Back when I was still teaching medieval history at Nipissing University, I was asked to introduce a display on the Middle Ages put on by the North Bay museum @Discovery North Bay. I wrote this script but did not deliver it. Only a handful of people showed up for the opening, so I was able to lead them through the display and make the same points in a more personal way, while discussing the artifacts and reconstructions. It was fun, doing it that way. Nevertheless, coming across this script on my harddrive today, I found that I liked it. So here it is. Note the first paragraph, which explains what I found rewarding about working at a small, obscure university.
Why the Middle Ages Are Important
May 24, 2008
@Discovery 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. Nipissing University 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 those founders.
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 Ontario 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 Canada, 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 University of London and you think about our practical medieval heritage.
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 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.