Why The History Of Medieval Studies Haunts How We Study The Past

As Dr. Helen Young pointed out David M. Perry last year, the modern study of the Middle Ages has been intertwined with race science from almost its beginnings. In the 21st century, we tend to read past those elements, to ignore the contemporary political and cultural assumptions that underlay earlier scholarship. But can we really do that anymore? Should we have done that in the first place?

The study of the Crusades was used to justify European colonial enterprisesaround the globe, with the Crusades as a pre-cursor to those later 18th- and 19th-century expeditions. In the first instance, Christian holy war “saved” the West and beat back the tides of a barbarous East. Now, these 19th and early 20th century scholars thought, the West was returning to reassert its proper place.

Jules Michelet’s Histoire de France (History of France), published first in 1833 and still in print, is perhaps most famous for starting the myth of the apocalyptic “Terrors of the Year 1000” but his analysis of how the Middle Ages led to modern France begins with a quasi-scientific racial survey of French lands. As much as that section might cause concern today, this was common at the time; nation was thought to be a coherent people, connected by blood and culture.

The vast majority of scholars now (rightly) reject these 19th-century assumptions. The “Crusades” might not even have been a discreet thing, and if they were, the idea that they were “defensive” against an aggressively expansionistic Islam has been disproven. So too has the unholy alliance of race science and nationalism been debunked.

Yet, those refrains still echo across the internet and in contemporary political discourse and a growing body of scholars, such as those who wrote the letter of concern, think it’s our responsibility to at least acknowledge that.

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