Why I Study the Middle Ages

I always wonder what people hope I will say when they ask me this question. Do they imagine that I had some great revelation when I was (I don't know) six that studying the Middle Ages was to be the purpose of my life? Maybe the Virgin Mary appeared to me when I was ten and told me that she wanted me to serve her by studying the history of her cult. Or maybe I spent my childhood reading nothing but books on history, certain that I would dedicate my life to unraveling the mysteries of causation and chronology, by the by rescuing the Middle Ages from its modernist critique.

If only. I can't tell you how often I've wished that there were a clear-cut, easily-narrated justification for my interest. Typically, when asked The Question, I dodge, mumbling something about having taken Latin in high school or having gone on an ALSG trip to Europe when I was 16. "I really liked Europe," I might say. Or, "I was so impressed with the Gothic cathedrals," I might gush. Which is true, but, frankly, if visiting cathedrals was what I wanted, I'd have been much better off going into almost anything other than academia and simply spent my holidays going on tours.

No, the real reason that I ended up as a medievalist is somewhat messier. I meant to be a physicist or at the very least some kind of scientist. Maybe a mathematician (don't laugh! It didn't seem as ridiculous at the time I was applying for college as it does now after watching my 14-year-old son doodle calculus problems on his church bulletin for the last two years. I'd done pretty well in calculus--when I was 17). But in college we had these language requirements and I'd tested out of the first two years of Latin. Medieval Latin sounded fun, plus I'd spent a whole summer after my freshman year in high school learning calligraphy. Maybe I could even learn to write in the abbreviations that the monks used (this I learned about before I'd ever even seen a manuscript, but come to think of it, I don't know how. Maybe from the plates in Harrington).

And then we had some history requirements, and I thought it sounded fun to take the survey of the Middle Ages from one of the professors whom my mother had studied with (Katherine Fischer Drew). Next thing I knew, I had changed my major and was taking yet more medieval history, thanks above all to the happy accident of having three junior professors visiting in the field my junior and senior years through a special program sponsored by the Mellon Foundation. I also took courses in American history, plus a few in European and one in Chinese. And I also found myself double-majoring in Religious Studies, thanks to taking several courses in New Testament and realizing I enjoyed reading Scripture. So when it came time my senior year in college to start applying for graduate work (because, really, what else was a History and Religious Studies major to do?), it just seemed the thing to carry on. Besides, I had taken the Let's Go tour of Europe with my boyfriend the summer before I was to graduate; maybe I could find a graduate program that would enable me to study abroad for a year. That would be fun, wouldn't it?

And so I became a medievalist because it gave me the chance to go live in England. No, that can't be it. Surely I wasn't so opportunist as all that. Surely there was something deeper, perhaps even intellectual, guiding my interest. I'd kept up with my Latin. I liked doing research. But why study the Middle Ages? Why not do Classics? Or modern Europe? Why not just study abroad for a year and then go to medical school? Part of me really does believe that it was (and still is) the Virgin who was guiding me, but even so, I still might have ended up as a Latin Americanist or maybe even a theologian if I'd had the chance. I grew up in the Southwest and always liked visiting there; if I wanted to study the Virgin Mary, why not spend time in Santa Fe? But that--I suspect--was precisely the problem. Santa Fe seemed, well, normal, not mysterious (at least, at the time). What I'd liked about Europe was precisely its distance from everything with which I'd grown up. It seemed special--perhaps even magic. More to the point, I felt special because I could go there. Anybody could do American history, but medieval Europe? That was another world altogether. Maybe if ALSG had taken us to India or China, I would have been more interested in going back there. But I had gone to Europe, so Europe is where I returned.

Such are the accidents with which we enter our academic fields, if, that is, we do not have parents who are academics and can, presumably, guide us. My parents were physicians; likewise, the majority of my fellow classmates from high school are now physicians. My father had always wanted to be a mathematician or, even better, an engineer. I'm not sure what my mother most wanted to do; I think she would have liked to have been a musician or maybe a photographer. But what both of them knew was medicine; they could hardly advise me on other academic fields. Nor could any of my aunts or uncles; they were all physicians or scientists, too. How on earth did I become an historian?

Temperament, perhaps. I like figuring out why what happened when. But, again, why a medievalist? I can think of three reasons that I suspect apply:

1) Studying the Middle Ages made me feel special. It was (at least, until recently) somewhat odd to want to study this period. "Real" historians (i.e. those interested in social revolutions and the origins of the nation-state) might study modernity, but medievalists were harder to pigeonhole. We asked the questions nobody else wanted to ask, about religion and beliefs people in the present-day find it difficult to hold.

2) It was a period that seemed clearly defined, if not so (relatively) closed as Classics (if only in its textual source base), at least less chaotic than Early Modern or Modern where almost anything goes. No, that's not quite it. But there is some truth here: it felt like a period one could actually learn, when there was a relatively stable sense of faith and culture. Naïve, I know, but we do not always choose our fields for the intellectually most rigorous reasons. Plus, I liked the art.

3) I was looking for the Grail (see 2, above) and I thought I might find it here. On the one hand, I wanted to feel like I really knew something, something definite and circumscribed; on the other, I loved the sense of mystery that I got from looking at the art and thought of this period. Again, that can't quite be it. I had barely read anything in the sources other than Bede, Froissart and some of the women mystics before I went off to graduate school. Okay, there were Alain of Lille's Plaint of Nature and Bernard Silvestris' Cosmographia. And some of Bernard of Clairvaux's letters and sermons. I'd taken a year-long course in the history of natural philosophy in the Middle Ages and several courses in the history of medieval art. But what I really wanted to learn about was faith. Maybe it was Emile Male's The Gothic Image that we'd read for Katherine Brown's course on Gothic art. Maybe it was the paper that I'd written on Bernard's devotion to the Virgin Mary. But something told me that if I wanted to understand faith (which I very much did), then the Middle Ages was the place to look.

I've spent the past year and then some trying to recapture the joy that I used to feel studying this period. Thinking now about what originally drew me to studying the Middle Ages is helping a bit. I am afraid, paradoxically, that some of my disillusion has to do with no. 1 (above): the more people I know who study the Middle Ages, the less it feels like something special and different--and I really hate feeling like one of a crowd. But I worry that I am even more distressed by the feeling that, thanks to the work of my colleagues, there is nothing to find--nothing, that is, of faith because nobody had it anyway or, if they did, it wasn't what we think it was. As always, I'm going to have to think about this more.


  1. Hmmm, Bear. As usual, you make me look inside myself for echoes of your essays. I will have to noodle on why, at this late stage of life, I find myself enthusiastically embracing the accident of fate that has lead me to study futurism. Some initial thoughts: Part of it is being special (I am, I humbly believe, the only professional museum futurist in the US. Maybe the world?) Part of it is the grounding in data, statistics, research, leavened by imaginative leaps. Part of it is devilish pleasure in making people uncomfortable, in a productive way...


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