Over the past week, many have become aware of the current controversies gripping medieval studies. One example involves the authors of the Bright Ages, where accusations of racism gripped Dr. Matthew Gabriele and Dr. David M. Perry. This event, and the ludicrous nature of #medievaltwitter, was turned into satire by the podcast Blocked & Reported. Jesse Singal’s engagement with the authors is particularly noteworthy as he experiences the absurd behaviour of medievalists. As for myself, Snowy Fiction’s article on the excessive emphasis of white supremacy by medievalists has earned high traffic and social sharing.
Yet I am an outsider and mostly self-taught in medieval history and culture. Throughout my B.A in Modern History, a vast majority of my units focused on post-French Revolution. My interest in the Middle Ages began in 2020 with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and taking a unit in medievalism relating to cinema. Much of my historical training suits modernity, yet I’ve discovered that my enjoyment for all things medieval has strengthened my potential in modern history. Because of this, I’ve written this article, which aims to persuade modern historians to incorporate scholarship into the Middle Ages.
The core reason why is because of the flaws currently existing in both modern and medieval history. By sticking to a single period, we gain a narrow and deep focus. But often, there is a struggle with contextualisation and refuting ludicrous claims made by other disciplines.
History has a long spanning timeline, covering thousands of years. There’s even a cutting-edge discipline called ‘Big History’, pioneered by Emeritus Professor David Christenson (who I had the pleasure to take a course from at Macquarie University, focusing on Russia) and funded by Bill Gates. In Big History, you learn history – from the Big Bang to the present. This is macro history at its most macro. Yet there’s a clear benefit in taking a narrow focus over a few hundred years. Both medieval and modern historians do this. Yet the nature of historical research means immersing yourself in material from your own period.
Going outside requires initiative and time. The good news is that there are historians who do this. Recently, I read Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs by Marc David Baer, current professor in International History at London School of Economics. His focus is specific: the Ottoman Empire, spanning from the 13th century to the 20th. He’s keenly aware of the need to analyse old manuscripts, manage digital maps and most importantly, contextualise particular events into a broader framework.
There is no point in writing historiography about the Armenian Genocide if you do not understand the previous hundreds of years as well as allied geographies such as Greece and the broader Balkans. Context is the medicine to great history. The ability to develop both a broad and narrow focus on history is crucial to writing meaningful history. I’ve discovered this myself.
My research focuses on Nazism and the intellectual climate of modern Germany. I encountered the writings of Alfred Rosenberg who mentions the Cathars, the heretics from Southern France and Northern Italy. I’m interested in why the Cathars appealed to Rosenberg and other Nazis. This requires a nuanced understanding of medieval religion and history, as well as skills in languages and medieval sources. Likewise, I recently published a video speculating on the theology of Vladimir Putin, the current President of Russia.
This involved reading saint hagiographies and analysing Byzantine relics. I had to consider certain historical events: The Rus, Saint Vladimir The Great, the Mongol invasions and the Golden Horde as well as the Tsardom of Ivan The Terrible. Although these events were hundreds of years ago, they appeared urgent and blazing with relevance.
In modern history, there’s a tendency to presume certain ideas are ‘new’ or ‘old.’ One such example is human rights. Although a historian can point to the United States and the post-WWII rebuilding efforts by the UN, a savvy scholar will venture further and mention the Magna Carta. Ideas, and wider intellectual history, does not come from nothing. The ability to observe the evolution and changing nature of ideas is crucial to any modern historian.
One favourite concept of modern history is romanticism. The Romantics, as flawed as they were, drew on medieval scholarship, literature and philosophy. It is impossible to critique their ideas and notions of history without engaging with the Middle Ages. Having a thorough knowledge of medieval history helps question our assumptions about that period. Was it a time of chivalry and knighthood – or the complete opposite? The answer is quite complex. A medieval historian can interrogate the original sources and literature but a modernist can take the scholarship even further and apply the findings to a contemporary period. A modern historian is already equipped to understand nostalgia and melancholy. However, these emotions and experiences are not unique to one period.
Although medieval historians are welcome and are usually capable on present-day commentary, there are limitations. For one, the skills required in modern history differ. The languages and sources a historian encounter differ. In classical and medieval history, a historian will have less to draw on. This results in a need for thinking across disciplines, training in ancient languages, palaeographic and codicological skills and even speculation. Whereas medievalists deal with a neglect of materials, modernists suffer from an abundance of sources, and thus require choosing some over others. Regardless: medieval, ancient and modern history require critical and analytical thinking.
However, the problem remains. Some medievalists are prone to making strange and silly claims about modern history. I’ve discussed the issues with hyper-focusing on white supremacy. But a more obvious example comes from theology and religious history. Frequently, I encounter scholars of medieval Islam who present their findings as completely relevant to present Western issues with Islam. Unfortunately, pointing out Arab translations of Classical texts and emphasizing the Islamic Golden Age will not help contemporary issues in regards to demographics, warfare, economics, terrorism, assimilation and freedom. The world has changed since the Middle Ages and sometimes, much of medievalist writings involve a scholar printing on fantasies and dreams to the past and present. This is usually innocent, but modern historians have a duty to correct the misapplication of the medieval to the present.
There are multiple ways for a modern historian to absorb the Middle Ages. You can travel, learn relevant languages (such as Latin), take training in palaeography and engage with medievalists. All of these require significant time and effort. Because of this, the best place to begin is through reading. There are many books about the Middle Ages, from both trade and academic publishers. Some museums have specialised books that are heavy on visuals.
Other opportunities to learn about medieval history come from art galleries and public lectures on YouTube as well as other video streaming platforms. Some universities and academic departments, such as the Warburg Institute, run seminars and talks open to the public. I’m also fond of visiting churches, as they typically offer resources and experts related to the Middle Ages. Another obvious one is medieval literature. Thanks to copyright law, many translations are available in the public domain.
Your approach to studying the Middle Ages is up to you, but ensure notes are taken. Also, think carefully about how the Middle Ages are relevant to the contemporary era.
You are most welcome to share your experiences as a modernist with the Middle Ages – I’d love to hear your stories and ideas! Overall, history requires careful analysis and the ability to contextualise information. By studying medieval history, modernists become more apt at this.