18.10.21, Loud/Staub, eds, The Making of Medieval History

Main Article Content

Rutger Kramer

The Medieval Review 18.10.21

Loud, Graham A. and Martial Staub, eds. The Making of Medieval History. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2017. pp. xvi, 240. ISBN: 978-1-903153-70-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Rutger Kramer
University of Vienna / Institute for Medieval Research, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Medievalism, the study of the way medieval history is employed in present-day discourse, may have never been as relevant as it is these days. The various ways in which the Middle Ages are being appropriated for purposes of politics, entertainment and education are increasingly being scrutinised by historians, not just for the factual accuracy of the statements, but also to gain more insight into the way history is being used to propagate visions for the present and the future. This volume is part of that general trend, and indeed shows the sophistication and nuance with which scholars are able to tackle this potentially volatile subject. Showcasing a combination of historical erudition, astute political observations and scholarly self-awareness, the contributions to this volume demonstrate that the Middle Ages are as alive as ever--constantly changing, perpetually reinvented, but nevertheless relevant precisely because their seemingly unchanging place in history is so infinitely malleable. The resulting book treats these themes in a learned and accessible way, introducing seasoned historian and newcomers alike to the manifold ways in which history may be employed by those reflecting on their own surroundings.

As already reflected in the title of the collection, as well as in the introduction by the editors (1-13) the contributions in this volume each address the question how "the Middle Ages" were not a thing in and of itself, but rather how our views of this period were "made" in the course of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries--not just by historians, but also through popular culture, political developments, and educational endeavours. Moreover, the very disciplinary boundaries of medieval history have shifted as well over the centuries, giving way to external pressures in ways that sometimes differ substantially from the popular image of the Middle Ages emerging at the same time, leading to new challenges to the discipline as new solutions appear to present themselves. The articles build upon this observation, and collectively show how historians past and present have retained this awareness in various ways. The volume is thus polemical in all the right ways, as the authors encourage their audience to develop a similar sense of responsibility for their own discipline.

The book itself is divided into five parts, each presenting two (and in one case three) perspectives on a specific theme. Part One, "Imagining/Inventing the Middle Ages," starts with an almost manifesto-like statement by Jinty Nelson on "Why Re-Inventing Medieval History is a Good Idea" (17-36). Starting with a re-assessment of Norman Cantor's controversial 1991 work Inventing the Middle Ages, she shows how his fundamental observation was that the "invention" of the Middle Ages (even by the historians who raised his ire) would be necessary to breathe new life into the discipline. In the second part of her essay, she shows how various attempts to reinvent the medieval period have helped keep the field thriving since 1991. Finishing with her own experiences writing a biography of Charlemagne, her article is a great opening to the volume as it almost self-recursively demonstrates how even the broadest interests and most ambitious goals are in the end deeply personal. Ian Wood's article on "Literary Composition and the Early Medieval Historian in the Nineteenth Century" (37-53) follows this organically, by showing how historical novels--themselves the products of the individual passions of various authors (specifically Chateaubriand, Sismondi, Collins, Kingsley and Kahn)--ended up reflecting and in turn influencing the way national audiences imagined their own past: going beyond Rankean methodology in search of verisimilitude, each of these novels has a definite place in the making of medieval history as well.

Part Two, "Constructing a European Identity," also consists of two mutually reinforcing articles, albeit from an angle that is more critical of the creativity championed in Part One. Patrick Geary, writing on "European Ethnicities and European as an Ethnicity," provocatively asks "Does Europe Have Too Much History?" (57-69), before laying bare the intricacies involved in studying identities in the post-Roman world. Answering his own question with "No, but it does have too many historians," Geary's article reads as the summation of his own path-breaking work on the many issues surrounding European ethnicities, and doubles as a stern warning against the type of oversimplification too often practiced by nationalist scholars sifting through the evidence to find proof of continuities where change should be the overarching paradigm. Michael Borgolte also asks a question in his article on "A Crisis of the Middle Ages? Deconstructing and Constructing European Identities in a Globalized World" (70-84), but it is more oriented towards the disciplinary consequences of ongoing attempts towards provincializing Europe. Arguing that European understandings of religion and culture still too often serve as a benchmark, he proposes new ways to regard this; for example, studying the shift from polytheism to monotheism in Europe may provide a new framework for looking at developments in a globally comparative way.

Organically following the observations by Geary and Borgolte are the three articles comprising Part Three, on "National History/Notions of Myth." Bastian Schlüter's take on "Barbarossa's Heirs: Nation and Medieval History in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Germany" (87-100) shows not only how medieval history has been used to argue for a unifying German Wir-Gefühl over the past centuries, but also how these efforts have been exclusionary in themselves. By implying a continuity of German history that is rooted in specific interpretations of the evidence or in outright mythology, historians and the general public have at times either consciously ignored the flow of time and their own changing identities, or created a past that ends up reflecting negatively on the present. This malleability of the past is then masterfully unpacked by Joep Leerssen, who, in "Once Upon a Time in Germany: Medievalism, Academic Romanticism and Nationalism" (101-126) uses the Romantic restoration of the Kaiserpfalz in Goslar between 1868-1879 to argue that it was not just political convenience but also notions of aesthetics and even academic self-awareness that allowed artists and historians alike to consciously play with the image of the past as they were creating it. Closing this part, Bernhard Jussen, in "Between Ideology and Technology: Depicting Charlemagne in Modern Times" (127-152), compares popular depictions of Charlemagne in French and German marketing traditions. No matter how playful, these images, too, have been politicised. Germany's Karl der Gross was a warrior king, a secular ruler who in spite of everything managed to steer a course independent of the church, whereas France depicted Charlemagne as a scholar surrounded by his loyal paladins. Both images have their roots in contemporary sources, but both have been shaped by modern preoccupations as well.

