Reasons to Study the Middle Ages

I've been mulling over this list for some time, but spending four days this past week reading applications to our graduate program in history has catalyzed it somewhat. I think it's complete. At least, I can't think of any other reasons now.

1. Affinity. Seeing something in the Middle Ages that one wants in one's own life. For Catholics and other Christians, this might be an image of faith or practice that seems to have been lost or compromised in the present. For members of the SCA, this might be a way of life centered on craftsmanship and chivalry, alternate clothing styles and being outdoors (e.g. at tournaments). Almost all of the work done on the history of Christianity in the Middle Ages prior to about 1960 that wasn't explicitly Protestant tended to be done in this mode. Think Jacques Paul Migne and his steam presses reprinting the works of the medieval Catholic past or Kenelm Henry Digby and his multi-volume Broadstone of Honour, or Rules for the Gentlemen of England championing the knights of the Middle Ages as the Christian gentlemen they may never have actually been. Or think C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, enchanted by the religious beliefs, cosmology, languages and aesthetics of a past they strove to recreate imaginatively in their fiction even as they argued for its continuing vitality in the present.

2. Curiosity. Having the sense that there is more to the present than meets the eye and wanting to understand how things got to be the way they are now. Alternately, seeing the past as somehow disconnected from the present and yet nevertheless as a puzzle worth deciphering. Often justified with reference to our general scholarly ignorance about a process or event, but without any necessary application to present-day life other than in alleviating said ignorance. Typical of most academic arguments because perceived to be relatively neutral, but sometimes used covertly as a disguise for #1, particularly by those who are nervous of seeming too partial in their interest. Fine as long as one stays curious, but ultimately somewhat toothless since there would seem to be nothing at stake in our continuing ignorance, there being (arguably) in fact nothing to gain other than the satisfaction of having put the puzzle together.

3. Righteousness. The mode of a good deal of current research, couched as "critical thinking" but more often than not tending towards demonstrating the mistakes of the past, whether of belief or actions. Arguably the most passionate because least sympathetic of the three reasons, in the sense that the past is seen somehow as the enemy to be vanquished, its flaws exposed, its mistakes cataloged. Sometimes used to make arguments about how things should change in the present, particularly in comparison with all things "medieval" (as in, "I'ma get medieval on your ass"). Typically more subtle in academic arguments than in popular discourse, but clearly in evidence in many arguments about heresy (assumed, more often than not from this perspective, to have been a good thing), intolerance (assumed, again more often than not from this perspective, to have been more in evidence in the Middle Ages than at other times in human history), and violence (ditto). Often unclear exactly how the reader is intended to respond other than with shocked indignation at how evil people can be since, after all, the past is no longer with us except insofar as people continue to be violent and intolerant of each other and to differ in the ways in which they think that they should interact with the divine.*

And that's it. I know that #1 is the reason that I personally study the Middle Ages, try as I might to pretend that it is #2 or #3, but somehow over the past six months, I've lost confidence in this endeavor, for reasons that are, to me at least, as yet somewhat unclear. Perhaps I needed the irony of pretending in my academic work (not that I ever tried that hard) that I was more critical of the past than I in fact was, although I've never been particularly good at being ironic, except unintentionally. I do know that I bristle whenever I encounter someone who is convinced that #3 is the way to go, particularly (if unsurprisingly) when he or she is writing about "the Church." Yes, of course, "the Church" made mistakes in the past, if, that is, by "the Church" we mean "the Church militant" on earth, the Church struggling to realize itself in the image of the Church triumphant, as it will be when perfected in heaven. Because, of course, "the Church" is made of human beings and human beings, more or less by definition, make mistakes. But I digress.

My problem at the moment is not so much with other people's disenchantment (although I think I need to do some Work on this one), as with my own. I remember when I was convinced that if I just looked hard enough in the medieval sources, I would find...what? The answers to my own questions about faith? The magic that I felt the world had lost but that somehow must have been there sometime in the past, otherwise how could people have made such beautiful things (manuscripts, churches, reliquaries, music, stories) with which to celebrate it? A sense of the connectedness of things expressed sacramentally or through the devotion to the Mother of God? A conviction that life was actually meaningful, not just a purposeless concatenation of cause and effect tending towards nothing more profound than, "I exist"?

