The Making of Medieval History, some thoughts by Peter Biller

Peter Biller
Graham Loud

I begin with the most elementary and fundamental way by which medieval history is 'made'.

Learning the words of their particular European language, children pick up the words 'medieval', and the 'middle ages'. Learning these words, they internalize the concept of a distinct period, equipped with certain characteristics, that the words denote. The 'middle ages' becomes something given, something that was 'out there' once upon a time. A tiny minority of people may be taught - later on perhaps when doing some historiography course - that these words and concepts are the product of Renaissance cultural (and Reformation religious) periodization. Most people, not so taught, are likely tomain under the sway of the words and the idea.

Within this broad notion of what is 'medieval', people absorb its content and details from culture and education. From culture in the broadest senses (museums and the heritage industry, TV, films, novels, computer games, etc), they gain and develop ways of imagining the middle ages, which have been brilliantly described and enumerated by Umberto Eco. From education both at school and university (and in the more serious history purveyed by books, magazines and TV), they absorb data about certain topics selected from this past period, dealt with in certain ways.

'Certain topics selected' and 'dealt with in certain ways': what lies behind the selection of topics and the modes of treatment is in the foreground of what I am calling 'The Making of Medieval History'. It is easy to see what lies at one end of the spectrum of types of influence, where someone or something makes medieval history directly. For example, behind the syllabus studied by a 16 year-old school-kid beginning A/Level History, there will be policy documents going back to committee meetings, where advisors said 'put in a bit more of this, and let's have less of that'. There may be politicians pressurising the bureaucrats – notoriously there are the autocratic rulers and right-wing political parties who have wanted history that is more nationalist, with more attention to heroic former rulers and military victories. At the other end of the spectrum there are the indirect and intangible influences of a whole society and culture. For example, the history of 'medieval' science and technology seems to have been kick-started much earlier, in the early 1900s, and to have become a bigger academic enterprise in the United States of America and Germany than elsewhere. The correlation with the degree of modern technological advance enjoyed by those two countries is obvious. And it helpfully reminds us of the way medieval history can mirror the modern social and cultural milieu which in multifarious and intangible ways helped to produce it.

One important particular example for medieval history is the pressure of developments in modern Christian Churches in the middle of the twentieth century. The 1950s saw rising pastoral concern in French Catholicism, driving towards rigorous observation and measurement of the religious practice of the laity, called sociologie religieuse, which was not quite the same as Anglophone 'religious sociology'. The same decade saw the moves which were going to lead to the second Vatican Council (1962-5) and the shifting of tectonic plates within the Catholic Church. I refer here to the introduction of the vernacular, and in general to all the Council did to re-value and raise the role of the laity. Going hand in hand with the extraordinary fertility of academic historians of the French Annales school in thinking creatively about what historians should do, these years produced an academic genre, the history of la religion vécue du peuple chrétien, the 'lived religion of the Christian people'. Where there was once History of the Church, all papacy, clergy and structures, with a little chapter on piety tucked away at the end, there was now Religious History, the history of the piety and practices of lay folk.

The historiographical picture is of course vastly more complex than this, and in this last case there is the plain fact that most of the extant evidence is about clergy and structures, not the laity. The details are up for discussion!

But what concerns me now are the broader points that I want to make through this brief sketch. First of all, medieval history is 'made'. Secondly, unpicking and examining how medieval history has been and is being 'made' is not a luxury activity. We need to adapt the adage that those who do not read history are condemned to repeat it. Examining the 'making' of medieval; history is a necessary activity, if we as medieval historians are to progress rather than just repeat what we have been doing.

Further reading:
Robert Bartlett, 'Introduction: Perspectives on the Medieval World', in Robert Bartlett (ed), Medieval Panorama (London, 2001).
Paolo Delogu, An Introduction to Medieval History, published 1994, translated Matthew Moran (London, 2002), chapter 1.
Umberto Eco, 'Dreaming of the Middle Ages' and 'Living in the New Middle Ages', in Travels in Hyper-Reality, translated William Weaver (London, 1986); alternative title: Faith in Fakes.