Why We Should Still Care About Medieval History

History Hit Podcast with Dan Jones

3 mins

23 Oct 2018

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 Middle Ages were a formative time in England and the United Kingdom when some of the real building blocks of today’s political, social, legal and cultural frameworks were established. But it’s also a very strange world, so it’s got that lovely balance.

It hits a sweet spot between being recognisably similar for us – the legal profession, for example, dates back to the high Middle Ages in England – and also being incredibly weird.

There’s weird stuff that goes down in the Middle Age and it’s a mindset that takes some effort to get into.

It is often read as old fashioned to say that we need to learn about things like Magna Carta because they made us the men we are today etc and, indeed, that’s not quite it. It’s more that these things are valuable to study in and of themselves – they happened to our ancestors and our people and they’re part of who we are and where we come from.

Dan Jones believes historical documents like Magna Carta are valuable in and of themselves – regardless, to some extent, of whether they are relevant to our lives today.

It’s not a question of trumpeting them and being all sort of Victorian and Whiggish and triumphalist about our history. It’s just to say that every country has its history and if peoples of every country want to be good citizens then they ought to know the history of who they are and where they’re from. 

For their sins

As a historian, when immersing yourself in medieval history you can at one moment feel extraordinarily close to the characters about whom you’re writing and feel their elemental human struggles and flaws and problems and then, at a turn of the page, find yourself saying, “You know what? This stuff is batshit crazy and I have no idea what you guys were on”. 

Particularly with the suffusion of Christian thought into absolutely every aspect of life and the kind of weird cosmology of a world in which, if something goes wrong, it’s because of our sins. That’s kind of the opposite of the way we think today. 

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Normally, now, we think that if something goes against us then we’ve been incredibly unlucky and if we do something that’s successful then it’s because we’re incredibly great human beings. And the medieval world didn’t seem to conform to that. Everything was seen through a lens of piety.

For example, if you went into battle then you would be parading a fragment of the true cross above your head thinking that it was going to help you out. And then if you lost the battle then there would always be these enormous periods of soul searching with people saying, “How on earth did we lose that one? It must’ve been because of our sins”. 

Imagine if every time England got knocked out of a World Cup on penalties, we all went around saying that it was because we were bad people.

That it was because as a nation we had sinned too much.

But why are Americans so interested in British medieval history?

This history particularly touches a nerve with Americans – the subject is tremendously exotic in the United States. Many Americans find the things that we take for granted, such as sitting outside a church that dates back to the 12th century, to be almost unimaginably brilliant and exotic.

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This is largely because the western takeover of the continental United States was a relatively recent thing. They have the Hearst Castle, right? And that’s about as good as it gets.

We are enormously blessed in Europe and in the UK with a fabric of history that’s much more ancient than we often think.

And people in some other parts of the world, particularly in the US, seem to appreciate what we have in a way that we cannot because we take it all for granted.