On Tuesday evening Penn medievalists and early modernists kicked off the new academic year with the annual Welcome Back reception and the first Penn Medieval Studies program of the year: a panel discussion on “Why the Middle Ages Matter.” In addition to questioning the question, Rebecca Winer (Villanova University), Matthew Boyd Goldie (Rider University), Elly Truitt (Bryn Mawr College), John Haldon (Princeton University), and our own director Will Noel offered a variety of answers:
* the Middle Ages are relevant to the politics of Europe and the Middle East today
* the Middle Ages are NOT relevant in many ways, meaning they offer the challenge of entirely foreign conceptual frameworks
* the Middle Ages are part of mainstream culture through the medievalism of popular literature and games
* the challenge of understanding people distant from us in time prepares us to understand people who are distant from us in other ways
* historical studies sensitize us to the uses and abuses of history in politics today
* the interdisciplinary nature of medieval studies challenges specialists to make their projects matter to a wider audience
* we love the Middle Ages, they are a part of us.
Why DO the Middle Ages matter (to you)? Add your comments!
I’ll start: the Middle Ages matter to me because they were recent enough and revered enough for lots of their books and documents to survive but long enough ago that the experience of reading the handwriting of medieval scribes makes my heart beat faster.
When I was 11 years old my parents brought me and my brother on a 2-week vacation to England (we are American). I remember visiting Warwick Castle and feeling underwhelmed, there were so many people and it was really touristy (although I’m sure my 11-year-old brain didn’t think of it using that term). It was trying so hard to be interesting, but just seemed fake. I also remember visiting another castle, no idea where or what it was called, which we came to through what I remember being a residential area, and which was mostly ruins and was completely deserted. I remember standing inside the keep, and the walls were just high enough that I could see some holes where timbers had been, to support the upper floor, and I realized that *people lived here*, and it was kind of an epiphany. I suppose it was ironic that it was the ruined castle, as opposed to the well-conserved one, that led me to that moment. Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by historical *things* as a kind of a window to the people who made them, owned them, and used them. I don’t really know why it is that medieval things are more interesting to me than those of other periods, maybe it’s for the reasons similar to those Amey and the speakers give above: they are recent enough to be familiar, but far enough away to be weird and different. Mysterious, but not completely Other.
The Middle Ages matter because we can’t understand the present without them. The leader of Scotland (which as I write is voting in its independence referendum) studied medieval history along with economics and was inspired by his grandfather’s tales of 14th century Scottish resistance to the English. Our irregular verbs in present-day English are hold-overs from the Anglo-Saxon verb system. The medievals themselves had their own time period between the “now” and the “ancient,” and that’s when the adventures of King Arthur occurred, which in turn inspired T. E. Lawrence in his adventures in Arabia during WWI. The Middle Ages explain western civilization to itself, and offer us an alternate space for dreaming and reimagining the present.