker lay underfoot in a popular pilgrimage route, it’s likely that you’ll get at least a few pilgrims including your name in their prayers as they walked. That meant that prime real estate was as good as a get-out-of-purgatory free card—and those ledger stones that survive reveal that they were purchased by merchants and craftspeople all the way up to the aristocracy.

But there also was a way to shorten your time in purgatory before you died. We know what the medieval “points system” looked like in practice, by looking at a genre of literature called “penitentials.” 

A penitential is, in essence, a manual for priests hearing confession, so that they can offer an appropriate penance to absolve a person’s guilt. Knowing this was incredibly important—if, as a priest, you are a bit too light-touch with your penances, it may mean that your parishoner’s heavenly Excel spreadsheet would not be set to rights! But if you were a bit too heavy-handed, you might find your parishioners not doing their penances, or seeking out priests who were a bit more lenient.  

By the end of the Middle Ages, penitentials were incredibly popular. They were among the first international best-sellers in the post-printing press book trade.

These books are very medieval indeed. The first penitentials were developed in sixth century CE Ireland. And wonderfully, they offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of medieval people. While some penitentials may have been embellished for the sake of being thorough (or because of a particular writer’s personal obsessions), in their broad strokes, they can show us what medieval people were doing, and what they were feeling guilty about. 

These penitentials were just as concerned with unintended consequences as The Good Place’s Points System. Take, for example, in The Penitential of Theodore. This penitential was written around 700 CE, and based upon the judgements of Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury. Incidentally, this Theodore is Theodore of Tarsus, the Greek bishop from what is now Turkey that Sihong Lin discussed as a prime example of cultural diversity in early medieval England. 

But back to his penitential. It says:

If one, without knowing it, permits a heretic to celebrate the Mass in a Catholic church, he shall do penance for forty days.

Just because you didn’t know they were a heretic doesn’t mean you’re not going to lose points! Sorry, Douglass! 

Or another in A Book of David:

He who enjoys the fruits of robbery or fraud, half a year.

You didn’t know those goods were stolen? Too bad, Douglass, six months for you! 

They also punished what may have been accidents, like in The Preface of Gildas:

One who has broken a hoe which was not broken before, shall either make amends by an extraordinary work or perform a special fast.

Accidentally broke that rake? Too bad, Douglass—no supper for you! 

Or maybe the harshest one of all:

One who unwittingly eats carrion, forty days.

Seriously, Douglass. 

The Precise Utilitarian Morality of Butt Stuff

In The Good Place, the most put-upon accountant in the whole Accounting Department is Matt—who is in charge of judging “Weird Sex Things.” Now, there’s no kink-shaming here at The Public Medievalist—if anything, the idea that “Weird Sex Things” among consenting adults is liable to lose you morality points is practically medieval. And if the penitentials have anything to say about it, Matt was very busy being a judgey ash-hole during the Middle Ages. 

First off, the obvious ones. There are medieval judgements against those things which are still sins under Catholic dogma: adultery and homosexuality are given harsh punishments. But, contrary to those who might (wrongly) argue that homosexuality is only a modern-day phenomenon, Theodore gives same-sex desire a very thorough going over. He gives different punishments based upon the gender of the participants, their ages, the specific sex acts, and who is the penetrating versus the receiving partner. Theodore was very interested in this. 

Obviously same-sex desire has been commonplace throughout history, as has been some clergy members’ deep obsession with it. 

Theodore also considers sex acts that we consider pretty beyond the pale today—incest is fobidden (including among brothers and among mothers and sons, but oddly not fathers and daughters or between sisters). 

Bestiality is right out. Can’t say I disagree. Consent is paramount.

But the Penitential of Theodore is more thorough than that—including bans on several things that are not necessarily considered immoral today.  It says that anyone who fornicates with a virgin gets a year of punishment (whereas fornicating with a married woman gets you four).

Masturbation, for men, (“if he defiles himself”) gets forty days. But for women (“If she practices solitary vice”) gets three years! Someone “who amuses himself with libidinous imagination” also gets a slap on the wrist. And even someone who “loves a woman in his mind”—and who, after approaching her about it, is rejected—has to do penance. 

But I bet you can’t guess the one act in this catalogue of smut that gets the worst condemnation. The one act called “the worst of evils”, which carries a penance “to the end of life”: 

Qui semen in os miserit

In other words, taking semen in the mouth. 

Clearly, our ideas about what is and isn’t okay in the bedroom are more than a little subjective.

The Problem with the Points System

I’m excited to see where The Good Place is going to end up in its final season. But ethics and morality cannot—should not—ever be boiled down a simple answer of right and wrong. It certainly should not given the veneer of mathematical precision, no matter how many ineffable accountants agree. Goodness is fundamentally subjective, qualitative, and human.  

If there has been one big universal truth that has come out of the show, it is that yes, life is complicated. It always has been, and hopefully, it always will be. That complexity means that living a “good life” is not easy. There is no such thing as completely good, no world without unintended consequences. Pobody’s nerfect.

And nerfect changes. Neither medieval penitentials nor The Good Place’s accountants seem to accept that morality changes over time. In Theodore’s time, some sexual acts were beyond the pale that are considered pretty tame today. It is likely that in another thousand years, some of the things we consider tame may be taboo again—or maybe some of our taboos will become shrug-worthy. In the Middle Ages, growing roses was maybe not as simple as we imagine it to have been. But in the same breath, that does not excuse us from considering the ethical implications of our actions. Otherwise we turn into M&M-Peep-chili eating nihilists.

The best that can be expected of humanity—whether medieval or modern—is that we take the time to consider the impact of our actions on other people. We have to be good, not just for ourselves, our families, and for people who we have been told are like us, but for those beyond our tribalistic impulses. We have to lift up those outside our communities, those who we have been told are not like us, or more, those who our society brands as undeserving. We have to do the best we can while understanding that there will always be a better way. We have to make genuine efforts to fix the things we break, to heal the people we hurt, and to earn forgiveness for our mistakes. And mostly, we must never, ever be a Brent. 

And if that is not enough for the cosmos, then fork ‘em. 

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Paul B. Sturtevant

The author Paul B. Sturtevant

Paul B. Sturtevant is Editor-in-Chief of The Public Medievalist. He is a researcher and historian for the Smithsonian Institution, where he helps the institution better understand its visitors and itself. He is an author, a medievalist, and a consultant, and has completed research projects as diverse as exploring the Caliphates of Muslim Spain, the history of American health care reform, and the peculiarities of American-style barbecue. He is unabashedly passionate about the place history has in current conversations.