So little has been taught about the Middle Ages in schools, and such a lot has been over-simplified, that the riches of the time have been lost to the ‘general public’, and the millions of voices rising from the pages of time have been silenced.
It seems a shame that all those voices will never be heard outside of a University library, and those who are interested in the Middle Ages find the Waterstones catalogue a little lacking for their tastes. I can highly recommend Umberto Eco, of course, and for all those historical fiction aficionados there is always Sharon Kay Penman, Ken Follett, Ellis Peters et al… But where do you go for the real stuff?
Where are the real murderers, the real poachers, the real outlaws, the real corrupt officials? Where is the real sheriff of Nottingham? Or any of them, come to that? Where are the jokes that cracked up the king’s court, and the Top 10 Greatest Hits of the 1250s?
What are we missing?
After the London Riots of 2011, Dan Jones [@dgjones on twitter] wrote an article in the London Evening Standard entitled, ‘A new peasants’ revolt, with BlackBerry in hand’. Jones very astutely compared the events of 2011 with the events of 1381, noting that the anatomy of a riot has not changed. Key to these astounding similarities is the fact the people do not change.
Jones summed this up brilliantly when he wrote:
The composition of a riot transcends history. It goes through stages. Shortly after a riot begins, those people who have a specific cause are joined by others who have a panoply of other grievances. Anger becomes general, directed at a whole government, system or way of life.
A human being is a human being, regardless of when they were born. People will react to similar stimuli in similar ways, no matter how much technology they have access to, or what their quality of life or level of education is.
What other warnings from history have gone unheeded?
History is not just about learning from the mistakes of the past, however. As many modern authors and sociologists might tell you, there’s more to stories than the lessons they teach us. What stories have been lost?
I was introduced to the idea of man as homo narrans (as opposed to homo sapiens) by Sir Terry Pratchett, an author whose work I greatly enjoy and admire. I like the concept of ‘story-telling person’ over ‘knowing person’, perhaps because I write an awful lot of fiction to take the edge off my constant academic writing. Story-telling is hardwired into humanity. Looking into this a bit further, I came across this article by Joel Friedlander in The Book Designer – ‘Storytelling Is Us’.
It ends on a challenging note: ‘Finding the stories you need to tell, and telling them as best you can, are things all writers learn. Heard any good ones lately?’
I have. But they are stories that have already been written down, and may never see the light of day beyond my desk in the archives, or live a life beyond the pages of journals and monographs.
Have you heard any good medieval stories? What do you think about the middle ages? What would you like to see in this blog, aside from my descent into madness as the thesis deadline approaches? Leave me a comment!