Studying the Middle Ages: Historical Food for Thought in the Present Day

Studying the Middle Ages: Historical Food for Thought in the Present Day

Abstract: Why study the Middle Ages? The answers this question yields concern more than simply medievalists: they generate reflections regarding the usefulness of science or intellectual engagement in any given society. Answering the question includes critical reflection on periodization in general and, in particular, on the public’s understanding of what is termed (for better or worse) ‘the Middle Ages’.

The relevance of studying the period has been justified in many ways. It allows, for example, a comparison of social dynamics and the gathering of insights into the role of religion. Equally, it enables investigation of modes of rule and the organization of communities. Ultimately, it enables us to better understand modernity itself. Yet while many arguments concern a better understanding of the contemporary world, they do not necessarily justify the necessity of incorporating medieval comparisons.

The current consensus (at least in French medieval studies) is to study the Middle Ages as a society in its own right. There is an additional understanding that the specific problems raised by this period should be placed in a broader chronological and spatial context. These critical reflections invite deeper considerations, which are, in turn, useful in developing our sense of democracy, our understanding of society, and in the development of a historical science that is conscious of the current tendencies to ‘re-politicize’ history. This chapter argues that this leads to invaluable insights into the workings of any discipline concerned with the perception of time and change.

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