Future of the Middle Ages

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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The Middle Ages are over. Well, sort of.

They encompass the years from the so-called ‘Vision of Constantine’ in 312, when the Roman emperor embraced Christianity, to sometime around 1500 when that pernicious invention, the printing press, infested all of Western Europe with its cheap and democratic copies of books.

Along the way developed scholastic philosophy, Gothic architecture, chivalry, courtly love, the book, the notion of kingship as something that needs controls placed upon its absolute power and many other structures of modern society.

The Middle Ages gave us some role models – Arthur, Saladin, Richard the Lionhearted, Blondel, Heloise and Abelard, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Black Prince, William Tell, Marco Polo, El Cid, Robin Hood – and some figures and behaviours we might prefer to forget – feudalism, the Hundred Years’ War with its development of the crossbow and longbow, Vlad Ţepeş of Romania, the Crusades, various heresies and their eradication and the Black Death.

What we know about the Middle Ages is largely established: Some materials are miscatalogued in obscure libraries or don’t have full references in major ones, and much as the archaeologists believe there is more to be gleaned from digging more late medieval sites, even they would prefer to find more cool treasure-hoards.

What, then, will medievalists be doing in the next 40 years? We have a lot more questions to ask the Middle Ages.

The field is just emerging from a concentrated study of medieval texts in their manuscript contexts, so we think about why legal texts would appear beside homilies or treatises on the best farming practices. Greater attention is going into analysing the pigments used for manuscript illumination, so that we now know that rather than importing lapis lazuli at great expense to produce the shade we today call electric blue, or perhaps cobalt blue, in northern Europe some local sources, including woad, were used (this is the colour of the Virgin Mary’s robes, chosen because of its rarity).

I suspect more scientists, possibly impelled by the fun of medievalist video games, will be doing DNA analyses to figure out more about migration and trade patterns in the Middle Ages. Perhaps we’ll discover the medieval world was not a sedentary and small-minded one but one with at least as much travel and movement as the 18th century. After all, until the early 19th century, the fastest travel was horseback or sailing ship; a medieval nobleman could go on pilgrimage on his horse, and the serf could use shanks’ mare for the same purpose.

The field of animal studies is just arriving at the Middle Ages; disability studies arrived two years ago; no doubt many other such ‘studies’ fields remain to be dug.

Medievalists discovered theory some years ago, but they are far more sceptical and untrusting of its tenets – neither early adopters nor part of the mainstream, they are stragglers in the field. Moreover, medievalists who enjoy theoretical approaches tend to disdain manuscript study, and vice versa. This irrelevant, small war will end in the next 20 years, though it will end slowly and painfully.

Studying the Middle Ages has always been a thoroughly cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary endeavour. Still, along the way, the fiercely protective way in which disciplines protect themselves has on occasion resulted in areas of neglect. Thus, serious study of medieval drama began quite recently (watch Mario Longtin in French Studies), and the dense, difficult and technical world of heraldry treatises has suffered neglect now being redressed by Western English professor Richard Moll of English.

In recent years, medievalists have re-discovered the 12th century and the neglected ground of the long 15th century is the subject of squabbles between Renaissance scholars (a field now renamed as early modern studies) and medievalists.

In the next 40 years, I expect medievalists, led by archaeologists and historians, to push back to Constantine’s vision of a cross in the sky in the year 312 and claim large tracts of what is generally called ‘late Antiquity’ or sometimes (though we frown upon the term) the Dark Ages. We will be re-discovering the 5th century, the 4th, and probably the 16th as fertile medieval ground.

The Middle Ages might be over, but we rediscover them in every generation.

Medievalists have an uneasy relationship with medievalism; most of them consider working in this field to be something of a cheat, an easy option requiring insufficient ‘real work’ (involving manuscripts; Latin; reading large tracts of the Patrologia Latina, the works of the Christian fathers; and personal suffering).

However, medievalism is sweeping the world, and seems likely only to increase its hegemony over the next 40 years. Our students become interested in the Middle Ages as a result of video games, movies, TV shows, iconic figures they admire.

The generation which discovered the Middle Ages through medievalism is already in graduate school or in junior posts; the students trained by that generation will be medievalists who are also medievalism-ists.

Long may they thrive.

M.J. Toswell is a professor in the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.