The Relevance of Medieval History

In 2003, a government minister was understood to have condemned the study of medieval history as merely ornamental, a polite way of saying it is useless. Henry Mayr-Harting, who retired as Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History in 2003, here uses a valedictory lecture by a German colleague, Professor Hagen Keller of Münster University, to challenge such assumptions. In following the ideas of a continental scholar and friend, Professor Mayr-Harting re-emphasises the genuine and imperative international nature of the study of history, the awareness and recognition of which has been a constant and is an ever-increasing feature of the Modern History Faculty.

In July of 2002 Professor Hagen Keller gave his valedictory lecture at the University of Münster. For the previous 20 years and more, as Director of the Seminar in Medieval History, he was one of those who took the lead in sustaining Münster as a foremost centre of early and high medieval study, with, as its mouthpiece, so to speak, the world-famous journal, Frűhmittelalterliche Studien. His seminar, to which British scholars were often invited, was known as one of the liveliest in Germany. For the present writer, HK’s impact has been largely through his ground-breaking work on the Ottonian period (tenth- and early eleventh-century Germany). His capacity to bridge an apparent gap (or explain a real one) between ruler ideology and the actualities of the exercise of power is outstanding. Surely as important as his Ottonian work to HK himself, however, has been the inter-disciplinary project at Münster on ‘pragmatic literacy’, which has involved the systematic and multi-faceted study of the voluminous communal statutes of twelfth-and thirteenth-century Italy and the whole issue of public literacy which they raise. If anyone holds the largely unjust image of the German professor as authoritarian, loud and dogmatic, HK is the farthest away possible from this image – quietly spoken, kind, learned, thoughtful, and a very good listener.

HK’s valedictory lecture was about the present-day relevance of the Middle Ages to Modern Europe. It’s title, Überwindung und Gegenwart des ‘Mittelalters’ in der europäischen Moderne is not quite easy to translate; I would suggest, The Enduring Present of the Medieval in European Modernity. A summary of its main thrust is of interest to us in Oxford for two reasons: one, because as part of the Commonwealth of Learning, what concerns great scholars in the rest of the world naturally concerns us; and two, many British medievalists wrestle with the same question as HK poses. My own motivation in the study of Medieval History has always been sheer fascination and the feeling that so many medieval texts and works of art and literature spoke to me directly. But one has to distinguish between motivation, and justification of a subject which receives public money, particularly in what one might call the Charles Clarke Era. Points about the two may overlap – I’m sure they do, but arguments about its pure interest or power to train the mind no longer seem adequate justification for Medieval History. The argumentational action now appears to be on two main fronts – the achievement of self-understanding and self-orientation in the present world by individuals and whole societies, and in this achievement the unbreakable continuum of history.

In his lecture, HK takes to task a schema of historical education which still (albeit often challenged) holds some sway over many minds and consciousnesses, that between Neuzeit (beginning c.1500) and Mittelalter, and the characterisation of medieval culture as against the humanists, of the Church as against the Reformation. Nineteenth-century historiography in Germany ‘canonised’ the Medieval/Modern schema, with such as Leonardo da Vinci, Columbus, Copernicus, and Erasmus giving impetus to the subsequent history of success over many centuries. The idea of a break had been fostered by printers, patrons of art, and Protestants; and the cords that bound the new to the old were often over-looked. The revolutions of the nineteenth- century heightened the sense of a past that had been set aside. The long development of ‘modern consciousness’ gave ever more distance to the Middle Ages.

HK’s question is, how does the distant past reach down to our own lives today? He starts by fixing on the profound revolutions of the Middle Ages themselves. The late eleventh-century Revolution, called by Karl Leyser ‘the first European revolution’, had effects on the whole concept of the world order in some ways more profound than the French or Russian Revolutions, and as Leyser said, gave birth to the habits of political thought and ideological conflict in Western Europe, as well as to the galvanizing of the masses in ecclesiastico-political struggle. Again, HK points to the twelfth-century Renaissance and the systematic logic which was applied to the attempted resolution of legal and theological issues, anyhow with a new intensity, in the twelfth century (the kind of phenomenon that Magnus Ryan spoke about in his first Carlyle Lecture recently – the ratio legis or effort to give law itself a coherent and consistent rationality, cf more generally Alexander Murray’s Reason and Society in the Middle Ages). The rationality of the Enlightenment was something very medieval. There was of course the other side of the coin in the Middle Ages – the Inquisition, the institutionalisation of anti-Semitism, the expulsion of political opponents from the communes. But that is not only a dire warning (Menetekel) to the twentieth century. The mentality of what R.I. Moore calls ‘a persecuting society’ looks as if it might rear its ugly head again, for example in some of the discussions of the war on terrorism. But the medieval universities have given to us, and perhaps to the world, a role for learning, methods of study, rationality, and critical approaches.

Following on from this, HK speaks of his own university’s project on the expansion of the written word and its use for practical purposes, for example in the Italian communes of the twelfth- and thirteenth-centuries, long before printing. The more than 100 paragraphs on margarine in the EU food regulations, he says, would not have seemed entirely out of place in thirteenth-century Italy. Here HK comes close to British historians, eg Michael Clanchy and Susan Reynolds, while Rosamond McKitterick would no doubt wish to push him back a few centuries. Even the first strivings towards the technological panacea and trust in the advance of technology may be seen as medieval (as HK shows with several examples), from there becoming part of the mental habit of Europeans.

So the medieval/modern antithesis no longer offers to present-day European self-understanding sufficient to help orientate ourselves in our own world. If we want to understand ourselves in our present, we have to look back beyond the medieval/modern fiction, and seek to recognise where and how in our continually changing world we are set on courses dictated by ‘far back railway points’.

Speaking, as he was, in Münster, HK ends with a delightful passage on how the development of Münster in distant centuries has left its mark on present-day Münster. Anyone will easily be able to translate that into Oxford terms.

I should like finally to build on the lecture of HK, with something from Patrick Wormald’s fine article about the study of History in the T.LS. of 16 January 2004. For it will have been noticed that essentially HK only answers the question, why study history back to c.1050? Now one might answer that in order to understand the new rationality or humanism of the twelfth century, one has to understand what it emerged from. But PW has a more satisfactory approach, which is that the proper subject of historical study is humanity. The more we understand the human experience of past and present societies and individuals, the more sensitive and ‘compatible’ our reactions to other human beings and other societies is likely to be. ‘The medieval matters simply because it is not modern; because it constitutes an increasingly unfamiliar dimension of our experience.’ And again, ‘much of history’s virtue as a training for life, never mind business or industry, is lost if attention is confined to the relatively familiar.’ Furthermore, although human experience has been so infinitely various, PW also insists that the constants in human nature enable us to make great strides forward in self-knowledge from the study of this experience. Perhaps that is why one so often notices how writers from distant periods – Augustine, the author of Beowulf, Abelard and Héloise, Hildegard of Bingen and many others – speak to us (undergraduates very much included) with an astonishingly direct voice.

- Henry Mayr-Harting

Christ Church