Why Study the Medieval Past? Janet L. Nelson Argues That the Study of Medieval History in British Schools Is Just What the Twenty-First Century Requires. (Today's History)

By Nelson, Janet L. | History Today, August 2003 | Go to article overview
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Why Study the Medieval Past? Janet L. Nelson Argues That the Study of Medieval History in British Schools Is Just What the Twenty-First Century Requires. (Today's History)


Nelson, Janet L., History Today


AT A HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION conference in September 2002, I heard of an interesting report: until recently there were only two countries in Europe, the UK and Albania, where history was not part of the national curriculum up to age eighteen. Now, it was said, there is only one--and it is not Albania. As a responsible historian, I have to tell you that the report turned out to be exaggerated, indeed strictly speaking untrue: whereas France, Germany and others do indeed require the teaching of history throughout the secondary education phase, a number of northern European countries do not (and have not for many years).

There are many good and not-so-good reasons for insisting on the value of history--and medieval history in particular--in schools. One of the not-so-good is the inculcation of a crudely chauvinist form of nationalism. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nationalism itself, however understandable historically and however progressive its claims, justified more torment than improvement. In the twenty-first century, especially in the countries of the European Union, any school curriculum focuses on national history is not just anachronistic but dangerous. In the very recent past, medieval national history has been particularly prone to nationalist abuse by the likes of Tudjman in Croatia, Milosevic in Serbia, Haider in Carinthia, Le Pen in France. We can do without that sort of appeal to the relevance of the medieval past.

But if there is one thing even worse than abuse, it is neglect. I'm afraid this is the situation in this country where medieval history is concerned. Appearances can be deceptive. We are often told that there is a huge public interest in medieval history--not least because of interest in archaeology. Yet television's offerings still represent the Middle Ages as exceptionally dark and nasty, a laughable allegation when you consider the century we have just emerged from. Knights and castles, and the Vikings, though sometimes done well on television (as recently in series fronted by Julian Richards and Marc Morris), are niche topics that reinforce the stereotype. 'Medieval' remains synonymous with 'barbaric'. Alternatively, for many Britons medieval times are not far removed from rune-reading, New Age magic and Tolkienesque fantasy. This makes for a serious problem in distinguishing fact from fiction. A recent poll suggests that one of the top 100 Britons ever was King Arthur. That the problem is not a recent one may be inferred from the repeated injunction of Sellar and Yeatman in 1066 and All That never to confuse King Arthur with King Alfred, or vice versa. A variant form of such fantasising was Secretary of State for Education Charles Clarke's recent thumbnail sketch of 'ornamental' medieval universities, ivory towers inhabited by beautiful thinkers remote from the perceived needs and priorities of the real world. The opposite was true, since graduates were, in the words of the great medievalist Richard Southern, 'necessary for the conduct of business; they provided a storehouse of technical advice and ensured a succession of future servants of government', not just for secular regimes but for that superstate, the Church.

There could be more substantial public interest in the Middle Ages; but we have to ask why is it desirable to have more medieval history in schools? What would it be for? There are a number of answers. On some we might all agree. On others we might agree to differ. Here are three reasons--necessary conditions--that strike me both as agreeable in their own right, and also as things that we might all agree upon.

The medieval history of these islands is very old (we share that antiquity with the rest of Europe) and very well-documented in terms of texts. And yet not too well-documented. When I read a recent proposal for a GCSE in medieval history, I was struck by how closely the recommended reading for the reign of Alfred of Wessex resembled the reading list I used to give final-year undergraduates for a Special Subject comparing Alfred's reign with that of his Frankish contemporary Charles the Bald of France.

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