On Owning the Word “Medieval”: My Approach

So, I’m sitting in Philadelphia airport, due to a screw up with my flight last night. And in an effort to stay intellectually motivated in the Kalamazoo “recovery phase” (for which I do not recommend extended stays in airports), I turned to the blog.

One of my primary goals for this past semester’s medieval survey course was to broaden my students’ thoughts concerning the geographical range of the “medieval.” When we say “medieval” what part of the world are we thinking of? This foregrounding of location is a common theme among those who would do away with the very word “medieval” if they could. The reasoning behind this is simple, and I agree with it 100%: medieval is an arbitrary, pejorative term applied to geographic areas that adhered to Roman Christianity for X-centuries after the “fall” of Rome. For the Islamic world, we often refer to this period as “Classical,” in ways that underscore the ways that words matter. “Classical” conveys a different meaning than “medieval,” right? Both civilizations had their own chronology. But so did the world of Orthodox Christianity, which is often lost in the shuffle. And so did the Tang and Song dynasties in China. So “medieval” in and of itself restricts us to western Europe, forcing us into an artificial time frame with artificial barriers between regions of the globe, skipping over connections between areas that follow separate chronologies, and encouraging stove-pipe thinking when our students should end the course having built intellectual webs of global connections instead of burrows. I agree with all of that.

To me, however, “medieval” is like “feudalism”: we’re stuck with it, if no other reason than that both words are so ingrained in public consciousness that insisting on a different word would simply alienate our audiences, and wouldn’t catch on anyway. However, no one can stop you from interpreting it however you please, which is what I’ve done for a while now, and with considerable success.

So, my goal for this term was to prevent students from developing an understanding of the Middle Ages that duplicates what Peter Frankopan describes in his post from today—an understanding of “medieval Christianity” that, whatever its qualities, omits discussion of huge parts of the Christian world, not to mention engagement with non-Christian cultures. This was a main reason why I used Barbara Rosenwein’s A Short History of the Middle Ages, because she covers the Orthodox and Muslim worlds extensively, and in the most recent edition covers eastern Europe as well (that and the fact that she makes arguments in the text). I also read a lot more on Classical Islam and the Muslim world than I ever had before, helped by books such as Paul Cobb’s The Race for Paradise and Hugh Kennedy’s The Armies of the Caliphs, and by consultation with my colleague Dr. Rasheed Hosein at West Point. For projects, my students did research papers and digital mapping for topics that involved people in motion, which projects included interesting presentations on Saladin’s path to power, William of Rubruck’s and Marco Polo’s accounts, von Harff’s pilgrimage, Nizam al-Mulk on rulership after the Turkish conquests, and several crusades projects. While there is plenty of room for improvement, I think this approach worked in that my students seem to have left the course with a vision of the period from 400 to 1500 as one that embraced Dublin, Granada, Novgorod, Rome, Cairo, and Bukhara.

The other way I’ve been redefining “medieval” in my classes is by playing with the chronological “outer limits” of the term. Over several iterations of the course, now, students have been surprised that we spend so much time on Constantine and Augustine, and that we finish the course with an extended discussion of Emperor Charles V, Luther, and Cortez. The reasons for the former sink in by the time we get to the Carolingians and the Abbasids, while the reasons for the latter are self-evident by the time we get there. While I don’t subscribe to the view that Charlemagne and his successors were “Roman” in every sense of the term, they certainly tried to act like their vision of what Roman was, and you can’t understand that if you don’t understand the late, Christianized Roman empire, or the foundational texts of medieval Christianity such as Augustine’s Confessions and City of God. As for the 1500s, I honestly treat the Renaissance and Reformation as part of the Middle Ages, and if given a choice I would much rather teach a course that goes from 1291 to 1571 than from 1000 to 1453 (or 1492, though I could accept that more easily). The “Renaissance” happened in different ways, at different times, to different societies. The “Age of Discovery” is a medieval story as much as or more than it is an Early Modern one. Luther cannot be understood unless you understand the history of medieval heterodox and heretical thought, and the Papacy’s relationship to Christendom in the 1300s and 1400s (which was actually a topic on the final exam). In our last lesson, we read documents from the Valladolid debates of 1550-1551, and students quickly grasped the ways in which Sepúlveda used (or possibly abused) Augustine and Aristotle to argue for the subjugation of the Americas.

