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21.09.22 Arnold, What is Medieval History?

21.09.22 Arnold, What is Medieval History?

It’s probably true that every generation of scholars think they’ve witnessed during their lifetime some fundamental change in their field. The core of that feeling is the constant back-and-forth of scholarship, of the perpetually (and necessarily) provisional state of our conclusions. Contrary to bad-faith pundits who nitpick details and seem to think that understanding the past is simply creating a bullet-pointed list of events one after another, the analysis of the past for meaning is what it really means to study history.

Generally, medieval studies has tended to be reshaped by new methodologies applied to old sources or new types of sources finding their place in the discourse. But over the last ten or so years, the turns have been of a different sort, linked by a long-overdue need to dismantle nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalisms that formed the basis of the academic study of the European Middle Ages. In other words, we are now more directly querying the idea of the “medieval” itself--increasingly attentive to the fact that the “Middle Ages” are not just white, Christian, European, and male.

As such, this new edition of John Arnold’s What is Medieval History?, first published in 2008, is a welcome arrival. Chapters from it have been a mainstay in my teaching for the last twelve or so years, and now updated they will continue to be so. The book makes no claims to be comprehensive but is rather an exceptional introduction to the field, one that so often leads undergraduates to ask more questions of their sources and of their understanding of the period.

Perhaps the most useful thing about Arnold’s book is that he explicitly structures the work to emphasize the fact that the European Middle Ages are constructed. This is clear from the Table of Contents (chapter titles include “framing,” “tracing,” “reading,” “debating,” and “making and unmaking”) and then reinforced by the opening anecdote of chapter 1, which makes readers query their assumptions about the period. The rest of chapter 1 offers a succinct and clear overview of how the Middle Ages were invented by early modern European thinkers, intent on distinguishing their own period from what came before. The ghost of their argument, that the “medieval” is simply the opposite of the “modern” (10), haunts popular and some scholarly perceptions to this day. At the end of this chapter, Arnold suggests questions that might help exorcise those ghosts.

Chapter 2 concerns itself with sources and the work of the scholar in making sense of (often) either polyphony or cacophony. Covered here are the tensions between the access granted by printed editions and the context of specific manuscripts, the types of narrative and non-narrative texts, and how best to use each type of source. The discussion here is by no means comprehensive but Arnold covers most of the important caveats one should be aware of, and concludes with a statement that all scholars of all periods should take to heart: “The historian’s archive is not innocent: it once did things, to real people” (58).

Methodology is the focus of chapter 3, one of the more heavily updated chapters in the new edition. It opens with a paean to the interdisciplinarity of medieval studies but then, curiously, the different sections of the chapter seem to subvert this by suggesting that historians “borrow” from anthropology, quantitative analysis, material culture and archeology, literary studies, et al. This isn’t to say one perception is more accurate than the other but perhaps rather reveals an unresolved tension in working across fields, the tension of whether or not one is really working with another discipline or simply plundering it. The answer is almost certainly situational. Arnold’s discussions of material culture (working with) and anthropology (pulling from) are indicative of these two approaches and sanguine reminders that context matters.

Chapter 4 attempts to tie the rest of the book together by showcasing some current historiographical debates in the study of medieval Europe. Here, we hear about ritual, social structures, a brand-new section on “Globalisms,” cultural identities (which really means “religion”), and power. The various case studies are useful, if necessarily cursory. There are, I think, problems with silo-ing off religion as a discrete topic but the section talking about the turn to the global, the turn to de-center--or at least problematize the centrality of--Europe is particularly welcome and importantly indicative of emerging trends. That section has several sanguine reminders of its problems, but also points to several terribly promising horizons to be explored as the analytical lens moves beyond Europe.

A brief final chapter takes a step back to consider the question of medieval history’s “relevance” to the contemporary world. Historians, as a rule, make terrible prophets, even if Richard Southern has shown that they’ve long thought of themselves as both (“History as Prophecy,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 22 [1972]: 159–80). Arnold mostly resists the temptation to peer beyond the horizon. Instead, he thinks that the popular concern with the medieval as a place of origins, and at the same time as “anti-modern,” should keep the study of the period in the front of people’s minds and help them query many of the assumptions they have about the form and structure of contemporary society.

One of the great strengths throughout What is Medieval History? is its laser-like focus on how the European Middle Ages are an idea, and how discussions of the period are at their core always political. I agree with both conclusions absolutely. There are of course small issues one could point to with the work, such as the tendency to treat modern sensibilities a bit too timelessly (religion vs. secular, culture vs. society) and to be a bit too reductive in its explanations (“[This anecdote] is really about politics and communication,” 5). But this book is one that introduces a topic. Indeed, one of the author’s stated intentions in What is Medieval History? is to show that the period is “good to think with,” and indeed this book is very good to think with.