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Not Everyone Lived in Castles in the Middle Ages: A problem of chronology, or high-jacking an era

Not Everyone Lived in Castles During the Middle Ages | EDSITEment.

EDSITEment! The Best of the Humanities on the Web

As a home schooling mom who is writing our curriculum, just as I did when I was teaching, I nonetheless highly value quality lesson plans with useful resources to enhance what I am doing.  I love, LOVE, EDSITEment! as a hub of humanities lessons–particularly for its English literature lesson plans.

It has some great history and social studies plans–especially if you are looking for American history.  We are not this year, but will begin to explore the Early Modern era and American history next year.  In so doing, we will cover both history and review this year’s civics coursework–very excited, indeed!

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Having said all of that, I hit a wall with some of the medieval European lesson plans.  Now, admittedly, I need the least aid in this era because I have an M.A. in it and have taught it for some time.  Most textbooks botch the era–and every other era.  My enthusiasm rose when I saw the website’s lesson plan, “Not Everyone Lived in Castles During the Middle Ages,” but it was short-lived.

The ill-named “Middle Ages” span from roughly 500-700 (A.D.) to  roughly 1400-1600 (A.D.), depending on who’s counting.  The amount of change that takes place in the millennium is considerable!  For most of that period, Europeans do not even really have castles as we typically think of them, making the very title an unwitting challenge to medieval scholarship.

The historical era known as the Middle Ages covers nearly a thousand years, stretching from the fall of Rome in the 5th century CE through the Renaissance in the 15th century CE. During much of this time fighting and warfare were rampant, and the castle, defended by armies of fearless knights, stood as a bastion of security. Medieval society was organized into a pyramid of feudal relationships, with the king and his nobles at the top and the hard-working peasants comprising the bulk of the population. Those among the peasants who were particularly talented became specialists, such as blacksmiths, fletchers, and coopers. The Middle Ages is also known as the Age of Faith, since the Catholic Church dominated the lives of rich and poor.

~ “Preparation Instructions” for the lesson plan.

American textbooks, lesson plans and other resources often lump characteristics of this millennium together without distinguishing the changes or paying attention to chronology.  The above statement is not a particularly helpful description of one thousand years of history–and, one can’t really expect it to be successful, anyway.  Yes, there was quite a bit of warfare, but it is actually far more rampant in the Early Modern era thanks to advances in weaponry which empowered the soldier over the knight, in infrastructure for the movement of troops, and in urbanization in a more densely populated Europe.  Try comparing the medieval Hundred Years War with the Napoleonic conquests and its quickly apparent that the medieval era gets the rep that the Early Modern era deserves.

The above excerpt, furthermore, is proof that quite likely no other “era” is more constrained by outdated scholarship.  Consider some examples:

  • [Specifically in reference to the above statement:] The Church was able to maintain a greater amount of continuity in Europe than any secular group until the emergence of proto-nations, but its secular, centralized authority is pretty limited until the Late Middle Ages, beginning in the 11th century, but slowly.
  • Recent scholarship (and by “recent scholarship” I mean that which began about 5 decades ago–if the debate interests you here is an introduction) has challenged the extremely simplistic “feudal pyramid” that was likely invented by Early Modern lawyers, well after the supposed system would have existed.
  • Related to the above point, while at times in the medieval millennium there was an attempt to simplify humans into easy categories, no society is so simply described as the above blurb attempts to do with medieval society.  Despite this, there is a prevalent attitude, one step beyond the notion that everyone lived in castles, that medieval society from the last Roman emperor until Leonardo Da Vinci is just that simple.

Now, in fairness, the above lesson plan is categorized in the age group for grades 3-5.  So, one might argue that this is precisely the age group who might think of everyone being a knight or a princess and living in a castle, but the concepts–even the accurate ones–which they are attempting to share are pretty narrowly confined to a small portion at the end of that millennium.  No chronology is provided.

