“I wasn’t taught medieval history so it is not important” is not a real argument, but ok

Petrarch, with whom I am fighting

Today, I was asked what I thought about a blog post written by a self-professed non-historian about the medieval period this morning.

Friends – I thought it was garbage.

Here is a link to the wrong thing, but honestly I don’t want the basic getting the clicks, so please skip it and believe me when I say it was a roll-out of the old trope that the Dark Ages were a) definitely real, and b) this dude who had never studied medieval history could prove it.

Obviously, I have written at length before about how the Dark Ages are not a thing, and that basics should maybe stay in their lane. What is particularly disturbing about the ‘argument’ is that is claims that there is an undue academic rigor needed to disprove that the Dark Ages aren’t real. What the author means is that because he (it’s so defo a he, it reads like a he) wasn’t explicitly taught medieval history it is therefore Very Bad™ and you don’t need to worry about it.

This sentiment is terrifying.

Medieval history is not generally taught before the university level because it is really quite complicated. Every kingdom has different laws. Primary sources are hand written in Latin. Not many sources have been converted to print. The history of each part of Europe is really quite different culturally. The major overarching structure is the Catholic Church, and people have tended to teach about it and its influence from a place of bias given the charged nature of the confessionalisation of Christianity.

Moreover, it requires a solid understanding of history as a discipline. Because medieval people were living in very specific cultures, we have to read their work very carefully in order to parse the meaning. The blog writer in question was implying that Petrach is a reliable narrator of his times, without unpacking why Petrarch was writing about history. One cannot take the words of a man who was specifically advocating for a return to Roman rule of the world at face value. Would the guy who wrote this think that Fox was a reliable narrator of the Obama presidency? The two sentiments are exactly the same.

History as a discipline is about interpreting written accounts and artefacts, not accepting them at face value. This entire argument hinges on taking biased first-person accounts as fact, which makes no goddamn sense.

Although the blog throughout claims that those discussing history are requiring ‘undue rigor’ in order to disprove this person’s core beliefs, what it is asking is an ‘undue rigor’ that it would not apply to other disciplines. I was never taught advanced calculus in school – does that make it not worthwhile as a subject? Or is it just because, you know, it is complicated and you have to have a strong basis in mathematical theory in order to understand it before you undertake it?

What the author also fails to grasp is that as a non-historian he seems to think he understands how the historical method works and is able to comment on it with no historical training and without having done any reading on the subject. This approach is, depressingly, common.

There is something about the discipline of history which allows laymen to think that they are able to grasp its complexities without any research, background, or skill sets. History is apparently as obvious as reading a list of facts and reporting them without analysis. This is simply not the case.

Obviously academics from all walks of life face this. I see what scientists go through pushing back against anti-vaxers, or climate change deniers. However, it is historians who face this sort of off-the-cuff and wholesale denigration of our work from people who proport to be educated, reasonable, and often ‘rational’. These people deny rationality to people living in a thousand-year swathe of history, but then hold themselves – as untrained as they are – as paragons of reason having never studied a subject.

I very much welcome interest in the medieval period, and I have never claimed that I want to live in it (I am, after all, a woman who dares to speak in public), but it is exhausting to have to theoretically argue the value of a millennium against someone who is convinced it is not important because he admittedly has not been taught about it.

This has chilling ramifications for any sort of history which focuses on anyone other than rich white guys. We aren’t taught women’s history, the history of people of colour, or even working class or peasant history with any reliability in the west. Does this mean that 99% of the population wasn’t doing anything notable? Must we all specifically be Alexander the Great in order to impact society? (Yes there was a specific thing about Alexander the Great, who followers of the blog will note was actually a cut-rate Ghengis Khan with white-guy PR.)

If we are going to determine the worth of a subject based on what is taught to laymen what hope does inquiry in any discipline have? If it a subject is complex, nuanced, and requires specific skill sets in order to study it so it isn’t taught at an early age does that mean it is not worthwhile? If not everyone is required to study something from the age of six is it of no matter?

I can almost certainly say that whoever wrote this blog would never dream of writing off an entire branch of science based on his limited understanding of the subject, but because history is an art, he thought he could lay a flimsy argument on the table and prove an idea that almost no actual trained historian would uphold.

I would ask that non-experts consider why it is they think they can do this, and maybe just not.

Non-experts who want to learn more about the medieval period before being wrong about it are encouraged to check out the following:

Antonia Fitzpatrick, Thomas Aquinas on Bodily Identity, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
James Hannam, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, (London: Icon, 2009).
Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: The Middle Rhine Valley 400 – 1000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
John Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Barbara Rosenwein, A Short History of the Middle Ages, Fifth Edition, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018).
Faith Wallis (ed.), Medieval Medicine: A Reader, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014).

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on myths about the medieval period and ignorance, see:
Plague Police roundup, or, I am tired, and you people give me no peace
How to win friends and influence people in medieval Europe on History Hit
If you are going to talk about the Dark Ages, you had better be right
JFC, calm down about the medieval Church
On Medical Milestones, Being Racist, and Textbooks, Part I
On Medical Milestones, The Myth of Progress and Being Racist, Part II
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
I assure you, medieval people bathed.
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK
On the Concept of the Renaissance and Outkast’s Hey Ya
FUCK YEAH Genghis Khan – an emergency pubcast
On why the misuse of the word ‘medieval’ is a bad thing

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

3 thoughts on ““I wasn’t taught medieval history so it is not important” is not a real argument, but ok”

  1. I love you.
    Any tips about teaching medieval history to kids? Granted, it was a complex time and there is a lot to figure out (as you skillfully pointed out this week), but there must be somewhere to start before university that is not just about “knights in shiny armour.”
    My son and I have been having long discussions lately about the transition from handwritten music to printed music and how that not only changed the complexity of what could be performed but also meant that music could travel. Today he is freaking out about Thomas Tallis (yeah, yeah, just discovered “Spem in alium”).
    Sage advice appreciated.


    1. Oh my god he is so cute. A lot of the time I recommend GOOD historical fiction as a starting place for kids. I really enjoyed the Ramsey Scallop when I was his age, I recall. A big part of the trouble is that the fact that no one writes medieval history for younger audiences is a self-perpetuating problem. Often if you can find some good regional histories that counts. It shows how smaller areas were controlled by certain people, and explains what was going on in smaller regions. If you can combine a couple of those that helps to make the bigger picture clear.


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