French Rural History
Approaches to the History of Spain
Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne
Masters, Princes and Merchants
The Twelfth Century Renaissance in this review, are listed in footnotes at the appropriate places)
What are we to do about medieval history? No serious person would question its importance. What is nearest to us in time is not necessarily most relevant. The traditional Europe of our history books—the Europe of Napoleon and Bismarck, even the Europe of Hitler and Mussolini—is as dead as that of Charles the Great or Frederick Barbarossa, and we may disabuse our minds of the illusion that there is any immediate profit, from the point of view of contemporary affairs, in studying the deflated celebrities of the day before yesterday.
People treat the recent past as though it were the den from which the lion that is going to devour them is going to spring. In reality it nearly always jumps out unobserved from behind their backs. They might be better equipped to meet contemporary developments if (as Herbert Butterfield once observed) “they had studied in ancient history the deeper processes that political bodies have been observed to undergo over long periods.” For anyone who believes in the “relevance” or actuality of history, there is less to be gained, in the present world, from scrutinizing anxiously the origins of the Second World War than from studying Caesar and the Roman revolution, a revolution which may be paralleled sooner than we think in our own society.
Much the same may be said of medieval history. Those of us who study it do so not because it is medieval, but because we believe that knowledge of immediate causes and contemporary events may blind, and not illuminate, unless it is counter-balanced by a deeper understanding of the continuity of history and its underlying currents. Indeed, the very concept of “the Middle Ages” is misleading (as well as doubtfully valid), in so far as it cuts them off as a remote and separate period which has little bearing on our lives and fortunes. In reality, this was not only the time when the foundations of European civilization, as it exists today in east and west, were being laid; it was also the time when some of our stubbornest beliefs and prejudices took root, as well as ideals we would fight and die for. If (as I once wrote) we understood it better, not as medieval history, but as modern history—very modern history, in the sense that all history which means anything is contemporary history—we might understand ourselves better, as well as our problems and potentialities.
And yet no one surveying the scene today—particularly no one with the interests of medieval history at heart—can be entirely satisfied with the present state of medieval studies. During the past ten or a dozen years a great ferment has been going on in the historical world—a ferment expressed in the search for a new and more sophisticated methodology. Like all previous revolutions in historical thought and practice it has proceeded by absorbing and assimilating the achievements of cognate sciences. The first great advance of historical science in the seventeenth century was inspired by the principles of biblical…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.