Monday, June 16, 2008

Blog Forum 1: Cybermedievalist on "Why I Care about Medieval History, and So Should You"

Welcome to the 1st of our Blog Forum posts. This comes courtesy of Cybermedievalist, who originally posted this precise, thoughtful meditation on the relevance of the Middle Ages in April 2008.

Please comment/ discuss below. Or send longer responses directly to me and I'll be happy to add to the ongoing forum.

Explaining why you care so deeply about your particular academic specialty tends to be an awkward question, I think. When I say that I study medieval history, and especially issues of gender and spirituality in the tenth through twelfth centuries in northwestern Europe, people usually look at me with pity, confusion, or total incomprehension. Part of the reason for this, I know, is that most people were not taught history in a way that was engaging and involving and seemed relevant to contemporary concerns. Another part of the reason is that whatever pre-digested pablum passing for history they were fed in high school and/or college taught them a completely incorrect story of European history that goes something like this:

First there were the Greeks, and they were totally awesome because a tiny fraction of them practiced a form of government that sort of vaguely resembles representative democracy, like we have in the glorious old U.S. of A. And they had some nice art. Then, there were the Romans, who were pretty great because they created this really big empire, conquering lots of people and imposing their language and culture on a huge swath of the known world. And they built some really nice buildings. Then Jesus was born and lots of people became Christians and the Romans persecuted them, but they won out anyway and the Roman emperors became Christian. Then the Romans were conquered by a bunch of smelly, hairy German barbarians and European culture went to hell in a handbasket for a thousand years. During the Dark Ages, some rich people lived in castles and beat the hell out of each other, the Catholic Church pushed everyone around, and the poor people lived and died in squalor when they weren't getting the hell beat out of them or being pushed around by the Church. Art, culture, and science were suppressed by these ignorant, benighted people. Then, there was the Renaissance, hurray! Reason, enlightenment, and education returned to Europe, the arts flourished once more, and science was born. They "discovered" the (inconveniently inhabited) Americas. These people were like us! They were individuals with free intellects, unfettered by primitive superstition and engaged in a free search for Truth and Beauty. During their time, Europe becomes the Europe we know and understand, and their enlightened and rational descendants eventually went on to found the glorious U.S. of A.

Hopefully, some of you got a version of history that isn't quite this much of a caricature, but I know damned well this is pretty close to what most of you heard. Well, those of you who bothered to stay awake anyhow. The problem is, it's basically a load of horse pucky. This story of history is influenced by many different elements including American triumphalism and manifest destiny, Victorian anti-Catholicism, and fifteenth-century Italian snobbery. If there is any period that can be rightfully called the "Dark Ages" at all, it's only the couple of centuries after the Roman political order finally dissolved, replaced by the emerging kingdoms of the Germanic peoples the Romans hired to defend them from other "barbarians." It might, I repeat, MIGHT be appropriate to call that period a Dark Age simply because the details of how it all happened are quite murky on account of the fact that the Huns, Goths, Franks, Saxons, etc. were people of energy and action who did not spend a lot of time penning propaganda accounts of their activities like the Romans did.

The story of the Middle Ages, so called by relatively modern historians because they regarded it as an inferior period between the Roman Empire and the "Renaissance," is really the story of how people of very different languages and cultures created a new and unified political, social, cultural, and religious order from a startling diversity of elements. This story is, of course, full of missed opportunities, false starts, and roads not taken as well as of soaring achievements that continue to be vital elements of our modern culture. One could point out, for instance, that the book, the university, and the concept of romantic love were invented in this period. It's also a story of the ongoing tension between cultural unity and cultural diversity. Equally fascinating are the things that could have happened in this period and for various reasons didn't. An issue that interests me particularly is the existence of multiple understandings of womanhood in the earlier part of the period, and how and why some models that proposed a much more equal status for women failed to make the cut in the long term.

Despite what you probably learned in school, the story of the middle ages is as much the story of Western civilization, the story of "us" if you will, as any other part of history. The story of how these people, great and small, created an entirely new society out of such diverse elements, and of the ongoing tension between unity and diversity, has obvious and continuing relevance to the diverse society and world we live in today. I hope that when I myself begin to teach, in another couple of years, I will be able to communicate this story of the middle ages to students.


theswain said...

I mused on similar themes in a post on Kalamazoo last month. There I shared a conversation with 2 rather learned chaps who held the view of history you describe here. These were intelligent and experienced discussants and I was shocked to be informed that the Dark Ages must be dark because the opinion of educated men had for centuries said so!

