Some thoughts on the Making of the Middle Ages, by G.A. Loud

Peter Biller
Graham Loud

A sense of history, of ‘how did we get to where we are now’, is integral to any society, in almost any age. More than two millennia ago Aristotle claimed that: ‘all men by nature desire to know the things that happened before their time’; 1 while from the other side of the world, though of more recent vintage, comes the Maori proverb, ‘to have hope and faith in the future, you must first stand on the shoulders of the past’ – a sentence that ought to be the motto of any self-respecting University department of History. Yet how to stand upon the shoulders of the past is neither necessarily obvious nor straightforward. Classical and Renaissance historians saw the study of the past as a practical, but essentially moral, exercise, to learn how to imitate the good and avoid the wicked. But if we have lost faith in learning lessons from the past, certainly in terms of virtue and vice, neither is history a neutral exercise. Few today would follow the great nineteenth-century historian Ranke in considering their discipline as revealing ‘how it actually was’ [wie es eigentlich gewesen]. However much this might be an ideal to aim at, we know that it is incapable of achievement. Medievalists are probably even more conscious of this than their modernist colleagues, for we are all too aware of the gaps and inconsistencies in our sources, and how much any modern reconstruction owes to interpretation. Even if we were capable of approaching our subject absolutely dispassionately and without bias, there is much that we shall never know. So why make the effort at all?

First and most obviously, we still need to understand the past if we are to have any awareness of where we are in the present. How can there be any understanding of modern political issues such as nationalism in the Balkans, the tensions that remain within Northern Ireland, devolution for Scotland and Wales, or the Mezzogiorno debate in Italy, without some concept of how events and conflicts in the past have created these problems? Nor is it enough to say that we can adequately understand such issues by studying relatively recent history, as though there is some valid conceptual difference between studying the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and that of an allegedly more esoteric and less ‘relevant’ earlier period. Thus the origins of religious and communal dispute in Northern Ireland stretch back to the Scots settlement in Ulster under James I; those in Bosnia to the Turkish invasion of the Balkans in the fourteenth century, and arguably further back still, to the missionary activities of Byzantine and German clerics in the ninth and tenth centuries. Secondly, whereas in Britain we may see the study of history, and certainly that of more distant history, as a politically ‘neutral’ activity, that is hardly the case in many other countries and regions. The furore in parts of the Muslim world which greeted President Bush’s unfortunate use of the term ‘Crusade’ in 2001 should make that clear – although this kerfuffle is somewhat ironic in that until the twentieth century the Crusades had largely been forgotten in Muslim countries – it was Kaiser Wilhelm II who paid for the restoration of Saladin’s neglected tomb in Damascus just over a century ago, as part of his government’s policy of finding allies in the Middle East to counteract the Entente Cordiale. And distortions and exploitation of the medieval past have all too frequently been used to justify modern aggression or exploitation. It was no accident that Himmler saw the Teutonic Knights as precursors of the SS, and an influential school of German historians from the 1920s onwards developed studying Ostforschung, the eastwards expansion of the medieval Reich, not as an object of purely academic study, but to justify the eastward expansion of the Nazi era and the exploitation of the Poles and other Slavonic and Baltic peoples. 2 At the introductory meeting of this series, at the 2011 International Medieval Congress in Leeds, Gabor Klaniczay spoke eloquently about the use and misuse of medieval history in the context of modern East European nationalism. If we do not study the Middle Ages, and try to understand and explain them in as unbiased a way as we can, then we leave the field open to those who abuse and exploit the past to justify modern injustice.

