Even today, we can’t agree as a society on whether Barack Obama was a good president. Even without fake news, serious journalists, commentators and thinkers question whole aspects of his legacy. So how on earth are we supposed to judge and even write about characters from the Middle Ages when there is sometimes only a single source to go on?
Often we’re basing our understanding of the period and its characters on things that were written hundreds of years after their death. So how confident can medievalist historians be that they are creating an accurate picture of any of the people they’re writing about?
This article is an edited transcript of The Templars with Dan Jones on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 11 September 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
The benefit of time
The search for objective accuracy will drive historians mad or they’ll become Bob Caro and still be writing about Lyndon Johnson 40 years later.
This is admirable but it’s a sort of beautiful form of insanity.
Historians are helped slightly by distance in that, in terms of judgment, they are further from events.
So in that respect it’s much easier to think about the kingship of Philip IV of France, for example, than the presidency of Obama – partly because we’re still living Obama. We’re so far from any kind of place where we can really assess Obama’s presidency in regard to its long-term, medium-term, and perhaps even short-term effects.
It’s somewhat easier when you go back 800 years and you have the benefit of perspective. You also have a more manageable source base and there is something to be said for the Middle Ages in that it’s possible to master your sources in a way that must be much harder for modern historians who have so much more to read.
Filling in the blanks
The flip side is that medieval historians have much bigger holes in their sources and can only ever make provisional assertions based on the material they have access to. So you’re trading the two things off.
But the thing about the Middle Ages is that there’s just enough material – there’s just enough that, as a historian, you can get your head around it without becoming completely overwhelmed and having this sort of terrible feeling that you’re never going to read all the primary stuff, let alone the secondary stuff.
And there is sufficient information available that interesting debates can still be had about the time period and that historians can think critically and disagree about what it is they’re looking at.
Of course, there is that line between how much, as a historian, you can fill in the blank spaces with historical speculation and imagination and how much you are rigorously contained by your source material.
But you could fill a room with medievalists and you’d find people drawing this line in different places.
Meanwhile, because of the gaps in the evidence when it comes to the Middle Ages, study of that time is becoming much more interdisciplinary. People are mapping together archaeological work and textual work and legal work and cultural history and all of that is very fruitful and good for historians in general.