Making a Middle Ages connection in politics

Special to Western News

Mark Ormrod knows you may ask about Donald Trump. And he is ready for it.

“So many of us are troubled by this idea politics used to be all about principle and has now become just about personality, about the person who can shout the loudest. And yet, personality has always been fundamental in politics – never more so than in the Middle Ages when government itself was highly personalized in the form of a hereditary monarchy,” explained the Professor of History and Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of York (U.K.).

“The ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the king – the effectiveness or otherwise of his rule – was something people remarked on in terms of his intelligence, his leadership, his ability to respond to crisis. They talked about all this in a very moralizing way – a ‘bad man’ was a ‘bad king,’ a ‘good man’ was a ‘good king.’ A lot of this personality stuff we are looking at in our politics today – and we think that politics is deteriorating as a result of – is itself built on that set of principles from the Middle Ages.”

Over three days, Ormrod will deliver three lectures under the umbrella title Talking Politics in Medieval England: News, Views, Secrets, and Lies, 1215-1485, as part of the annual Joanne Goodman Lecture Series. He will present Talking Politics: Kingship, the Community of the Realm and the Common Profit on Monday, Sept. 26; Outlaws, Rebels and Heretics: Imagining Solutions to England’s Ills on Tuesday, Sept. 27 and Scandal and Rumour: Subversive Politics and Civil War on Wednesday, Sept. 28. All three lectures will be held at 2:30 p.m. in the Great Hall, Somerville House.

Linking the trilogy is what the famed historian sees as a through line between England in the Middle Ages and the modern political landscape.

“Many of the values we have today in our democratic societies in the West actually came out of Medieval Europe. It is important for us to understand that legacy and cherish the long history that has delivered us these rights, these principles by which we live today,” he explained.

“My idea is to pick up on a range of political preoccupations and ways of talking about politics, natural justice and fairness within the context of England between the 13th and 15th century and have people understand a bit more about the strong sense of shared experience between then and now and the way in which modern politics itself comes out of that Medieval Europe tradition.”

Today, we may not be living in an era of the Magna Carta, Hundred Years War, Black Death or Wars of the Roses. But the overall experience for a modern political observer dropped in that era might not be all that different in a certain sense, Ormrod assured.

“Take that observer. They could connect with the fact you could not get taxes out of the people without redressing their complaints. There was a formalized process of negotiation around taxes – that meant if you were going to screw the people for money to pay for your wars, you had to give them things in return,” he said. “You had to give them rights, laws, advantages of various kinds.”

Many of the issues confronting the political structure – even during the social and economic turmoil of the Middle Ages – were fundamentally the same: How do we maintain and support a stable society? How do we approach the concept of national prosperity? How do we make sure the economy is strong? How do we address trade?

“These were fundamental then and they still ring true for us today,” Ormrod continued.

Despite these similarities, however, it was still a wildly different system. For instance, it would be a stretch to call Medieval England a democratic system with only 10 per cent of the population was participating directly in the political process.

“It is a paternalistic system, if you like, in which people who were more powerful, more wealthy, more influential told those beneath them in society what was good for them and how they ought to live and behave,” he said.

“But maybe that isn’t so different than how we govern ourselves these days.”

A Medievalist for more than three decades, Ormrod was first attracted to the era as a young student.

“I got caught up in the Middle Ages because of how different it was – that sense of foreign territory in a land I actually lived, places I knew but from six or seven hundred years ago. All of the conditions, all of the thought processes seemed so entirely foreign to the present day,” he said. “But as I have studied it more and more, I have become struck by how similar it actually is. So many things that were said and done then are still being said and done now. People live their lives, in some respects, in similar ways. We have a real connection to the past.”

Ormrod is the author of Edward III and Political Life in England, 1300-1450, as well as served as co-editor of The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. He has written extensively on the government, politics and political culture of later medieval England, including articles in Chaucer Review, Economic History Review, English Historical Review, Medium Aevum, Parliamentary History and Speculum.

He is currently working on an edition of Common Petitions in the English Parliament, 1270-1400, and a new project on the political role of the Archbishops of York in the 14th century.

His career has been spent wading among thousands and thousands of pages of official documents to understand what he describes as “the formalities of life” at that time. What he lacks, however, is what historians call “life writing” – all that information that comes in later eras contained in diaries, personal correspondence and the like that provide a window into what was going on in people’s minds, what they were saying about their world.

“The fascination of being a Medievalist is having this big puzzle you have to put together, but you know that you only have a third of the pieces of the puzzle. So you have to arrange those pieces in the best possible way such that the image you are trying to create comes together and you can try to understand it in its totality,” he said. “But you’re never going to see the entire image.”

Ormrod’s work is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust.

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Presented by the Department of History and University Students’ Council, the Joanne Goodman Lecture Series welcomes a distinguished historian every autumn since 1976 to deliver three public lectures on consecutive afternoons to students, faculty and members of the London community. The lecture series was established in 1975 by the Honourable Edwin A. Goodman and his family of Toronto to perpetuate the memory of their elder daughter, a second-year History student who died in a highway accident in April 1975. Past speakers have included Admiral William J. Crowe, Margaret MacMillan and Stephanie McCurry.