Facile comparisons: teaching strategies, scholarly faux pas

February has been a bit slow as far as posting goes, but here is a short article I got from Twitter the other day. In it, Elizabeth Eva Leach addresses the rhetorical/teaching device of comparing medieval things to modern things, and how it is at best a questionable strategy when committed to print in scholarly writing. The specific example here is the comparison of medieval refrain citation to sampling (and later, that of medieval books of hours to the iPad, which apparently is increasingly common). For reasons she discusses, this is not a good habit to get into. The key sentence, to my mind, is this one: “I can understand why one might do this in a teaching context, orally, especially if the session is a fairly introductory one to students who live in a world with no palpable medieval echoes. But that’s no reason to commit it to print, especially when a hundred, fifty, even perhaps twenty years from now, both these practices might be equally historically opaque to the readers.”

Having just the other day evoked the image of medieval lords and their household warriors as mafia dons and their soldiers, I couldn’t agree more. I would probably never write an article that seriously carries forward that analogy. However, as a teaching strategy, in order to shake my students’ preconceptions of the “neatness” of “feudalism,” and help them mentally grasp the negotiated, contested reality that was Charlemagne’s army and empire, it seemed to work pretty well.

Anyway, Dr. Leach’s article is definitely worth reading and pondering.

St. George slaying the dragon, from a French book of hours held at Trinity College, Cambridge. Click to go to source page.