What Use are the Middle Ages?

Part I


Mark W. Rabuck, Ph. D.

Department of History

Germantown Academy





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Sometime in my sophomore year of college, I declared Medieval Studies as my major.  One of the requirements of the major was a year abroad somewhere in Europe.  I chose to study history and archaeology at the University of York in northern England.


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For those who have not had the pleasure of visiting York, it is to medieval historians what Disney World is to my kids.  The intact thirteenth century walls still encircle a city core that has changed little in the past five centuries.  England’s most beautiful gothic cathedral rises majestically over the town, faced by a stout round tower built by William the Conqueror himself.  A chance discovery during some routine construction two decades ago led to one of the most spectacular finds of a Viking age town to date.


Suffice it to say, I was virtually giddy with the chance to live within the world I was studying.  Life at the university was a treat for me, too.  I met my future wife there, and I enjoyed living in a residence hall that had its own pub.  One day, while relaxing after a seminar with a pint and a newspaper (seeking the latest Phillies score: in 1989 they had their best start in a decade), I came across this ad for the Royal Army.  I apologize for the quality of these slides.  I searched for a clean copy of this ad, even contacting the Royal Army recruiting service, but they sadly do not keep archives.


It begins:


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket   Your radio is jammed…

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You’re pinned down by enemy fire…

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Two of your men are badly wounded…

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What use is a degree in medieval history?


The ad goes on to offer encouragement: “A lot of use.  You have a trained mind.  The capacity to absorb information rapidly and to act on it. [And, presumably, an unrivalled capacity to stop a bullet]  It could save the lives of your men.  That is why we value graduates of any discipline.”


Of course, the copy writers for this ad did not choose just any discipline.  Presumably, people holding degrees in chemistry, linguistics, or economics also share those characteristics which would make medievalists such good army officers. No, the people who wrote this recruitment ad tried to think of the most useless degree imaginable, one with no bearing on daily life or the world we live in.


Co-incidentally, my parents’ initial reaction on finding out my declared major was almost the same as the tag line of this ad, verbatim.  I even had them sit down with my college adviser, who told them of all the job opportunities that would be open to me with my degree.  He said, and I quote:  “…Um, one of our graduates is the guy who draws Prince Valiant.”  My parents were not convinced.


So we medievalists are often put into the position of having to defend our decisions.  It is an uphill battle.  After all, the bias against serious study of the Middle Ages is over half a millennium old.  Everyone in this room begins their study of Modern Europe with the rise of the Italian Renaissance.  There are many good reasons for that, of course, but chief among them was the shameless self-promotion of the humanist scholars themselves, who wanted to show themselves as greater than their parents’ generation.  Real or imagined, though, that great discontinuity in the late fifteenth century that we have helped to perpetuate has made the study of the previous era seem peripheral to our understanding of modern society at best.  The scholars of Early Modern Europe may have derided their medieval forbears as “Gothic”, but we do much to perpetuate that view when we describe the conditions at Abu Ghraib prison as medieval, or when Samuel Jackson gives a vague but effective threat in Pulp Fiction when he promises to “Go medieval on your ass” .


So I’m here before you today to defend my field of interest once again.  What use are the Middle Ages?  After all, we teach a course on Modern Europe, beginning in the period described by Dutch historian Johann Huizinga as “The Autumn of the Middle Ages.”  Those of us who are generous will dedicate two or three classes to the middle ages before moving on to stuff that is more likely to be on the AP exam in May.  I do the same thing.  But that makes it all the more important to make those first few days we teach all quality days.  For, as I will contend, there are four main reasons why we should stress the importance of medieval history, even in a course that deals with subsequent eras.  Then, in the second half of my talk, I will describe ways to make the most of the limited time we have to teach medieval civilization, so that what comes afterward is all the more meaningful.


The first reason is the most obvious.  The raging egos of the early humanists aside, there was something new and special that happens in the Renaissance.  Although no-one woke up in 1450 and said “Whew, thank God the Middle Ages are over.  I was tired of all of that superstition, ignorance, and barbarism.  I’m glad I now live in an age of civilization and rationality,” there can be little doubt that people in the fifteenth century saw their world as one in transition.  The Black Death of the fourteenth century produced immeasurable change in politics, economics, and society.  The collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 forever changed the dynamic of world politics.


