Brandon W. Hawk

Reflecting on the Significance of Studying the Middle Ages

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Several weeks ago, Kisha Tracy (at Fitchburg State U and co-founder of the MASSMedieval blog) sent out a message soliciting fellow medievalists to share some of our ideas about what we value as the significance of studying the Middle Ages (that link will take you to her own post about this). She set up a public Facebook group for this, with the plan to invite her students to read the posts, write reflections of their own, and to discuss them in class at the start of the semester. Since this sounded like such a great idea, I took her cue and asked students in my British Literature through the Eighteenth Century course to do the same.

Here is what I originally posted in the Facebook group:

In general, I firmly believe that the most significant reason to study the Middle Ages–or to study any culture–is to learn critical thinking. If we can learn to critically think about medieval culture, we can learn to critically think about any culture. When we encounter medieval culture, we simultaneously encounter both alterity and familiarity. Reflecting on the similarities and differences is important, but so too is considering how we face them and what we do in response.

Medieval people were, in many ways, like us, wrestling with the same questions we do, even if on different terms or in different contexts. Medieval people reflected on and wrote about their everyday lives, their relationships, their place in the world, their beliefs, their fears, their hopes, as well as cultural issues like religion, race, sexuality, and politics. Some students might cry at the death of Marie de France’s Nightingale; others might embrace the portrait of heroism created by the Beowulf poet; some might champion the proto-feminism in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. What we learn from all of these is how to empathize. Yet, in our empathy, we can also learn to be critical, to see the problematic even behind texts that we like or want to embrace.

As much as we might empathize, studying the medieval period also forces us to face the Other in many ways. Studying the Middle Ages causes us to wrestle with very different perspectives that emerged from very different assumptions. Some students might find the Christianity of The Dream of the Rood very foreign, even disturbing; others might find the irreverence and wit of the mystery plays offensive; some might decry the xenophobia in representations of Jews or Muslims in various texts. All of these issues offer opportunities to discuss why we react in these ways, and how we should harness these reactions critically. While we do not need to embrace medieval perspectives or assumptions (and in many cases we should not), we do need to consider them critically, to discuss and write about them in ways that help us to understand the past. Indeed, critically understanding that past can also help us to critically understand our present.

Students came to class with great ideas. They found ways to incorporate what they had read by others in the Facebook group, their own ideas, and connections to the two pieces of literature they read for today (Bede’s account of Cædmon’s Hymn and The Dream of the Rood).

The list generated by our discussion (that does disservice to students’ engagement and discussion) includes the following:

Landscape
Critical thinking
Influence on later people & authors
Gender, “connected to time”
Religion
Language (especially rhetoric)
Socio-cultural issues
Similarity of the modern & medieval
Social/class status
Technological and scientific advances in the period
The “uniqueness” of the period (not pictured above)
“Magic” & “superstition” (as evidence of belief systems)

With these ideas, and the expanded thoughts attached to each bullet-point on the board, we established a host of themes to which we will return. In their discussion, students set up basic questions to follow throughout the course. And, as one student pointed out early on in the discussion, these are not exclusive to studying the medieval period; they are notions applicable to literary study, the humanities, and reflecting on culture generally.

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