The Reasons for studying Medieval past

Essay by wormnnetCollege, UndergraduateA+, May 2004

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AT A HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION conference in September 2002, I heard of an interesting report: until recently there were only two countries in Europe, the UK and Albania, where history was not part of the national curriculum up to age eighteen. Now, it was said, there is only one--and it is not Albania. As a responsible historian, I have to tell you that the report turned out to be exaggerated, indeed strictly speaking untrue: whereas France, Germany and others do indeed require the teaching of history throughout the secondary education phase, a number of northern European countries do not (and have not for many years).

There are many good and not-so-good reasons for insisting on the value of history--and medieval history in particular--in schools. One of the not-so-good is the inculcation of a crudely chauvinist form of nationalism. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nationalism itself, however understandable historically and however progressive its claims, justified more torment than improvement.

In the twenty-first century, especially in the countries of the European Union, any school curriculum focuses on national history is not just anachronistic but dangerous. In the very recent past, medieval national history has been particularly prone to nationalist abuse by the likes of Tudjman in Croatia, Milosevic in Serbia, Haider in Carinthia, Le Pen in France. We can do without that sort of appeal to the relevance of the medieval past.

But if there is one thing even worse than abuse, it is neglect. I'm afraid this is the situation in this country where medieval history is concerned. Appearances can be deceptive. We are often told that there is a huge public interest in medieval history--not least because of interest in archaeology. Yet television's offerings still represent the Middle Ages as exceptionally dark and nasty, a laughable allegation when you consider...