What is medieval studies?

by Professor David d'Avray FBA

2 Jun 2020

‘Medieval’ is sometimes used as a synonym for ‘primitive’, even by people with university degrees who have forgotten that universities are a quintessentially medieval product. The mutual reinforcement of teaching and research – first degrees as a preliminary to higher degrees for a small minority and as a passport to a professional career for the majority, an institutional structure to hold it all together – all that took shape around and just after 1200 CE. There had been nothing quite like it in earlier world history and it has become the global model for higher education.

When British politicians use the word ‘medieval’ pejoratively, they forget that representative government, notably Parliament, is a medieval creation. The fact that MPs stand for counties or boroughs reflects a structure going back to the early Middle Ages. Anyone who enjoys classical music should remember that polyphony was a medieval development. The modern novel evolved out of medieval romances and lasting romantic love, leading to marriage or to adultery, and has been a fundamental theme of fiction in the West since the 12th century. The idea of ‘the one’, the partner for life whom one should not betray by loving another (even one’s spouse, in romances like Tristan and Isolde), is also medieval.

‘Europe’, as usually understood, corresponds closely to the area where mass was said in Latin in the mid-13th century. The nation state and sophisticated international credit-based capitalism, whatever one thinks of them, were facts on the ground in the 14th century. When a tourist goes to a European city, they probably head for a medieval cathedral. Much of what is described as ‘Renaissance’ is not regarded as ‘medieval’ only because it is regarded as in advance of its time.

Illustration-medieval-manuscript-269-Merton-College-Oxford.jpg
Images of debate, dispute, and discussion are frequently found in books from a medieval university context. This one is from Merton College Oxford MS 269, Averroes on Aristotle’s Metaphysics (with thanks to the Warden and Fellows of Merton College Oxford)

Historical periodisation is somewhat arbitrary – like the boundaries of Ordnance Survey maps. The best period divisions are crude and obvious. So we can say that ‘medieval studies’ deals with the period between the end of Roman imperial authority in the West and the Protestant Reformation. Many continuities cut through these lines, but they do mark out a period when a Latin-literate clergy ran a governmental structure alongside those of kings and cities. The distinction between ‘Church’ and ‘State’, though not the attempts to build a wall between them, is another medieval inheritance.

There were huge changes within this period. Up until the 11th century the economy was overwhelmingly agricultural; then came towns and capitalism. By the end of the eighth century, Francia, a territory almost as large as the European Union circa 1970, was ruled by Charlemagne, but by 1300 Germany was permanently separated from France and both France and England were emerging as nation states, at war with each other (the ‘Hundred Years War’). In the early Middle Ages, almost all literature was in Latin. England is an exception; Germany too, though there was not so much. The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is widely read in translations, including one by Seamus Heaney, today. From the 12th century, vernacular literature was on an unstoppable course in France, Germany and only slightly later in Italy, but, with Dante, even more famously.

People look down on earlier epochs because they had different values which they are too dead to defend. What would medieval people have made of the last hundred years? The Holocaust, Hiroshima and mass bombings of cities dwarf the less effective nastinesses of medieval people. The response to the Black Death and Plague, many orders of magnitude worse than COVID-19, should elicit our respect. If time were reversed and medieval people could comment on us, they would be appalled, not least by the modern world’s inability to give meaning to death and keep a real connection with the dead.

Two examples of medieval culture: academic ‘scholasticism’, far from being deferential to authority, focussed on problems where authorities apparently clashed. It can still challenge us. Even the brightest students find it hard to grasp how a first cause for the universe can be proved without assuming a beginning in time. Secondly: Icelandic sagas open up a world of love, violence, family feuds in language vivid even in translation. Many are available in inexpensive paperback. What genre of modern literature can compare with the best of them? The Middle Ages are a world worth knowing.


David d’Avray is Emeritus Professor of History, University College London. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2005.

Further reading

Internet Medieval Sourcebook

Sign up to our email newsletters