hen the American historian Francis Fukuyama wrote a treatise on the fall of communism and called it The End of History, he was being more prophetic than he knew. For, according to a survey conducted by History Today magazine, history students come to university with little or no general knowledge of their subject outside the 20th century, and a creeping "intellectual inertia" makes them ill- disposed to broaden their knowledge.
It was also revealed last week that one of the examination bodies that sets A-level questions had decided to drop the paper on English history from 300 to 1500AD because of lack of demand. A second examination board said it would be "phasing out history before the Norman Conquest". After an uproar about this blithe dismissal of 600 years of Vikings, monks, Alfred the Great and King Canute, the Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett ordered an investigation into the exam bodies' cavalier decision.
If no one studies the Middle Ages any more, what will happen to them? Will they exist only in a wax museum called "The Pageant of England" or in the pages of The Story of Britain? It's too appalling a prospect to contemplate. So, before they disappear off the map of human knowledge, here is our handy cut-out-and-keep guide to the Middle Ages.
So-called because they are located in the middle of history, between the ancient Romans and Greeks and the modern era of civil wars, revolutions and e-mail. In fact they lasted just over 1,000 years.
From the withdrawal of the Romans, summoned home by the Emperor Honorius (410 AD) to the Battle of Hastings. So called because England was overrun by barbarians, craft-making packed up, and trade collapsed. The Anglo- Saxons worshipped pagan deities such as Thor and Freya, and fought over their kingdoms. History has so little to say about the period that King Arthur and Camelot were made up to fill the gap.
Religion was the hot subject. The Celtic Church set about converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, with two talented missionaries, St Patrick, who converted the Irish, and St Columba who fetched up on Iona and converted the Scottish Picts. Then St Augustine (not the Confessions chap) was sent from Rome by the Pope to preach the Gospel. He converted King Ethelbert of Kent and was given a bishopric in Canterbury, which became the symbolic home of the English Church. Christianity then flowered all over the place: monks, pilgrimages, cathedrals, scripture, the Venerable Bede, manuscripts and holy relics.
Antlered, pagan and belligerent Scandinavian farmers and fishermen whose home fields could not produce enough food to support them. Liked rape, plunder and pillage for quasi-religious reasons, conveniently. They settled down on the land they'd invaded, the Danes in England, the Norsemen in Scotland and Ireland. They wiped out all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms bar Wessex, which fought back under its king, who was ...
ALFRED THE GREAT
Precocious youngest son of King Aethelwulf. Keen on Anglo-Saxon poems of warrior bravery. Met Pope Leo IV in Rome when he was four. Defeated the Danes at Edginton in 878. Wessex kingdom expanded to take in southern Anglo-Saxons, plus London. As de facto King of the Anglo-Saxons, he passed laws, translated chronicles and moral tracts, brought scholars into court and built a navy. Saw off Viking invasions with defendable compounds called "burhs".
NORMAN CONQUEST, 14 OCTOBER 1066. 9 AM.
Harold Earl of Wessex was nominated by Edward the Confessor as his heir, though William, Duke of Normandy claimed he was chosen heir. Big fight over succession. Torn between invading Norsemen, Hardrada and Tostig in York, and invading Normans at Pevensey, Harold rushed south and found William at Hastings. …