This talk, prepared for a exhibit opening at North Bay's museum, was never delivered as written; I gave a much more informal presentation that involved talking about items and displays in the collection. I just now stumbled across this script and I like it.
May 24, 2008
North Bay, opening of
"Once upon a time..."
I would like to thank @Discovery
North Bay for the
invitation to speak at today's opening.
was founded by citizens of North Bay
and the surrounding region because they believed their home region could make
an original and worthwhile intellectual and cultural contribution to Canadian
life. When the university and the
community meet here on occasions like this, we are fulfilling the dreams of
Why are the Middle Ages important? I don't have to argue today that they are important because the exhibit itself is proof enough. It was not created by professional academic medievalists, but by museum staff who work with the public all the time, and their judgment was that people in
want to know more about the Middle Ages.
If their own contacts with the public were not good enough, they could
point to such recent films as the Lord of the Rings, or the three different recent movie versions of
Beowulf, or the wild success of the Da Vinci Code, book and movie both. None of these modern cultural products show
the Middle Ages as they really were.
They are all consciously or unconsciously legendary or mythological
reworkings of medieval material. Tolkien
knew medieval literature better than almost anyone, and was a brilliant and
original analyst of Beowulf, among other things, but when he wanted to talk to
a contemporary public, he created a whole new world, similar to northern Europe
in the Middle Ages but in many ways vastly different. And it's not just modern
people who have reworked the Middle Ages to make a point. The anonymous Beowulf poet didn't show his
hero as a normal person in normal country in a normal time, but put him in a
landscape full of monsters and superhuman challenges. Thus when modern film directors mess around
with Beowulf they've got good precedent.
But “Once upon a Time,” even though its title evokes the Middle Ages as a source of modern dreams, is not a mythological treatment. Like scholarship in other forms, it tries to get behind the myths and legends and appreciate the people the Middle Ages in this case the later Middle Ages as the home of real people with real problems and real aspirations, who came up with solutions and created social institutions that are still alive in our own world. “Medieval” is often used to mean something like “unfathomable cruelty,” a phrase I stole from Carl Pyrdum, a graduate student at Yale, but much that we are familiar with and value in the modern world originated in the Middle Ages. The people who invented the phrases “dark ages” and “middle ages” meant to put down the postclassical era, and inspire people to build a better modern world to rival the great accomplishments of antiquity. Yet we can hardly do without the heritage of the Middle Ages. To take two examples relevant to
both parliament and universities came out of the efforts of knights and
warriors on one hand and clerics on another to improve their own society. The original members of the House of Commons
were knights, seeking effective and fair government, the original university
students and teachers were members of the clergy, seeking to understand
theology and law, universal and human order.
The Middle Ages created things so large that we hardly appreciate their
medieval origins: in pre-medieval times there was no England,
no France, no Poland, no Russia. The Romans had fantastic public bathhouses
but no mechanical clocks, yet by the end of the Middle Ages every important
town in Europe had a public clock. Think of Big Ben next to the British Houses
of Parliament and not far from Westminster Abbey or the
and you think about our practical medieval heritage. University of London
I hope you enjoy “Once Upon a Time…” which highlights some of the more striking and beautiful accomplishments of the Middle Ages. But I hope you will take a moment, when looking at the artifacts and reconstructions, think about the people behind them: the real medieval people who are the subject of the exhibition, and the real modern it's people who put it together for you. You'll get a taste of the fascination of the Middle Ages today, but just a taste. I hope it will inspire you to look closer. One thing about history is that no matter how good a given reconstruction is, there's always more. Life is big and complicated and hard to describe. “Once upon a time..." can be the end of your journey to the Middle Ages, but I rather hope there will be a beginning or perhaps a new beginning.