Defining the Middle Ages

How we define the Middle Ages obviously affects the methods and modes of our inquiry, but it also reflects a range of inherited ways of looking at the past. Ancient, medieval, modern, contemporary (by whichever name one chooses).

And while continuous re-imaginings of the past ensure that there will always be some form of popular, potentially even contingently cool, middle ages, nevertheless, by and large announcing that you make living in the academic study of the medieval leaves the general public perplexed. Indeed, the marginalization of the Middle Ages and medieval studies is so accepted that without a second thought study of the pre-modern past (and the pre-modern itself) is invoked to describe the esoteric, useless, inane and boring (for responses to this inclination see here).

To reach a wider audience, ever endeavoring to make the past relevant the medievalist sometimes ties the Middle Ages to modern medievalisms favored in popular media. A promising point of departure, a place from which to draw people in to other middle ages.

I’d like to venture that part of the marginalization comes from ourselves, from the way our institutions define the medieval and its study. Acknowledging many exceptions and differences, I suspect that the general idea of what medieval studies is looks like this (from where I did my graduate work):

The field of Medieval Studies is concerned with the history, thought, and artistic expression of the various cultures on the European continent over the course of a millennium (circa 500-1500 C.E.).

A similar definition, that is one strictly grounded in time (500-1500) and space (Europe), informs Bristol’s Medieval Cultures research theme. Many places have variants on this idea in that they don’t pin down the Middle Ages, but list the disciplines involved in studying the Middle Ages, such as York, Fordham, and Exeter. The more far-reaching also explicitly include the Middle East (like Leeds); I suspect that other places would argue that study of the Islamic world is implicitly included in that it falls within part of the European continent and heavily influences others.

This nod to the Middle East notwithstanding, the object of study is essentially defined as a large expanse of time happening within a narrowly confined or hopelessly broad space (depending on your point of view). In turn, the field, so it seems, explains what happened, what was thought and how it was expressed within the parameters of those two constraints,

What if we were to broaden this definition, not so much strictly within its own terms–that is not so much in terms of chronology and geography–but in the way in which it seems to look backward. I’m thinking something along the lines of:

Based initially on the study of Europe (500-1500 C.E.), Medieval Studies now represents a range of fields that have collectively built up a body of academic material that characterizes, explores and defines a particular set of cultural, social and economic conditions that we call medieval and that consequently apply to various societies and cultures both in the past and in the present.

In other words, to use an inarticulate example if medieval textual culture is defined as one that has firm oral roots even as it becomes increasingly literate, you might ask (within this conception of Medieval Studies) how does the European manifestation of this type of textual culture compare with similar situations in present day Afghanistan, or say a particular part of Latin America in the nineteenth century. Of course, the technological tools available would be different, but the way in which a similar set of questions play out under different sets of circumstances might be interesting.

Part of me thinks that feeding information into this type of experiment might at least initially produce a rehearsal of some hackneyed answers, that the comparison would bring out the same points of referentially, the ‘triumph’ of a language, a ‘revolution’ brought on by a technology, the ‘death’ of various pasts. And yet the experiment tempts and taunts. Could redefining the Middle Ages and its study make the medieval ‘relevant’ without selling it out?

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