Naturally in order to cover these subjects in the way I wanted, you have to take time from other subjects, in my case some aspects of Carolingian society that I would have enjoyed covering, or my indepth-block on the First Crusade, which I might try to restore in subsequent iterations of the course. But the pay-offs, I think, have been huge. At the very least, I think I avoided Peter Frankopan’s fears about perpetuating “a lack of historical perspective.” “We should be looking,” he writes, “to cast off our historical straight-jackets, rather than tighten them.” For me, the solution lay in accepting the word “medieval,” but in refusing to accept the geographical or chronological limitations that have been put on it. Students thus had the familiarity of the word, but the instability of what it means, or can mean. And they took advantage of that to expand their intellectual and moral horizons in the best humanist tradition.

Twenty Take-aways from the Middle Ages

One of the last activities I asked my students to do was to identify the top five things they learned in the course, three things they would have liked to learn more about, etc.  The feedback is all interesting, and there are some insights that bear deeper pondering. In no particular order, here are some great take-aways:

  1. There is no monolithic medieval narrative.
  2. Literature is history/historians study literature [I would have said history is literature, or at the very least literary]
  3. The start and end of the Middle Age is debatable.
  4. It is good to be king.
  5. Sucks to be a minority.
  6. If you want something done, raise an army.
  7. The Catholic Church did not run everything.
  8. The Anglo-Saxon kingdom was much more advanced than I had originally thought.
  9. The Crusades were partly enacted out of concern, not opportunism alone. [That’s a good start]
  10. Importance of Roman institutions on medieval European ones.
  11. The Crusades are a lot more complex than most people believe.
  12. Jews have been abused by…basically everyone.
  13. Pilgrimages were very popular and were a good means of travel.
  14. Muslims seem to have taken better care of Greek science than Christians.  [Might not have phrased it that way, but those early medieval lesson seem to have paid off.]
  15. The Middle Ages was not the death of learning.
  16. The full complexity of the medieval period.
  17. How much medieval thought influences us today.
  18. The concept of being marginal. [This lesson actually proved surprisingly popular.]
  19. The vastness of the Seljuk Turkish Empire.
  20. I appreciate the true complexity of European society and that it wasn’t just a group of mindless, dumb morons who couldn’t stop fighting. [Take that, Hollywood…]

I’ve received much more feedback than this, of course, and it will take some time to sort it out and incorporate the excellent recommendations my students gave me. On the whole, though, I think this class was a success.

Looking Ahead: Kalamazoo, May 14-17, 2015

There are 567 sessions at this year’s International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, Michigan, from 14-17 May.  It should be a rollicking good and educational time, as always. Here are some sessions and events that caught my eye (underlined sessions are the ones that I’ll most likely be attending…):

Thursday, 14 May 10:00 a.m.

Session 10, Fetzer 1010, The Seven-Hundredth Anniversary of the Great European Famine, 1315-2015.

Session 26 Schneider 1355, The Middle Ages in the Classroom.

Session 31, Bernhard 158, Aspects and Events of Medieval Military History, 452-1346. [Naturally, this is the one that I will attending, ipso facto.]

Session 32, Bernhard 159, Medieval Emotions: Affect and the Medieval Experience I [very tempting, since I’ve been drawn to studying the history of emotions of late. And a very strong session, with Chism and Kreuger on board.]

Session 42, Sangren 1710, Magna Carta in Context

Thursday, 14 May, noon

De Re Militari Business meeting, Bernhard 158.

Thursday, 14 May, 1:30 p.m.

