The important and the interesting

Modern Medieval has a blog forum going on that perennial question: why study medieval history? There is a good post up at the moment from Cybermedievalist, which makes a lot of pertinent points about the continued relevance of themes from medieval history (like me she’s particularly interested in ideas on gender). I’ve tried previously to show (in a slightly different way ) how early medieval history can relate to some of the ‘so what’ reasons for what we learn from history

But then I read the first comment on the Modern Medieval post which asked: ‘what got you, the Cybermedievalist, interested [in medieval history]?’ She answered this and there were several other commentators talking about it as well, but I realised that my journey to being a medievalist (admittedly a weird one) raises a vast disjunction between my official and unofficial reasons for why I study what I study.

Why I am a medievalist is substantially due to a man called Stuart Campbell. I presume you won’t have heard of him and I know nothing about him myself, except that in 1935 he published a book called ‘Stories of King Arthur’. And it was those stories that got me (via T.H. White) to reading Thomas Malory as a teenager. That isn’t the only factor, of course. I was also interested in Homeric warriors and Red Indians (they were not yet Native Americans) in my youth, but our holidays when I was a child were in rural Britain, which is very good for castles and medieval churches, but less so for Mycenean or Lakota material culture, so my interests weren’t reinforced in the same way.

At Oxford, among the many books on medieval history and literature I read in a haphazard way (I was studying mathematics), were Helen Waddell’s ‘The Wandering Scholars’ and ‘Medieval Latin Lyrics’. It was those two books that first really made me aware of the centuries of medieval culture long before knighthood, and with their vivid sense of the personality of these long-dead authors got me hooked by images of the scholar as hero and the towering figure of Charlemagne. And it was starting from there, by a long indirect path, that I came at last to my academic career and research into Carolingian history. Bizarre though it may seem, I had never met a medievalist before I went for my interview for a MPhil course at Cambridge.

So while I can now give rational and hopefully vaguely convincing answers as to the importance of early medieval history, they are really all in a sense after the fact justifications. I study medieval history because it fascinates me. I can try and explain why it does, but it is too intensely personal a matter to be neatly reproducible, like the fascination that other academic friends have for south-east Asian history or Japanese theatre.

This is why historians have such a problem with the concept of importance (or maybe it’s just me?).Jon Jarrett has recently quoted an article by a medievalist back in 1955 complaining about some humanists: ‘I shall bewail their preoccupation with the obscure and curse their avoidance of things that are important and therefore interesting.’ My problem is that the important in history isn’t necessarily interesting to me. It is difficult to find really convincing arguments about why sixth-century Frankish history is more important than twentieth-century US history (or indeed, for most people, why Canadian history is more important than US history, or Welsh than English, or African history than Chinese or why the history of Suffolk is important at all).

If you’re a historian of any particular period you can construct an argument as to why that’s the key century in world historical development, but it’s not in the end why we study that particular topic. We do it because that culture or those people speak to us in some special way. If they didn’t speak to us like that we would not have been able to sustain the slog of going through all the documents and reading the obscure journal literature and writing and re-writing our thesis and thinking obsessively about a problem that won’t make us rich or famous or thin or even possibly happy if we solve it. We are historians (and normally historians of a particular period) because there is nothing else we would rather be.

We cannot say this publicly, for this is not the rational language of markets and academic justifications, but that of indulgence and passion. Yet somewhere alongside all that we say on transferable critical thinking and an educated understanding of our historic roots, I think medievalists need somehow to pass on the other secret message to those we teach or talk to: this fascinates me, this haunts me, this absorbs me, try it, it might hook you too.


3 thoughts on “The important and the interesting

  1. *applauds*

    I don’t think I trust a historian who won’t admit to this under the right pressure. I’ve tried to say it, I’ve pointed to others saying it, but it gets lost whenever the Big Relevance Debate reopens. Who cares about relevance? This stuff is fascinating. I’ve just been writing a chunk of introduction to the book, which ends with a claim about how it’s a contribution to the study of power and the Carolingian Empire and not in any way a fringe local history. I could even defend those claims, and I can convince myself my work’s important and useful, at least to historians: but that’s not why I did it…


  2. Leeds report 2All hail WordPress, because whatever bug was causing my Firefox to die at the `write post’ window appears to have been vanquished. I also discover that I forgot to mention, in the last report, renewing my acquaintance with Gesta, whom I knew from…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s