What makes a medieval topic important?

As another academic year turns, so do I. This time, to emerge from the provinces and from behind my charters and museum objects, and join in London’s medieval scene. This evening’s first seminar of the European History 1150-1500 series was a discussion led by David Carpenter and Miri Rubin entitled What Makes a Medieval Topic Important? A very keenly attended seminar, we all squeezed in anticipation into the modest Low Countries Room at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, in Bloomsbury.

Prof. Miri Rubin began with the most deft and breathless exposé of intellectual movements that have had great impacts on medieval history writing. From the Annales School establishment of social and economic histories of the longue durée to the Marxian approaches of late Prof. Rodney Hilton and the history of peasantry, to radical gender historians of North America, historians of ethnicity, identity and the mandala of fields and sub-fields which have resulted from these, we were reminded that it was this question, what is important? that has been asked over and over by historians who have wanted to change our thinking of the past, and by extension, of us today. All of this was gold-threaded with the idea that historians in the last century began to want to know more about European ‘peoples’ than its institutions. In other words, those affected by big decisions, rather than the decision makers. In in a current climate of political activity on ‘Europe’ and ‘Europeans’ (and the prospect of a President Blair–Il presidente del popolo, presumably) this point was made even more apposite.

Prof David Carpenter came at the question from a quite different perspective. He equally deftly made us travel to thirteenth-century England to Kibworth Harcourt near Leicester and the killing of a certain William King. We entered the court room of Gilbert of Preston who held an inquiry into the case of the defendant ‘Wodard of Kibworth’. All this, only weeks after the rebellion of Simon de Montfort of 1265. Wodard was pardoned (by the Montfortian government) and we know this from a slightly more than normally detailed entry in the Patent Rolls of Henry III. What excited Prof. Carpenter was the thought of how the pardon that was eventually granted by Gilbert was used by Wodard in his locality and what the responses to it might have been, all in the light of the recent rebellion. Sadly, no more on Wodard to date. All the more exciting however, that what might be seen as sterile patent rolls, are in fact some of our best sources for the ‘impact’ of big events on ‘the people’. I could say the same for the southern Italian charters I use, recalling the Bishop of Troia’s statement in his roll of gifts to the cathedral in the mid-twelfth century that he was unable to make these gifts before owing to the turmoil and strife in his region (referring to the salutary lesson imposed by William I on the big cities of Apulia by razing cities like Bari to the ground).

The discussion which ensured was expectedly amorphous as people homed in on the concept of importance and their own way of judging whether, for example, an innate curiosity in the piece of research was enough to justify its pursuit, or whether there is an inescapable element of current interest that determined importance. An instance of this being the pressure to create new projects with a research council definition of ‘impact’ in mind, modern relevance or relevance to economy and society today. And this also applied to how those with a more ‘interesting sounding’ topic might get shortlisted for a job or funding application over another whose subject matter and questions seem ‘boring’. In other words, the judge is important and the privilege of being able to do research in medieval history should be justified by, presumably, results which ameliorate the greater good. A milder form of this was a point made that we need to express our work to others in a way they can relate to, otherwise what’s the point. Yet another angle proposed was that we should be concentrating on the questions we ask of our sources: do our questions do justice to the evidence we have before us?

The healthy tensions between one point made and another were all rooted in the use of abstract nouns, e.g. what on earth is ‘agency’ and haven’t historians been looking at that forever anyway? Important is a classic abstract noun that is over-used by historians without adequate thought. Even on occasions when evidence has been presented to back up the important finding, it is seldom prefaced with a justification of why anyone else should care. And this is really where my position lies. I want to constantly test my thoughts with the ‘who cares?’ question. It is not, however, up to me to care about why others don’t, but merely to invite them to think differently. When you are an historian of material culture (how abstract does that sound?) this becomes especially important (ahem) because you have to constantly justify a) why any of this should change the way we think about people in the past (I’m not in the business of writing a history of things) and b) what on earth you are doing in history and why aren’t you in archaeology or art history. But that can be the subject of a future post.

I had one final observation. When Prof. Carpenter gave out handouts to share, I took a look around to see which bit people would begin to pour over first. It comprised a map, summaries and translations of the three documents under scrutiny and a photocopy of two of the entries on the original rolls, one in a beautiful hand. I went straight to the map. I wanted to see where Kibworth was in relation to other places. I wondered which of the modern routes were also the main drags in and out 850 years ago. My esteemed neighbour carefully read the photocopied excerpts in their original hand. Many others, I could see, wanted to quickly read through all the translations to understand the story, the words, the people’s names. That’s what makes a medieval topic important to me. The ability of a broad academy of practitioners to each bring to the same topic something of themselves, their skills and their hunger to learn.