Renaissance of the Middle Ages

July 10, 1998

Medieval degree options have been cut, but medievalists in newer universities are fighting back, winning students with old jokes and tales of royal cannibalism. Kate Worsley reports

All things medieval have rarely been so popular with the public. A dumbed-down iconography of knights, ladies, wimples and jousting is being rammed home by the swelling ranks of heritage centres, "medieval ffayres" and games such as Dungeons and Dragons. The rebirth of interest in the Middle Ages has spawned television stars such as Mick Aston of Bristol University, who hosts Time Team, with its archaeological excavations of medieval villages.

The reason for the period's popularity could be that we are living through a New Middle Ages, says Anthony Hunt of St Peter's College, Oxford. States are shrinking and privatisations are creating modern robber barons. "It's the zeitgeist, a rejection of modernism and progress," agrees Reading medievalist Michael Evans.

Medievalists argue that the Middle Ages was the cradle of the modern world. "The Roman Empire had collapsed. Europe was reacting against the Roman occupier, rejecting all things Roman and reinventing itself. It emerged from the Dark Ages with a new brief," enthuses Axel Muller, director of next week's International Medieval Congress at Leeds University, which will attract 1,400 delegates from around the world (see below for some of the highlights).

The medieval era was a golden age for academics, too. Dr Muller, for one, thinks he would have had a rich life as a medieval scholar at a university such as Bologna or Oxford. Some things would have been the same - no salary to speak of - but he would have travelled a lot (the lingua franca in medieval universities was Latin) and would have boasted an extensive general knowledge, including surgery and astronomy. Although he would have had to be a monk, he could have married, at least in the early medieval period.

Ironically, those modern universities with medieval origins have lost the edge when it comes to study of the Middle Ages. As a compulsory part of many undergraduate degree syllabuses, the medieval period has long failed to inspire students. With the introduction of modular degrees, many students have exercised their preference for the study of contemporary literature and history. Even Oxford University is considering chopping one of the compulsory Anglo-Saxon papers from its English syllabus.

"Some universities were too complacent for too long about the study of the medieval period," Muller says. Students' lack of enthusiasm is attributed largely to teaching methods: many English graduates can recall being handed a Middle English text and glossary in the first year and told to get on with it. This quickly snuffed out the interest of all but the more scholarly.

But change is on the way. Muller says a new method of teaching has sprung up at interdisciplinary centres set up in the 1960s at newer universities such as York, Leeds and Reading, and also in Canada and Australia. By teaching the period across subjects - the medieval period in art, music, literature, history, even physics - the new breed of medievalists has mastered the alchemy involved in turning popular interest into scholarly activity. Student numbers on these new courses are growing. This way of teaching also alleviates the foreigness of medieval culture and enables students to think themselves into the medieval mind-set when scholars were generalists, not specialists.

Interest in the period is keenest among older students, especially women over 30. Undergraduates fresh from 20th-century-oriented history and English A levels find the level of scholarship demanded discouraging. "You can't just go down the public records office to look at a document to do your research," says Guy Halsall, lecturer at Birkbeck College, London. "The few documents we have can be very hard to interpret. You have to be aware of the motivation behind the decision to write down anything at all in that period."

The Leeds medieval centre is Britain's largest: it boasts 38 staff and 60-70 students from 16 humanities departments, plus 14 medieval studies MA students. From this autumn a new PhD programme will teach palaeontology, medieval Latin, Hebrew and Greek - crucial tools for students of the period. Medieval studies finally seems to be emerging from its own Dark Ages.


"Oh, but I don't like to be immodest," protests Maurice Beresford, the man who revolutionised archaeological study of the medieval period. "I'm just the pistol that started it all off." In a keynote lecture at Leeds next Tuesday, the 78-year-old emeritus professor of economic history will recall how a stroll in the Yorkshire countryside in the summer of 1948 led to the realisation that there were more than a handful of medieval villages scattered about the country. There are, in fact, remains of 3,000.

Dr Beresford was then 28 and an amateur archaeologist. Recently released RAF aerial photographs led him to discover the faint outlines of Wharram Percy, near Malton in Yorkshire and now an English Heritage site. He and his team explored the site every July for 40 years, building up a wealth of information about the village and developing new archaeological techniques. But he still refuses to blow his own trumpet. "I like the open air. I met some very nice people and we all grew up together. I hobbled over the site with a stick the other day. I'm just sorry I'm not 20 years younger."


The streets of York will shut on Sunday for the first performance of the Mystery Plays by the guilds since 1569 (guilds are associations of craftsmen or merchants dating back to the Middle Ages). Leeds delegates are invited to watch at stations along the route as 11 plays telling the story of the Bible from Creation to Doomsday are performed on wagons.

