Turning Medieval Strangeness to Account /Sherri Olson


Turning Medieval Strangeness to Account

Sherri Olson, Department of History, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT


In the eyes of some people, perhaps many, Medieval Studies is a quaint and irrelevant member of an out-of-touch liberal arts scholarly tradition. How can research and teaching in the many disciplines of Medieval Studies make a contribution in today’s world? The question gains urgency if it is true, as Richard Fletcher has averred (in his preface to The Barbarian Conversion, 1997), that today professional historians talk mostly to each other ‘in those weird academic gatherings called conferences,’ with the result that fewer and fewer people listen to them, ‘a wholly deplorable state of affairs.’ Fostering interdisciplinarity is one antidote to this deplorable state of affairs.

Interdisciplinary scholarship is an enterprise that is ‘easy to describe, difficult to master,’ according to a study entitled The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century, published by the American Historical Association. To be interdisciplinary means to ‘welcome ideas and methods regardless of their origin,’ incorporating ‘the concepts and methods of another discipline or disciplines’ into one’s own work, not in a ‘mechanical application of a template borrowed from somewhere else’ but rather in an ‘intellectual engagement or even transformation.’ When we incorporate outside theories we “modify and enrich” them, developing ‘new concepts and theories in the process’ and ‘generat[ing] ideas that travel beyond’ our particular discipline. The many fields of Medieval Studies, like History, are ‘uniquely open’ disciplines that are ‘well positioned for the intellectual border-crossing that many expect will characterize the best scholarship of the future.’ Broadly speaking, ‘welcoming ideas’ may result in ‘intellectual transformation’ (American Historical Association, 2004, 60–61; emphases mine).

For example, in my work on medieval rural society and peasant culture, interdisciplinary inspiration is essential, both substantively and methodologically, opening up heavily-trafficked materials (here, monastic estate administrative records) in new ways. I’ve looked at studies of African-American slavery because slaves, like peasants, are working people who have knowledge, skills and do essential tasks, yet experience subordination (to varying degrees—it’s analogous, not the same). From Sidney Mintz and Richard Price, anthropologists studying early New World slavery, I have borrowed the concept of ‘concentricity,’ i.e., the formative power exerted by a single dominant institution or fact (in this case, slavery): ‘we may conceive of the institutions created by the slaves [marriage patterns, religious beliefs and practices, economic relationships] as taking the form of a series of concentric circles’ (Mintz and Price, 1992, 24). I argue that medieval peasant institutions and ideas share this quality of concentricity, where that powerful center is common field agriculture and its consequent ‘regime’ of smallholders, organized on the basis of the tenement, that is, the family holding. Albert J. Raboteau’s pioneering studies of slave religion, part of his critique of the myths of the ‘unknowability’ of slave culture and the lack of slave agency, foster our understanding of peasant culture; even the miracles that figure so abundantly in nineteenth-century slave conversion narratives and spiritual autobiographies have powerful medieval analogues (Raboteau, 2004). Such comparative, interdisciplinary work is galvanized by possible connections, ‘welcomes ideas’ and invites participation.

One reason that the fields of Medieval Studies are uniquely suited to foster interdisciplinary modes is that they focus on a culture that has become incomprehensible. (The past may be a foreign country, but some of those countries are more foreign than others to people of the twenty-first century). René Guénon has noted as ‘an altogether extraordinary fact’ the ‘rapidity with which Medieval civilization was completely forgotten; already in the 17th century, men had lost all idea of what it had been’ (Guénon, 2001, 16). Indeed, modern people have ‘so false an idea’ of the medieval period ‘that it appears to them far more alien and distant than classical antiquity’ (Herlihy, 2009, 10­–12). The ‘incomprehensibility’ of medieval culture has been noted by historians focusing on other periods: thus, in What is History?, modern historian E.H. Carr accurately points to one source of the misunderstanding of the Middle Ages—and in so doing reveals that he himself shared it. Carr thought that nineteenth-century historiography was ‘weak’ for the medieval period because historians did not have ‘any imaginative understanding’ of medieval people. And why? Because they were ‘too much repelled by the superstitious beliefs of the Middle Ages and by the barbarities which they inspired’ (Carr, 1961, 27). We may ask our students if they can think of any ‘superstitious beliefs’ that have inspired barbarities in more recent and thus, presumably, more ‘intelligible’ centuries.

