The prestige and decline of medieval history (UK edition): part 1

In a discussion over on Medieval and Modern about outreach by medievalists, some of us blogging medievalists touched on possible differences in attitudes to the Middle Ages in particular the US and the UK. This is my first attempt to take the topic a bit further, with an examination of attitudes to medieval history in the UK and what this might mean for professional or would-be professional medievalists. (I’m concentrating on historians here, but with occasional parallels for those studying medieval literature).

My first contention is that medieval history still has a lot of prestige. This is shown in two ways: at what one might call the cultural commentator/pundit level and among a more general public. Firstly, the commentariat. Basically, medieval history as a university level subject is prestigious because it’s both a ‘proper’ subject and it’s taught by ‘proper’ universities. Both of these need some explanation.

Subjects at UK universities tend to get unofficially ranked by how academically rigorous they are perceived to be. The most prestigious subjects (not necessarily in any particular order) are (I would say): classics, history, law, philosophy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, medicine, languages. In contrast are ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects, seen as trendy and easy: the typical example of this was once sociology, but is now media studies. (There is a more indeterminate group in between, including such things as English, geography, biology, economics, computer science and engineering).

This supposedly objective assessment of subjects is, in fact, heavily influenced by the prestige of the universities which teach them. The basic grouping (which I give for those not used to the UK system) is by when they were founded, with the oldest as the most prestigious:

1) Oxbridge
2) Red Brick universities (+ London, Durham), founded in nineteenth and early twentieth century (Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds etc)
3) Universities founded in 1960s (‘plate glass universities’) e.g. Sussex, Warwick
4) Post-1992 universities (mainly ex-polytechnics) e.g. de Montfort, Anglia Ruskin).

(There are all sorts of complications and exceptions to this list, but it’s a useful initial guide). The prestige of universities, in turn, influences how many applicants they get and thus how high they can set their entrance standards, so there can be genuine differences in quality between the tiers.

As a result of this, the most prestigious subjects, are normally those which Oxbridge has traditionally taught (and, of course, taught traditionally) and the least prestigious are those which ‘trendy new’ universities (once category 3, but now category 4) pioneered the teaching of (even if Oxford now does have a Business School).

Roughly speaking, the amount of medieval history taught in a university correlates with these categories of university. It is a compulsory part of Oxbridge history courses (indeed the Oxford ‘Modern History’ course still starts with the fall of the Roman Empire) and there are strong research clusters in many red brick universities, while post-1992 universities rarely teach any medieval history at all. There is a similar correlation for the teaching of medieval literature in both English and Modern Languages departments.

Medieval history is therefore an ‘academic’ subject taught by ‘top’ universities and as such prestigious. This is particularly significant because in the British system Oxbridge humanities graduates are over-represented in positions of influence. Many cultural commentators (as well as politicians) will thus either have studied medieval history or literature themselves or at least have had friends at university who have done so.

Along with this cultural prestige, medieval history also does quite well on what one might call the ‘party test’. If you are talking to someone random at a party and you say you study (or teach) a particular subject, what is their reaction? I’d say that it is largely positive and that this is made up of two factors: its prestige, but also, paradoxically, its accessibility.

The prestige factor of history as an academic subject is important, but this is increased for a more general audience by the fact that you need to be able to read things in other languages for medieval history. The successful learning of any foreign language is now a sign of intellect to the British. If you say you have to read documents in Latin, this is particularly prestigious (which also has to do with hierarchies of schools, into which I won’t go today).

However, at a party, intellect is not all. When I was studying mathematics (undeniably a prestigious subject), I tended to get people edge away from me at parties, with the apologetic comment that ‘I could never do mathematics at school’. If I say I study medieval history, in contrast, most people feel that there is something relevant they can say in response. Even if they have no coherent sense of the Middle Ages (about which more next time), they have a few images of cathedrals, knights, Black Death, naughty monks, Henry VIII (subsumed into the Middle Ages for these purposes), about which they can talk.

I have also developed a personal ‘research summary’ for public consumption. This consists of saying that I work on moral instruction for early medieval noblemen. I add, if there’s more interest, that I look at how they’re being told to behave in warfare, sexual matters, their use of money, and that I work on eighth and ninth century France and Germany, which is the time of Alfred and the Saxons in England. (I deliberately avoid mentions of both ‘Carolingian’ and ‘gender’: any discussions at this level should not include terms that people may not understand, and it’s also useful to give some hook of what’s going on simultaneously in some kind of history that they may know). I then try and be positive in discussing anything on history that the other person wants to talk about, however ill-informed and unrelated to my specific subject it may be. All this, means (I hope), that I can leave those I meet with a sense that what I do is intellectually worthy, but also interesting.

This is why I think that medieval history is, at many levels, still prestigious in the UK. But prestige alone is not enough, as I want to discuss in part two.

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One thought on “The prestige and decline of medieval history (UK edition): part 1

  1. Thanks, Magistra. This is generally what I thought it would be like, given my limited experience living in London (while a graduate student) a while ago.

    In the US, I’d say that medieval history does have a bit of prestige but it definitely passes your “party test” as well. Everyone has some kind of “in” with the Middle Ages that they’ll try out on you. What, unfortunately, turns people off I think is when you say “professor” before your subject. That doesn’t have any real cultural cachet here…

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