We have a long way to go....very nice post btw, enjoyed it.

So my question is, how do we get people interested in say medieval history? How do we get them to change the view that the dark ages are dark? Let me perhaps start with asking what got you, the Cybermedievalist, interested?

Matthew Gabriele said...

A great post, I think, to start this conversation simply because it manages to clearly restate the mantra of this blog.

"We, as medievalists, have something to say."

Anyway, I too would be curious about what got people into the Middle Ages. I certainly didn't start off in college as a medievalist. I certainly didn't start graduate school wanting to do any sort of outreach (like I'm doing now, both here and elsewhere). Yet, here I am...

Brandon H. said...

I agree: this is a great way to start this forum and discussion.

I'm especially grateful that, after high school (where I received the sad medieval history intro you describe), I received a new and engaging view of history very unlike what you describe. I think, Cybermedievalist, that you've picked an especially important view: that getting the right exposure to medieval topics in personal education is of utmost importance in sparking lasting interest.

I also (like Larry and Matthew) was especially struck by the "how" of people beginning their journey into studying the medieval. This matter has been on my mind for a few years now, and I posted my part of a 2007 conference roundtable about just this issue over a year ago here on my own blog. While discussing my own journey (over many years), I also pulled in several other people's comments on how they found their interest in the medieval, as well as musings about its importance and pointing the way toward discussions of why and how we should lead others to such an interest.

Leigh said...

How I (Cybermedievalist) got interested in the medieval is not an easy question for me to answer, because unlike some people, there was for me no sort of "ah ha!" moment of clarity. I always loved history in general, and over a long stretch of reading and thinking while my formal education was interrupted, I gradually came to the conclusion that the answers to a lot of questions I had about why things are the way they are now were to be found in the study of medieval history. Over time, I simply came to love studying the period because of, rather than despite, the evidential challenges involved and simply for its own inherent interest and worth.

I think the challenge before us is that professionally we are pulled in two different directions: in research we are encouraged to specialize as much as possible and avoid the pitfalls of viewing our subjects through a modernist lens, and rightly so, but as teachers (in the broad sense, here, of communicating to non-specialist audiences) we must be able to make the period relevant and engaging to contemporary concerns rather than simply focusing on the inherent worth of understanding the past as a way of placing one's own existence and experiences in a larger context. The skills and approach needed to communicate with non-specialists, however, seem rarely to be addressed in graduate education or rewarded by tenure committees, despite the fact that they are vital to the future of the discipline.

I think one major step in the right direction would be for those involved in tenure decisions to give appropriate weight to publications (electronic and print), innovative teaching practices, and other outreach efforts that successfully communicate to non-specialist audiences (e.g. web sites, non-scholarly publications, contributions to K-12 textbooks, etc.). Concurrently, those involved in overseeing graduate school programs should advocate for the inclusion of coursework or some less formal forum to help grad students learn how to "translate" their knowledge and ideas to non-specialists in ways that are engaging and relevant. I don't think either of these are "new" issues for academia, but if I'm out in left field on this one, I'm sure someone will say so!

Shane said...

Thanks for this forum and for the original article - just wanted to say a quick word in support of Leigh's suggestion that there be a little more focus on non-specialist audiences. I think this is absolutely crucial in communicating the 'relevance' of our discipline. My first reaction to this discussion was a certain amount of puzzlement - it seemed to me that the discipline needed no defense - but I think this is because in one respect I have been very lucky. My university (where I am a graduate student at the moment) has a structure in place to encourage interaction between disciplines - one very positive outcome has been pretty strong mutual respect amongst us. We do not, however, have any training in communicating with non-specialist audiences, and I whole-heartedly agree that this would be of huge benefit to us.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Shane, thanks again for visiting. I think you've hit the nail on the head here -- that there are 2 essential directions for "outreach."

1) across disciplines. I think we tend to do this more often than we think, since most medievalists I know easily transgress traditional disciplinary boundaries as a matter of course. There are some old stalwarts out there though, "guarding" the boundaries but I think/ hope they're a disappearing breed.

2) outside the academy (and I'd even include non-major undergraduates in this). This is something I've tried to do as much as possible in SW Virginia, with, I think, mixed success. Part of that has to do with the fact that I'm just winging it. But, then again, as someone else told me via email, almost everyone starts out by just winging it. All you need is the willingness to wing it...

magistra said...

I can't work out how to do a trackback on your post, so here's a link to my comments.