The Last (Medieval) Lesson

How do you end a course on the Middle Ages? One way is to talk about how “Middle Ages” is a convenient yet distorting label for a big chunk of history that’s very confusing and doesn’t yield us clean narratives.  And using dubious books like The Swerve to make one’s point.

Greenblatt IS on deck today, with Hinch’s great column leading the way. Other good analyses are O’Neill’s from 2013, and Monfasani’s at Reviews in History.

Of course, the Middle Ages is invoked whenever pundits want to denigrate a particular target–something I blogged about before my more prominent friends did, I would point out.

We could think about “How to Mess Up a Medieval Survey Course,” and critique the course itself.

We could think out loud about popular culture’s portrayal of the Middle Ages, or “Why Game of Thrones Isn’t Medieval.”

We could, and did, look at the Valladolid Conference of 1550, and contemplate the medieval origins of early modern/modern colonialism and racism. The clash of Sepúlveda and Las Casas was not special because it belonged to the “glorious” early modern period, but rather because it was the culmination of a couple hundred years of serious thinking about race, religion, and metaphysics. Crusade is central to this narrative, as are Aristotle and Augustine. My old colleague Kate would be proud of this turn in my teaching.

Or we could dissect goofy but informative videos on Emperor Charles V, the Protestant Reformation, and Dutch East India Company. For the Dutch especially, Green’s quirky narration gets at the violence that pervaded the “Age of Discovery.”

Which gets at some of the big take-aways for a survey course on the Middle Ages.

  1. The term “Middle Ages” is really just a line in the sand, which we draw because we like categorizing things, and that seems a good line. Especially when we want to craft a feel-good narrative that makes us look good compared to our forebears. [Peter Raedts has some interesting thoughts on the term and its history here.]
  2. It seems that most cultures’ “golden ages” were in reality the product of an infusion of valuables into regional economies, which in turn allowed all those great buildings to be constructed. Rome, Baghdad, Istanbul, Florence, Venice, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Tenochtitlan, etc, are cases in point. What allowed this infusion to happen is usually a less than uplifting story, involving conquest, colonization, exploitation, and sometimes just flat-out annihilation. But let’s face it, people like stuff, as my old debate coach put it once. And we love taking other people’s stuff when given the chance.

  3. The Protestant Reformation marked the end of a 350-year experiment in which idealistic churchmen attempted to restore the purity of Christianity by removing the Church from secular control, and asserting the superiority of the Church over all secular government. By 1500, this had become a bad joke, and many people realized this. Do not underestimate the amount of cynical, anti-clerical, anti-establishment feeling in the late Middle Ages. It was pervasive, and many in the Church hierarchy knew that there were serious problems in the way the Church nourished the spiritual health of the faithful. In fact, the thirst for participatory religion was so great that you could say the Church couldn’t contain popular enthusiasm. Secular authorities tended to view religious squabbles with an eye to extending their own authority, and had long taken a parochial stance on their own churches. They therefore had their own dogs in the fight. As one of my diss adviser’s students once described the Protestant Reformation: “It was a revolt against a reform.” 400 years of church history summarized in seven words…

  4. The Middle Ages isn’t a “white” story. In fact, one thing I’m rather pleased with this semester is that this course told a more multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-racial medieval story than in previous iterations. The early Middle Ages was as much about the Abbasids as it was about the Carolingians. The late Middle Ages dealt with eastern Europe and the Ottomans almost, not quite, as much as it did with England and France (I did devote a bit of space to the Hundred Years War, because that’s my particular area of specialty). Your average medieval, and especially early modern, person, often saw more “medieval people of color” in his or her lifetime than we realize, and we need to start acknowledging this fact to provide a better context for our medieval narrative. Medieval race theory makes for particularly interesting reading: in this year’s course, we focused on Ibn Khaldun’s version, to everyone’s interest.

  5. The Renaissance is really part of the Middle Ages. Yes, yes, Early Modernists, you are welcome to scoff, but I’ll stand my ground on this one. At any rate, it is easier to understand the Renaissance if you go from 1250 to 1550 than if you go from 1400 to 1500. Whatever the feelings of Renaissance humanists toward their medieval forebears, the fact is that Ren-Ref folk thought and acted like medieval folk far more than Ren-Ref scholars like to admit–not least because to say they didn’t means you don’t understand “medieval” attitudes toward art and science (yes that’s circular reasoning–that’s the beauty of it). I will concede that there are different aspects to what we call the Renaissance: a 14th-century period, epitomized by Petrarch, which is more ludic and eclectic in its use of classical models, and a 15th-century period in the aftermath of the Council of Constance, when Italian diplomats ransacked German archives for classical texts (the setting of Greenblatt’s The Swerve).

  6. Exploration is a medieval story, not an early modern one. By 1440, the Portuguese had trading posts down the west coast of Africa. The Hundred Years War still had 13 years to run at that point. The travel narrative as we know it was a medieval item, and served the same kind of purposes as 19th-century narratives. Mandeville’s and von Harff’s books were not written from an anthropological point of view.

  7. The Crusades are at once more and less important than we think. More important, in that they shaped European outlooks on non-Christian peoples in ways that we are still exploring. Less important, in that they never took over daily life to the extent that some crusades scholars think they did (or at least they write as if crusades did. Crusades studies is very much a red pill/blue pill kind of field. It’s hard not to enter the Matrix). They also rarely led in a direct way to the transference of goods, technologies, and ideas to benighted Europeans–that was already happening, and continued to happen whether or not a crusade was in the offing. In fact, crusade often interfered with trade.

  8. State formation is an important part of medieval history, but we need to complicate that statement. Centralization is all well and good, but what’s the down side? After all, with all that extra wealth and power, kings mostly expended it in wars that, as one of my students observed, killed increasingly greater numbers of people. Also, centralization, sovereignty, and nationhood are three separate things, and a realm could be centralized in terms of administration without thereby being sovereign in all cases. Multiple sovereignties could exist at the same time. I’m not usually generous to the “Early Modern Era,” but absolute monarchy was not a medieval concept. So, studying the Middle Ages teaches us to be flexible in how we think about states, sovereignty, centralization, and identity.

  9. Conflict, violence, and war are part of medieval history as well. But you’re expecting that from me, since that’s what I study. Yet the point has to be made. I think, however, that we can discuss war in a larger context of the environment, of economics, and of cultural attitudes, so that we see war and its effects in proper relation to its surroundings. John Aberth’s From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages comes to mind here.

  10. Don’t underestimate the finer human emotions–faith, hope, and charity–in crafting your course narrative of the Middle Ages. People loved their children. They would sacrifice for their religion. They could be kind as well as cruel. They could be generous as well as mean. It’s worth thinking about.

There are other points to touch on, naturally, but this is already long enough. Study the Middle Ages and expand your mind, understand current society better, and ponder the complexities of the human condition.

2 Replies to “The Last (Medieval) Lesson”

  1. This is why I follow your blog. Intelligent, no partisan push, objective, and you’re an actual historian. My senior thesis class (of undergrad, so don’t give me too much credit…) was a survey of the Middle Ages, and ever since then the period has been my preferred area of study. So I am very thankful I ran across your blog a few months ago. Please keep up the great work!

  2. Thank you! That’s very kind to say. I just figure there’s enough vitriol out there, I might as well try to be constructive.

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