The lesson therefore is that the Middle Ages still matters. One might also suggest, in a more purely ‘academic’ context that if the study of history is worth pursuing at all, and as one who has spent a lifetime studying and teaching history I would obviously argue that it is, then one ought to study all history, and not just some of it. The ludicrous suggestion (soon withdrawn after a storm of criticism) by Charles Clarke, the former Education Secretary, back in 2003, that medieval historians in universities were in some way purely ornamental and unworthy of support not only revealed how absolutely unfitted for his post Mr. Clarke was, but also that he had a complete lack of understanding of how history is taught and studied within higher education. Few undergraduate students simply study the Middle Ages alone. They rather study medieval history as part of a wider chronological and thematic span. And why not take the ‘Clarke argument’ to its ultimate reduction ad absurdum? Do students, or for that matter ordinary intelligent people, need to know about the Reformation, or the English Civil War, or the French Revolution? Well of course they do! The seventeenth-century arguably laid the groundwork for modern parliamentary democracy, and many of the rights and powers of the modern British parliament date back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. But then how does one understand the debates and conflicts of that century without knowledge of the historical precedents that were of immense importance to men of that time? The trial of Charles I, for example, was not simply a critique of that monarch’s failings as a ruler, but also an historical debate about the precedents, powers and limitations of monarch and parliament, stretching back into the Middle Ages. And at exactly the same time, the Levellers traced contemporary social inequalities back to the impact of the Norman Conquest – ‘What are the nobles and knights but William the Conqueror’s captains and sergeants?’ Furthermore, we might also address this same argument to other subjects. Could one study English literature without Shakespeare or Chaucer, or French without Moliere, or for that matter Rabelais or François Villon? But there is a further and different argument as well. Precisely because it deals with a distant, unfamiliar world, with different attitudes and values to that of today, medieval history is more difficult and less approachable than the history of the very recent past. Medieval men and women were not the same as those of today. As students often lament, medieval history is difficult. If history is to be studied as an intellectual discipline, and as a training-ground in the analysis and making sense of significant amounts of often difficult evidence (a ‘transferable skill’ as the jargon goes), how much more important is it to make this training as rigorous as possible, and to study the difficult parts, and not just recent periods that may already be familiar to students from what they have done at school.

But the other side to the coin is that history is not a static discipline, but an evolutionary one. What happened in the past, in terms of events, may not have changed, but how we approach it certainly does. One of the most distinguished of contemporary medievalists, Jacques Le Goff, has, for example, argued that the past ‘is constantly being reconstructed and re-interpreted’. 3 Furthermore, as Janet Nelson recently said in her lecture in this series in York: ‘re-inventing keeps history alive and well’. If scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thought of history, medieval and modern, primarily in terms of political, constitutional and legal history, and of the development of government and states, our vision now is much, much broader. Economic and social history has of course long been part of our remit. But the definition, particularly of the latter, has become much wider and richer. The influence of the Annales school pioneered by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre has led us to think in terms of long-term social and economic structures, and of ‘mentalities’ or ‘thought-worlds’. The former has increasingly come to include geography, climate and the environment as dominant forces in pre-modern economic history. This interest has been made even more significant by modern concerns with climate change. The investigation of mentalities has laid great stress on memory, as an historical phenomenon to be investigated, and has led to a revival, and to much greater subtlety, in the study of documents and archives. The significance of cognate disciplines for the historian, and especially the medievalist, has become greater. Early medievalists, in particular, have for fifty years or more drawn upon anthropology for methodological insight, and above all archaeology for new evidence; and as medieval archaeology has developed as a discipline our view of the social and economic history of the late Roman and early medieval world has been transformed. In recent years the sciences too have been co-opted: such as microbiology for the study of epidemics, and paleopathology for that of archaeological sites – for example the work of Piers Mitchell on Crusader sites, which has done much to advance both the study of the Crusades (another area, like the early Middle Ages, where the written sources are finite) and also that of medieval medicine. 4 Medieval historians may lack the technical expertise to conduct such work themselves, but they can still draw upon and interpret such evidence.

