Why Study Medieval History?

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. It allows students to be treated as adults and to think independently.

This is a good and rare thing. In the OCR AS level there’s the Norman Conquest and Alfred, for which the same principles apply. There is too the Medieval Papacy. And it’s not as if the Papacy has ceased to matter. The present Pope spent last weekend watching a football match with 70,000 of his fans and was more than instrumental in bringing down the Berlin Wall in 1989. If you want to understand how a man who wears skirts and has no army can shake the continent of Europe (not necessarily for the better), I recommend you take a look at Gregory VII.

The Past and the Present

The wonderful thing for me is that the controversies of Medieval study are red-blooded and without end. I spend far too long each Summer looking at A level papers which tell me – as if I haven’t heard it before – that Castlereagh and Canning were more similar than has hitherto been supposed, an idea first put forward in about 1922. I want to bin them and read more of Norman Davies’ The Isles where he discusses the importance of the term ‘Briton’ and our relationship with Europe – hardly ‘irrelevant’ stuff – and is currently at daggers drawn with Count Nicolai Tolstoy (yes, a real person, and a huge fan of ‘King Arthur’). I want to understand why the stone of Scone matters so much to Scots Nationalists that they stole it from London in 1953. I want to go to Newcastle, not just to see the indifferent football but to be in Bede’s land, to be in a city where at the exhibition of St Cuthbert’s relics and the Lindisfarne Gospel in 1997 a visitor had written ‘I can now glory in my proud nation of Northumbria’. I want to understand the origins of English Law, and see why the seventeenth-century revolutionaries fussed so much about a document of 1215, Magna Carta. One copy of this is kept in an atom bomb proof display case in Washington by an American billionaire. I want to know why it matters so much to him and his country. I want to wring my hands and see how the current conflicts in the Middle East arguably have their roots in the Crusading movement – which the subject of today’s obituaries saw not as a noble campaign for the sake of Christendom but as the last of the Barbarian invasions which wrecked the Eastern Roman Empire and brought the meaner world we have known since.

I know a family, a Muslim family, who are the hereditary keepers of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and have been for a thousand years because Christians could not trust each other to do it. And yet some people believe Medieval history is dull and ‘irrelevant’! I very much hope that by now you are not in their number, and if you haven’t had a chance to study it at A level, you will make it your business to do so at University. I can’t promise the secrets of Las Vegas’ slot Machines will be vouchsafed to you if you get to know Basil the Bulgar slayer inside out. But who knows?

Andrew Robinson teaches history at Eton College.