Session 61, Fetzer 2016, The Cross in Medieval Art

Session 64, Fetzer 2040, Unanswered Questions about Joan of Arc

Session 65, Schneider 1140, The Welsh Arthur and His Afterlives in Medieval England, Scotland, and Wales.  –paper by my friend Chris Berard, who is always worth hearing.

Session 79, Bernhard 158, Medieval Military Technology [this is my session, so I guess this is the one I’ll be attending!]

Session 86, Bernhard 211, Jewish-Christian Studies

Thursday, 14 May, 3:30 p.m.

Session 110, Fetzer 1060, Iberian Borders and Beyond: Medieval Liminalities in Conversation

Session 114, Fetzer 2040, All Medieval Manuscripts Online: Strategic Plans in Europe.

Session 115, Schneider 1140, The Public Medievalist: A Roundtable on Engaging the Public with the Middle Ages

Session 129, Bernhard 158, The Annual Journal of Medieval Military History Lecture [Looking forward to David Green and Cliff Rogers talking English imperialism and military affairs during the HYW]

Session 133, Bernhard 209, Bede’s Library

Thursday Evening Events: Wine Hour in Valley III, Harrison 301 and Eldridge 307

Thursday 7:30 p.m. sessions. [Some day I’m going to attend one of those “Hell” sessions]

Session 166, Bernhard 158, The Crusades

Thursday Late Evening: Receptions from Toronto, Durham, and Leeds (Valley III Eldridge 306, Fetzer 1035, Fetzer 2016)

Friday, 15 May: Plenary Lecture, Cary J. Nederman, 8:30, Bernhard E. Ballroom

Friday, 10:00 a.m.

Session 185, Fetzer 1045: England’s Immigrants, 1350-1550 (A Roundtable)

Session 193, Schneider 1130, Making It or Faking It? The Strange Truths of “False Witness” to Medieval Forms

Session 203 Schneider 1275, The Fancy Pincushions: An Analysis of the Lethality of English Warbows and Wararrows against Armored and Unarmored Individuals through Experimental Archeology (A Demonstration)

Session 204, Schneider 1320 Breaching Religious Order: Towards New and Productive Uses of “Order as a Category of Analysis in Monastic and Mendicant Scholarship      –Julia McClure’s paper on “The Uses and Limits of Actor-Network Theories”

Session 220, Bernhard 208, The Crusades and the Levant

Session 226, Bernhard Brown and Gold Room 202, The Nature of the Middle Ages: A Problem for Historians? (A Roundtable)  –with Robin Fleming, Marcus Bull, Ruth Mazo Karras, Paul Freedman, and Nancy Partner, that’s going to be quite a roundtable.

Friday, 1:30 p.m.

Session 232, Valley II Garneau 205, Crusade and Literary Genre

Session 235 Valley I Shilling Lounge, Sacred and Secular Road Trips in Middle English Romance  –Bunch of interesting papers here, including certain-to-please ones by Kristi and Kate, but I’m particularly intrigued by Amber Dove Clark’s paper on Guy of Warwick, which is my favorite ME Romance.

Session 239, Fetzer 1045, Political Power and Influence in Late Medieval England.   –White Hart session

Session 245, Schneider 1120, Anglo-Saxon England.    –Some very intriguing papers on Alfred, Viking and A-S town relationships, and Aethelred…

Session 252, Schneider 1160, Love Thy Neighbor?   –another Guy of Warwick paper! This one by James T. Stewart, on ‘war and leadership’

Session 256, Schneider 1245, Western Europe in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries.   –A paper by Robin McCallum on “Urban Support for the Hundred Years War: Financian and Military Contributions from Bristol and Norwich to Edward III’s Campaign in France during the 1340s”

 Friday, 3:30 p.m.

Session 291, Fetzer 1005, Debatable Rule: (Re)assessing Medieval Statecraft, Power, Authority, and Gender (A Roundtable)

Session 294, Fetzer 1045, The White Hart Lecture: Anne Curry, “Agincourt 1415: Fact or Fiction?”    –Well, I guess I know where I’ll be.