The renaissance is as good a point as any to begin a course on modern Europe, for much of our worldview took seed in that age.  So, one primary goal of teaching the Middle Ages is to show why the developments of Early Modern Europe are so significant.  Thus, we move from a world united by a single Christian Church to one of religious pluralism, and, ultimately, one of religious toleration.  We move from a world where the supernatural was thought to be omnipresent to one in which faith and reason inhabit two separate and irreconcilable spheres.  We move from a world where knowledge derived from ancient texts, rather than from empirical observation. And, most importantly, we move from a world where the self, as we know it, was thought to be defined more in collective than individual terms.  In order to make the changes of the renaissance more significant, it behooves the students to have some sense of what the prior world was like.  I will detail the key points of this contrast in the second half of my talk.


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSecond, the geopolitical shape of modern Europe took form during the middle ages, and while elements of centralized political authority took off at about the time Machiavelli was writing, their roots go back five centuries earlier.  Of the major players in Europe, only Spain, Germany, and Italy had not appeared on the world stage by the end of the middle ages.  The others—the Habsburg empire, England, France, and Russia—all certainly underwent transformations at the end of the middle ages, but all based their authority on claims that went back centuries.  After all, claims to power rested largely on heredity, and any model of statehood was of necessity based on historic continuity.  As Shakespeare illustrated in Henry V, both English and French claims to the French throne during the Hundred Years War dated back to the sixth century Salic Law of the Merovingian Franks.  Even in 1789, Louis XVI was still formally addressed as “Louis, by grace of God king of the Franks,” effectively using the same formula as Clovis had over a thousand years before. 



Swiss historian Jakob Burckhart argued in the 19th century that the modern world emerged from the city-states of the Italian renaissance, and he was clearly thinking about the difference between kingdoms and states.  However, talk of such a discontinuity would have seemed strange in the sixteenth century, when medieval institutions and memory of a medieval past still permeated the courts of Europe.


Third, a better understanding of medieval Christianity helps put the issues of the Reformation into better perspective.  When I was taught the Reformation back in the ‘80’s, I learned that a corrupt, decadent, and stagnant Roman church was challenged and divided by a rationalist upstart named Martin Luther.  Today, textbooks emphasize Luther’s role in the context of northern humanism, in the company of Christian reformers like More and Erasmus.  One could go still further.  An appreciation for the history of the Christian church would show that, far from being the unchanging authoritarian institution I learned the medieval church to be, it was almost constantly under pressure to reform itself, from Carolingian times to the Renaissance.  And while the renaissance papacy was every bit as decadent as Luther made it out to be, its ability to define ideal Christian doctrine was far from absolute.


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFor the late middle ages was an age of mysticism as well as the absolutist claims of the papacy.  The years leading up to and after the black death saw the rise of a form of Chrstianity that did not depend upon the collective prayers of a community but that emphasized the personal, emotional, visceral contact with the supernatural.  Recent scholarship has shown the rise in the number of female saints in the late Middle Ages, for while women were thought to be more susceptible to diabolical influence than men were, they were also thought to be more likely to receive divine visions as well.  Catherine of Siena, Margery Kempe, and Julian of Norwich are just the better known actresses in this subgenre of hagiography.  



Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe rise of books of hours in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, books that were intended for private, personal prayer rather than communal liturgical worship also speaks directly to the rise of a more personal, immediate form of Christianity than was being preached from Rome. 



Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket   And, of course, as any fan of Monty Python knows, the late middle ages saw the rise of the flagellants, people who lost faith in the Church’s ability to intercede with the supernatural, so they took matters into their own hands, beating themselves senseless to show God how really, really sorry they were for whatever they had done. 




Put into this context, Luther becomes less of an innovator and more of an apotheosis of a long line of reform tradition.  For Luther’s “by faith alone” is as much a part of the mystical tradition as the visions of Saint Catherine of Siena.  His emphasis on the role of scripture and a personal relationship with God has its antecedents in both the books of hours and earlier heretical movements like the lollards and the hussites.  In many ways, Luther has more in common with the mystical visionaries than he did with the more scholarly northern humanists, and in many ways Luther’s battles with Erasmus find their seed in this tension.



