Why Study Medieval History?

By Robinson, Andrew | History Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Why Study Medieval History?


Robinson, Andrew, History Review


Andrew Robinson enjoys contradicting the image too many people have of the medieval period.

It so happens I am writing this on the day when the newspaper obituaries are full of one of the greatest of British historians this century, Sir Steven Runciman. He played piano duets with the last emperor of China, told tarot cards for King Fuad of Egypt, narrowly missed being blown up by the Germans in the Pera Palace hotel in Istanbul and twice hit the jackpot on slot machines in Las Vegas. I can't guarantee your life will be quite like that if you devote it to Byzantium or a study of the Crusades -- but maybe it's got something going for it.

Image and Reality

Many young historians have a phobia about Medieval studies. They insist on things being `relevant' and think Medieval history arcane, dry as dust and obscure, boring and complex. Well, some of it is. But then I have sat in a room containing 48 volumes on coal production statistics in World War Two and if you dropped the most recent biography of Hitler on your toe you'd be in serious difficulty. I have also had the great pleasure of teaching a young Ugandan student about Offa, king of the Mercians in 757, and noted the gleam of recognition on his face. Here was a man who understood the trappings of Empire but was lost on its subtleties and responsibilities. If you want to fathom Idi Amin and post-Imperial Africa, look at post-Imperial Europe and semi-barbaric Britain. If you want to study a thrilling murder mystery, packed with suspense, look at the history of the Cathars in Montaillou -- and don't take my word for it, try the newly published and utterly excellent Very Short Introduction to History by John Arnold (Oxford University Press, 2000).

If you go to an A level `conference', held at various intimate aircraft hangars and the like, you will participate in something resembling a Nuremberg Rally with Professor X vaguely discernible in your binoculars and sounding rather like his book. There are 66 schools in England which study Medieval history, and those who do it have more fun, I'd suggest. We went a few weeks ago to a reconstruction of the Battle of Hastings and you just can't so easily do that for the Battle of Midway or Stalingrad.

More seriously, I think it is a misconception that medieval history is either inaccessible or not `relevant.' If you do want to know about Offa, there are actually about seven things to know -- a few pages of Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and one letter of Charlemagne, a few coins, some remains of Tamworth, Hereford and Brixworth Churches, and a tall story about St Alban (with picture) in Matthew Paris. That's about it. But the interpretation of this can rage. And you can know as much of the basis of the discussion, more or less, as anyone who writes on it. At no other level is the real stuff of history, informed and original discussion of the sources themselves to form a wildly original picture of the History of our islands, so available to students at A level or not much beyond it. …

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