The resources provided to the teachers include a quality link to Paul Halsall’s, “Introduction to Medieval History,” though it is only one half of a dialogue as this site was developed for a class he taught.  The elementary teacher will not have access to his lectures, nor likely all of his texts without going to a university library.  Power to the 3rd-5th grade teacher who actually does that, because it will only take scanning his course breakdown to realize something does not add up with the lesson plan’s design.  My personal experience with 3rd-5th grade teachers as a student and parent–and, I had a couple of great ones–is that they won’t “take” Halsall’s course.

Alas.  The medieval era seems doomed to be misunderstood.  It is fascinating, but few take the time to get beyond Enlightenment-era conceptions of the past between ancient Rome and the self-titled Renaissance era that is itself far more medieval than its patrons, artists and authors appreciated.

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Reflections on the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, 1

This past week historians descended on Boston thicker than a Nor’easter snow storm!  This is an enormous conference, not least because it is open to as wide a collection as possible of the fields and subfields under the history umbrella.  In hundreds of workshops, innovative ideas are presented, discussed, have sex with each other and create new little ideas that will grow in the work and research of both the presenters and the audience.  These are great moments for those of us in the field to develop professionally and grow in the field.

I have a couple of thoughts that I would like to share this week from the conference and which I will spread over a couple of posts.

Rhetorics of Reform and Medieval Religion

The Semiotics of Pious Reform and Insurgent Historiographies in Early Islam, Thomas N. Sizgorich, University of California at Irvine

A Conversation Across Centuries: Reforming the Secular Clergy in Western Christendom, 800-1200,  Maureen C. Miller, University of California at Berkeley

Reform, and Ever Reforming: From “Movements” to Conflicts, from Persons to Institutions, from the Twelfth Century to the Fifteenth, John H. Van Engen, University of Notre Dame

Comment: Mayke de Jong, Universitiet Utrecht

I have been interested in various reform movements in the Medieval period, spending the most time with the Carolingians and the 11th century.  In most cases, I was concerned with the intended reforms and not their relative success, in other words: trying to grasp what was intended in these reforms on the part of specific reformers though not necessarily how successful any actually were.  The reason for this is obvious–we have the documentation for the reformers so we can make that effort to get inside their heads, but determining their successful or unsuccessful implementation is not as well-documented.  But, this is where the challenge is and historians are remiss to ignore it.  This was, to a large degree, the substance of the talks.  The word “reform” has started to lose its currency in much the same way that the word “feudalism” has.

Whereas Miller turned to material culture to try to trace attempts at clerical reforms and actually ascertain to what degree the reforms were implemented, Van Engen discussed the difficulty in the idea of “reform” for an institution that should be continually devoted to self-reflection and, thus ideally, self-correction.  The point is this: to really return a sense of substance to the word, it would behoove us to stop considering reform in terms of waves of movements, and instead focus on the changes that occurred (or didn’t) as a result of calls to reform.  De Jong congratulated the presenters on this precise point when recalling the work of Robert Markus (recently deceased and remembered) who suggested that the real work for scholars would be to look at the spaces and places that changed and shifted in the Church’s history.  (This is what he did so well in The End of Ancient Christianity.)

Without this revision to our approach, the word “reform” seems to require definition and explanation every time it is used.  It also means that we need to leave behind the purely intellectual history of most previous reform discussions and try to tease out the actual effects of these propositions on the ground.

This is what Miller did in her presentation regarding the priestly vestments and their evolution through the period of the 800-1200 reform movements, seeking evidence of these alterations in the material culture–a challenging task given the limited number of sample artifacts.  Her project is clearly attempting to rectify not only the problems with our discussions about reforms but also the means by which we gain insight to movement on the ground.  In addition to the vestments, she made use of the regional liturgical legislation as a method for inter-textual reading against the legislation that was coming out of Rome which faced unique challenges that were not experienced in most regional churches.

Van Engen compared the resistance to these movements among the clergy as being frequently resisted among large segments of the targeted population to a hypothetical reform in academia wherein professors would lose their offices and instead congregate together as a return to academia’s purer roots!  Given that, it seems worthwhile to identify actual successes or setback in such programs.

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