Why the Middle Ages?

I am, of course, joking when I tell students that I lose all interest in English history after 1066. Of course, I am. Just as I am joking when I tell them that the last true king of England was slain at the Battle of Hastings and the rest have been bastards, imposters, and upstarts. There’s nothing like a refreshing dash of hyperbole to wake up one’s students, and hyperbole and I are friends of old. What I mean to tell students is that I lose interest with the Renaissance. Humanism. Rediscovery of Classical Antiquity. Scientific Advances. Perspective. Yadayadayada. While I don’t really mean that either (entirely), I do enjoy poking the bubbles of Renaissance devotees by discussing the various “renaissances” of the Middle Ages (seventh and twelfth centuries).

You throw down the Erasmus card, and I’ll play an Anselm or maybe a Maimonides.  You toss out a Piccolomini, and here’s Avicenna in your eye.

Dark Ages, my sweet Aunt Fanny.

detail Ivory casket paris c 1300 musee de cluny

Detail, ivory casket, Paris c. 1300, Musée de Cluny

To spend the greater portion of one’s life reading medieval history and literature, much less in constructing several hundred years of history (complete with genealogies and maps) for a group of Anglo-Saxons who loathed the conquest of William the Bastard so much that they fled to the continent to re-establish a kingdom for themselves where no mercenary Normans could horn in obviously requires a deeper motivation than mere cantankerousness. Well, to steal a phrase from James Cambell’s reflection upon his early forays into Anglo-Saxon history, after my introduction to Old English in graduate school, “I have never looked forward since” (The Anglo-Saxon State, 269).

It isn’t that I don’t enjoy the literature of later ages. I do. Indeed, I return to Milton’s Paradise Lost again and again. I return to it in a way that I do not return to Beowulf. Eliot’s Middlemarch was a revelation to me when I reread it in my late twenties. Little Dorritt reduced me to gibbering envy for the way in which Dickens paints the opening pages. Using a vivid chiaroscuro, he sets the tone for the moral and political juxtapositions to follow in the next hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds) of pages. While there are occasions when the prosodic evils of serialization raise their head in Dickens’ many works, they do not do so–to my mind–in Little Dorrit. That is not to say there are not moments to make a feminist grind her teeth. (Gott in Himmel, why did the man so idealize self-sacrificing women?) Such infelicities notwithstanding, the first few pages of Little Dorrit wherein sun and shadow vie first over the harbor and then jostle, both literally and figuratively, behind the bars of a prison cell are masterful. I must read that book again.

And yes, before anyone points out the dates of those aforementioned works, I do make it up to the present day. If Kate Atkinson writes it, I will read it.

However strange this sounds, I think it is the sense of frontier that draws me to the Middle Ages. Like a wide horizon with the promise of something new, the Middle Ages offer the prospect of discovery. L. P. Hartley’s declaration that “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” may be oft-quoted, but that makes it no less true. I find it a very valuable exercise to have to adjust my twenty-first century perspectives and expectations. Perhaps it is a human characteristic. Perhaps it is yet another piece of our collective inheritance from the Renaissance, but we tend to think of aesthetic, philosophical, and theological matters much like we do technical ones, as matters of progress wherein we are ever superior to those who preceded us.

Given that, there is something about the good, hard work of taking medieval events, developments, and people on their own terms that I find salutary. It is not about idealization of the past. (Give me a world with indoor plumbing and antiperspirants any day.) It is about the unmooring of my very time-bound expectations. As with any cross-cultural venture, the study of the Middle Ages never fails to give me new eyes for a present to which I am alternately insensible or despairing. It helps me to recognize my cultural convictions for what they are, to hold them a little less dogmatically, and to take myself a little less seriously.

It doesn’t stop me from being cantankerous. Don’t be ridiculous. That would take an act of God.

2 thoughts on “Why the Middle Ages?

  1. What monster is that, trying to abscond with yon fair virgin? He’s quite….hairy. Or is that tree bark? (They didn’t have Big Foot in the Middle Ages, did they? Say it isn’t so….)

    Liked by 1 person

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