Early medieval historical argument from soup to nuts

An interview and writing a conference paper have kept me from blogging for a bit, but they’ve once again got me thinking about why my research and my interest in early medieval history matters, or more specifically why it should matter to people who aren’t into medieval history. I came across a very interesting blog post on this a few weeks ago, by Timothy Burke of Swarthmore College, which tries to list broad justifications for writing history as a whole. I wanted to take his categories and see what early medieval topics might fit into them. I’m choosing topics, rather than specific books, since a book may often fit into several categories.

1. The past is prologue: a contemporary issue or practice has its roots or determinants in the history we are studying.
2. The past is not prologue: a contemporary issue or practice that is commonly understood to be determined by history is not, and we’ll demonstrate that by telling you about that history.

I’m putting these together, because for most of the themes below you can argue either for continuity or discontinuity with the early Middle Ages, and people have done both: ethnic/national/European/Western identity, English constitution, practices and beliefs of the Catholic church

3. The past is analogue: a contemporary issue or problem resembles some past issue or problem; the historical example has just enough distance from our own situation that we understand ourselves better.
The Roman empire as analogue (particularly to the US), relations between different religions and cultures (whether positive or negative)

4. The past is another country: our own times are made more particular by looking at just how different the past really was.
Most of early medieval history falls into this category, but there are some areas where this is particularly significant: mentalities and intellectual history (particularly political thought), gender, demography (when you realise just how nasty, brutish and short life was).

5. The past helps us make N as big as possible: it is a source of data for making generalizations, formulating models, constructing claims about human universals.
These kind of models are mainly useful in socio-economic history, for example, in looking at pre-industrial societies or the mechanics of empire. Ideas of human universals are also less usefully evoked e.g. in models of gender roles as eternal.

6. The past challenges generalizations, models and universals through attention to particulars and microhistories.
I don’t know of any microhistories for Europe for the early medieval period (though there’s Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou for the late medieval period). Anyone know of any? There has been useful recent work done in demolishing some of the early medieval ‘universals’ e.g. ideas about ‘barbarians’ or ‘Germanic culture’ or ‘the church’.

7. The past is procedural: we study it to learn how dynamic processes or change works out over time (without worry so much about the consequences of the history we are studying).
I think a lot of recent work on both the ‘Transformation of the Roman World’ and the ‘Feudal Mutation’ could be described in this way: there is less emphasis than in earlier works on such events as being about the roots of our own society and more about why change happens.

8. Hindsight is 20/20: we study a frozen moment in time because we can understand far better the total spectrum of social relationships, causal relationships, etc. than we can understand the present (here we choose richly knowable examples to study).
Not sure there are many such moments in our period.

9. Nothing actually ever changes in history; change is an illusion; some systems or practices always remain the same. We study the past the same way we would study the present, to understand a single system which is continuous over time.
This is now limited mainly to the more doctrinaire Marxists and feminists, who want to discuss the eternal oppression of the lower classes/women.

10. The unknowability of the past is humbling: we study it to learn about the permanent limits to our knowledge, or about the difficult range of epistemologies involved in knowing the past.
Given the fragmentary sources, just about every topic in early medieval history explores this theme at some point.

11. The past is ideology or discourse: we don’t really study it, we just build powerful contemporary claims from our representations of history.
Since medieval history was one of the first subjects seriously studied (and we are still sometimes using editions printed in the 16th century), there has been a lot of work done on the historiography of the Middle Ages over the past 400+ years.

12. The past is detection: we study it because we like solving puzzles and mysteries.
There is a particular concern in the study of the early Middle Ages about what our sources are lying about or concealing from us: the narrative of Carolingian history, for example, is interesting because of the efforts at systematic propaganda by the regime. The construction of genealogies and chronologies is also full of these puzzle-like elements, in a way less often seen in better documented societies.

13. The past is entertainment or personal enlightenment: we study it because it has great stories, or because of the pleasures of narrative.
Because early medieval historians liked strange and memorable stories, early medievalists have some of the best of them at our disposal.

14. The past is heritage: we study it to form or enforce national, ethnic, religious or personal identity, or to combat attempts to destroy heritage.
15. The past as it is known in modern Western society is anti-heritage: it is associated with imperialism or domination, and we study historiography to combat or contest that domination.

The early medieval period is significant for many Europeans as the moment when ethnic identities and histories (from Scots to Slavs) first appear in written sources. But it’s also the age of the ‘first English imperialism’, among others. And much of the early drive for early medieval women’s history/gay history came for the wish for ‘a history of our own’, which was simultaneously combating the dominant belief that women and gays had no history (or no ‘important’ history).

One reply to the original blog post wanted to generalise 15 to ‘history as a call-to-action, as motivation to change the future’. I don’t think much early medieval history is motivated by this (or rather, I think people who want to change the future don’t normally start from early medieval history), but you might put something like John Boswell’s work on homosexuality in here.

16. The past is memorial: we study (recite it, really) it to honor what people did or sacrificed on our behalf.
This is most common now in some forms of religious history, with an emphasis on saints (particularly missionary saints or founders of religious orders) as creators of ‘our’ church. I think it’s now less common for political or ‘national’ heroes to be memorialised in this way, though possibly the cult of Clovis still reveals this.

I would add another category:
17. The past as possibility: the road not taken
Even though I’ve done some speculating myself, I’m not a great fan of early medieval counterfactual history, which often seems not to get much beyond the level of Edward Gibbon’s idea that if it hadn’t been for Charles Martel we’d all be Muslims. But I do think there has been some useful work done on ‘alternative’ church history, which has pointed out that the development of many doctrines in their particular forms was not inevitable. (One example is Mark Jordan’s ‘The invention of sodomy’.)

I would say that my own research predominantly ends up being under heading 4 (the past as another country): gender then was different, which also has implications from heading 2: our current gender system is not simply derived from earlier culture. But I also see my work falling more generally into 3 (past as analogue), as a study of how Christianity is adapted to the moral norms of a particular society. I was writing a chapter on attitudes to war in the Carolingian period in 2002, and couldn’t help but be struck by parallels on the justification of war. And I’ve written in most of the other categories at some time in this blog.

So for readers of this blog, are there any important early medieval examples of the categories I’ve missed (it obviously focuses more on my particular fields of interest)? And why do you write (or read) history, whether it’s medieval or not?


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