When I teach medieval mysticism, the figure on whom I like to focus is Joan of Arc, who was wildly popular a half century ago but has fallen somewhat out of favor.   As most of you know, Joan was a mystic who talked with the saints and delivered their messages to the Dauphin, encouraging him to resist English rule.  This puts her squarely in the corner of other female mystic saints of the late middle ages.  In comparison, Joan’s religious behavior is comparatively mild.  Catherine of Siena had a mystic vision in which she was married to Christ, received the holy foreskin as a wedding band (and an unusual stigmatum afterwards), and even described Jesus’ cold feet in bed.  To show her asceticism, Catherine wore the mandatory hairshirt, and for years she subsisted on nothing but—brace yourselves, please—the Eucharistic wafer and pus from the sores of lepers.  Next to Catherine, talking to saints and dressing in male drag seems downright ordinary.  Nonetheless, it is not a great leap to go from the ecstatic visions of Joan to the assertion by Luther that the only religious experiences worth anything were the direct, personal appeals to God. 

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But Joan is also a liminal figure because she brings to the French prince a new idea of nation, encouraging him to transform his kingship from one based on feudal institutions to national ones.  He had to do this out of necessity—most of his barons had defected to the English or the Burgundians—but the success he found in following Joan’s advice speaks for itself.  By adopting the model of kingship that had already been in place in England for over half a century, a modern France, with the beginnings of centralized kingship and a national army, began to rise.  This is the “New Monarchy” we teach as characteristic of the early modern period, with increasingly centralized and bureaucratic national institutions. 


So is Joan of Arc a modern or medieval figure?  Jakob Burchardt would argue that we cannot have it both ways.  But to Joan and her contemporaries, it was not a choice between civilizations.  The arbitrary lines we draw around periods would have made little sense to people living in the fifteenth century.


All of my points above ultimately address the need to explore medieval history to debunk any notion that there was a grand discontinuity that occurred in the fifteenth century. If these were the only reasons to teach the Middle Ages, then one could well argue that their relevance was minimal after our syllabi reach Columbus Day (Another liminal figure, but I won’t go into that here).  However, to Europeans, the Middle Ages did not cease to be relevant with the collective realization that they were over.  It is easy to assume why the opposite would be the case.  The very terms “medieval” and “Middle Ages” themselves imply finality and the understanding that Western Civilization has entered a new era.  Yet again and again, we find western civilization looking back at its own past in order to give its current state of affairs meaning.


More often than not, it has been a Roman model that is most popular among European scholars as a metaphor for whatever age the West happens to be passing through.  After all, the humanist scholars of the renaissance first and foremost saw their age as a rebirth of Roman culture and values.  The Roman imperial eagle has found its way onto the national symbols of the Habsburgs, Romanovs, Bonapartists, Nazis, and Americans.


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The philosophes of the Enlightenment appealed directly to Roman civilization as the base of their optimistic hopes for Europe.   It is small wonder that they saw their core values reflected in the great neoclassical works by David, like Oath of the Horatii.

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Here, we see the strong, robust, civic-minded Roman males swearing to defend the honor of their community and of the weak, slumped passive (yet virtuous) females. Rounded roman arches frame the scene.  These historical paintings were brought to life in the streets of Paris, Charlottesville, and Philadelphia as architects deliberately tried to transform the cities of the Eighteenth Century into New Romes.  

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When the Philosophes gave any thought to the Middle Ages at all, it was usually laced with scorn and derision.  The word “feudalism” was invented in this period in order to give a term to everything that the eighteenth century rationalists disdained about their own pasts.  Medieval customs and institutions were seen as quaint at best, or irrational and barbaric at worst.  Louis Saint-Just, a member of the committee of Public Safety, once declared with authority “The World has been empty since the Romans.”  The best example of this prejudice lies in Beaumarchais’ and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” 



Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketHere, the plot turns around what was seen as one of the most absurd medieval customs, the ius primae noctae, or the Law of First Night, which gave a feudal lord the right to sleep with a woman in his household before she could consummate her marriage with her first husband.  Mozart’s contemporaries all accepted the ius primae noctae as a given, one of those awful medieval customs that any enlightened society rejected.  However, the Law of First Night only appears once in the historical record, a sixteenth century legal case in which a female serf was able to bring a successful lawsuit against her lord who attempted to enjoy his customary right.  The judge in the case found that no such right had existed, and that the lord was simply using an early modern version of “C’mon, babe, everybody’s doing it.”


