Monday, November 16, 2009

Blogging and Learning: Why Study the Middle Ages

In response to some of the posts that have recently been put up, I received this in an email from a former student (Garrick Bjur).  I share it, with his permission, in its entirety. 
I enjoy how your blog, as you said, continually looks at how the  Medieval period affects the present and how the people today see the  Middle Ages.  When I first asked myself how studying the Middle Ages  has been important to me personally, I came up with a different  reason that I thought worth sharing (that might also be relevant in  light of certain extended conversations with anonymous persons).

The thousand years of the Middle Ages is taught in Western  Civilization courses in such little time that even good professors have to settle for teaching general stereotypes in most lower-division courses.  Additionally, Hollywood has disconnected the  period from modernity with such fantastic romanticism that kids rename themselves and make costumes to pretend—not that they’re Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Martin Luther, or George Washington—but medieval knights and princesses.  The study of Medieval History has been important to me, personally, because of this “alien-ness,” and disconnectedness.

I was raised in such a way that it would have been minor blasphemy to seriously question the motives of the Founding Fathers in participating in the Revolution, the “spiritual” progress of the Reformation, the state of American politics, etc.  And I knew enough about the periods to think that I knew enough about these periods to debate with someone who contradicted me.  When, however, my surface stereotypes about the Middle Ages were dispelled, I couldn’t cite Tolkien or “A Knight’s Tale” to defend my point of view.  I had, 
essentially, a “tabula rasa.”  Because I “knew” the institutions of the Middle Ages were disconnected from modern institutions, I was free to be critical and critically appreciative of the good guys and bad guys.  As importantly, I was able to appreciate the quality of 
the academic research and discourse of the Middle Ages without feeling like my personal beliefs or values were being questioned.

I was led to these necessary conclusions.  If I could, at the same time, be critical of and appreciate St. Francis of Assisi, why couldn’t I also question while appreciating the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln?  If describing the Crusades as a struggle between the evil Christian invaders and the Muslims was an over-generalization, why must I accept the generalizations we make about terrorism, politicians, or religious leaders?  People are people.  Mass movements are mass movements.   Heroes and great nations make mistakes and bad guys and rogue nations aren't often as evil as we'd like them to be.  To be sure, I studied the Middle Ages at a time when I was already questioning many of my assumptions and, already, becoming the black sheep of my family, but the study of history, and specifically of this period, further freed my thoughts to allow for complexity so that I can disagree with Bush without thinking him ill-intentioned.  So that I could condemn terrorists without condemning fundamental Islam.  For me, the Middle Ages weren’t as important for how they still affect the present as they were for how they allowed me to examine the present for what it truly is—a world as complex as the Middle Ages.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think that this is a very astute opinion. I often find that the reversing fortunes, ironic reoccurences and saddening repetitions are what gives the Middle Ages its salience for the modern mind.
Those that choose to study the Middle Ages are often seen as 'antiquarians': that is to say, I and many that I have worked with occasionally get the impression that many people think that we are all harmless duffers who while away the day reading through the events of a long dead past. I resent this, for I believe that through the Middle Ages, we may understand ourselves better.