Naïve, I know. Or not so naïve? It was, after all, the reason that Migne and Digby and Lewis and Tolkien, not to mention Henri de Lubac, Jean Leclercq (what, no Wikipedia entry?!!), Étienne Gilson, and Marie-Dominique Chenu looked to the Middle Ages: as a font and source of things intellectually challenging and spiritually profound, although I am sure they all would have found more eloquent ways to put it than I seem to be able to. But it seems naïve now that I have been searching for (relatively) so long, only to find that, no, there are no answers as such to the questions that I had, whether in the Middle Ages or now, only the continuing need to ask them. So do I keep looking in the Middle Ages for something that I no longer expect to find? I'm not saying this well, I know. Nor is it true that I have found nothing in the medieval past to answer the questions with which I started. Perhaps it is because I have answered so many of the questions that I had when I was the age of the students whose statements of academic purpose I have spent the past week reading that I am disillusioned. When I was their age, I was sure--as sure as I hope that they all are now--that the answers were out there, if only I could learn how to phrase the questions correctly.

Of course, phrasing the question correctly is precisely the point: what is the question that studying the Middle Ages is intended to answer? It's not like we can bring them back even if we wanted to in anything other than artistic styles. Which is fine, but not terribly historical, except as a phenomenon of the present ("medievalism"). And, to be sure, grappling with the kinds of sources that we have available from the period can be an instructive, if at times frustrating, exercise in reading on more levels than even most medieval exegetes applied to Scripture. But why study the Middle Ages if not to recover something (theology, art, literature, political theory, sporting or hunting techniques, a sense of adventure) for the present or, conversely, to point to all the things in the present that one wishes one could change while at the same time demonstrating how they originated in the medieval (as in "getting medieval") past?

We study the Middle Ages in order to understand how it was that human beings could have such radically different (or were they?) ideas about the way the world works. Well and good. I'm all for understanding the Other, whether the 13-year-old boy-soon-to-be-a-man sitting across the room from me listening to something with a Star Wars theme as I write this or the author of a sermon in praise of the Virgin Mary written some 800 years ago. But why study the Middle Ages if talking to my son brings the same sort of challenges, empathetically speaking, as worrying about what such-and-such a sermon might have been intended to say? Well, I suppose it's because I like the way medieval theologians write about the great mysteries of the Christian faith. So there. But, alas, I am no longer certain that what they say will lift me out of my great ignorance of the divine. Nor, and this is a terrible confession to have to make, do I find myself in much sympathy with my own contemporaries who seek to use medieval devotional and theological sources as unmediated exemplars for their own understanding of the divine. It all seems so, well, fake, perhaps because it is typically so hedged round with exceptions (see reason #3).

And yet, simply pretending (as is the academic norm) that the Middle Ages are irretrievably Other seems equally fake, as if we in the present-day post-modern world are the only ones ever to have had profound insights (if we have) into the nature of reality and the purpose (or not) of human life. See? I'm hopelessly confused, trying to have my cake and eat it, too. Stay academically distant while at the same time wanting to immerse myself in past ideals and beliefs. I wanted the Middle Ages to teach me how to be devout, but I mistrust all those who want me to use the Middle Ages to do exactly that. If only the medieval saints could teach me what it was like for them to pray! And yet, it is almost invariably modern authors (including those, like C.S. Lewis or Thomas Merton, who were themselves well-versed in the medieval sources) to whom I turn for practical spiritual advice. I understand (at least, I think I do) the medieval sources, but, alas, alas, and thrice alas, I find it difficult to learn from them. Nor, even worse, do I find them particularly enjoyable to read, not, at least, in the way I enjoy reading Lewis or Merton or Chesterton or Sayers.

Either way, it seems, I'm a fraud. I can't read the medieval sources as if they speak directly to me, nor can I write about them as if they are fundamentally (ideologically, scientifically, socially) flawed. I know, I know, it's not as if as an academic I am in actual fact expected to do either, but even academic arguments depend on taking some point of view. But if I don't write as either a believer or a skeptic and if at the very least my curiosity has been satisfied, how do I write? I wish I knew. I really, really, really wish I knew.

*And, by the by, I think the heretics were usually theologically wrong, but that is an argument for another day.


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