Unfortunately, the problem that Carr identified in 1961 is alive and well, as seen in the book that received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. According to Colin Burrow, in a review published in The Guardian in 2011, Greenblatt shares the humanists’ ‘passion for antiquity’ and also ‘their prejudice against medieval Christianity, which he portrays with the vividness but also the crudity of a cartoon…characterless monks and self-flagellating nuns rejoic[ing] in the savage discipline of the church.’ Greenblatt’s story is a ‘dazzling retelling of the old humanist myth of the heroic liberation of classical learning from centuries of monastic darkness. The light of Rome fades into gloom, sheep graze in the Forum; then the humanists rebel against the orthodoxies of the church, bring about a great recovery of classical texts and generate a new intellectual dawn.’ (Burrow, 2011). Here we see an example of the ‘beauty contest’ approach to History: whatever institution, idea, or period one personally finds attractive and interesting is judged to be more historically significant than those one does not. This problem—confusing and conflating one’s personal values and penchants with an objective standard of validity or importance—was described in 1960 by E.H. Dance in History the Betrayer: A Study in Bias: ‘They say that Herodotus was the Father of History. As he moved about on his travels he wrote down what he happened to learn about the places which happened to interest him. Sometimes (if he became deeply interested) he wrote a good deal about them. About the places which failed to arrest his sympathies he wrote little or nothing at all. The history served up to us today bears every mark of the paternity of Herodotus’ (Dance, 1960, 27).

The Middle Ages do seem strange to many people today. As Nancy Partner so wonderfully put it in the April 1993 issue of Speculum: ‘Medievalists mercifully forget just how easily the imagined medieval world virtually parodies itself into the tedious grinding of smallish power struggles over matters of incomprehensible advantage to opaquely obsessed belligerents, while somewhere in the cultural background celibate nonbelligerents think disembodied thoughts directed vaguely to sustaining an abstract worldview by thinking it over and over again in ever more abstruse versions.’ Yes! but strangeness should be interesting, not repellent; and if the former, the fields of Medieval Studies have a natural advantage because medieval people are both familiar and alien. ‘They seem more unlike us than any other of our ancestors do,’ as Clifford Backman says in his survey text The Worlds of Medieval Europe (Backman, 2009, xv). René Guénon noted that modern Westerners find ancient Egyptians more comprehensible than medieval Europeans. Case in point: how many times have we heard or read that in the Middle Ages the transmission of knowledge, information, ideas, etc., was slow because scribes had to copy texts by hand, word by word—worse, even letter by letter and stroke by stroke! But this is true for everywhere in the world until the printing press was invented: movable type printing developed in China in the eleventh century and in Europe in the fifteenth. Yet the ‘inconveniences’ of pre-print culture are not generally cited in connection with ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt or Crete, where cuneiform scripts were written on clay or stone tablets; indeed, these are the cradles of civilization. Are hieroglyphics on a stele more user-friendly, more like a ‘Kindle,’ say, than a medieval codex?

Further, of course, even if one has a ‘Kindle’ with hundreds of books on it, those books have to be read and pondered to have desirable cultural consequences. The access we now enjoy to unlimited texts has not led to an increase in adult reading; indeed some argue that there has been a decline in adult reading proficiency in the last decade or so. (Those who note that most medieval monasteries had ‘only’ 20 or 50 or 100 books aren’t asking what books they had or how they used them, aren’t familiar with the monastic traditions of meditation upon a text, memorization and rumination, the love of learning and the desire for God! The Bible or The City of God will bear a second reading). This is a real service that teaching the disciplines of Medieval Studies provides, that is, an in-depth look at a time and place whose fecund literate traditions were built on the art of close reading!

The apparent strangeness of the medieval world is a window to look through, where open-minded students will find much that is interesting, curious, and worthy of attention, and in so doing can develop that ‘imaginative understanding’ for the minds of the people they are studying and for the “thought behind their acts” which Carr praised. Trying to understand people who are different from us, in part because they are long dead, can encourage the effort to understand people who are different from us and now living.



Backman, C. 2009. The Worlds of Medieval Europe. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bender, T., et al. 2004. The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Burrow, C. 2011. Rev. of S. Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began. Guardian. 23 December. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/23/the-swerve-stephen-greenblatt-review

Carr, E.H. 1961. What is History? New York: Vintage Books.

Dance, E.H. 1960. History the Betrayer: A Study in Bias. London: Hutchinson & Co.

Fletcher, R. The Barbarian Conversion: from paganism to Christianity. New York: Holt & Co.

Guénon, R. 2001. The Crisis of the Modern World. Sophia Perennis.

Herlihy, J., ed. 2009. The Essential René Guénon: metaphysics, tradition, and the crisis of modernity. Bloomington, IN: Sophia Perennis.

Mintz, S. and Price, R. 1992. The Birth of African-American Culture. An Anthropological Perspective. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Partner, N. 1993. Introduction. Speculum 68(2): 419–43.

Raboteau, A.J. 2004. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press.

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