Freelance theatre director Jane Oakshott hopes the experience of watching the plays will add to the scholars' understanding of medieval drama. The performances will rely entirely on medieval technology: leather hinges, pop-up and turnabout figures, speaking tubes, pulleys and levers will combine to give the illusion of trees blossoming and God arriving on an empty stage in the Creation play.

Even the guilds - seven now survive out of more than 50 - are bang up to date. The scriveners guild, now mainly accountants, will perform their traditional play Doubting Thomas. Expect to see expense slips ripped up and lashings of red ink.


Guy Halsall, 33, a lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, who did his PhD at York's medieval centre, uses humour to explain the era to his students - although he acknowledges that neither he nor they always get the point of the jokes.

At its most refined, medieval humour revels in irony, puns and riddles, but it floats on a large and murky sink of bawdy slapstick. Both have been largely ignored by historians. "Being a fairly earnest bunch, historians tend to assume their sources are similarly earnest. My generation is a bit different."

Top medieval humourist: Gregory of Tours. "Until recently people thought he was just an idle gossip, but he's comparing worldly life with the eternal merit of the saints. He is full of slapstick."

Least humorous author: The Venerable Bede. "He probably even copied his puns from someone else."


An embassy is sent to the court of Attila the Hun. After dinner the Huns bring on their jesters. One is a hunchback. They dress him in armour and make him walk around the table. Another has a speech impediment. They make him repeat phrases endlessly. (Priscus of Pannium) Halsall comments: "Bernard Manning would be well at home in the Middle Ages. Someone with one leg trying to run would be the sort of thing they fell about at."


The World Cup has provided the stage for a familiar form of thuggish English nationalism: beery, jeery and jingoistic. Academics now argue that this manifestation of Englishness can be traced back to medieval descriptions of royal cannibalism.

Richard the Lionheart, that potent symbol of English courage, did more than throw bottles at opponents, he apparently ate them. In texts written from the 14th century onward, the 12th-century crusading king's cannibalistic tendencies are a defining feature of his patriotism. By contrast, the French, co-crusaders against the Muslim infidels, are portrayed as practically vegetarians.

The Richard Coeur de Lion texts, versions of an epic poem written by many hands, "posit cannibalism as a unifying trait of Englishness", says Alan Bruscoe, a PhD student at Indiana University. The poem, which "indicates the emergence of 'proto-nationalism'", presents cannibalism "as a mark of honour and a way to distinguish the English forces from the French, who are simply treasonable".

In one episode, King Richard is very ill before a battle and cannot keep anything down, but he craves pork. His men can't find any, so they bring him a slice of the enemy, a fallen Saracen warrior. The king devours it, is revived and wins the battle. In triumph he asks for the head of the pig and his men bring him that of the Saracen. Far from being repelled, he takes the head to the Saracen chief Saladin as proof of his determination to defeat him: if he has to eat human flesh to win he will.

Bruscoe thinks the cannibalistic episodes are English additions to the original Anglo-Norman text, the aim being to define Englishness as courageous and powerful and distinct from the French.

"The crusades were against Islam, but the real problem for England at that time was France. Since 1066 England had been controlled by a French nobility:the most conspicuous cultural other was France."


Medieval studies has gripped Australia. At Sydney University, which last year established an interdisciplinary centre, "student numbers in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse are growing at all levels", says Geraldine Barnes, head of English.

The public is gripped, too. Sydney hosts the Society for Creative Anachronism, which re-creates medieval scenes on university grounds. Around the country, 20th-century creations of imagined medieval buildings are springing up. "There's something about the medieval mind-set that fascinates," Dr Barnes says.

Many colonial countries trace their political systems back to the medieval origins of England's parliament. "Also," says Barnes, "most Australians have some Celtic connection, and this leads to a lot of interest in medieval culture".


Georgia Wright, a medieval art historian, thinks she can prove that a stone head in the museum at the University of East Anglia comes from Lincoln Cathedral. She has pioneered a technique that can match what are known as "orphan" heads with the original monument they came from.

Stone samples are broken down by isotopes in a nuclear reactor, and the trace elements measured to create a "fingerprint" that can be matched to a quarry.

Already it has been confirmed that the person who designed the interior of Norwich Cathedral probably also designed that of St Etienne in Caens, because the stone used for both came from the same quarry. "It can solve a lot of problems," says Wright.


There are about 6,000 medievalists internationally and 1,600 in the United Kingdom.

The main graduate study centres for interdisciplinary medieval are Leeds University (which has 37 staff), Nottingham (30), Reading () and York (30).

There are also centres at Southampton, Manchester, Liverpool, Hull, Bristol, London, Glasgow, Cardiff and Lancaster.

Cambridge has a language centre for Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse.

The Leeds International Medieval Congress, modelled on the world's biggest medieval conference in Kalamazoo, USA, is Europe's largest. It will be held at Leeds University, July 13-16.

For details, see /imi/imc/98/main/html

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