On Owning the Word “Medieval”: My Approach

medieval_town_by_shutupandwhisper-d6q07yvSo, 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.

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