Significance of Studying the Middle Ages

Recently, I asked a favor of my fellow medievalists. I have started beginning my courses (particularly general education ones) with “why are we studying this” units, which I have found very effective in getting students to think about the value of the course, rather than simply thinking they are required to be there. I currently added one to my British Literature I (spanning medieval and Early Modern) course. I am essentially starting with a two-week unit with relevant readings, blog posts, etc. As a part of this unit, I asked my medievalist circles to contribute a few sentences as to why studying medieval (and Early Modern) literature is important/significant/relevant. My students will be required to respond and ask questions. The idea was well-received, and some wanted to use it in their own courses. Thus, I have created a Facebook group on which to collect these thoughts/discussions/relevant links, and, so far, the posts are thought-provoking. If you are interested, please feel free to join the group, post your thoughts, share with others, and/or use it with your own students!

Why do I think studying the Middle Ages is significant? Here are a few thoughts…

Progress: “Perhaps at the core of many of the social, economic, educational, and intellectual problems that face us today is our deep, nearly unconscious commitment to the notion that history is progress, that the human community moves inexorably and endlessly towards betterment, sophistication, wisdom, happiness, and that the future will be preferable to the past…Those of us involved in historical studies need to be introducing cautions about the doctrines of progress. It should be stressed that past cultures were sophisticated in ways that often outstrip us” (Milton McC. Gatch, “The Medievalist and Cultural Literacy,” Speculum 66, no. 3 (1991): 591-604 at 595). I must give grateful credit to Sarah Harlan-Haughey for introducing me to this article and quotation. It captures my experience as a student of literature and history, an instructor, a citizen, and even a Facebook onlooker. There is a distinct tendency to believe that what is past – especially what is long past and thus different than our present view – must be “primitive” or even “wrong.” I wonder if technological development is part of what contributes to this bias. The printing press saved us time; therefore, it is better than handwriting. The internet makes life easier; therefore, it must be better than…no internet. This sense of constant update might contribute to this idea that we must be progressing as a species. Whatever the causes, there is a general belief that the peoples of the past were somehow exempt from (positive, especially) human nature, or had less of a sense of morality (by any definition) than we do now, or were unaware of basic human dilemmas or triumphs. This approach to history often creates – wittingly or unwittingly – a “better than thou” attitude and a rather stagnant complacency.

The Middle Ages in particular seems to draw these sorts of conclusions: dogmatic slaves to faith, universal abusers of women, staunch deniers of science, etc. Relegating this time period to”primitive” distances us from close examination of what has not changed in society or, if it has changed, that it might not indeed be for the better. Women’s rights, in particular, is a striking example (my students often have to pause, for instance, when they get “disgusted” by primogeniture or other patriarchal customs, only to be reminded that the United States has yet to elect a female President). Assuming that women have more rights now (and dismissing the Middle Ages as a result) prevents discussion of the nuances of such a topic, for this is a society that also produced Christine de Pizan, who commented in her Book of the City of Ladies, that (paraphrased) “God has truly made women’s minds sharp enough to learn, understand, and retain any form of knowledge.” Progress indeed is a tricky concept.

Humanness: Without studying human beings over the course of time, we risk failing to discover what it is that it means to be human. Our modern experience is only one of many throughout the course of history. Studying what we know about our counterparts in the past, how they reacted to and understood their world, and what commonalities they share with us presents a method to understand what – putting aside technology, social or religious structures, governments, etc. – “humanness” is. Not what the modern human is, or the American, or the first/third-world citizen. But what the human experience is universally, regardless of time and geography.

And, yet, it is difficult, if not impossible, to grasp all of humanity in the same thought. We can process more deeply when delving with focus into a defined set of information – or, in this case, a defined time period. The Middle Ages is the final pre-modern period in Western civilization and, thus, ideally situated as a locus for deep investigation into past humanness. It reaches simultaneously backward to previous civilizations and forward to future generations. It encompasses both tradition and innovation. It operates before certain major technological inventions and yet exhibits scientific inquiry (which is aside from the technology and speaks to invention). Studying this experience as well as in comparison to our own yields a clearer image of what is intrinsically human.

Alterity Immersion: In a Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “One College’s Method to Prove Its Value: Scanning Students’ Brains,” one university has decided to use brain scans to test the efficacy of study abroad programs. They theorize that “students who spend 15 weeks abroad in a highly structured, fully immersive program end up with a greater intellectual capacity and an increased ability to work with people from different cultures than do their peers who stay on the campus.” I would agree that the physical interaction with a different culture has the ability to change perspectives dramatically, and it is an experience I would encourage every college student to have if logistically possible.

Yet, I would argue that it is just as vital to immerse ourselves in the alterity of past cultures as well as modern ones. This, of course, poses certain practical problems, especially as time travel hasn’t been perfected…yet. To do what we can though – to increase contact with the artists of the time, to struggle with putting ourselves in their minds and daily lives, to think in their languages, to imagine the scope of and reasons for their wars – it gives us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in other mindsets and beliefs. It’s only through contact with “the other” that we shape who we are and develop tolerance, empathy, and acceptance.

In addition, there is perhaps no better time period in order to consider the issues of alterity. Quite literally, it’s everywhere in the Middle Ages – literature, art, history, medicine, sociology, religion, economics, etc. There are a multitude of examples of “the other” in the contact among cultures and in how its varying forms negotiate and are negotiated by society.

Faith/Belief: It may seem counter-intuitive after the discussion of “progress” above to include then a section on faith and belief. That reaction is unto itself something to reconsider. Faith is an aspect of studying the Middle Ages that deserves recognition. While there is indeed science in this period and some rather sophisticated thought at that, it is a time period occurring prior to what we call the scientific revolution or the age of psychoanalysis. Their worldview is frequently defined in terms of faith and belief – not the blind belief that is often associated with the period, but, rather, deep and careful thought about the very meaning of belief and how belief can be explored, shaped,  defined, and applied. It strips the trappings of “knowing” away,  opening up what is possible. This is a period when, no matter how we might diagnose it, Julian of Norwich believes firmly in her visions. There is a freedom from prosaic explanation that allows for imaginative exploration.

Technology: I have mentioned this several times already, so I won’t belabor the point. The Middle Ages is the time of transfer from oral to written (then to printed) text. This shift in technology is essential to the study of literature, storytelling, individualism, identity, memory, book production, and so much more. There is indeed a humility in recognizing the achievements of civilizations before our “tools of progress” made certain activities comparatively “easy” and second nature.

Development of Critical Study, Empathy, and Skepticism: I think this is a truly beneficial side effect of studying unfamiliar civilizations. As my friend and colleague Brandon Hawk stated, “If we can learn to critically think about medieval culture, we can learn to critically think about any culture.” For instance, if what we have been taught about this culture is wrong, what else is also incorrect? If we can learn to appreciate the nuances of this culture, then what can we discover about our own? If we can develop an empathy for the peoples far removed from us, what empathy can we feel for modern peoples?

These are only a few thoughts. Indeed, my belief in the significance of studying the Middle Ages is endless.


1 Comment

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One response to “Significance of Studying the Middle Ages

  1. Pingback: Reflecting on the Significance of Studying the Middle Ages | Brandon W. Hawk

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