New fields of study, which previous generations would have ignored, or indeed barely have been able to imagine, now abound: the history of medicine, and that of women, marriage and sexuality are obvious examples. Categories of source material which were once largely ignored, or were the preserve of a few narrow specialists, are now studied as evidence for different types of history: penitential handbooks, saints’ lives, sermons and canon law collections are obvious paradigms. These have been used to great effect, for example, for the study of popular religion, medicine, death and commemoration, marriage and contraception in the Middle Ages (not least by one of this project’s organisers, Peter Biller). Modern social concerns, such as with minorities and with cultural differences, have led to an efflorescence in the study of medieval heresy, and of non-Christian minorities within medieval Christendom, notably the Jewish community. Furthermore, we now interpret more ‘traditional’ fields of study in new ways. Examination of liturgical commemoration, using especially monastic libri memoriales, has provided new insights into both the family structures of the medieval aristocracy and their relationship with the Church. The political history of the Middle Ages has been re-examined in the light of the social rules, often unspoken and only revealed unconsciously or in passing by our written sources, and rituals prevalent, again especially in aristocratic society. And it is notable that both these fruitful and flourishing areas of study have been developed by German historians: the former especially by the late Gerd Tellenbach and Joachim Wollasch, the latter by Gerd Althoff. This reminds us that Anglophone historians cannot, and must not, ignore what is going on elsewhere, nor limit themselves to ‘English history written by Anglo-Saxons’. One of the principal aims of this lecture series is to reveal more of the concerns of medievalists in Continental Europe to an Anglophone audience than has hitherto been available.

In addition, not only do modern mediavalists examine new types of source, or old sources in new ways, but the work of palaeographers and textual editors brings more source material into public view, at least for the history of the eleventh century onwards. Yet, while it is unlikely that many, or perhaps any, completely new written sources or documentary collections will be revealed – most archives containing medieval documents are known, if not always explored – there is still a great deal to do to make these available in print to facilitate study. Thus more than half the chartularies from pre-1204 Normandy remain unpublished. Similarly, in the largest surviving medieval archive in southern Italy, for example, that of the abbey of Holy Trinity, Cava, there are some 3,000 documents dating from the twelfth century, and 2,500 from the thirteenth, most of them originals, of which only a handful have been published. And for medieval England, some 130 years endeavour by the Pipe Roll Society has completed editions of the accounts of the royal administration and related documents only from the 1150s until the early 1220s: and the pace of publication is likely to slow because these accounts became ever longer and more complex as the thirteenth century progressed. Of course, many fine scholars have laboured, and continue to do so, among these manuscripts – yet the more that is eventually revealed in print (or increasingly on the Internet) the greater the possibilities will be – not least for students who may lack the technical skills needed for archival work. Modern technology, notably digital photography and publication on the World-Wide Web, however offers unparalleled opportunities for the dissemination of both sources and results; and also making available hitherto rare editions confined to a handful of libraries. Such new technologies have not invalidated the older type of diplomatic edition; but they also allow unpublished sources to be made more widely available and more quickly and cheaply than if we were dependent on diplomatic editions alone. The online Regesta Imperii [] and St. Gallen Klosterarchiv [] projects are outstanding examples of how new technology can enhance a traditional discipline. Furthermore translations, into English and other modern languages, while they cannot entirely replace original sources in Latin and other medieval languages, allow students to access and study new fields. Thus the translation of Greek and Arabic sources has done much to open up the study of the Crusades and Byzantine history to those of us who do not read oriental languages, as well as to our students.

Medieval history is therefore a thriving and dynamic discipline. If through this lecture series and its associated workshops, through the book we hope eventually to publish from the lectures, and from any follow-up projects and links that we develop, we can reveal something of the richness, diversity and dynamism of how historians have interpreted, and continue to reinterpret, the Middle Ages, and through this enthuse a new generation of medievalists, then we shall have succeeded in what we have envisaged.

1 From the Metaphysics, but also quoted approvingly by King Alfonso X of Castile in his General History in the 1260s.

2 How politicised an issue this was is made clear, for example, by Michael Burleigh, ‘Albert Brackmann (1871-1952) Ostforscher: the years of retirement’, Journal of Contemporary History 23 (1988), 573-88; with respect to one of the leading German medievalists of his time, whose seventieth birthday was marked by telegrams from Hitler and other Nazi leaders.

3 History and Memory. European Perspectives (New York 1992), p. 108.

4 Notably Piers Mitchell, Medicine in the Crusades: Warfare, Wounds and the Medieval Surgeon (Cambridge 2004).