After these sections on the uses of medieval history in various media, the book turns towards the ways in which medieval conflicts and modern academic debates remain forever entangled in Part Four, "Land and Frontiers." Richard Hitchcock, in "Reflections on the Frontier in Early Medieval Iberia" (155-166), revisits both the Muslim-Christian relations in early medieval Iberia and the debate about these relations. Explaining how and why scholars in the twentieth century have argued for or against a large-scale depopulation in the border area, he closes with thoughts on current ideas about convivencia and the apparent unimportance of religion in shaping relations in the tenth century--in spite of the fact that modern research continues to insist to frame it that way. Christian Lübke's article, "Germany's Growth to the East: From the Polabian Marches to Germania Slavica" (167-183), similarly draws parallels between historical situations and modern debates, in this case about the presence and importance of Slavic settlements in the area traditionally referred to a Germany. Making a strong case for the concept of Germania Slavica, Lübke argues that these identities were never in conflict, and the history of the German region should do well to take that into account.

Part Five, "Rewriting Medieval Religion," brings the book to a close with two articles reflecting on religion--that most medieval of topics. Christine Caldwell Ames kicks off this section with "Distance and Difference: Medieval Inquisition as American History" (187-206), using the topics of heresy and inquisition to show how medieval religious mentalities can be interpreted wildly differently in any given context (to wit: Henry Charles Lea and the French Situationalist school). Casting doubts on the old argument that "American" history stands distant from the "European" middle ages, she shows that the theme of religious persecution is not bound by any one period or region and should therefore not be a sign of alterity, even today. Finally, Peter Biller finishes the book with "Mind the Gap: Modern and Medieval 'Religious' Vocabularies" (207-222). Building upon Marc Bloch's posthumous essay Apologie pour l'Histoire ou Métier d'Historien (1949, but still as relevant as ever), he makes the obvious but ever-relevant point that the words used for potentially volatile topics ("religion"; "heresy") provide a window into the mind of the people studied, and should thus be handled and contextualised with care. On the other hand, he uses that same observation to show that the absence of a given vocabulary in a medieval text does not signify that the concept did not exist in the medieval mind. In that sense, it is not the words themselves but the "gap" between medieval and modern understanding of what they represented, that ought to be reflected upon. It is a valuable contribution and a fitting end to a remarkably coherent and thought-provoking series of essays.

"Medieval history is a thriving and dynamic discipline", the two editors muse at the end of their introduction. "If through this book we can reveal something of the richness, diversity and dynamism of how historians have interpreted, and continue to reinterpret, the Middle Ages, and through this enthuse a new generation of medievalists, then we shall have succeeded in what we have envisaged" (13). Given that this volume offers a host of challenging yet accessible articles not only showing the dynamism of the field, but also explaining why it remains so dynamic, I daresay the editors achieved this goal. The fact that some of the articles show different interpretations of similar problems (especially pertaining to the need to apply stringent scholarship or to more playfully reinvent the past) only plays to the overall strength of the collection. However, this does mean that the book requires its readers to take into account the personal nature of each of the arguments. At times, the meta-narrative of scholarly self-awareness and disciplinary reflection seems to overwhelm the "historical" arguments made. This may well be the point of the book, but it requires a careful weighing of each of the articles in turn, which make the volume more challenging than it appears at first sight. It is a challenge that could have been issued more confidently if the editors had included a conclusion showcasing the same wit and observation as their introduction.

Nonetheless, the contributions all show a deep commitment to scholarship coupled with a passion for the field and an appreciation for its continued relevance. The accessible writing style maintained by the authors will certainly help enthuse readers--students, scholars and the general public alike. Moreover, even if the authors come from a decidedly western background (and all but two of them are male), the many fields addressed and international academic traditions represented by the authors make this book especially suitable as part (or even basis) of an undergraduate course on medieval history or medievalism, provided the instructor(s) involved allow for an open discussion on the above-mentioned personal nature of some of the argument. The relatively modest price point certainly assists general accessibility as well.

The authors and the editors are to be commended for having written a collected volume that works as a series of articles without losing sight of the important meta-narrative that all history is, in the end, in the eye of the beholder. Exemplary scholarship from some of the leading names in the field is combined with new perspectives on old problems and a refreshing dose of self-awareness and political consciousness. This book reminds its audience that historians are, in the end, only human. In so doing, it holds up a mirror to its audience as well: as they are reading the articles, they too become part of the process of "making medieval history".

Article Details