Session 298, Fetzer 2030, How to Be a Heretic: Teaching Heterodoxies and Non-Christian Practices (A Roundtable)

Session 315, Scneider 1320, Fluctuating Networks: The Constructive Role of Broken Bonds in the Medieval Mediterranean and Beyond

Friday Evening Activities, 5:00 p.m.: Aside from the wine hours and the Palgrave MacMillan reception in Valley III, there’s the Society of the White Hart business meeting at 5:30 in Fetzer 2040, which I might attend.  And of course the annual Ashgate and Brill receptions at 9:00 p.m. in Valley III, and U Penn’s reception at 10:00. [And yes, in case you were wondering, this is where a lot of business gets transacted and new ideas are hatched.]  Going back a bit to 7:30, there is the annual Malory Aloud performance in Valley III, Stinson Lounge. I usually can’t attend, but it’s a good time.

Saturday, May 16, 10:00 a.m.

Session 363, Schneider 1160, Early Medieval Europe III.   –Phyllis Jestice’ on “Female Dukes and the Rhetoric of Power in Tenth-Century Germany”

Session 375, Schneider 1340, What’s New in Digital Humanities (A Roundtable).  –I probably won’t be attending this, but if you haven’t yet seen “Virtual Plasencia,” you should. It is amazing.

Session 390, Bernhard 210, New Approaches to Tenth- and Eleventh-Century European Reform

Saturday, 1:30 p.m.

Session 395, Valley III Stinson 303, Medieval Reception of Augustine of Hippo

Session 427, Schneider 1275, Markets, Fairs, and Merchant Travel in the Fourteenth Century.   –I’m particularly interested in Michael Hanrahan’s “Rebels, markets, and Social Networks in 1381.”

Session 432, Schneider 1335, Money on the Middle Ages

Session 448, Bernhard 210, “Can These Bones Come to Life?” I: Field Reports from Re-construction, Re-enactment, and Re-creation in the Classroom.

Session 449, Bernhard 211, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Society   –Good stuff here, organized by Craig Nakashian, including a rare paper on Heinrich von Veldeke’s Eneasroman.

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Session 457, Valley II, Garneau 205, The Many Faces of Matilda: Commemorating the Ninth Centennial of Matilda of Tuscany/Mathilde di Canossa.

Session 467, Feetzer 1055, Law as Culture: Statues and Courts in Medieval England.

Session 472, Fetzer 2040, Rethinking Medieval Maps

Session 496, Schneider 1360, Teaching Medieval in a General Education Context (A Roundtable)

Session 503, Bernhard 204, Chivalry, Honor, and Martial Skill: Visual Displays of Power in the Later Middle Ages

Sunday, 17 May, 8:30 a.m.

Session 526, Schneider 1125, The Cultures of Georgia and Armenia

 Session 537, Bernhard 210, Greatest Lancastrian Legacy? The Seven-Hundredth Anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Great stuff on tap here.

Sunday, 10:30 a.m. Ok, never have I been faced with such dilemmas in Sunday sessions before…

Session 547, Fetzer 1040, Cistercian Textual Studies II  –paper on “The Image of the Solder in Bernhard’s Writings.”

Session 554, Fetzer 2040, Noble Conduct in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. My friend Peter’s paper, and David Crouch’s paper as well. Should be good.

Session 560, Bernhard 106, Kings, Queens, and Allies in Late Medieval Warfare; TEMA session, presider Devin Fields, with Don Kagay and Andy Villalon presenting, and a couple very interesting papers on Henry V.

Session 564, Bernhard 210, Bastard Feudalism at Seventy: The Legacy of K. B. McFarlane on the Study of Politics. –Ormrod, Biggs, and Arvanigian on deck, this should be good.

Session 566, Bernhard 212, Reflections on Medieval Violence.  –My friend Chris Guyol is presenting a great paper on monastic responses to the Hundred Years War.

Medieval and Military History with a Pinch of Attitude

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