But that did not matter to Mozart and his contemporaries.  The Middle Ages served a specific function to the thinkers of the enlightenment, a past best forgotten, a foil for rationalism.


An ironic twist on this theme came several centuries earlier, from that greatest of all humanist thinkers, Fransesco Petrarch.  Petrarch was determined to overturn centuries of medieval thought, seeking to replace them with roman models when possible.  Get to the source was his motto, and he sought to improve accepted editions of many Christian and classical texts by seeking out the oldest, and presumably most reliable, manuscripts he could find in the monastic libraries of Europe.  He also sought a reform of the alphabet.  Believing that late medieval alphabets had grown too stylized and “gothic” for his tastes ,


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 he looked for the oldest manuscripts he could find, presumed they were Roman, and decreed that all humanists worth their salt would from that point on write their letters in the Roman style. 

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It was elegant, clear, and majestic.  Only one problem.  This is what Roman bookhand looked like. 



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The alphabet Petrarch copied was not Roman but medieval, the alphabet reformed by decree of Charlemagne in the ninth century, known as Carolingian minuscule.  Since Petrarch’s alphabet became the model for early Italian typesetters in the fifteenth century, and English bookmakers chose to copy the Italian, rather than more gothic German models, our Times New Roman font is ultimately derived from Petrarch’s rash assumption that anything that was clear, simple, and elegant could not possibly come from the Middle Ages.

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Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPetrarch’s medievalism may have been accidental, but by the late eighteenth century, many European intellectuals were looking towards the Middle Ages not as a foil for their own ideas about modernity but as a model for social and cultural identity to rival the classical one that so enthralled the philosophes.  Even as William Blake was advocating an approach to Christianity that ran counter to Deism, emphasizing the mystical and irrational over the Great Watchmaker, other Romantic thinkers began to incorporate medieval themes into their work. 


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketCaspar David Friedrich’s “Cloister in the Snow” is a great example of this new medievalism.  Here, the crumbling medieval cathedral blends into the landscape, a testament against the hubris of the works of men but offering the promise of faith in a world that seems indifferent to the tiny pilgrims trudging through the snow at the bottom.  To the romantics, the Middle Ages represented the emotions, the passions, and the mysteries that had been under assault since the age of reason.  The Romantics regarded the onrushing industrial age with trepidation-- “The world is too much with us…”-- and they looked to the Middle Ages as a simpler time when the human spirit was more free.  This was, of course, as much a fantasy as the oppressive world imagined in the enlightenment, but as the mores of the Victorian age grew more confining, so too did the depictions of medieval life become wistful and nostalgic.  The nineteenth century statue of Charlemagne that stands outside the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris as a symbol of French pride could have easily fallen off the stage of a Wagner opera. 

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Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThis depiction of Lady Godiva by John Collier in the Pre-Raphaelite style shows how much more dreamlike and gauzy views of the middle ages had become.  The same is true of Tennyson’s retelling of Arthurian myth, with veiled critiques of Victorian society emerging as Arthur’s knights grapple with questions of values.  And of course Walter Scott brought taste for medievalism from an elite circle of literati to a much broader popular audience.


Everywhere one traveled in Western Europe, one saw traces of medieval revival.  The shock of the French Revolution brought not only the wistful medievalism of the Romantics to the fore but also the aspirations of Romantic nationalists.  One can see this on a grand scale in government-sponsored projects, such as the construction of the British Houses of Parliament,

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the fanciful renovations of Carcassonne initiated by French interior minister Violet-le-Duc,


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or the granddaddy of them all, the fantasy castle of Mad Baron Ludwig II of Bavaria.


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All three served as expressions of public power, and all three looked back to a past, real or imagined, in the middle ages for inspiration.  As nationalism gripped Europe in the nineteenth century, rulers began to look to the origins of their nations, rather than to the Classical past, for symbols of their rule.


Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein goes a step beyond the other two.  For Ludwig, Neuschwanstein was not merely an official residence, it was also a personal playground for a man with a predilection for Germanic myth.  It was designed by a theatrical set designer, rather than an architect, and it served as an homage to composer Richard Wagner, who was kept there as an unwilling guest in the 1880’s.  Private operas were held here for Ludwig’s amusement, and an underground grotto with swan boats helped to bring ancient Germanic heroes back to life.


Ludwig’s interest in Germanic myth might have been excessive, but it was not unusual in the nineteenth century.  Perhaps the most telling aspect of this romantic medieval nationalist revival was the surge in interest in the vernacular languages and mythologies of northern Europe.  It was in this period that the Grimm Brothers began compiling the first german dictionary and the collection of peasant tales for which they are better known.  They did this not merely out of scholarly interest, but out of a concern that German schoolchildren would grow up thinking that Latinate language and culture were superior to their own, for the educations they had received had changed little since the curricula were established by the Humanists in the fifteenth century, which revered the classics above all else.  Similarly, in England, John Kemble first began studying the language of the Anglo-Saxons seriously for the first time, and 1823 saw the first publication of Beowulf.  English history, which for so long had begun with the mythological settlement by refugee Trojans, now was thought to originate with Germanic anglo-saxons who had driven the decadent Romans out of Britain.


Even as the blush of romantic nationalism faded after World War I, interest in the medieval origins of the modern state still remained strong.  Hitler’s love of Wagner is well known, and his racial theory rested in no small part upon the myth of Teutonic knights fanning out against the inferior peoples of Europe.  Nazi propaganda often picks up on this theme, equating the Nazi’s of the 1930’s with their teutonic forbears of centuries past.


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Even the phrase “Third Reich” self-consciously evokes the glories of Germany’s medieval past, even if the concept of a german state would have been alien to inhabitants of the Holy Roman Empire.


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketOne might expect that the anti-nationalist communists in the fledgling Soviet Union would have little time for the medieval past. After all, “feudalism” was one of Marx’s great bugbears, the penultimate state of society before the rise of the bourgeoisie. Yet even Stalin sought recourse to medieval legend, commissioning Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky as a counter to the myth of Teutonic knights. The film serves much like the 1812 Overture had two generations before, celebrating the resilience of the Russian people in the face of invasion from the west.  The film had the misfortune to finish production just after the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact was signed.  Stalin had it shelved until after Operation Barbarossa was underway, and he had a need to stir Russian nationalism.


Howard Bloch’s recent book on the Bayeux tapestry recounts how that particular document served the nationalistic needs of several constituencies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

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Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket Frenchmen of the Second Empire saw it as proof of the essential “Frenchness” of the Norman English aristocracy.  English nationalists took the message somewhat differently: “Oh but for a lucky arrow shot, England would still be speaking English!”  Even the Nazi’s got in on the act, seeing in the Tapestry an example of Nordic triumph over the lesser peoples of Europe.  Most amusing was this little parody that appeared on the cover of the New Yorker in 1944, reminding Continental Europe that “What goes around, comes around.”




Even today, Europeans evoke their medieval past, even as the rampant nationalism that spawned two world wars is under assault from globalization. Today, Charlemagne’s home city of Aachen commemorates their most famous son with an award presented to a person who has done the most to bring about European unity. 

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No longer a symbol of French nationalism, Charlemagne is now a European hero, one who represents the best aspects of European unity.  His name also graces the parliament building of the European Union in Brussels,

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perhaps because among the modern uniters of Europe, Napoleon and Hitler, Charlemagne stands out as the most regal…or least evil.


Even the invented worlds of mainstream fantasy literature, be they Middle-earth, Narnia, or Hogwarts,


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all tip their hat to a romantic vision of the Middle Ages, a reaction to an increasingly impersonal society.  In his essay “Dreaming the Middle Ages,” Umberto Eco describes how, unlike many other ages, the Middle Ages are malleable enough to serve many different, and often competing needs.  Thus, we find medievalism appearing in Marx and Monty Python, in the Da Vinci Code and the Left Behind books.  This fluidity of meaning is perhaps the reason for the continuing relevance of medieval history, and one of the reasons that it is imperative that we teach it right.