The Middle Ages and me

June 26, 2006

Why do I read so much about the Middle Ages? Why am I so interested that I’m seriously thinking of checking out the Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg in three languages?
Ok, there are several aspects to this. For one thing I’m interested in all kinds and periods of history, always have been. The less well known the better. Not less knowable though. I like finding out things that are in fact known, in the sense that the information is out there, but which relatively few people actually know. This is why – well, one of the reasons why – I am not a scholar. That is, not an academic research type. I can’t get excited about going in search of completely new knowledge when there is so much knowledge already out there that I don’t know yet.
But why specifically the Western (and Central) European Middle Ages?
Well, once back in the last millennium I was struck by a remark I encountered in a book by MI Finley. A short book mostly on Rome I think, bringing together 6 papers or lectures of his – somehow I couldn’t identify the book just now when I did an author search on Hollis.
Anyway, there were two remarks he made that have stayed with me. The first was a complaint about how the bibliographies of books on Classical history tend to group together all writings from the Classical period, in Greek or in Latin, as “Primary Sources” even when they were written hundreds of years after the events they deal with. I.e., Livy on the early years of the Republic – he’s as much a “Primary Source” as David Hackett Fischer is on the American Revolution!
The other is that we have this totally unwarranted feeling that we know the Classical World, that we are so much more at home there than in the Middle Ages, when in fact – taking his primary field of interest, economic history – we have more detailed information about the management of a single monastery in the Middle Ages than we have for all of Ancient Greece and Rome combined.
That got me thinking.
More recently – a couple of years ago I bought and read and loved Austin Woolrych’s Britain in Revolution, and wanted to read more about the background, especially the business about the King and Parliament; and a little snuffling around led me to the conclusion that I had to go back to the first three Edwards at least to get a sense of where it all came from. So I read Maurice Keen a couple of times, and a few other things on England; I’d already gotten and looked at a few things on France from that period, and then I reread Reuter a couple of times… Then within the past month I tried rerereading Wedgwood’s Thirty Years’ War and found myself again fascinated by her account, right at the beginning, of the disfunctional constitution of the Holy Roman Empire – I am always amused by her remark that it was possible for as much as half the Empire to be totally engaged in civil or foreign war before anyone had the duty to so much as inform the Emperor!
And this time I decided to do what I did after Woolrych – go back to see what I could find about how the Empire got that way. I’d always had a sense that historians tended to blame the Investiture Controversy…. Anyway I’ve rerereread the relevant parts of Reuter, also his edition of papers on the Medieval Nobility, (and checked out Karl Ferdinand Werner’s Naissance de la noblesse,) and now I’m tempted to go back to Reuter’s primary sources…


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