Friday, September 07, 2007

The Mytho-Historical Medieval

Timothy Burke over at Easily Distracted wrote today about his daughter's elementary school "Medieval Times" theme for the year, and how the depiction of the medieval was so often wrong. He then went on to talk about the temptation to object to what they were doing. Fortunately, he successfully resisted temptation.

The problem is not that what they are teaching is wrong -- in fact, it is absolutely right. The problem is that it is non-historical, and therefore frequently historically wrong. What do I mean by these two apparently contradictory statements?

The Middle Ages is at its foundation a mythic construction. During the actual Middle Ages, people referred to their times as "modern," just like we do.* The modern/medieval distinction is one of the last few centuries, and it exists for the rather narcissistic purpose of praising our contemporaries and damning our predecessors. As we construct the narrative of ourselves, the medieval acts as an ugly, awkward adolescent period -- simply something Europeans had to go through to become the mature, well-adjusted people they are (and by extention, their diaspora as well). In this construction, medieval people were a little foolish to think that their lives had any import beyond leading to our lives.

Any construction of the medieval as a broad period is by necessity mytho-historical. We cannot realistically construct a model that defines a millennium and covers all of Europe and bits of Asia and Africa. Historically, anything you want to say about the medieval is true -- and it is false. It is true that the Church was the dominant social force (at some times in some places), just as it is true that the Church was non-existent and struggled for survival (at other times in other places). It is true that there were knights in armor, and it is true that there was no such thing. It is true that Jews were terrible oppressed, and it is true that they held high status. It's true that there was war, there was peace; there was plenty, there was famine; there was joy, there was sorrow. At one time or another, all these things were historically true of the Middle Ages -- and at other times, all were false.

I'm guilty too of squishing the medieval into a neat little package. At the beginning of every semester I give my "the Middle Ages weren't monolithic" speech, but do students really absorb that caveat and apply it to the next 15 weeks? I frequently say things like, "in medieval times, people used to blah blah blah...," by which I mean, "at certain times and certain places during medieval times, and specifically the time and place we are talking about now, people used to blah blah blah," but I doubt that the nuance of that is usually picked up by the students. I don't offer those caveats every time I speak, though, even though I know some students will be misled, primarily because if I were to do so, my already long-winded lectures would be three times the length -- and nobody wants that!

By saying that the theme was "medieval times," then, the elementary school automatically placed itself into the mytho-historical setting -- the setting that we like to define ourselves against. Neither should we expect elementary school students to grasp the historical distinctions between Carolingian Gaul and pre-Columbian Spain. Sure, it would be nice if while students understood that the Black Plague occurred during the Middle Ages, they also understood that most people during the Middle Ages never experienced the Black Plague -- but such expectations would be unrealistic. My own children live in a house with the medieval scholar (granted, one more interested in the mytho-historical than the historical), and their own grasp of the medieval is far more informed by popular culture than by history.

So, let the kids have their fun. Sure, all they will know about the medieval was that there were knights and castles and archery and jousting and plagues and happy peasants dancing around Maypoles -- but I can work with that.

*Well, not just like we do. They used the Latin "modernus."


  1. Any construction of the medieval as a broad period is by necessity mytho-historical.

    *nods ferociously* it's like the king arthur thing... is there every any point trying to "find" Camelot when it really exists in our heads?

    it's fascinating how some parts of the "medieval" catch onto the imagination, though... the Arthur we imagine is, at the very most, a Malorian cone, and in fact owes a fair bit to modern reworkings. Tennyson, anyone?

    I'm always amused by the church thing. A bunch of Christians (well, protestants, anyway) will complain that in the Middle Ages the church was dominated by the state... And meanwhile, the secular world compares any instance of church interference in state politics with the "medieval"!

    something Europeans had to go through to become the mature, well-adjusted people they are (and by extention, their diaspora as well)
    interesting... i'd never thought about the relationship between medievalisms and colonialism.

    hmmm. anyway. interesting post, as per usual. now i'm going to stop procrastinating and go back to St Christopher.

  2. Maybe I should clarify that my comments about "mature, well-adjusted" Europeans and Euro-diaspora was meant to be snarky. It was a general dig at the narcissism of modernity.